While reading One Way Out a really strong, engaging oral history of The Allman Brothers Band, I began thinking about all the great music I grew up with, and how so much of it is now being relegated to fading memory. I believe it deserves more, so I am going to revisit these albums, and write my impressions, share the memories they conjure, and I hope they spark renewed interest in the music and stir up your memories of when and where you were when you heard this great art. Please feel free to share those memories and your impressions of the music here. Let’s keep our love for the work of these great artists.
My wife can’t stand Steely Dan. Not the music, which she terms “okay”. It is Donald Fagan’s voice. I’ve often wondered what it is about Fagan’s voice that puts her on edge. Sure, he’s not the most-vocally gifted performer, but my goddess loves Jagger, who never set standards for tone or range, has accepted my Dylan worship (vocally, enough said), and an entire range of blues and punk and even Neil Young. Tone isn’t the main problem. Listening to this week’s album, I think I understand what she loathes. My wife is an infinitely positive person, a woman of faith, a peacefully passive, positive soul. Fagan? He is a scathing, mockingly sarcastic man of caustic cynicism, a grim agitator with a slouching, smirking soul that misses no tricks and sings about all of them.
And, sorry honey, I love him for it.
This is only one of the elements that make Steely Dan’s material so classic. And while we will eventually have to discuss their other work, including Aja, which deserves its own blog entry, this is about forgotten classics, and The Royal Scam is most definitely that.
Other Dan albums have a hits, but I always prefer their deep cuts. Can’t Buy A Thrill has “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years” though I prefer “Dirty Work”, Countdown to Ecstasy has “Showbiz Kids” and “My Old School” while I prefer “The Boston Rag” (oh God, thy name is Skunk Baxter), Pretzel Logic has “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” while I prefer “Any Major Dude” and “With a Gun” Katy Lied has “Bad Sneakers” but the entire album is amazing.
The Royal Scam doesn’t really have a hit. Some might argue that “Kid Charlemagne” still gets occasional airplay but even that tends to be categorized as a deep cut. And this is why The Royal Scamis my choice for Steely Dan’s forgotten classic album; the entire album is deep cuts!
When researching this album, I noticed it came out in 1976. While the rest of the country was celebrating the Bicentennial and the rock world was overwhelmingly embracing the pop positiveness ofFrampton Comes Alive, Steely Dan unleashed arguably their most scathing album.
Unrelenting in its skeptical view of the world and it’s rich, textured, dynamic musical arrangements and killer grooves, this album flies in the face of all the hopes and smiles of the age.
Damn, I love this album.
Even the ugly-ass cover makes sense. Steely Dan do not see the beauty of what is going on around them, even while contributing to it with lush, complex playing. But this album isn’t classic because of the cover, so let’s get to the music.
We open with “Kid Charlemagne” and from the first punching note of bass and cymbals, it is on. This is going to challenge us, groove us while it does, but boom, we’re in it. “Did you feel like Jesus?” “Could you live forever?” “Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away?” “You are obsolete. Look at all the white men on the street.” The happily sung, almost jinglistic lyrics are steeped in pessimistic, mocking revelry at a fallen idol. In 1976. Damn, that is amazing. And can we discuss the pocket the musicians are playing in? Holy Moses, that syncopated groove is complex and pure, intricate and organic, all at the same time. I will argue that track for tack, The Royal Scam has some of The Dan’s best playing.
The opening, doomish horn notes of “The Caves of Altamira” continues the tone of this album, but most of the rest of the song sounds so positive, until the chorus. “Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall when there wasn’t even any Hollywood” “the beast without a name”, all these ominous lines are sung with game show happiness, and that only makes them more intriguing. The horn solo, the groove, the horn section, man this is a huge sounding song. Should have been a hit. If America could have handled it.
“Don’t Take Me Alive” opens with a wrenching solo by Walter Becker that is enough reason to call the song classic. Then Fagan starts in, “Agents of the law, luckless pedestrian, I know you’re out there with rage in your eyes and your megaphones….” This song about a fugitive barricaded in and surrounded by law enforcement shows us a mind on the edge of the abyss. Considering all that’s happened since ’76, maybe The Dan were on to something. Great playing, great sound, even great singing on this one (sorry, hon). “I got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night. I crossed my old man back in Oregon, don’t take me alive.”
“Sign in Stranger” is the more dangerous cousin to “Hotel California” with its similar setting but way more lethal lyrics, “You zombie, be born again, my friend. Won’t you sign in, stranger?” Among the great riffing piano and jaunty music, it is easy to miss one of the in-jokes about Steely Dan; most of the time, their lyrics do not hold up to close scrutiny. Here the lyrics almost become non sequiturs reflecting what little made sense in that era, but their weight is saved by the gorgeous playing, as always.
To further that point, we have “The Fez”. The entire, almost Latin dance number has only one lyric, “You’re never gonna do it without your Fez on, oh no.” With only a break line “That’s what I am, please understand, I wanna be your holy man” accompanying it. The rest is soap opera cha-cha ballroom back alley groove, all at once. Perfect.
The much more urgent “Green Earrings” has a bass line to heal your soul with the rest of the arrangement built around it, audibly at least. Fagan confidently delivers another lyrical collections of important-sounding images that are strung together more through the tastefully playing than any coherent narrative. God, the music here is luscious and awesome. “Green earrings, I remember the rings of rare design, I remember the look I your eye….” The look is from the playing, Don, not the earrings. Hot damn.
“Haitian Divorce” almost laughs right from the first wah-wahhing riff. A Caribbean if not Jamaican rhythm underscores Fagan’s deep black cynicism, loosely commenting on more of our crumbling of society, and the celebrating in the ruins that is so often central to America’s excesses. “No tears and no heartbreaking, no remorse, this is your Haitian Divorce.” Again, I think of The Eagles’ Hotel California and how this album kind of takes that one into a back alley and beats it with a lead pipe.
“Where did the bastard run is he still around? Now you’ve got to tell me everything you did, baby.” That’s how “Everything You Did” begins. Confession time, America! Fagan even mentions the aforementioned hit makers, “Turn up The Eagles the neighbors are listening” using them to cover the horrors to come.
And those horrors culminate in “The Royal Scam”. From the first ominous notes, the driving beat, and the one keyboard note held dissonantly throughout the opening, we can feel that Armageddon has come while we slept. “And they wandered in from the city of St. John without a dime….” Image after image of doom and ruin and conquest and fear and babbling for gold pile up while the music builds over that straight ahead, militaristic beat. Almost Biblical in its vague prophecies, the lyrics suggest the society they are reflecting as truly being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, “See the glory of the Royal Scam.”