US - New York - Full Moon 242 - 05/21/16
From head to heart:
Steely Dan's The Royal Scam
Following our retroscope series going on for several years, here we go again. Yes, for one more year! Here's
Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's
focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching
our chest and shaking our heart, or simply tapping our shoulder. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth (in which many classic, iconic albums turn 50 years old, such as Beach
Boys' Pet Sounds, Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and The Small Faces' self-titled debut) we put the LK spotlight on another 40-year-old platter, from a band with
its roots at Bard College, upstate New York in the mid/late '60s. At the time, Fagen and Becker had a group named The Bad Rock Group, turning into The Leather Canary - the latter featuring
college classmate (later to become comedian and actor) Chevy Chase(!) on drums. Fagen and Becker left Bard in 1969 and in 1972, after signing with ABC Records they came up with the name inspired
by William S. Burroghs's novel Naked Lunch: "Steely Dan III from Yokohama", a rubber phallus or a steam-powered, strap-on dildo mentioned in Burroughs 1959 novel.
"Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. 'Steely Dan III from Yokohama,' she says, caressing the shaft. Milk spurts across the room.
'Be sure that milk is pasteurized. Don't go giving me some kinda awful cow disease like anthrax or glanders or aftosa...'.
'When I was a transvestite Liz in Chi used to work as an exterminator. Make advances to pretty boys for the thrill of being beaten as a man. Later I catch this one kid, overpower him with
supersonic judo I learned from an old Lesbian Zen monk. I tie him up, strip off his clothes with a razor, and fuck him with Steely Dan I. He is so relieved I don't castrate him literal he
come all over my bedbug spray.'
'What happen to Steely Dan I?'
'He was torn in two by a bull dike. Most terrific vaginal grip I ever experienced. She could cave in a lead pipe. It was one of her parlor tricks.'
'And Steely Dan II?'
'Chewed to bits by a famished candiru in the Upper Baboonsasshole.'
Then Mary works Steely Dan III into Johnny's ass "with a series of corkscrew movements of her fluid hips.".
The Royal Scam
By 1976 I was mainly interested in 60s inspired and arty pop, progressive rock and a little bit of rock'n'roll, from the British isles or other Western European countries. Steely Dan with American jazz, funk and soul elements, soft rock, generous doses of horns, female backing vocals now and again and partly incomprehensible lyrics really ought to be something out of my league. But there were a couple of guys who ran about the only decent regular programme on national radio devoted to pop and rock. They had a huge influence on my musical tastes at the time and were without any doubt huge Steely Dan supporters. So eventually I ordered the newest Steely Dan album at the time The Royal Scam, released 40 years ago this very moonth. I didn't like it much at first, but my record collection was limited and when I had invested my limited hard earned money in the album I had to invest some of my seemingly unlimited time in it, too. And slowly it crept in ...
Eventually I got so hooked that I ordered the previous four Steely Dan albums, i.e. the entire back-catalogue at the time. And eagerly awaited the next album, Aja, released in September 1977. Aja was jazzier than earlier albums, too smoothly produced for my liking and not at all the political correct kind of studio album in the heydays of punk. But the LP included some great songs and I didn't completely lose my faith in the band. When a year or two later I stumbled across the soundtrack album for the low budget film You've Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You'll Lose That Beat (from 1971, by Peter Locke and starring a young Richard Pryor) recorded by pre-Steely Dan members and a live bootleg LP of dubious sound quality from the days when Steely Dan was still an ordinary touring band, well I had to buy them, too. The last nail in the coffin, however, was the release of Gaucho in the fall of 1980. It was a much too slick affair for my taste and Steely Dan was abandoned. And it seemed the two men that was Steely Dan at the time, abandoned the band/project soon after, too. Gaucho had not been an easy album to produce. I hardly played any of their music for the next 25 years and hardly noticed that they reformed in 1993. It wasn't until I obtained a copy of 11-22 by Loch Ness Mouse in 2005 and noticed some similarity with Steely Dan that I dug out the old LPs from the 1970s and still nodded approvingly while listening to them. After that the first five Steely Dan LPs have been more regular visitors on my turntable.
The origins of Steely Dan stems from upstate New York when Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards and assorted) heard Walter Becker (bass, guitar, a bit of vocals and assorted) playing fascinating guitar in a café some time in 1968. They found out they shared similar interests in music and started to play together in different constellations. One of their early college bands included comedian-to-be Chevy Chase on drums. Later the duo teamed up with Denny Dias (guitar) in New York City and were hired as songwriters for a publishing company at the famous hit-factory, the Brill Building. The soundtrack album mentioned above was recorded during this period, around 1970. One of their songs was recorded by Barbara Streisand the following year, but it wasn't enough to establish them as songwriters. The luck changed when record producer Gary Katz, who was also involved in the publishing company, got a job for ABC Records in Los Angeles and invited the trio over to work for them as songwriters. They soon found out the best they could do with their kind of somewhat intricate songs was to play them themselves and gathered a gang of musicians, all originally from the east coast of USA now living out west. They were Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (guitars), Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, vocals) and David Palmer (vocals). The band name was taken from a dildo (no less!) in the novel Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs (him again!), the strap-on dildo 'Steely Dan III from Yokohama'. I guess the name says a lot about the attitude of the band. Black humour with a wry smile seems to pervade their lyrics no matter what gloomy aspect of life they're dealing with. The band hit success from the start with the debut album Can't Buy A Thrill from November 1972 that included two quite successful hit singles. David Palmer left during the recording of the second album Countdown To Ecstasy (July 1973) when Donald Fagen had taken over most of the vocal duties. By the third Pretzel Logic (February 1974) the list of session musicians had grown and Jim Hodder was only allowed to contribute backing vocalist while the drum stool was taken over by sessionists Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro. When songwriter duo Becker and Fagen decided to stop touring and concentrate solely on writing new songs and studio work both Hodder and Skunk Baxter also left, the latter for the Doobie Brothers.
On Katy Lied, Steely Dan's fourth album released in March 1975, the band was reduced to a studio project that included Becker, Fagen and Denny Dias to some extent plus about 20 session musicians and backing vocalists. They used the same formula for The Royal Scam (May 1976), only added a couple more session players and probably used a couple more moonths in the studio. As with all other albums by the band until the break-up in 1981, it was produced by Gary Katz and engineered by Roger Nichols. The nine songs on the album was as usual penned by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen except "The Fez" where organ player Paul Griffin is credited as well. Let's give the word to Donald Fagen, from a BBC online chat in 2000: 'The Fez was recorded using a rhythm chart but there were a few bars missing and Paul Griffin, the keyboard player on the day, came up with a nice little melody, so we felt we should include him in the writer credits.' A fez is that small red cylinder formed hat wore by men in Arabic and south-eastern European countries. I originally thought it was a song about a discussion before a possible wedding, but it seems the fez means a condom here. Which documents there were discussions about safe sex in the 1970s after all, set to a pleasant and quite merry piano driven Caribbean flavoured tune, not least due to the Paul Griffin organ playing:
No, I'm never gonna do it without the fez on
That's what I am
I want to be your holy man
No, I'm never gonna do it without the fez on
"Haitian Divorce" is even closer the Caribbean, as you might imagine, and also merrier. In the 1970s foreigners could travel to Haiti and apply for and get a divorce in a few hours. The great thing about it was that only one part of the marriage couple had to be present. And he or she could marry the next in line the very same afternoon, if they so pleased. A weird tourist attraction, so to speak. It didn't end this way in the song, though. Musically it boasts a dominant reggae inspired rhythm guitar with another guitar that fills in licks and solos, played with an effect called talk box that makes it sound almost like a trumpet played with a mute. Fascinating!
Many of Steely Dan's lyrics dealt with drugs and "Kid Charlemagne" was inspired by the life of Owsley Stanley III who was the first to mass-produce LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s. The song includes two of the least elegant successive lyric lines I can imagine: 'Is there gas in the car? Yes, there's gas in the car.' They don't even quite fit with the melody. Which states that Steely Dan wasn't always striving for perfection back then. The high profiled female vocals of the choruses are not my cup of tea, but Fagen's funky electric piano works better than could be expected. What really makes the song stand out are the fantastic guitar solos played by session musician extraordinaire Larry Carlton, one of them even completely improvised. Playful, imaginative, the lot! Studio Steely Dan at their very best! I'm seldom wild about guitar solos but in this instance I was so impressed I even bought Carlton's self-titled solo album from 1978. It turned out to be a mistake though ... "Sign In Stranger" and "Everything You Did" follow suit with more exquisite blues-coloured guitar playing, the latter also with Larry Carlton at the fore, and great piano accompaniment, too. "Everything You Did" also includes a favourite Steely Dan quote, to drown out the words during a domestic quarrel, where the jealous husband shouts to his wife: 'Turn up The Eagles, the neighbors are listening'. Originally I thought yes, this is about the only circumstance the music of The Eagles ought to be used! Later it turned out Steely Dan and The Eagles shared management and that Walter Becker's wife loved The Eagles. There might be a, to some extent, friendly ironic and not hostile slap on the back exchange going on here. The Eagles replied seven moonths later when they in the title track of their new album (we're in December 1976 by now) Hotel California included the line: 'They stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast'.
And there are more favourites involved here. "The Caves Of Altamira" inspired by the earliest preserved artistic expressions on earth, named after a cave in northern Spain famous for its paintings, has lots of horns, even a jazzy sax solo. But the horns really have punch and drives the song forwards. "Don't Take Me Alive" deals with a criminal, a bookkeeper's son, who has ensconced himself with guns and a case of dynamite while the police are ready outside. The title reveals his intentions.
Agents of the law
I know you're out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
Saying all is forgiven
Mad dog surrender
How can I answer
A man of my mind can do anything
More cool guitar playing here and a fascinating interplay before the last round of the chorus. The only song not quite up to par in my book is "Green Earrings", about a jewel thief, though it's not without its moments, especially in the instrumental parts. And then there is the title track at the end, I guess the only dead serious offering of the album, no sarcasms in sight. About immigrants from the Caribbean fooled by the American Dream that turned out to be a nightmare. The music seems to be more serious here, too, more strict, not as playful as the rest of the album. The cover art, by the late American painter Larry Zox, says it all. It was originally created for an album by van Morrison that was abandoned. While it fits the title track hand in glove, it doesn't reflect the remaining themes of the album. And the two men behind the band name apparently hated it.
I'm still not sure why I like this album so much. As previously mentioned, members and session musicians of previous Steely Dan records went on to The Doobie Brothers and a couple started Toto, too. Bands that others might relate to Steely Dan, but I do my best to avoid. I enjoy American jazz, funk and soul a little bit more nowadays than 40 years ago, but not that much. Well, there's not so much typical jazz here as on the following album Aja. I'm not wild about the horns or the female backing vocals either. But most of the time they're acceptable and the horns of "The Caves Of Altamira" really improves the dynamics of the song. I guess the secret must be the blend of rock, pop, jazz, soul, funk, blues and Caribbean rhythms. It sums up the elements of American popular music at the time in an impeccable way. Also, the production of The Royal Scam balances in an elegant way between studio perfection and a bit rougher elements, even spontaneity and improvisations. And there's the irony and partly hard to understand lyrics. Btw., the explanation of some of the lyrics above would've been noticeably shorter if it hadn't been for the Songfacts forum. Another point surely is the melodies, with many catchy choruses in particular that I don't get fed up with the third time I hear them. Also, The Royal Scam was the first Steely Dan album I bought and the first I heard from beginning to end. The profound teenage impressions seem to stick for the rest of life. Those who've followed Steely Dan for a few years more than me, might claim that The Royal Scam didn't mean any substantial development from the previous album Katy Lied. That's true, and for me they represent Steely Dan at the song writing, creative and studio recording peak.
Copyright © 2016 JP