Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam is one of those albums that I will never tire of. To me it’s the quintessential Dan record. From opener “Kid Charlamagne” to closer and title track “The Royal Scam” Fagen and Becker hit every mark. Other than Can’t Buy A Thrill, depending on the day of the week any Steely Dan album can be my favorite. Today, it’s The Royal Scam.
I didn’t always have a love and admiration for these New York beatnik jazz lovers. There was a time before 1995 I thought of Steely Dan to be a bunch of squares, man. A bunch of hippies playing glorified elevator music that the stoner guy down the street would play on his 8-track in his dirty living room at 1am contemplating how his life went to shit. Yeah, really. I can remember some oldies radio show used “Reelin’ In The Years” as it’s theme song and that really put the final nail in the Steely Dan coffin for the 16 year old me. It was the opening music for moldy oldies. Forget that. I wanted my Skid Row, Rush, and any other plethora of Shrapnel Records’ roster. Or anything I heard on the syndicated radio show Metal Shop every Friday night on 95.3 WAOR out of Niles, Michigan. Steely Dan was old guy music. “Jazz rock”. Pfft. Forget that. Well, around 1993 or 1994 a good friend of mine, we’ll call him Jason(cause that’s his name), fell hard for Steely Dan. I couldn’t believe it. Seriously? I would listen when it was his turn to play a CD and pretend I was intrigued. I wasn’t. Then in 1995 he made me a mixtape of all his favorite Dan songs. This seemed like a reasonable way to get to know this band I hated. I’d put it in and listen as I picked up my apartment while my wife(then girlfriend) was working. Pretty soon the tape made its way into my truck’s cassette player. Then it made its way to my boombox at work. Pretty soon, I knew what was coming up after each song. I had it memorized. Favorites were “Pretzel Logic”, “Monkey In Your Soul”, “Black Cow”, and “Through With Buzz”. As I listened to these songs I realized just how NOT square these cats were. In fact, Donald Fagen’s lyrics could be downright subversive and once I started reading up about them and finding out how Fagen and Walter Becker were huge fans of the 50s jazz scene and beat generation writers(including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg) it all made sense.
At first glance their music seems timid, dorky even. But upon further inspection there’s some rather intricate music being made. Time changes, chord configurations, and some of the tightest drum parts I’ve ever heard. Honestly, Steely Dan had some of the funkiest rhythms put to tape back in the 70s. No joke. It’s a fact. Lyrically Donald Fagen is singing about seedy characters; drug dealers, prostitutes, criminals on the run, perverted old skeezers, and three ways. Plus there’s ample references to science fiction and spoiled rich kids doing what they damn well please. Their lyric sheets read like a cross section of Jim Thompson, Jean Shepherd, William S. Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury.
So once I realized I loved Steely Dan I began collecting their albums. In 1997 I received Citizen Steely Dan for my birthday and enjoyed everything they ever put to tape. Then in 2008 when I started collecting vinyl again Steely Dan’s discography was the first thing I bough in its entirety. The Royal Scam has become my overall favorite album of theirs. The whole of side one is an all-out classic. “Kid Charlamagne” and it’s funky rhythm and story of a chemist-turned-drug dealer sounds like a certain TV show that was kind of a big deal about something similar. Supposedly the song was inspired by LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. “The Caves Of Altamira, “Don’t Take Me Alive”, “Sign In Stranger” and “The Fez” round out side one and make me very happy every time I hear it. Side two has the one-two punch of “Haitian Divorce” and “Everything You Did”. “Green Earrings” sports some badass drums and an even more badass guitar solo by Steely Dan semi-regular Denny Dias. Title track “The Royal Scam” closes things out with Larry Carlton classing up the joint with another amazing guitar solo. Pretty much every song on this album is spot-on and shows the Fagen/Becker musical partnership as strong as it ever could be.
Sure, Aja seems to be the quintessential album in most fans’ eyes and ears, and on certain days of the week(usually Friday nights)I’d agree. But tonight it’s all about The Royal Scam.