[Review] Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (1976)

A transitional record with more brilliant guitar solos, more horns and nine more reasons to love Steely Dan.

Kronomyth 5.0: Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.

Ever since I can remember, this was my least favorite Steely Dan album. I think it had to do with the disco overtones and dark subject matter (a real rogue’s gallery this time). Listening to it again, however, it’s just as much an improvement over their last album as every Steely Dan album is, the band growing progressively sharper with every cut in their catalog like some kind of musical Ginsu knife. It’s also a transitional record, pointing back to the past in its perfect guitar solos and keen ear for melodies, and pointing toward the future with its exotic, jazzy sound.

The album opens with a hit, Kid Charlemagne, a song I always assumed was about Ken Kesey (via Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) but apparently was fashioned around another figure in the book, Owsley Stanley. The band’s acid wit is matched up with a growling funk arrangement and the first of many brilliant guitar solos, this one courtesy of Larry Carlton. The Caves of Altamira is the album’s most laid-back track, a thoughtful number with some great horns. Honestly, the guitar solos and horn arrangements (and the absolutely perfect audio engineering) nearly upstage everyone on The Royal Scam. Don’t Take Me Alive returns to rogues, this time in an oddly prescient tale (“luckless pedestrians”) of an outlaw with explosives in a standoff with lawmen. Against that sunny subject matter, Dan drops another smoldering, exotic arrangement that mixes elements of funk, jazz and rock. Sign in Stranger is a walking advertisement for criminal fugitives to find new identities in Latin America, slipping another great guitar solo into the mix at the end and topping it off with horns. And here is as good a place as any to point out how much music is crammed into this album. The band has never been stingy with the music, but The Royal Scam is truly a surfeit of riches in that regard. The first side closes with The Fez, arguably the funkiest riff they’ve ever laid down (it would be this or “Peg”).

Side two opens with Green Earrings, my least favorite song on the album—that is until the dual guitar solo from Dennis Dias and Elliot Randall shows up, and then hoowee. Next up is my favorite song on the album, Haitian Divorce. The lyrics and the reggae undertones are gilded with some of the greatest talkbox guitar you’ll ever hear (Dean Parks this time). Every time I hear it, I have to fight the impulse to air-guitar during that solo. Everything You Did continues the theme of infidelity with another great melody (did any band every match such happy melodies with dark musings like Dan?) and another classic solo from Larry Carlton. The album’s final track, The Royal Scam, is a shadow of things to come: richly arranged, exotic, a jungle of jazz and rock filtered through flawless studio engineering.

The technical achievements of The Royal Scam sometimes overshadow the great music on it. The memories I have of it are the guitar solos, the horn arrangements and “Haitian Divorce.” I don’t find myself humming it the way I do Countdown to Ecstasy. It’s a darker record, difficult, but endlessly rewarding in a way that only other Aja is. In other words, it’s the best thing they’ve done so far (again).

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Original elpee version

A1. Kid Charlemagne (4:38)
A2. The Caves of Altamira (3:33)
A3. Don’t Take Me Alive (4:19)
A4. Sign in Stranger (4:22)
A5. The Fez (Walter Becker/Donald Fagen/Paul Griffin) (3:59)
B1. Green Earrings (4:05)
B2. Haitian Divorce (5:50)
B3. Everything You Did (3:54)
B4. The Royal Scam (6:31)

Songs by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen unless noted.
Horns arranged by Chuck Findley, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

The Players

Walter Becker (bass, guitars), Donald Fagen (lead vocals, keyboards, back-up vocals) with Larry Carlton (guitars), Gary Coleman (percussion), Dennis Dias (guitars), Victor Feldman (percussion, keyboards), Venetta Fields (back-up vocals), Bob Findley (horns), Chuck Findley (horns), Paul Griffin (keyboards), Don Grolnick (guitars), Jim Horn (horns), Slyde Hyde (horns), Plas Johnson (horns), Clydie King (back-up vocals), John Klemmer (horns), Rick Marotta (drums), Sherlie Matthews (back-up vocals), Michael McDonald (back-up vocals), Dean Parks (guitars), Bernard Purdie (drums), Chuck Rainey (bass), Elliot Randall (guitars), Tim Schmit (back-up vocals). Produced by Gary Katz; engineered by Roger Nichols and Elliot Shiner; mix down engineered by Roger Nichols and Barney Perkins.

The Pictures

Art direction and design by Ed Caraeff. Cover art by Charlie Ganse and Zox. Typographic design by Tom Nikosey.

The Product

Released on elpee and cassette on May 31, 1976 in the US (ABC, ABCD 931), the UK (ABC, ABCL/CAB 5161), Canada (ABC, 9022-931) and Germany and the Netherlands (ABC, 27552 XOT) with lyrics innersleeve; reached #15 on the US charts (RIAA-certified platinum record) and #11 on the UK charts. Canadian elpee available in yellow vinyl.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1979 in the US (MCA, ABCD-931).
  2. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in 1980 in the US and Canada (MCA, MCA 37044).
  3. Re-issued on elpee in Japan (MCA, VIM-4040).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in 1982 in the US (MCA, MCA-1483).
  5. Re-issued on elpee and cassette in the US (MCA, MCA/MCAC-1595).
  6. Re-issued on elpee in the UK and Australia (MCA, MCL-1708).
  7. Re-issued on compact disc (MCA, 088 112 051-2).
  8. Re-released on remastered compact disc in the US (MCA, MCAD-31193).
  9. Re-released on remastered compact disc worldwide (MCA, 811 708).
  10. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in 2004 in Japan (Universal, UICY-3025).
  11. Re-released on super high material compact disc on October 12, 2011 in Japan (Geffen, UICY-25039).

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