Steely Dan: The Royal Scam Review

By Bud Scoppa
Circus

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker don’t play by the rules. They won’t tour, they won’t talk to interviewers, they won’t keep a band together — instead they prefer to ship out their best players to the Doobie Brothers and hire hand-picked freelance musicians for specific parts on specific tracks (they’ve been known to fly players from New York to Los Angeles just to lay down 30-second solos).

Fagen and Becker write lyrics so cryptically personalized that they seem like riddles and, in an age in which most rock groups strive to synthesize raunch in the studio, Steely Dan make immaculately clean rock & roll records. Miraculously, this resolutely unorthodox approach works: in five attempts dating back to 1972, this “band” (for want of a better term) has made five of the best records of the ‘70s. The Royal Scam sounds like the cream of the crop and one of the finest albums of the year.

There’s more wit, imagination, and musical sophistication in the songs and structures of The Royal Scam than on any LP I’ve heard in ages. The playing of hired hands such as guitarists Elliot Randall and Larry Carlton, drummers Rick Marotta and Bernard Purdie, and keyboardist Paul Griffin is not only marvelously inventive but also perfectly integrated into the song settings. It seems almost criminal that individual parts aren’t credited: the voice-box lead guitar in “Haitian Divorce,” which somehow unites a satiny, muted-cornet tone with a nastily jagged edge, and the furiously syncopated jazz piano in “The Fez” — to cite salient examples — carry signatures so strong and individualized that they shouldn’t remain anonymous.

There’s nothing anonymous, however, about the songs, singing, and overall dynamics of The Royal Scam: Fagen and Becker have developed a style so singular that it’s instantly recognizable. Fagen — who unaccountably spent the first three years of Steely Dan’s existence trying to find the right lead vocalist for the group — has now apparently accepted the fact that if he wants it done right, he’ll have to do it himself. He’s surely one of the most inventive singers in pop, and who else but the writer of these tricky, tragicomic songs could sing them with the necessary understanding? Outside of Randy Newman, I can’t imagine a writer-singer who could think up — let alone pull off — songs about prehistoric cave paintings (“Before the fall/When they wrote it on the wall/When there wasn’t even any Hollywood”), a chemist-drug dealer with too much integrity for his own good (“Is there gas in the car?/I think the people down the hall/Know who you are”), or homicidal jealousy (“Turn up the Eagles/The neighbors are listening”).

Throughout the album’s nine songs, the Fagen-Becker team is in top form, but nowhere more so than in the disturbingly funny “Haitian Divorce,” where the writers work a Godard-like process comment into the middle of the narrative:

At the Grotto
In the easy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion
And the kinky hair
When she smiled she said it all
The band was hot so
They danced the famous merango
Now we dolly back
Now we fade to black

They’re utterly calculated, perverse, and — like the “Show Biz Kids” they described a couple years back—”They don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” But somehow these elitist oddballs continue to make remarkably human records — records I can’t help falling in love with. Let ’em do it their way.

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