|Steely Dan - The Royal Scam|
|5am, a freeway ramp, mist on the river, Steely Dan...|
|That's the image imprinted on my mind for the year of 1976. I was writing a book at the time, my hours were my own, I had a saxophone I couldn't work properly and some friends in town who had a copy of "The Royal Scam".|
This was the scene... A small city in Australia (not far from Muswellbrook). The Montreal Olympics were showing on TV through the night. This seems incredibly mundane now, but back then it the first time they'd given us dusk-to-dawn TV programming. One of the other TV stations ran a parallel all-night movie feast to try to get some ratings back from the channel with the Olympics, so we had *two* all night TV channels to choose from.
I had a white 1966 Hillman with a wooden dash and red seats. I would finish writing about 10 in the evening and head into the city. No-one on the roads. Silent except for the hissing tyres on the black bitumen, silver trees in the streetlights, pocket parks with black shadows, cops cruising in late model falcons and the big machinery smell of the rail goods yard.
She was a writer and he was a painter. They had a flat on the top floor of a three-storey building looking down over the inner-city parks and the city and the river beyond.
They had a battered coffee percolator, a beaten looking aluminium jug with a glass stopper and an endless supply of coffee (for reasons I can't go into here, it was fine Central American).
Coffee on the stove and Gauloises, Gitanes, or the really strong French cigarettes it was almost impossible to get -- Celtique -- which were so fat and round with dense, black tobacco it looked like they were going explode in your hands.
The boiling water forced through the strange chambers of that aluminium percolator started lapping and bubbling against the glass stopper, clear at first like a mountain stream then darkening as those mortally wounded beans gave up their life essence.
We took coffee into the front room to listen to Steely Dan and look at the day's work painting and writing.
Is there a better smell in the world than the smell of fresh oil paint and ideas? I don't think so.
The movies were black and white. Appropriate, since the TV was black and white. Strictly speaking, it was orange plastic, but the pictures were black and white. We had line of sight to the TV towers on the hills across the city to the west, so the picture was perfect. No static at all.
So many movies through the night and most of them with Robert Mitchum. He drifted through that tiny black-and-white world like a sleep-walker, always getting the girl and sometimes submitting them to strange rituals. And to accompany those pictures, always the soundtrack of Steely Dan.
I think "The Royal Scam" must be the dark favourite of the true Steely Dan fan. It has it all -- the mythologising, the complex chords, the irresistible chorus hooks, the guitar artistry, the precision and control. "The Royal Scam" was Becker and Fagan at the height of their writing powers -- not that they didn't go on to achieve more and build on what they'd laid down on this record, but this was where they shifted into high gear. I think the success of AJA was due to the momentum of the albums before it as much as its uncanny dovetailing with the needs of a new phenomenon -- high-fidelity stereo radio. This is borne out by the sales of their back catalogue all through the '80s and into the '90s.
In "The Royal Scam" there was everything from their earliest songs (The Caves of Altamira, dating from the demo days) to the new, dark, complex jazz mystery of The Royal Scam itself; throwaway lines that scorch the 70s like a brand -- "Turn up the Eagles/ The neighbours are listening"; and their signature, self-contained short stories of the bizarre, Hiatian Divorce, Sign in Stranger...
Kid Charlemagne always made us feel we were out in the hallway ourselves, our feet skittering out from underneath us. Maybe *we* were the "people down the hall". Denny Dias was apparently so astounded by Fagan singing "Yes there's gas in the car" he sprang right out of his favourite armchair. How could you listen to Kid Charlemagne in an armchair? The line that haunts me is "you crossed a diamond with a pearl/ And turned it on the world / that's when you turned the world around". The same could be said for combining the talents of Becker and Fagen. But their world wasn't about to fall apart and fade away, well not yet, anyway.
It's hard to imagine Larry Carlton playing loud nasty guitar until you hear the opening of Don't Take Me Alive which follows the beautifully twisted horn arrangements of The Caves of Altimira. Becker and Fagen don't play a note on Don't Take Me Alive, further evidence that they must have been at the height of their powers, confident in their ability to extract exactly what they wanted from the stellar array of session players.
Sign in Stranger is a wonderful fusion of jazz and rock without being jazz-rock. With one foot in Ellingtonia and the other in their own peculiar brand of bump-and-grind American rock.
Interesting Fact: Discounting Book of Liars, which wasn't on a Steely Dan Album, the source of the songs on the Live in America recording is as follows:
30 per cent - The Royal Scam
30 per cent - AJA
20 per cent - Gaucho
10 per cent - Katy Lied
10 per cent - Can't Buy A Thrill
This should tell us something. Well for a start, since it yielded up so many songs that could be played live it completely scotches the theory that "The Royal Scam" was a bloated studio-only album. The reason so many players were used and the arrangements so meticulous was simply that Becker and Fagen knew exactly what they wanted and were prepared to take the time to get it. They had the idea that to make something that lasts, you have to put the effort in. And they've been proved right.
It also tells us that Becker and Fagen liked these songs from "The Royal Scam" -- a lot. So do I.
Considering the air of mystery that surrounds Steely Dan lyrics, usually a result of deleting from their songs the boring bits which would have fleshed out the stories they were telling, it came as a bit of a disappointment to realise what "The Fez" was about. It might be goofy but I prefer the idea of a deviant Don Juan who will not take off his turkish hat to a paean on the virtues of prophylaxis. The Fez would have to be the oddest disco song of all time, both lyrically and musically. Paul Griffin is credited as co-writer, the only time Becker and Fagen ever shared writing credits.
Green Earrings is one of those songs that no doubt countless song writers would attempt, with its one-word lines, but which probably only Becker and Fagen could carry off. Elliott Randall's increasingly deranged solo to finish the song is a revelation.
Haitian Divorce is a true story. Studio engineer Elliot Scheiner made the trip to Haiti to obtain a legal divorce around that time. Becker and Fagen thought it was crazy enough to put into a song and maybe they were also looking for something that gave them an excuse to use a reggae feel and to put Dean Parks' guitar through a voice box.
Brian Sweet notes in his book "Reelin' in the Years" that Fagen denied any vendetta against the Eagles, who they used in the song Everything You Did to typify the stultifying West Coast suburban lifestyle. He reports Fagen as saying "Oh no. We enjoy their music very much, we think they're swell." Later he referred to them as "The White Drifters".
The song The Royal Scam, which for me became inextricably interwoven with the imagery of the cover art, was a sign of things to come. More than any other song before, it could have nestled in among any of the other cuts on AJA or Gaucho. To me, this song proved the impossible could be achieved -- here was a piece of music and a page of lyrics that together, never goes stale.
It was with this song still in my head that I would finish the last Celtique, the dregs of the last coffee, and watch the last credits roll up over Robert Mitchum's last scene. "See the glory of, see the glory of, the Royal Scam." Drive down through the city, between the city parks, down the deserted city streets in the grey light of the false dawn and onto the free-way ramp that swung out through the mist that came up the river in the cold morning.