STEELY DAN — The Royal Scam

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STEELY DAN - The Royal Scam cover
4.15 | 16 ratings | 4 reviews
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Album · 1976

Filed under RnB


A1 Kid Charlemagne 4:38
A2 The Caves Of Altamira 3:33
A3 Don't Take Me Alive 4:18
A4 Sign In Stranger 4:22
A5 The Fez 3:59
B1 Green Earrings 4:05
B2 Haitian Divorce 5:30
B3 Everything You Did 3:54
B4 The Royal Scam 6:31

Total Time: 41:17


- Clydie King / Backing Vocals
- Michael McDonald / Backing Vocals
- Sherlie Matthews / Backing Vocals
- Tim Schmit / Backing Vocals
- Venetta Fields / Backing Vocals
- Bernard Purdie / Drums
- Rick Marotta / Drums
- Dean Parks / Guitar
- Dennis Dias / Guitar
- Elliot Randall / Guitar
- Larry Carlton / Guitar
- Walter Becker / Guitar
- Bob Findley / Horns
- Chuck Findley / Horns
- Jim Horn / Horns
- John Klemmer / Horns
- Plas Johnson / Horns
- Slyde Hyde / Horns
- Don Grolnick / Keyboards
- Paul Griffin / Keyboards
- Victor Feldman / Keyboards,Percussion
- Donald Fagen / Lead Vocals , Backing Vocals, Keyboards
- Gary Coleman / Percussion

About this release

ABC Records – ABCD-931 (US)

Engineered At ABC Recording Studios & A&R Studios

Thanks to snobb for the updates


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Specialists/collaborators reviews

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have called their 5th album's thought-provoking illustration "the most hideous album cover of the seventies, bar none" and, while it's hard to disagree with their assessment, it's also a most appropriate canvas for the unsure times surrounding its release. In 1976 the Cold War world was in the last days of the pre-computer analog era, the mind-numbing disco phenomenon was thriving just as The Ramones were ushering in the punk movement and while the USA was celebrating its bicentennial, it was also still mourning the loss of 58,000 young men who died for nada as Vietnam became a unified country under a communist flag. The biting cynicism of "The Royal Scam" cuts deep but it is justified. Yet you will be hard pressed to find an album that contains tracks so magnificently tight and well-defined. Steely Dan's previous four offerings showed them in the process of discovering their own sound but with this recording it was evident that they had found their special niche in the music universe. The worldbeat-tinged songs are lengthier and less radio-friendly than before, indicating that they were no longer inclined to compromise. The malicious technical bugs that had so beleaguered the previous project were a thing of the past and, by using studios and session players on both sides of the continent, they captured the mood of our jaded generation like few could. Announcing that the dreamy, carefree "tune in, turn on, drop out" phenomenon was deceased and decomposing, "Kid Charlemagne" with its funky rhythm coiling underneath a bouncy clavinet made it official. Written for one notorious Mr. Owsley, the acid prince of Haight-Ashbury, the message is direct and brutal. "Now your patrons have all left you in the red/your low-rent friends are dead/life can be very strange/all those day-glow freaks who used to paint the face/they've joined the human race." Fagen sings. The tune's full chorale is impressive but words fail when I try to describe the guitar performance delivered by Larry Carlton here. If you're a guitarist and you haven't heard it you need to. Now. Not allowing you any chance to recover, "The Caves of Altamira" arrives and sweeps you right off your feet. After an ominous beginning a fat horn section blares as the rock-solid drums of Bernard Purdie and the awesome bass of Chuck Rainey pull you along like an unrelenting undertow. Written about a youngster who finds peace and solace among undiscovered cave drawings, it raises the specter of history repeating itself. "Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall/when there wasn't even any Hollywood/they heard the call and they wrote it on the wall/for you and me, we understood," he croons. But the ultra-dynamic accents punctuated by the sharp brass throughout and the great sax ride at the end are what slays me about this number.

"Don't Take Me Alive" just may be the hardest rocking song Steely Dan ever created and it is an unspecified guitarist (take your pick from the credits) with his stunning tone and technique that steals the show. He kills without mercy. The verses ride atop a powerful wave of electric piano, guitar and vibraphone while the unforgettable chorus kicks like a mule. It's about a standoff where the protagonist has reached the very end-threads of his mental rope. "Can you hear the evil crowd/the lies and the laughter/I hear my inside/the mechanized hum of another world/where no sun is shining." Donald sneers. Despite its tragic tale that has no discernable silver lining it's my favorite cut on an album that literally oozes with excellent tunes. "Sign in Stranger" follows and this simmering filet of funk tells of an exotic and dangerous locale where a criminal can go to establish a new identity. "Do you have a dark spot on your past?/leave it to my man he'll fix it fast/Pepe has a scar from ear to ear/he will make your mug shots disappear," Fagen sings. Whoever is responsible for providing the torrid piano licks is nothing short of amazing and by now you should expect the guitarisms to slap you silly and they do. The inventive bridge pops up out of nowhere and the thick horns at the end are a complete surprise.

There's nothing particularly tricky about "The Fez," it just hitches a ride on its supremely funky groove and doesn't stop till four minutes later. This ditty briefly describes a fellow's odd sexual peccadillo that requires his wearing of a certain kind of hat and it's a hard one to categorize. I suggest you just sit back and enjoy the entertaining collage of instruments that rise and fall throughout the expert Roger Nichols mix. Or get up and dance. Either one. The eclectic "Green Earrings" has a very strange arrangement to digest as it rumbles by your ears. Can't say that I have an inkling of what lines like "cold, daring/no flies on me/sorry, angel/I must take what I see" signify but that's okay. Some things are best left as mysteries. I must point out, however, the cool psychedelic guitar effect that makes it swirl like a boiling lava lamp during the fadeout.

"Haitian Divorce" is not only the sole Steely Dan single to chart in the UK top twenty but it's also one of their most endearing and clever songs. Here the traditional reggae beat fits perfectly as it tools along below the vibraphone and a gritty talk box guitar that give it a unique personality. Divorce was all the rage in the 70s and Don & Walt's snickering story of a woman who flees to the Caribbean to dissolve her marriage, enjoys a passionate tryst with one of the hot-blooded locals and then has a "tearful reunion" with her spouse is spot on for the times. But it seems she brought back a sprouting souvenir. "Some babies grow in a peculiar way/it changed, it grew/and everybody knew/semi-mojo/who's this kinky so-and-so?" Donald sings with a sly grin. Of particular interest are the nifty bass harmonics that ring out during the finale. Primo stuff.

Speaking of weird sexual situations, "Everything You Did" tops them all in that category. In this saga a wife's jilted husband seems a lot more interested in hearing the juicy details of her indiscretion than in locating/confronting his rival and, in the process, discovers that she's kinkier than he ever imagined. "I never knew you/you were a roller skater/you gonna show me later/turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," he implores. The number's sneaky feel and by now obligatory terrific guitar ride make it a winner. The album's title cut and closer is by far the darkest and most fusiony tune included. This unorthodox track is mostly a repeating pattern of a verse, verse, and chorus structure, separated by instrumental sections populated by hair-raising jazz trumpet and cornet runs. The sarcastic but glorious chorale belies the stark glimpses of harsh reality offered in the lyrics. It tells of desperate immigrants who give up everything to chase the American Dream only to find they're no better off than they were living in the squalor they left behind. "They are hounded down/to the bottom of a bad town/amid the ruins where they learn to fear/an angry race of fallen kings," Fagen reports. It's a haunting piece of aural art that will leave a permanent impression on your psyche.

In my review of "Katy Lied" I said it was a fine example of futuristic songwriting and I feel that this album is even better in that respect. Add in the exemplary musicianship (especially the out-of-this- world guitar performances that pepper the music from start to finish), the fantastic engineering job, the majestic arrangements and the articulate wordplay that abounds and you have a bonafide masterpiece. There are those who will protest Steely Dan's very presence on any jazz list but I'm here to tell you that music production this wonderful, that makes such a bold statement, needs no one's validation.

Skyscrapers with snakes heads and a well dressed bum, Steely Dan have album number five on sale in May 1976. Once again the list of musicians who particapated is enormous. All compositions are written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker with the usual variety of Rock ,Funk, Pop and Jazz within the songs. Larry Carlton on guitar appears and makes a large contribution to the album, Denny Dias is still hanging in there and that is just only two from five listed doing guitar on this album so another big Production was done by Gary Katz. Special mention must go to the Backing singers on the album with those three girls,Venetta Fields, Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews who were one red hot group of session singers at the time and appeared with so many other great artists, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan. Neil Diamond, Quincy Jones and there are plenty more. This was their 2nd album with Steely Dan as they were also on the debut Can't Buy a Thrill and Sherlie Matthews appears on her own on the previous album Katy Lied.Michael McDonald contributes with some vocals but is a full time Doobie Brother now. The album takes off from the start with the driving Kid Charlemagne and one simply stunning guitar solo from Larry Carlton with some fantastic Backing Vocals provided by the girls and is a favourite with many who have the album. The Caves of Altamira is more low key with a some lovely saxophone throughout but with track three Larry Carlton is back with the lead guitar and The track Don't Take Me Alive is one great tune. Piano dominated funk and jazz is basically the ingredient for Sign in Stranger. Special mention must be made for the tracks the Fez and Green Earrings. Once again there is not a poor track within the album and to finish it all of we get the title song The Royal Scam and Larry is back on guitar for this one as well with one nice beat driven tune with piano as an undercurrent and Larry's Guitar and Donald Fagen's voice up front. I simply love the trumpet used throughout as well. The girls are there also and once again as with Pretzel Logic the title track is the high point of the album.

Another great effort and something unique but music was about to change and rock, prog, would take a back seat for a while when the world went disco mad. Four Stars and a half but very close to five.

Members reviews

After Katy Lied, which was a masterpiece, The Royal Scam was a royal disappointment. Although it has a clutch of good tracks - the title track is interesting for showing a more sombre side of the band, Don't Take Me Alive is dramatic even though it's kind of a rerun of With a Gun from Pretzel Logic, Caves of Altamira has this odd majesty to it and Kid Charlemagne is a fantastic song - it's padded out with far too much filler. Not just filler, mind, but really badly misconceived filler, like the goofy novelty track The Fez or the horrible pseudo-reggae Haitian Divorce.

It's telling when one of the stronger tracks of the album (Caves of Altamira) is an old piece from the Dan scrapbook, with a demo version from before Can't Buy a Thrill widely circulating on bootlegs. The Royal Scam gives every impression of the band stuck in the midst of songwriter's block.
Sean Trane
Second album for the studio-era Dan, and finally the Becker-Fagen duo comes to realize their potential fully, easily surpassing their previous best Countdown To Ecstasy. And just like Ecstasy, this Royal Scam has few and longer tracks, six tracks over 4 minutes, including two nearing the 6 minutes, thus allowing for what every proghead yearns for, instrumental interplay. With the usual cast of suspects supporting the duo, the album is the first of Dan’s brilliant trilogy. Released in early 76 with an incredible artwork, one that hits the gloomiest of thoughts (for some colourful reasons I always think of Giger’s works on BSS or Magma’s Attakh album) that fits well the disillusion slowly entering the North American public

Starting on one of SD’s proggiest song Kid Charlemagne, with its incessant rhythm breaks and that dreamy piano that Alan Parsons would make his. The funky groove is also perfect in accompanying the burial of the hippie dreams/ideals lyrics that were still pervading in many youths (including yours truly, but I wasn’t listening ;o)))). No-less excellent is the non-prog but full-blown brass-rock Altamira Caves, where a superb brass section at the start and end of the song and shows that SD can do normal songs of theirs sound interesting. The album doesn’t seem to slow down one bit with the guitar-laden Don’t Take Me Alive, where there is some dramatics involved, the only glitch being the usual Dan backing vocals (yes, these that make SD soooo special that you instantly know you’re in a SD song) that are a bit too encumbering. The following funky Sign In Stranger is probably the album’s weakest track, but it would probably be a highlight in Pretzel or Thrill, but the funky-reggae tune has some fun lyrics moments, but ultimately doesn’t cut the mustard with its acoustic piano except around the end. Closing side 1 is the ultra-funky The Fez, a track that is content in staying in the groove except for one break, and has weird synth tones lying above the schmilblik. Not the most fascinating but holds its own on this album.

Opening the flipside is Green Earring with its jazz-funk that most black groups of the era would’ve love to call their own if it was for more soulful vocals. Not that it’s proggy or something, but it’s got arguments for itself. The reggae-ish Haitian Divorce is definitely another highlight and allows much space for interplay between a vocal-effect guitar, some rhythmic vibes and a pulsing bass that grows as the song grows longer. After another weaker track (Everything You Did) that would easily fit as a highlight onto Pretzel or Kati, the album is closing on the fantastic self-titled finale which has definitely seen SD come as one of the forces to be recognized with during the second part of the 70’s. The track is quickly installed with an incredible groove and some wild jazzy horns covering everyone of your living room’s corners, while Fagen tells us of the great American dream turning into a royal scam. The artwork fits quite well these lyrics as there are monsters atop the four Manhattan skyscrapers, ready to strike anyone trying to come up the echelons of an already too crowded pyramid top and all to ready to send you back on the subway station bench.

While never being a complete head-over-heels fan of SD (I wouldn’t place a SD album in my top 300), it is clear TRS is clearly one of their better albums, the first of a trilogy that no self-respecting proghead should ignore, some 30 years later. I know I sure as hell missed the SD wave back in the 70’s for their songwriting was about writing songs, instead of numbers, epics, tracks or pieces of music, and their sometimes too-similar song structure to the industry standard didn’t appeal to me who was still a teenager, while SD was the epitome and probably the best example of Adult Oriented Rock, a movement that they probably invented with Thrill, but would take a few more years to invade Adult Oriented Radios that would flood the airwaves in the later 70’s. In the meantime, those progheads not willing to accept SD as a prog group, should probably do so after re-listening carefully to TRS, Aja and Gaucho.

Ratings only

  • stefanbedna
  • ed141414
  • Phrank
  • Lynx33
  • Vano
  • historian9
  • Pr0fundus
  • Drummer
  • darkprinceofjazz
  • Zarathustra
  • The Manticore
  • Tychovski

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