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Steely Dan - The Royal Scam CD (album) cover

THE ROYAL SCAM

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.68 | 106 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have called their 5th album's thought-provoking illustration "the most hideous album cover of the seventies, bar none" and, while it's hard to disagree with their assessment, it's also a most appropriate canvas for the unsure times surrounding its release. In 1976 the Cold War world was in the last days of the pre-computer analog era, the mind-numbing disco phenomenon was thriving just as The Ramones were ushering in the punk movement and while the USA was celebrating its bicentennial, it was also still mourning the loss of 58,000 young men who died for nada as Vietnam became a unified country under a communist flag. The biting cynicism of "The Royal Scam" cuts deep but it is justified. Yet you will be hard pressed to find an album that contains tracks so magnificently tight and well-defined. Steely Dan's previous four offerings showed them in the process of discovering their own sound but with this recording it was evident that they had found their special niche in the music universe. The worldbeat-tinged songs are lengthier and less radio-friendly than before, indicating that they were no longer inclined to compromise. The malicious technical bugs that had so beleaguered the previous project were a thing of the past and, by using studios and session players on both sides of the continent, they captured the mood of a jaded generation like few could.

Announcing that the dreamy, carefree "tune in, turn on, drop out" phenomenon was deceased and decomposing, "Kid Charlemagne" with its funky rhythm coiling underneath a bouncy clavinet made it official. Written for one notorious Mr. Owsley, the acid prince of Haight-Ashbury, the message is direct and brutal. "Now your patrons have all left you in the red/your low-rent friends are dead/life can be very strange/all those day-glow freaks who used to paint the face/they've joined the human race." Fagen sings. The tune's full chorale is impressive but words fail when I try to describe the guitar performance delivered by Larry Carlton here. If you're a guitarist and you haven't heard it you need to. Now. Not allowing you any chance to recover, "The Caves of Altamira" arrives and sweeps you right off your feet. After an ominous beginning a fat horn section blares as the rock-solid drums of Bernard Purdie and the awesome bass of Chuck Rainey pull you along like an unrelenting undertow. Written about a youngster who finds peace and solace among undiscovered cave drawings, it raises the specter of history repeating itself. "Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall/when there wasn't even any Hollywood/they heard the call and they wrote it on the wall/for you and me, we understood," he croons. But the ultra-dynamic accents punctuated by the sharp brass throughout and the great sax ride at the end are what slays me about this number.

"Don't Take Me Alive" just may be the hardest rocking song Steely Dan ever created and it is an unspecified guitarist (take your pick from the credits) with his stunning tone and technique that steals the show. He kills without mercy. The verses ride atop a powerful wave of electric piano, guitar and vibraphone while the unforgettable chorus kicks like a mule. It's about a standoff where the protagonist has reached the very end-threads of his mental rope. "Can you hear the evil crowd/the lies and the laughter/I hear my inside/the mechanized hum of another world/where no sun is shining." Donald sneers. Despite its tragic tale that has no discernable silver lining it's my favorite cut on an album that literally oozes with excellent tunes. "Sign in Stranger" follows and this simmering filet of funk tells of an exotic and dangerous locale where a criminal can go to establish a new identity. "Do you have a dark spot on your past?/ leave it to my man he'll fix it fast/Pepe has a scar from ear to ear/he will make your mug shots disappear," Fagen sings. Whoever is responsible for providing the torrid piano licks is nothing short of amazing and by now you should expect the guitarisms to slap you silly and they do. The inventive bridge pops up out of nowhere and the thick horns at the end are a complete surprise.

There's nothing particularly tricky about "The Fez," it just hitches a ride on its supremely funky groove and doesn't stop till four minutes later. This ditty briefly describes a fellow's odd sexual peccadillo that requires his wearing of a certain kind of hat and it's a hard one to categorize. I suggest you just sit back and enjoy the entertaining collage of instruments that rise and fall throughout the expert Roger Nichols mix. Or get up and dance. Either one. The eclectic "Green Earrings" has a very prog arrangement to digest as it rumbles by your ears. Can't say that I have an inkling of what lines like "cold, daring/no flies on me/sorry, angel/I must take what I see" signify but that's okay. Some things are best left as mysteries. I must point out, however, the cool psychedelic guitar effect that makes it swirl like a boiling lava lamp during the fadeout.

"Haitian Divorce" is not only the only Steely Dan single to chart in the UK top twenty but it's also one of their most endearing and clever songs. Here the traditional reggae beat fits perfectly as it tools along below the vibraphone and a gritty talk box guitar that give it a unique personality. Divorce was all the rage in the 70s and Don & Walt's snickering story of a woman who flees to the Caribbean to dissolve her marriage, enjoys a passionate tryst with one of the hot-blooded locals and then has a "tearful reunion" with her spouse is spot on for the times. But it seems she brought back a souvenir. "Some babies grow in a peculiar way/it changed, it grew/and everybody knew/semi-mojo/who's this kinky so- and-so?" Donald sings with a sly grin. Of particular interest are the nifty bass harmonics that ring out during the finale. Primo stuff.

Speaking of weird sexual situations, "Everything You Did" tops them all in that category. In this saga a wife's jilted husband seems a lot more interested in hearing the juicy details of her indiscretion than in locating his rival and, in the process, discovers that she's kinkier than he ever imagined. "I never knew you/you were a roller skater/you gonna show me later/turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," he implores. The number's sneaky feel and by now obligatory terrific guitar ride make it a winner. The album's title cut and closer is by far the darkest and most progressive tune included. This unorthodox track is mostly a repeating pattern of a verse, verse, and chorus structure, separated by instrumental sections populated by hair-raising jazz trumpet and cornet runs. The sarcastic but glorious chorale belies the stark glimpses of harsh reality offered in the lyrics. It tells of desperate immigrants who give up everything to chase the American Dream only to find they're no better off than they were living in the squalor they left behind. "They are hounded down/to the bottom of a bad town/amid the ruins where they learn to fear/an angry race of fallen kings," Fagen reports. It's a haunting piece of aural art that will leave a permanent impression on your psyche.

In my review of "Katy Lied" I said it was a fine example of progressive songwriting and I feel that this album is even better in that respect. Add in the exemplary musicianship (especially the out-of-this- world guitar performances that pepper the music from start to finish), the fantastic engineering job, the majestic arrangements and the articulate wordplay that abounds and you have a bonafide masterpiece. There are those who will protest Steely Dan's very presence on any prog rock list but I'm here to tell you that music production this wonderful, that makes such a progressive statement, needs no one's validation. 5 stars.

Chicapah | 5/5 |

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