Released: May 1976
Chart Peak: #15
Weeks Charted: 29
Certified Gold: 9/15/76
With each successive album, Steely Dan's popular success and appeal become more obscured by sundry admirers' claims of abstruseness and complexity. To some it seems inevitable that the Dan will eventually produce the Finnegan's Wake of rock. And that's silly: Steely Dan is trying just as hard as any random country/disco/metal band to capture our attention, i.e., sell records. For all their jazzy influences, they are a florid rock band, immersed in popular concerns and styles. True, songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bow to no one in the matter of composing immaculate, catchy cul-de-sacs, but it is that same immaculateness, the way with words, as impenetrable as they may appear, fit with metrical seamlessness into the melodies that makes their impenetrability of little importance to any casual listener caught up in the sound of the entire song.
That said, one must immediately note that their latest, The Royal Scam, is the Dan's most atypical record, possessing neither obvious AM material nor seductive lyrical mysteriousness. It also contains some of their most accomplished and enjoyable music.
In fact, such is the pervasiveness of both musical and narrative tensions that the overall feeling of Scam is one of just that: tension. There is little of the self-confident gentleness that dotted Pretzel Logic, less still of the omniscience that suffused Katy Lied. The Royal Scam is a transitional album for Steely Dan; melody dominates lyric in the sense that the former pushes into new rhythmic areas for the group (more "pure" jazz, semireggae and substantially more orchestration than before) while the verbal content is clearer, even mundane, by previous Dan standards.
While Scam is certainly not a concept album, every song -- with the possible exception of "The Fez" -- concerns a narrator's escape from a crime or sin recently committed. Becker and Fagen have really written the ultimate "outlaw" album here, something that eludes myriad Southern bands because their concept of the outlaw is so limited. Rather than just, say, robbing banks ("Don't Take Me Alive," in which the robber is a "bookkeeper's son"), Becker and Fagen's various protagonists are also solipsistic jewel thieves ("Green Earrings"), spendthrift divorcˇes ("Haitian Divorce") and murderously jealous lovers ("Everything You Did").
In any event, I doubt that Steely Dan will ever become merely precious or insular; through five albums they have consistently circumvented their complexity with passionate snazziness and fluky, cynical wit. If The Royal Scam lacks ready-made Top 40 fodder, it also widens Steely Dan's already considerable parameters. Their next album, if one can speculate about this lovably perverse bunch, should be a pop killer. In the meantime The Royal Scam is well worth living with, pondering and, what the hell, even dancing to.
- Kenneth Tucker, Rolling Stone, 7/1/76.
Steely Dan is the most anti-romantic rock band in the land. Remarkably, in a field in which formula cynicism usually counts for little unless it enters astride some memorably outrageous gimmick, the only outrageous ting about the group is its name (from William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, in which a couple christens the family dildo Steely Dan). The music they make is cool, almost middle-of-the-road jazz-pop, and their lyrics are mostly wisecracks that occasionally slip from the cryptic into the arcane.
Where a group like the Eagles regularly promotes the Los Angeles Lifestyle with a devoted Chamber of Commerce slickness, Steely Dan invariably deflates the image in songs filled with ennui and tinged with vague menace. Their lyrics are couched in the language of what used to be called the Hipster, which is no accident; their name connects them to Burroughs' sexual nihilism and their repetitive, stylized, pop-jazz sound connects them to his obsession with heroin. The apocalypse Steely Dan continually conjures up is therefore not the dramatic purging into health so many L.A. writers dream about, but simply an extension of the joyless banality they see in the present, junk music for a junk culture.
The band's architects, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, are New Yorkers transplanted to Los Angeles, and that may account for the bebop-in-the-smog ambiance of their songs. Fagen and Becker write almost all the group's material, and Fagen handles the lead vocals. Their concert career aborted because of persistent personnel changes, they are now primarily a recording band; it is safe to say that Fagen and Becker are Steely Dan, for the only other recurring character in their little saga is producer Gary Katz.
From the beginning, the musical turf they staked out has been rather narrow -- almost all of Becker and Fagen's tunes revolve around a single modal idea -- and they have worked it over so intensively during the course of five albums that the strain is beginning to show. Their melodies are slinky, sarcastic, accusatory, and underpinned by Latin rhythms whose somewhat sleazy nature is not always balanced by a saving sophistication. Understated as they are, however, Steely Dan have still managed to make infectiously commercial sounds. Their first hit, "Do It Again," was so hypnotically listenable that almost everyone managed to overlook its horribly bleak lyric, and their second, "Reelin' in the Years," reveled in sheer spitefulness beneath a surface of embattled joviality.
With Royal Scam, their new album, Steely Dan's ironical stance seems to have become self-conscious, their musical formula in clear need of some kind of overhaul. No tune has the throbbing hook of "Do It Again"; no lyrics trips as skillfully between innocence and devilishness as their biggest hit, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"; and certainly nothing is as relentlessly agonized as "Dirty Work," perhaps the finest song from their debut album. The most successful pieces on Scam are harsh, rueful vignettes about criminal and sexual deceit. "Kid Charlemagne," the best of the lot, is the story of a legendary San Francisco drug chemist who is on the run, unable to adjust to a nonpsychedelic environment. It's lyric has the marvelous slangy looseness that characterizes Becker and Fagen at their best: "Clean this mess up/ Or we'll all end up in jail/ Those test-tubes and the scale/ Just get them all out of here/ Is there gas in the car?/ Yes there's gas in the car/ I think the people down the hall know who you are."
While "Charlemagne," "Sign In Stranger," and the less memorable "Don't Take Me Alive" all concern themselves with crime, sexual duplicity is the theme of the album's other first-rate songs, "Haitian Divorce" and "Everything You Did." "Divorce" sneers at the jet-set histrionics of "Babs and Clean Willy," a couple who separate after a lovers' spat. The wife goes to Haiti, has an affair, and, after a "tearful reunion" in the States, has a "semi-mojo" baby. "Everything You Did," which is set to an almost jaunty tune, puts us down in the middle of a domestic battle occasioned by the wife's flagrant infidelity. In the course of the husband's furious interrogation, he orders her to "Turn up the Eagles/ The neighbors are listening," a pointedly witty (because far from accidental) Steely Dan interjection.
But nothing on the rest of the album approaches that level of incisiveness. "Green Earrings" is hopelessly obscure. "The Fez" is modest aural exotica. "The Caves of Altamira" is a striving, almost-successful song about art, but its stark desperation just isn't sharp enough to permit it to wound. The album's title song also works to hard. In this strange fable about immigrants to the United States stuck at the bottom of the heap but still writing home about being "paid in gold just to babble," the band's signature cynicism reveals its affectation most clearly.
It seems to me that, while their writing is never less than intelligent and craftsmanlike, Fagen and Becker are out of their depth when they attempt anything large-scale; they are persuasive only when their eye for detail and nuance supplies them with pins to prick small but pretentious ballons And that, of course, is no negligible talent.
- Stephen Holden, Stereo Review, 8/76.
One of rock's more talented group's again veers directly away from everyone else's commercial mainstream to come up with a mix of rock, jazz and Latin, and a generally satisfying package. Group is actually down to singer/writers Waler Becker and Donald Fagan, with Fagan singing his way through a series of songs about having sex only while wearing a fez, spending one's childhood in a cave, Haitian divorce and other love songs. Usual strong help from producer Gary Katz and musical guests Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, Victor Feldman, John Klemmer, Michael McDonald, Jim Horn and Tim Schmidt. Listenable and enjoyable set is a welcome break from formal disco and other "trends." Best cuts: "The Royal Scam," "Kid Charlemagne," "Sign In Stranger," "Haitian Divorce," "The Fez."
- Billboard, 1976.
The first question is whether the melodic retreat represents a refusal to indulge the audience or a withering of invention. The second is whether the conscious choice of a jagged, pinched music is a wise one. As if in compensation, the lyrics are less involuted and personal, but in fact their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness. Whether this narrowing of spiritual possibilities is willed or a symptom of the same chronic insularity that makes Fagen and Becker unwilling to tour, the result sounds a trifle arty and a trifle producty at the same time. Does it matter whether they call San Juan "the city of St. John" in reference to the apolcalypse or because it sounds nice? B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
With The Royal Scam, Steely Dan delivered a rather cluttered, abrasive-sounding collection of tracks, which were further undermined by weaker melodies. If fusion ever found a home in disco, "Kid Charlemagne" was it. Smugly humorous tracks like "Haitian Divorce," "Green Earrings," and the fetish sendup, "The Fez," are some of Scam's highlights. * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Becker and Fagen spin a web of lyrical cynicism in nine dark, intriguing songs about divorce, mass murder, immigration troubles, condom use and life on other planets set to some of the greatest jazz-rock guitar lines ever recorded (thanks to Larry Carlton). The perfect mix between earlier, edgier stuff and later, too-slick recordings brings back memories of a wonderfully misspent youth. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
When they concocted The Royal Scam in 1976, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were under the influence of "a seemingly inexhaustible supply of whatever" (as they put it in their notes to the 1999 reissue), which surely helped them summon the on-the-edge characters who populate the album. "Kid Charlemagne," which describes the misadventures of a San Francisco acid dealer who has run out of customers and time, introduces a song cycle on which making a getaway is high on the agenda of practically every one of the protagonists. These urban desperadoes are captured by Fagen and Becker in vignettes as sharply focused and unromanticized as Diane Arbus photos -- such as the conjugal combatants of "Everything You Did," one of whom interrupts the hurling of recriminations to civily suggest, "Turn up the Eagles/The neighbors are listening."
The individual performances seem to rise out of the narrative itself, thanks to the rarefied capabilites of the hired studio help; having dispensed with their original lineup three years earlier, Fagen and Becker assembled a talent pool composed primarily of jazz specialists who showed they could rock and swing all at once when so inspired. Drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie lashes out the rolling grooves on most of the nine tracks, establishing the album's anxious feel, and Larry Carlton's jaw-dropping guitar work provides a running commentary to Fagen's strangulated vocals, notably on the noir rocker "Don't Take Me Alive," in which the howling, jagged opening riff brutally articulates the psyche of a bookkeeper's son gone wild. On "Haitian Divorce," Dean Parks' extended guitar solo is transformed by Becker's talk-box manipulation into the quintessence of henpecking. These are not the sort of Steely Dan songs favored by smooth-jazz stations.
The Royal Scam vividly encapsulates that post-Watergate/pre-punk/coked-up moment when you could trust no one, least of all yourself. * * * * *
- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 10/14/04.
Main Page | The Classic 500 | Readers' Favorites | Other Seventies Discs | Search The RockSite/The Web