Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan The Royal Scam (1976)


I find it very hard to like this one. Very hard. On Royal Scam, Steely Dan shifts their musical paradigm further – one more step, and they’re completely in jazz-pop land with Aja. Likewise, here they veer away from any signs of folk or traditional rock beat. These ditties are mostly bouncy, jingly-jangly and very danceable – whether you’d want to dance to a tune entitled ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ is another matter, of course, but for the most part this is DANCE POP. And quite forgettable, uninspired dance pop, too. It’s obvious that the ‘new’ Steely Dan sound was not quite worked out yet: the instruments are way too blatant and prominent here, with generic MOR guitars slashin’ in and out, cheesy, conventional synth lines added at every juncture, and not even a tiny sound of emotional roughness which was so suitable on songs like ‘Black Friday’ and would be suitable on ‘Josie’ a year later.

It all comes down to culminate in ‘The Fez’ – one of the most atrocious musical pieces ever set to tape by a decent band. Take this away and I’ll clench my teeth and give the album a nine; as it is, an eight seems to be a forced compromise. Yes, I understand that the utmost stupidity of the song was probably intentional: the guys have only bothered to write two lines repeated over and over again – ‘Ain’t never gonna do it without a fez on; that’s what I am, please understand, I wanna be your holy man’. If this is some kind of anti-Muslim provocation, I’m not too interested; what I am interested in is skipping the song whenever and wherever it appears on my CD player. The main synth riff that drives it, to me, personifies everything I could ever hate about mainstream braindead pop: for some reason, about a good third of the worst Russian pop music seems to have been based on endlessly recycling it. There are tons more ways of applying ‘provocative stupidity’ – just look at T. Rex’s ‘New York City’, for instance! Okay, okay, I’ve vented my frustration enough, so it’s time to talk about the rest.

Nothing on here except for ‘Fez’ really irritates me that much, but nothing is that attractive, either. I count one great song – ‘The Caves Of Altamira’, a tune about naive, romantic childish fantasies whose relaxed flow, with nicely ebbling saxes and keyboards and a driving, non-disco beat, perfectly suits the lyrics. The vocal melody is the greatest hook on here – ‘before the fall when they wrote it on the wall…’ That’s what I call a terrific resolution of the vocals-flowing problem. The song really belongs somewhere else – it would make a fine addition to Katy Lied and definitely improved its rating one point. Hey, woncha do that for me? After all, one great number still won’t save The Royal Scam of sinking to the very bottom!

Most of the other songs combine the formula ‘cynical, unconventional lyrics’ with the formula ‘bland, forgettable melody’… hmm, wasn’t that the case of the second half of Katy Lied? Oh, I forgot, it’s about the same band. I can easily tolerate the spooky ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ – a cheerful ditty about such an innocent, ordinary subject as a bookkeeper’s son who’s not gonna give up and even has a case of dynamite to defend his case. The guitarwork on there is at least a little bit impressive, and the chorus is catchy. But I can hardly tolerate mediocre dreck like ‘Sign In Stranger’ or ‘Green Earrings’, not to mention the endless, droning title track telling the saga of two unfortunate drug dealers. I don’t even know how to start describing these songs – ‘jazzy’ is too diluted a word. Completely lifeless they are, lifeless, cold and vague – but not the kind of shiver-sending ‘coldness’ you’d meet on a contemporary David Bowie record. Just dull, energy-less coldness. No hooks, either.

‘Haitian Divorce’ is at least entertaining because it’s all built on a cool synth-processed guitar – they achieve the sound that would be taken over by Pink Floyd a year later and used on ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’. But that’s where the comparison ends: on ‘Pigs’, the sound was ideally suited to the very idea of the song – the synth treatment imitated the pigs grunting; on ‘Haitian Divorce’, the tone only dissettles the reggaeish groove the band is trying to establish.

And, while the lyrical matters of ‘Everything You Did’ are absolutely shocking, even more so than ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Movies’ (a husband accuses his wife of adultery, then proceeds to force her to show all the dirty things they did), after five listens the song still doesn’t strike a bell on me. I guess it’s all a matter of desperation. The melody is way too stupid and diluted.

Let’s sum up. One great song. Two decent ones (I haven’t yet mentioned ‘Kid Charlemagne’ – an energetic enough, menacing enough opening dance number with some obscure personal critique I’ve forgotten all about already). Two so-so ones, with a few interesting elements. Three completely forgettable ones. One atrocious, friggin’ worthless piece o’ crap. You do your little mathematics if you want to waste your time, but on my wasted intuitive level that more or less equals a weak eight. Which means I’ll hardly get the urge to listen to this tomorrow. You gotta give me my due – I have patiently listened and listened to this, hoping that the magic would finally show up. It didn’t. I’m not surprised.


March 24, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan The Royal Scam |

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