Steely Dan has been credited (or blamed or chastised) for creating the fusion jazz sound. This is not entirely accurate. They only have one album heavily infused by jazz, Aja, their sixth and most popular. Most of their work is pure rock and roll. Like many bands, Steely Dan met in college. The two main guys, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met at Bard College in New York State in 1968 in a cafe called The Red Balloon. They formed many bands together. Believe it or not, one of the bands feature the comedian Chevy Chase on drums. After graduating they moved to Brooklyn and started working in the music industry writing songs and music for low budget films and even some big stars like Barbra Streisand. ABC records didn't know what to do with them because they kept coming up with music that was too complex for anything they had, so they urged them to form a band. They got the name Steely Dan from William S. Burroughs novel The Naked Lunch. In the novel, a Steely Dan III from Yokohama is a strap-on dildo. They have had many musicians matriculating in and out of the band but mostly it has been these two guys.
The Royal Scam, their fourth album, is my favorite of theirs and when I ranked my favorite 100 albums (see list below), it came up as #47. It is the most guitar heavy of their albums and a concept album. You don't hear the term concept album very much anymore because people buy individual songs now and it is usually only older people like me that are buying entire albums. The Royal Scam could easily be called "the American dream and other really big lies." It is scattered with songs about immigrants, oddballs and people down on their luck getting screwed-over and turning to the underworld for survival. The album cover features a man in a suit sleeping uncomfortably on what appears to be a radiator or a bench possibly in a bus station; he is dreaming about skyscrapers turning into beasts. If I remember correctly the album back cover had a close-up on the hole in his shoe. No doubt, the album cover is allusion to the theme of the album.
"Kid Charlemagne" is the opening track and it is loosely based on the rise and fall of San Francisco chemist Owlsey Stanley who was the LSD supplier to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. The first stanza is about Stanley on top of the world due to his skill of making pure acid:
"Just by chance you crossed
the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That's when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus?"
The second stanza is about his fame and his link to the Merry Pranksters: "Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home / Every A-Frame had your number on the wall." By stanza three, the party is over: "Son you were mistaken. You are obsolete" and by the fourth stanza they are running from the law worrying if there is enough gas in the car. All of this is surrounded by one of the best guitar jams in rock history with guest fusion jazz guitarist Larry Carlton getting props from Rolling Stone magazine. The song makes their 100 best guitar rock songs list coming in at #80.
"The Caves of Altimira" is the only positive song on the album about a boy discovering the famous Caves of Altimira in northern Spain. He sees the cave painting by candlelight and their simplicity and beauty open the world up for him.
"Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall
When there wasn't even any Hollywood
They heard the call
And they wrote it on the wall
For you and me, we understood"
He is in the dark being save by the prehistoric picture of a sun. Quite poetic.
"Don't Take Me Alive" is a sharp contrast to the previous song. It is about a guy name Mad Dog who is held up, surrounded by cops and he has a case of dynamite. We don't know how he got there but we know that he crossed his father, a bookkeeper, back in Oregon.
"Where no sun is shining
No red light are flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I've done
I know all at once who I am"
Unlike the boy in the cave, it is darkness that allows him to discover himself, all too late I am afraid.
"Sign in Stranger" is a science fiction rock and roll song; no wait, it is a song about a gangster ...um, okay, maybe it's both. As a kid, Donald Fagen wrote sci-fi so the first stanza is a throw back to those days. It about a planet named Mizar Five where people have to "shout to stay alive." This is a planet of gangsters and they have the ability to give you a new identity. Admittedly, I have no idea what is going in this song, but I love the piano jam.
"The Fez" is a short sweet song about a guy and his condom. "Ain't never going to do it without the fez on .... Please understand/I want to be your holy man." That is most of the lyrics right there. It is just a fun song. The fez in this case is not a Moroccan hat, but a condom.
"Green Earrings," like "The Fez" is a vague song without a lot of lyrics. The narrator recalls a woman and her green earrings. He likes the earrings more than her, so he steals them. All he remembers about her is "the look in her eyes" but he doesn't mind. He's an egomaniac. In the Kung Fu youtube clip above, they perform both of these songs segued into each other. On a CD they actually play back to back, but on an album, the medium I grew up with, you'd have to get up and flip sides in between songs. These songs sound great together. They are the lightness of a fairly dark album.
"The Haitian Divorce" is about a couple named Babs and Clean Willy. "Babs and Clean Willy were in love they say/So in love the preacher's face turned red." They get married then they fight and end up in Haiti for a quick divorce. After the divorce Babs drowns her sorrows at a bar and ends up having a one night stand with a Haitian. She gets back together with Clean Willy in the states and have a baby. Surprise! The baby isn't his ... "Who's this kinky so-and-so?"
"Everything You Did" is about an argument between a couple. The narrator's partner has hidden something from him and now he wants to know. He caught her with a lover. "Where did the bastard run" is the first line in the song, but he wants to know everything. He wants to know in detail really, he is a voyeur not a jealous lover. That is what he's angry about, she is hiding the sordid detrails from him.
"The Royal Scam" is the magnum opus of the album and the title track. This is very common in rock albums of this era, like Bruce's "Jungle Land" on Born to Run, The Eagles' "Last Resort" on Hotel California or Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" on Piano Man. They are the last song on the album; they are longer songs, usually one of the best songs on the album and quite serious ... and definitely not a hit song. Scam is about some Puerto Rican immigrants coming to New York City with starry eyes only to be greeted with a harsh reality and getting swallowed up by organized crime. The middle verse might be one of the most poignant and beautiful verse written in rock and roll:
"They are hounded down
To the bottom of a bad town
Amidst the ruins.
Where they learn to fear
An angry race of fallen kings
Their dark companions
While their memory of
Their southern sky was clouded by
A savage winter
Every patron saint
Hung on the wall, shared the room
With twenty sinners"
However awful his experience in America, the third stanza tells how the narrator of the song tells a different story in his letters home. The first and the last sentence of the song are the same forming a circle "They wandered in from the city of Saint John without a dime." The cycle continues. The myth of America is a lie but it is a hopeful lie that we need. Immigrants continue to come with hope and are eaten up by the city.
All the songs on this album stand alone as great songs, but like most of the great rock albums of the 1970's, you really should listen to them in order. It is like a great movie, you could probably watch the scenes out of order if you knew it well enough, but why would you do that? These songs were put in this order for a reason. Collectively, it is not a story but a tone. It is full of darkness, but it gives you great release via guitar and piano by master musicians.
Here is the list of my top 100 albums:
My 100 Favorite Albums:
#1 Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
#2 Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan
#3 The Wall by Pink Floyd
#4 Captain Fantastic and Brown Dirt Cowboy by Elton John
#5 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band by The Beatles
#6 Ziggy Stardust and the Spider's from Mars by David Bowie
#7 The Poet Game by Greg Brown
#8 Summer's Teeth by Wilco
#9 The Native Americans by Robbie Robertson
#10 Home by Spearhead
#11 Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
#12 Yoshimi and the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips
#13 Harvest Moon by Neil Young
#14 Odelay by Beck
#15 Hunky Dory by David Bowie
#16 Desire by Bob Dylan
#17 Zepplin II by Led Zepplin
#18 LA Woman by the Doors
#19 Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco
#20 Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young
#21 The Final Cut by Pink Floyd
#22 I'm Your Man by Leonard Cohen
#23 Who's Next by The Who
#24 New York by Lou Reed
#25 Days of Future Past by Moody Blues
#26 Rain Dogs by Tom Waits
#27 The Low Spark of High Heels Boys by Traffic
#28 The Soft Parade by the Doors
#29 Aqualung by Jethro Tull
#30 Moving Pictures by Rush
#31 Terrapin Station by The Grateful Dead
#32 The Night Fly by Donald Fagen
#33 Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen
#34 Station to Station by David Bowie
#35 Beggar's Banquet by The Rolling Stones
#36 Breakfast in America by Supertramp
#37 Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan
#38 Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
#39 Everybody Knows This is Nowhere by Neil Young
#40 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
#41 Cure for Pain by Morphine
#42 I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got by Sinead O'Connor
#43 Rift by Phish
#44 déjà vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
#45 Prolonging the Magic by Cake
#46 Become You by The Indigo Grils
#47 The Royal Scam by Steely Dan
#48 Animals by Pink Floyd
#49 Abbey Road by The Beatles
#50 Aja by Steely Dan
#51 I'm the Man by Joe Jackson
#52 Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan
#53 Comfort Eagle by Cake
#54 Diamond Dogs by David Bowie
#55 Greetings from Asbury Park by Bruce Springsteen
#56 Stop Making Sense by The Talking Heads
#57 Gimme Fiction by Spoon
#58 Bachelor #2 by Aimee Mann
#59 Titanic by Jim's Big Ego
#60 Pale Sun Crescent Moon by Cowboy Junkies
#61 Document by REM
#62 US3 by US3
#63 Making Movies by Dire Straits
#64 Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
#65 Red Dirt Girl by Emmy Lou Harris
#66 Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens
#67 American Idiot by Green Day
#68 August and Everything After by the Counting Crows
#69 52nd Street by Billy Joel
#70 Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell
#71 Meddle by Pink Floyd
#72 War by U2
#73 Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen
#74 Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John
#75 Train Home by Chris Smither
#76 Secret Samadhi by Live
#77 Graceland by Paul Simon
#78 Drag Queens and Limousines by Mary Gauthier
#79 Drum Hat Buddha by Dave Carter and Tracey Grammar
#80 Turnstyles by Billy Joel
#81 Not for Kids Only by Jerry Garcia
#82 Work by Dan Bern
#83 Modern Times by Bob Dylan
#84 Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull
#85 Play by Moby
#86 Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd
#87 Naturally by JJ Cale
#88 John Barley Corn Must Die by Traffic
#89 Shakedown Street the Grateful Dead
#90 Tenacious D by Tenacious D
#91 Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
#92 Elton John by Elton John
#93 At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash
#94 The Innocent, The Wild and the E Street Shuffle by Bruce Springsteen
#95 Night and Day by Joe Jackson
#96 The Crane Wife by The Decemberists
#97 Fragile by YES
#98 Hotel California by The Eagles
#99 Ten by Pearl Jam
#100 After the Gold Rush by Neil Young