The Royal Scam. Steely Dan.
1976, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriters/maestros Walter Becker and Donald Fagen once again create jazz-influenced rock (or rock-influenced jazz?) and make it great by hiring the best studio musicians around. On this album, the pair turns loose several excellent guitarists who make the album a joy for a guitar fan like me. It’s sometimes funky, sometimes mellow, but always full of amazing drums, bass and guitar. And Fagen’s distinctive voice carries each song, making it a terrific listen time and time again.
NEW: Read some background next, below the line ↓ … Or skip right to the album review!
I love to be impressed. When I see some amazing performance or incredible demonstration by some other human – whether it’s artistic or scientific or weird or silly – I get excited. I get a buzz, a vibration, and I’m happy all day. I tell my friends. A lot. Too much. In fact, I become that gushing, annoying, blathering friend who tells you so many times how amazing something is that you end up thinking “I never want to see that thing, just ’cause he was so annoying about it.”
Because I love the feeling of being impressed, I probably get impressed too easily. I have to be careful that I don’t fall for hype. (I may or may not have exclaimed in the early aughts that The Vines1 were going to be a household name.) But I try to be discerning – as much as I’m impressed by, say, the career of The Coen Brothers, I was able to recognize that Hail, Caesar! was crap. (But only after I saw it on opening weekend.)
Certain people and events and performances have impressed me so much that I carry that feeling of wonder at what I’ve seen around with me to this day. Even things I saw as a child have stuck with me. Here is a list of some of the people, events, performances that spring to mind when I think of what’s impressed me over the years.
Bo Jackson. Holy moley. He was an all star in two professional sports. And while he did strike out too much in his baseball career, that just means he was ahead of his time! (Or, possibly, that he was a better hitter than we thought!) He played during a time when I wasn’t following either MLB or the NFL very closely, but he was so supremely impressive that I still remember where I was when I heard he wouldn’t play football or baseball2 ever again; and I remember having a long conversation about it with another person who didn’t follow sports, who was also shocked by the news. Watch the ESPN 30 For 30 about him to get a sense of why he was so impressive. It wasn’t just his feats, it was also his humility3.
The Monty Python Long Name Sketch. Since I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS as an eleven year old I’ve been impressed by almost everything I’ve seen them do. But for the combination of humor and smarts and just sheer “Holy crap! How’d they do that??!” astonishment, there is little to compare with the feature on Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumble-meyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitzweimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönendanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. As with many sketches, this one doesn’t finish as strongly as it begins, but seeing the boys repeat that name over and over – I thought my 13 year old head was gonna explode! And I still feel that way about it.
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This lengthy novel is by no means my favorite book4, however it was the most IMPRESSIVE book I’ve read. It combined history, future, science, engineering, politics, finance and the computer revolution into a generation-spanning story about … security. That’s right, he made the mundane details of security – codes, passwords, locks – fascinating by including them in a spellbinding mystery. The breadth and depth of Stephenson’s knowledge, and his ability to bring it all together into a fast-paced 1,000-page (gasp) novel was, well, impressive!
Julia (my wife). (Self-portrait, age 8.) I’ve known her for 24 years, and I’m still impressed almost every day. She can do anything – from planning, cooking food for and hosting a party for 100 people to winning every game we play. Mother, potter, gardener, environmental expert … there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s about the best athlete I’ve ever known, too. Played lacrosse with the men in college; and at her brother’s pre-wedding golf outing hit a straight drive down the fairway on the first golf swing she ever took, then beat half the guys there despite never playing the game before. (I did beat her by a couple strokes.)
Penn and Teller. Back in college in the late 80s I probably annoyed more people, and turned off more potential fans, over this duo than anyone else on this list. I know that because I was once told by a college roommate, “Shut the fuck up about Penn & Teller already, okay?!” They were funny, they were different, they were smart, they were amazing … I saw them first on David Letterman, saw them live in 1992, and continue to catch their act on TV and computer whenever I can.
Brittany Howard. It was my sister who first sent me a text asking if I’d heard Alabama Shakes yet. Then I found a link to their breakthrough song, “Hold On,” and I watched a radio station performance of it a million and a half times, and I was hooked. I saw the band in concert and they did not disappoint. Brittany plays guitar, she belts and wails, her band plays bluesy rock … The band’s second album, Sound and Color, is even better than the first.
Star Wars. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when it was released, so I was even more easily impressed then than I am today. And even though I wasn’t really a space-kid, and I’d never been interested in shows like Star Trek or Space:1999, the fighting and effects and action of Star Wars blew me away. (Plus, it’s the only movie my dad ever took me to see, so that’s another reason I loved it.) The feeling was short-lived, though: by the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, I wasn’t even interested in seeing it.
Others Receiving Votes: 1) Live shows of Pearl Jam, Guided By Voices, Buffalo Tom, Elvis Costello and The Attractions (Fabulous Spinning Songbook). 2) Jackie Chan. 3) Gary Gulman. 4) Lady GaGa (because of Howard Stern performances and appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)
Steely Dan. The first time I heard Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. Actually, let me rephrase that: the first time I heard a song written by Steely Dan, I thought they were scary5. In the 70s, those simpler times before ads for in-home catheters and new, weird pharmaceuticals filled the television airwaves, companies like K-Tel and Ronco sold compilation albums via TV commercials, just like Sham-Wow® and Flex Seal®. My sisters and I were big-time consumers of these records. We didn’t care that they were lousy compilations, featuring either a) the original songs cut down to two-and-a-half minutes to cram as many as possible onto one LP; or b) the songs “as recorded by” studio musicians. In both cases, the deal from the record company was this: “you give us a couple of bucks, we’ll give you crappy versions of your favorite songs.” My sisters and I thought it was a bargain.
Some of these albums had catchy names, like Get It On! or Sound Explosion. We bought those albums, and we also bought the more mundanely titled Today’s Greatest Hits6, which featured hit songs as performed by some dudes called “The Realistics,” and a mis-titled version of Steely Dan’s big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” For some reason the 7 year old me found that song – with its minor key, lyrical warning and use of some instrument called a “Flapamba” – quite spooky.
As I’ve written before, I got into Steely Dan by finding the album Aja in my eldest sister’s record collection. The band seemed adult and mysterious and they played catchy tunes. I eventually listened more closely to the musicians and was blown away by their virtuosity. Songwriters/bandleaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hired the best studio musicians around and drove them mercilessly to achieve brilliance in their performance. I began buying Steely Dan albums, then went to college and met Dr. Dave, who was equally enamored with the musicianship on display – particularly the guitar work. They quickly became one more thing we bonded over.
The Royal Scam bowled me over right away, with a catchy song I’d heard on AOR radio a few times but hadn’t paid close attention to, “Kid Charlemagne.”
The opening drums and slightly dissonant electric piano opening the song provide a sense of anticipation. Then Fagen starts singing, and Chuck Rainey’s funky bass line begins. One aspect of Steely Dan music that’s often overlooked is the fact that they have many truly funky songs, and hiring musicians like Rainey is one of the reasons why. His bass line propels the song with just enough bounce and space; (check out the 6 seconds beginning at 0:40 to hear for yourself!) and together with drummer Bernard Purdie makes the song swing. Fagen himself was voted as the sixth most funkiest white boy in music, ahead of Justin Timberlake (!), in Complex magazine, and the touches he and two other keyboardists add – seemingly stray chords here and there – embellish the groove-fest. But the song kicks into top gear when Larry Carlton’s guitar enters the fray, at about 2:00. His solo that follows, beginning about 2:18, is angular and brilliant, sounding like it’s done only on the “black notes” of a keyboard (and given my lack of musical knowledge, maybe it is!). When the third verse begins, Carlton continues soloing behind the rest of the song, finishing with a fury beginning about 3:50. The funky drums and bass and the scorching guitar – if you’ve read any other posts of mine, you know these are the great triumvirate of musical excellence for me. Add in Fagen’s great phrasing on terrific lyrics about an aging LSD manufacturer, and it’s no wonder this is one of my favorite all-time songs.
Another exhibit in the Steely Dan Funk-orama is the terrific “Green Earrings,” a song so excellent the band needed TWO guitar players to perform the solos!
It’s another Chuck Rainey groove, with genius submerged but evident in its apparent simplicity. He and Purdie again work together perfectly. Where “Kid Charlemagne” had a sort of gritty feel, “Green Earrings” has more of a mellow groove, but the guitar work by Denny Dias and Elliott Randall is just as wonderful as Carlton’s. The song is more or less a jazz piece written to showcase the soloing of the pair. While many Steely Dan songs’ lyrics are spare or confusing, these seem like they were made up on the spot just to keep the song from being an instrumental. (The song “The Fez,” seemingly about condoms, also follows this path.) Two mellow solos, one around 2:06, and a second around 2:30 are jazzy but tough, giving a song a lift out of Yacht Rock territory. As does the outro solo, beginning about 3:19. The guitar touches throughout the song, such as the barely arpeggiated chords following the words “Greek” and “medallions,” at around 1:10, make me very happy.
There’s a groove to Steely Dan even in the songs that aren’t as upbeat. For example, “The Caves of Altamira,” a meditation on the role of art, and humankind’s innate desire to create. It’s a mellow song with sweet chord progressions that sound very much like jazz to my untrained ears, particularly the passage that links the chorus back to the verse, for example at 1:12. (Read more here to see what one trained person thinks.) Rainey and Purdie funk up the chorus quite nicely, but it’s very much a horn-based song, and I’m less interested in sax solos than I am in guitar solos.
Steely Dan bring the guitar for damn sure in the song “Don’t Take Me Alive,” another favorite of mine that once again features the fabulous Larry Carlton on guitar.
From the very beginning this song is all about the guitar, with a nasty opening chord and a dirty-sounding solo. It’s a song about a dangerous criminal on the run, sung from the perspective of the criminal who crossed his old man back in Oregon. The melody, rather perversely, is very much a catchy sing-along, inviting the listener to belt out about his “case of dynamite.” Carlton adds nice guitar touches throughout, and his snaky little solo at about 3 minutes signals a breakdown, the type Dan throws into many songs, and that always sound useful, not lazy7. Carlton subtly solos along to a satisfying end.
With so many excellent studio musicians on board, it’s not surprising that Becker and Fagen would want to feature them, and the perfect song for this showcasing is the odd and brilliant “Sign In Stranger.”
A major part of rock and jazz music is improvised soloing, and this piece features the late Paul Griffin on piano and Elliot Randall on guitar, dueling within verses in a song about a distant land (planet??) filled with gangsters8. It’s got a laid-back bounce, with plenty of space for cool fills and noodles by the pair. Griffin’s piano in verse 1 is nice, but I get a big smile every time I hear Randall enter on guitar at 0:45. Each verse adds background vocals, building to the “just another scurvy brother” line at 2:46 (a favorite of mine and Dr. Dave’s!), where Griffin throws in a terrific piano solo, only to be outdone again (in my opinion; I’m a guitar guy) by Randall beginning at 3:37. The way Griffin and Randall work together throughout the piece is amazing: conjuring a yo-yo; answering a reference to Turkish union dues – despite the fact that nobody knows what that means. It’s evident on “Sign In Stranger” why Fagen and Becker hired the best musicians.
Steely Dan’s lyrics are oftentimes inscrutable, but they are frequently funny, as well. The funniest lyrics on this album are from the excellent, reggae-ish, talk-box fueled “Haitian Divorce.”
The song tells the story of lovers “Babs and Clean Willie,” whose love burned hot, but faded quickly – sending Babs to the island where, well, let’s just say seeds are sewn. The feature solo this time is by Dean Parks, playing a squonky guitar that sounds terrific (even though some jazz purists don’t agree.) Fagen’s vocals are particularly good on this one, on a melody with quite a range. The song is kind of goofy, but it still hit the top 20 in the U.K. And I like it despite/because of the goofiness!
The Royal Scam ends with two mid-tempo songs. “Everything You Did,” is a bitter confrontation with a cheating lover. It has great guitar from Larry Carlton (of course!), and a sly reference to country-rockers The Eagles. The title track is a swirling, sinister lament about the difficulties of immigrants in a new land. It’s a lengthy piece, with solo trumpet and strong backing vocals, and it ends the album on a dark note: not negative, just dark.
I remain impressed by both Steely Dan and The Royal Scam. I don’t require that albums feature either excellent musicianship or jazz chops to make my list of favorites. But Steely Dan do have both, and they put them together in a funky, groovy style that I love. On top of it all, on The Royal Scam they set the bar high for guitar-based rock, with songs that feature both the power and the grace of the electric guitar. I will always love to be impressed, and I’ll find something new to impress the shit out of me tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll always remain blown away by Becker and Fagen.
The Royal Scam
“The Caves of Altamira”
“Don’t Take Me Alive”
“Sign In Stranger”
“Everything You Did”
“The Royal Scam”
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