Retro Review: Steely Dan – The Royal Scam
y first exposure to Steely Dan was through the 1985 compilation A Decade of Steely Dan that I got when I was probably 13 or 14 upon the recommendation of a former bass teacher. I was in full grunge mode, listening almost exclusively to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, et al.. Still, I was beginning to have my mind opened to fusion via Weather Report and the more jazzy side of rock with Chicago and Steely Dan. It's safe to say that I was probably one of the few young teenagers wearing a Nirvana shirt with a flannel over it while singing along to Deacon Blues in my room.
It’s safe to say that I was probably one of the few young teenagers wearing a Nirvana shirt with a flannel over it while singing along to Deacon Blues in my room.
It wasn’t until much later that I dug into more than just that compilation album, and those songs are still the ones I’m most familiar with and most fond of. But, eventually, I did snag Aja and Can’t Buy a Thrill. Somehow, I never bought The Royal Scam, the album we’ll focus on for this Retro Review. When deciding which Steely Dan album I would write about, I asked my Facebook friends, a few of whom I know are Dan fans, which album I should dig into and received a fair few more responses than I expected. It was a close vote, but ultimately, The Royal Scam won out.
What’s interesting to me is that by the time A Decade… came out, Steely Dan had transitioned from live act to studio artist to not existing at all. However, only “Kid Charlemagne” from The Royal Scam made it on the compilation. Each of their other studio albums was represented by two songs. I’m not sure if that says more about the strength of their catalog or the tastes of those who put together the compilation.
The criticisms I’ve heard are that it’s musical wankery, complicated for no reason, Fagen’s voice is too nasally, or That it’s just a bunch of white guys trying to be funky.
Among my friends, Steely Dan is a polarizing band. You either love or loathe them. It’s probably fairly obvious which side of that equation I’m on by now. The criticisms I’ve heard are that it’s musical wankery, complicated for no reason, Fagen’s voice is too nasally, or that it’s just a bunch of white guys trying to be funky. While there’s undoubtedly a drop of truth in those accusations, that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment. To me, there’s something pure about writing music for the sake of exploring ideas regardless of complexity or accessibility. So, I remain steadfast in my love of all things Steely Dan.
Chuck Rainey’s bass playing on the album is some of my favorite of all time.
Michael McDonald’s backing vocals on “Kid Charlemagne” were a preview of the immeasurable impact he would have on the subsequent Aja.
Larry Carlton’s wailing guitar on “Don’t Take Me Alive” is quintessential rock/jazz fusion.
The ambiguity of the meaning of The Fez either being referencing a condom or a shriners hat is hilarious.
HOW DOES IT HOLD UP?
The answer to this question lies primarily in your opinion of Steely Dan. If you’re a fan, you likely think this album holds up well. If not, no words I can write will convince you it’s worth listening to. To me, it’s their second-best album, behind Aja, and there’s plenty to inspire music fans.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Sadly, in 2017, Walter Becker passed away, but Donald Fagan continues to carry the Steely Dan torch, touring regularly with, as expected, an amazingly talented group of musicians.