The Royal Scam was released almost exactly 33 years ago. It is, in my opinion, the best Steely Dan album. Maybe I feel that way because it’s the band’s most guitar-oriented effort, thanks in no small measure to the contributions from jazz-guitar great Larry Carlton. The music started to get pretty smooth for Steely Dan after The Royal Scam. Although I really enjoy their next album, Aja, it’s clear that some of the edge is gone, musically speaking. And when the edge went away, mainstream success arrived.
As is always the case with Steely Dan records, The Royal Scam is beautifully recorded, with longtime partner Gary Katz on board as producer. In addition to mainstays Donald Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Walter Becker on bass, and Carlton, there is a very impressive lineup of musicians, including drummers Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta, bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarists Dean Parks, Elliot Randall, and Denny Dias, and background vocalists Michael McDonald and Tim Schmit. Add a handful of great songs to the stew that these musicians created, and you pretty much have the perfect storm.
The album gets off to a great start with my favorite Dan song, “Kid Charlemagne.” Despite the dark nature of the lyrics, loosely inspired by the life of acid chemist Owsley Stanley, the music is joyous, and Carlton’s guitar solos are simply astonishing. When I’m asked to name the best guitar solos ever, Carlton’s work on this song is at the top of my list.
The wonderfully melodic “Caves of Altimira” follows, before giving way to a sinister tale of murder and obsession, “Don’t Take Me Alive,” which is once again distinguished by Carlton’s fine guitar work. Side A closes with “Sign In Stranger,” which is something of a precursor to what we’d be hearing more of on future Steely Dan records in the sense that its jazz influence is more pronounced, followed by side-closer “The Fez” (“I’m never gonna do it without the fez on”), which is just downright funny.
The skittish, deeply funky “Green Earrings” opens Side B, followed by the sadly humorous, reggae-influenced “Haitian Divorce.” After “Everything You Did,” we get the title track, and in many ways, the whole album has been leading up to this epic tale of the migration of Puerto Rican people to the U.S. It’s an amazing achievement.
When The Royal Scam first appeared CDs didn’t exist, so my first experience of the album was on vinyl. As the years went by, CDs came along and made the whole listening experience more perfect, more sterile. I don’t think music is supposed to be perfect, and I’m sure it’s not supposed to be sterile. Steely Dan has long been accused of smoothing out all the rough edges. Finding this vinyl copy of their best album reminded me that there was a time when the band still had grit.