As much as I enjoy Steely Dan songs and can listen to most of them over and over (which is a good thing, since I’m writing about them every week), only one of their songs is what I’d call an “earworm” — and that’s the titular cut that ends The Royal Scam album.
In an atypcial tactic for them, just about the whole song is a repeating figure but also typical for them because it’s a rather unconventional repeating figure within the rock realm. The cadence and rhythm revs up and slows down within this pattern and along with Larry Carlton’s stinging guitar does much to set the tone for a story about immigrants from Puerto Rico arrive to NYC where “they looked upon the promised land where surely life was sweet” and instead find discrimination and exploitation. In matching the cyclical nature of the song, the lyrics end the same way it began: “…and they wondered in from the city of St. John without a dime.”
There’s more done to dramatize the harshness of life facing penniless migrants in Gotham: Fagen’s lines are punctuated by a muted trumpet and plunged trombone. In a way, these very traditional jazz sounds weeping alongside Carlton’s more modern and aggressive guitar summarizes The Royal Scam album as a whole: the moment where Becker and Fagen’s hybrid of jazz and rock attained a perfect balance of both sides, and the reason why for some Dan fans, this is the band’s peak. From here on out, it’s tilted more toward jazz.
As someone who loves both ‘eras’ of Steely Dan, I see “The Royal Scam” signalling the end of one compelling chapter in their musical story before moving on to another compelling chapter.