To the uninitiated comments about Becker and Fagen’s attention to detail and the demonstration quality of their sound might imply some absence of passion, but their perfectionism is never to the detriment of the soul of the music (at least, up to Aja). The most notable feature of their approach is the way they are able to mould a disparate band of session players into a bona fide band – irrespective of the changes in personnel or the meticulous re-recording involved.
Many see Countdown to Ecstasy or Aja as the Dan’s twin peaks, but I would have to add this as the mid-panel of a triptych of stunning musical masterpieces. Veering more towards West Coast rock, the songs run the gamut of subject matter from LSD merchants, through double-dealing desperadoes, to marital bust-ups and racial tensions, encompassing a range of idioms, but from the opening bars of Kid Charlemagne to the close of the majestic Royal Scam, there is a unity and pulse that binds them all together into one kaleidoscopic vision of America.
As with all Dan’s albums, there is so much going on, lyrically and musically, so many outstanding contributions (even if just a few bars) that these songs stand the kind of repeated listening that few other artist’s material could bear. Well, I’ve been listening to these songs for nearly thirty years and they still sound as fresh as they did in 1977. The guitar parts alone are just as riveting – a masterclass in how to play coruscating breaks without hogging the limelight!
If you only buy three Dan albums, this HAS to be one – but you really NEED all from Can’t Buy a Thrill to Aja.
That line from The Fez has always struck me as wonderfully cool. As a piece of music its pretty infectious too. 'The Royal Scam' is the fifth chapter in a line of impeccable albums from Steely Dan. I don't care how cynical Becker and Fagen were, how big their egos, or how much their 'bandmates' were pushed to the margins. They packed so much into forty minutes, from rock to funk to reggae influences, with jazz inflections and brass sections. The lyrics too are intriguing, often bizarre. I sometimes wonder if one day I'll get the joke.
Aside of 'The Fez,' the major highlights for me are 'Kid Charlemagne,' pretty obviously about someone who had it all, couched in the aura of a baseball star ('hit it long'), the disturbing, rock-oriented 'Don't Take Me Alive' and my favourite, 'Haitian Divorce,' a minor hit that ought to be considered in the front rank of great rock songs. It's all first rate stuff, however. No scam.
This was the first Steely Dan album I ever heard/bought (many decades ago), and although Aja is now my favourite (just) this remains the one I return to the most.
There are many great moments but the high point for me is the wonderful guitar solo, played by Larry Carlton, at the end of Kid Charlemagne.
Kid Charlemagne is typical of the whole album, which is full of fantastic grooves typified by The Fez and Green Earrings. However these grooves are actually played by musicians rather than machines (as is the tendency these days).
I'm not great on lyrics, but even I can spot some of the humour in these songs.
So to sum up, quality song-writing, top quality musicians and great production means an essential purchase for either the Steely Dan fan who has somehow missed this album, or if you're of a younger generation and want to try something different.
on 29 June 2010
One review of the Royal Scam at the time described it as a "cynical masterpiece." Well, the Dan are never cynical. They present human nature in all its glory through a widescreen lens, which happens to include its failings, but the results aren't derogatory, simply bittersweet.
We feel enormous sympathy for the Puerto-Rican immigrants in a scam that is after all, "royal". Donald and Walter's commentary on the cultural zeitgeist has never been more apposite than on this album, with its shotgun divorces from Haiti, hoods who'd rather be dead than taken alive and so on. It ain't a pretty picture, but at least it's real.
And yet, these snapshots of how life really is are delivered so tastefully by the Dan that we can be forgiven for always wanting more. Donald's yearning vocals, the stunning guitar contributions from Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Walter Becker and Rick Derringer, the horns on the title track, the Caves of Altamira and elsewhere, the fantastic syncopation, was all simply in preparation for their true masterpiece just around the corner - the wonderful Aja.
The Royal Scam is still, by most people's standards, inspired, incisive and pretty incredible...
on 3 March 2007
Many years ago I owned this album on vinyl. I was a Dan fan, but The Royal Scam wasn't my favourite. Last Christmas a friend gave me it as a present. He had rediscovered it and wanted to share the experience.
Re-hearing it, I'm tempted to think that it's appeal has grown because it represents the unthreatening certainties of the past, a familiar sound enhanced by nostalgia. But I don't really believe that, and I certainly don't want to. I think I simply failed to give it a chance. It didn't have the stand out tracks that my anticipation demanded. It asked for a little more than I gave. The more instant tracks - Kid Charlemagne and Haitian Divorce are good but not the Dan's best and that coloured my experience back in 1976. It obscured the quality of the set.
With hindsight, this is the sound of a band on its way to creating a classic ('Aja') but if you have read this far, it is certainly worth your pennies, time and attention. If a new young British band released something like this we'd all go bananas for it.
For years I rarely played this fifth Steely Dan album, believing it to be a lesser work than their others. How wrong can a man be!
There is such a wealth of textures, sounds (dig that organ on The Fez) and angular, glorious guitar solos on these nine tracks that this is, I now realise, a Dan record that stands out from the rest. Ironically, my least favourite track is probably their big hit Haitian Divorce.
One highlight. I`ve seldom heard Donald Fagen sing with such abrasive force as on the marvellous Don`t Take Me Alive, with its ominous lyrics:
Or maybe you would like to see the show
You`ll enjoy the Cafe D`Escargot
Folks are in a line around the block
Just to see her do the can-can Jacques
Becker and Fagen regularly wrote lyrics as enigmatically picaresque as Dylan or Waits. Theirs is a skewed, sardonic view of contemporary America. Coupled with a sophisticated jazz sensibility, they made, and continue occasionally to make, music that`s unique in the `pop` canon of the last forty years.
The final number is the jumpy, mildly unsettling six-and-a-half-minute title track, and it`s a truly great song on an album of great songs.
They`d lost Jeff "Skunk" Baxter`s incredible guitar acrobatics after Pretzel Logic, but Becker is no mean guitarist himself - in fact he`s a terrific musician - and they`ve also called on Larry Carlton, Denny Dias and others to carry out guitar duties, along with other hand-picked players who help put this album up there with their best.
The more I play The Royal Scam - and I seem to play the Dan all the time these days - the more I love it. Their music is as varied and musically rich as the most inventive jazz or certain modern classical works. That`s how good this `moveable feast` of a band were.
The Dan were never really a rock band, they simply made timeless music, memorable songs played with lavish attention to detail. This is one of the most subtle sets of songs in their illustrious catalogue.
They did it again - and Aja and Gaucho were still to come!
Won`t you sign in stranger?
on 12 December 2008
The consistancy of the Becker/Fagan output never ceases to amaze me. It's difficult to choose a favourite from the first six offerings, however it just all came together on this fine LP. From the driving opener 'Kid Charlamagne' to the brooding horn riff on the title track which ends the album. Its an emotional and uplifting experience. Take the achingly beautiful guitar work on 'Don't take me alive', matching perfectly with the lyric.
Many would argue 'Aja' was their peak. I would have to disagree. Much as I love 'AJA' it lacked the sheer emotion of the 'Royal Scam' and it's predecessors possessed.
A final thought: I can't think of another band who could class their first SIX albums and essential, can you?
on 5 July 2015
My first Steely Dan album . Bought as vinyl lp in UK and almost worn out . Repeat buys on CD and digital ( not as good a sound as plastic )
It sowed a seed . So back to the record shop to buy their previous releases and when they became available the new stuff .
The Royal Scam was the weakest of the catalogue until Two Against Nature , but the standard is very , very high .
Musically Steely Dan cannot be bettered , lyrically I am still wondering what some of it's about . But whatever ,it makes me tap something , shake something , annoy someone .And sometimes my heart skips , I get the imagery , my foot taps and I understand music genius .
If people could look at the album cover of Countdown to Ecstasy , thats me in bottom right . Stunned , by the whole of Steely Dan
on 25 July 2008
For some reason when I first heard this album (and I've been a Dan fan for a long long time) it didn't really grip me, but as these things tend to do once I bought a new copy on CD and played it again and again I found myself... playing it again and again. I'd got an impression of some sort of darkness and pretentiousness around the album first time round, but actually it's inventive, light, and probably their most playful album - very tongue in cheek in places.
I'd now say this is one of the "must buy" Dan cluster, along with Countdown to Ecstacy, Kay Lied, and Aja (and the first two tracks on Gaucho).
Oh yeah - seen the boys twice, Birmingham and Aintree, and at the latter gig they let Becker sing Hiaitian Divorce! Stick to the day job, Walter!
on 7 May 2010
Royal Scam catches Steely Dan right in the middle of the 70's and the arc as recording artists. Gone are the prog pop songs that define theor earlier work and yet to come are the smooth, session musician heavy, super slick productions to come. Here we have for me, some of their most enduring work. Stand out tracks would have top be Dont Take Me Alive with Larry Carlton's awesome guitar playing stamped all over it and Green Earrings with both Larry and additional lead guitarist Denny Dias deliveing jaw dropping solos.