Not Your Average Hit List

(*) Quote taken from the David Moore's liner notes to "Becker and Fagen: Catalyst - The Original Recordings 1968-1971" (1997).

© Charlie Ganse/ Zox for the album cover art.

© Walter Becker/Donald Fagen/ABC/Dunhill Music for the music (excerpt).

© Per A.J. Andersson for the text. Written July 2003, updated November 2011.

The Royal Scam
by Steely Dan

Steely Dan was the seminal American jazz-pop band of the '70s. Their cryptic lyrics and complex harmonies didn't produce many big hits. But the sophisticated sound and yet accessible melodic hooks brought them a name with the growing markets of album-oriented rock and jazz-fusion. And they were devoted to the studio.

— • —

The core and soul of Steely Dan has always been Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The duo met in 1967 at Bard College in up-state New York, taking part in various college bands. After school the duo tried their luck selling compositions, and for some time they were part of the backing group to vocal ensemble Jay & the Americans.

Becker and Fagen answered a magazine ad searching for a "bass guitarist and keyboard player with jazz chops". The band in need was the small bar band, led by local guitarist and college dropout Dennis Dias. Says Dias (*):

"When I heard their writing, well, I just stopped trying to write songs. Listening to Donald and Walter's songs was like hearing the Beatles with jazz chords!"

— • —

So the duo ended up not joining Dennis' bar band, he joined _their_ band. But no longer playing the usual Top 40 hits meant this band was out of business before long.

Kenny Vance of Jay & the Americans, who for years had been helping them reach somewhere with their music, then introduced Becker and Fagen to freelance record producer Gary Katz. He found interest in this "very adventurous music in the sense of chord structure and very odd vocally against those chords".

When Katz got a job for ABC Records in Los Angeles, he found an opportunity to bring Becker and Fagen with him. Beginning as songwriters, Katz soon decided a band was the most appropriate vehicle for the duo's creative efforts. He got a couple of other musicians to join in with the duo (among them their old guitarist Dennis Dias). And, signed to ABC Records, the new band Steely Dan debuted in late 1972.

— • —

The jazz leanings were apparent on this record, while the group name (taken from a dildo in a novel by William S. Burroughs) witnessed Becker's and Fagen's interest for beatnik culture. Becker-Fagen's fondness for urban cynicisms showed already on the album cover, featuring a line of prostitutes waiting for customers. Surprisingly enough the album yielded two chart hits, and the band was on a roll.

ABC suggested the band go out making concerts, which suited the two songwriters-turned-rock-group-artists badly. So after two years, three albums and an equal amount of support tours, they said that was enough of it.

From now on Steely Dan would be a studio-based band, essentially comprising of Becker and Fagen plus a number of hired studio musicians. With a reputation as jazz-pop magicians slowly building, this could indeed work. As was proven in 1977, when "Aja" became their biggest hit, reaching the Top Five within three weeks of release and becoming one of the first albums in the industry to be certified platinum.

— • —

One more album was produced before the duo in 1981 called it a quits in, partly due to Walter Becker's drug problems. Donald Fagen then produced his first solo album, the successful "The Nightfly", but soon turned to writing songs for and producing other artists. Walter Becker did likewise.

The fan base of Steely Dan didn't diminish much over the years. So eventually the group was reborn, heading out on an American tour (after some 20 years being spent in the studio!). Fagen returned with a bleak solo album and Becker made his "11 Tracks of Whack" featuring both some nice hooks and harmonies, and a good feel all around. When Steely Dan as a group finally started releasing new album material, however, the music was surprisingly dull, lacking most of the duo's earlier knack for creating memorable songs.

It was a long way from "The Royal Scam". This release from 1976 was renowned as their best "guitar album", mostly due to the terrific work of Larry Carlton. Although it didn't contain any big hit single, it fared well with the album rock radio stations.

— • —

But it sure could be felt like a gloomy record. The murky cover of a man sleeping on park bench and the "carnivorous" skyscrapers towering over him finds its match inside. The cynicism in the lyrics that was suppressed on the preceding album here comes roaring to the surface. But through cynicism comes lucidity. As the lyrics cut like razor-blades through the American dream, the terse music and sheer beauty of the tight arrangements still pierce me right to the core.

The acerbic and quirky lyrics deal with thieves and robbers, gang leaders and illegal immigrants. The irony and wit become obvious in tales of crossed marriage plans ("Haitian Divorce"), but often it's less of a story and more of an atmosphere. "The Caves of Altamira" feels almost like a remembrance of Donald Fagen's own childhood, a world he would later immerse the listener in on his solo album "The Nightfly".

And the LP ends in style. With the title tune. From its first, ominous piano chord through horn intermissions and pulsating keyboards, to the build-up of the backing vocals and some guitar work worth to kill for. Together with lyrics talking of the fate of immigrants, this to me is pristine Steely Dan. Elegance and offbeat irreverence in one go. //


(ABC, 1976)

• Kid Charlemagne
• The Caves of Altamira
• Don't Take Me Alive
• Sign In Stranger
• The Fez

• Green Earrings
• Haitian Divorce
• Everything You Did
• The Royal Scam (EXCERPT)

Compositions: W Becker, D Fagen, P Griffin
Production: Gary Katz

ALBUMS by Steely Dan
• Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
• Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
• Pretzel Logic (1974)
• Katy Lied (1975)
• The Royal Scam (1976)
• Aja (1977)
• Gaucho (1980)
• Two Against Nature (2000)
• Everything Must Go (2003)

ALBUM by Walter Becker
• 11 Tracks of Whack (1994)

• Circus Money (2008)

ALBUMS by Donald Fagen
• The Nightfly (1982)
• Kamakiriad (1993)
• Morph the Cat (2006)
• Soulful Instinct (2011)

Official Steely Dan...
The Steely Dan Internet Resource
Steely Dan Database
Andy Metzger's...
The Royal Scam
Under the Banyan Trees
The Steely Dan Webring

• The Doobie Brothers (vocal sophistication)
• Little Feat (Americana)
• Laura Nyro (urban melancholy)
• China Chrisis (elegant sophistication)
Bernard Lavilliers (bossa nova rock)
• 10cc (musical perfectionism)

Not Your Average Hit List 43 minutes... Alla är Ambition Consequences Door to Door The Dreaming Dzien i noc État d'urgence In the Spirit of Things Kaze no tani no Naushika Lights in the Night Martwa woda Nuit d'amour Once in a Million Open Door People Are Strange The Royal Scam Stationary Traveller Victim of Love Whore Music Up North Music Out West Music Far East Music Down South Films I Like a Lot Comic or Not On and Off TV About Me There's so much more out there ...