Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam: Seeing the glory 40 years later

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Forty years ago this month (May, 1976) Steely Dan released their fifth album The Royal Scam, an album that like all Dan albums has its own peculiarity within the trademark Steely Dan Sound. Having found themselves without a functioning band just prior to the making of Katy Lied, co-leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took the mixing and matching of elite session musicians that started in earnest on Katy to new heights for their next project.

In many ways, Scam marked the end of the duo’s randy early period and the beginning of that tight, sleek pop-jazz alchemy of everything that’s come forth since; their Revolver, so to speak. It’s the first album where the band is officially billed as a duo. It’s also the last album to feature a pre-Can’t Buy A Thrill Becker-Fagen original (“The Caves of Altamira”).

It’s also where the funktastic rhythm section of Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie make its first appearance, helping to transform Steely Dan into a formidable groove machine. An ode generally about the exploits of master drug chef Owsley Stanley, the psychedelic lyrical imagery of “Kid Charlemagne” is paired with Rainey and Purdie’s dance floor syncopation and topped off by a guitar solo that defined one of the most prestigious session guitarist careers. Two tracks later, Larry Carlton is peppering “Don’t Take Me Alive” stinging blues licks and his slithering slowhand makes “Everything You Did” go. He figures into so many high moments that Becker and Fagan felt obliged to give special thanks to him on the credits.

But Carlton wasn’t on hand for the dual guitar leads for the stilted funk number “Green Earrings” that instead featured the contrasting delights of Denny Dias and Elliott Randall in tandem. 1976 was the Year of the Voice Box – Peter Frampton, anyone? — but Becker’s application of it to Dean Parks’ guitar on the hilarious broken romance yarn “Haitian Divorce” gave it a Caribbean flair that made it seem as if the device was invented in Jamaica.

Becker and Fagen’s deep affinity for Duke Ellington drove them to try to graft many of the Duke’s innovations and stylings into rock, a very tall task. Their cover of Ellington and Bubber Miley’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” from Pretzel Logic was the most obvious attempt at that. However, more sublime are the Ellingtonian horn arrangements grafted into their own songs “The Caves of Altamira” and “The Royal Scam,” the latter’s plunged trumpet arguably paying homage, in a sense, to Miley.

Even the track discarded is prime Steely Dan; “Here At The Western World” would have been a strong contender on Katy Lied or even forward to Aja but just didn’t fit into that Royal Scam vibe and became perhaps the only SD recording the made it past the demo stage and still didn’t make it on the album (it would appear two years later on the compilation albumGreatest Hits and several other compilations that followed).

Most initial reviews of The Royal Scam put this album a notch lower than their previous efforts but perhaps more than any other Dan record, this one took longer to reveal its genius. Nowadays it’s widely and rightly regarded as a classic disc and depending on the mood, I’ll take it over even Aja for its greater diversity and calculated risk-taking.

Four decades hence, it’s easy to hear the glory of The Royal Scam.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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  • Gary

    One of my all-time favorite albums by anyone, not just SD.

  • AdamR_MobileAL

    TRS is one of very few albums in my pop collection on which I love every song. I agree with Gary: it’s an all-time great.

  • bzfgt

    This is their best album, I never get it when people rate it below any of the others, really. It is the first album to feature their mature, signature sound (though more guitar-drenched then some of their other stuff), and the last before they took that sound over the top. Not that there isn’t pleasure to be had from the next four albums, but this is how they should sound.

  • DoctorMu

    A tour de force in high fidelity.

    I could be wrong, but the fab Green Earrings guitar solo sounds like a 3 parter: Dean Parks up to the high note; Denny Dias; Elliot Randall

  • DoctorMu

    The Klemmer sax solo on Caves is ridiculous. Don’t get me started on Paul Griffin’s piano licks on Sign in Stranger. Royal Scam is a Jardin Músico.

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