For fans it wasn’t really being “scammed”, but it wasn’t necessarily Steely Dan‘s finest moment either. They released their fifth album, The Royal Scam, this day in 1976.
By then, they were down to the core pair of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, although they as always wanted to surround themselves with talent in the studio. They enlisted their favorite producer, Gary Katz, once more and brought in 21 studio musicians to complete the record, including Elliott Randall (who’d played the memorable solo on “Reeling in the Years” awhile earlier) on guitar, Rick Marotta on drums and backing vocalists including Michael McDonald (who’d go on to help them on their later hit “Peg”) and Timothy B. Schmit, soon to join the Eagles.
They took their time recording this, as was their trademark, but unlike their previous records (not to mention the follow-up, Aja) this one lacked a standout hit. It wasn’t from a lack of trying. The compositions were well-written, the studio help top-notch, and as usual, the lyrics poetic and reflective of their varied tastes and obscure interests. There was a “Haitian Divorce”, and “The Fez” as well as a song inspired by some caves with hieroglyphics, and the not-quite-a-best-seller novel written about them. “Caves of Altamira.” And the closest thing the album had to a hit single, “Kid Charlemagne”, loosely inspired by Owlsley Stanley, a San Francisco hippie musician/producer of LSD. Which perhaps fit the album, as they would later say they made The Royal Scam “under the influence of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ‘whatever’”. Of course, not all the references in their songs were obscure; “Everything You Did” was about a couple having their problems and name-dropped The Eagles being played loud by neighbors. Glenn Frey (of the Eagles) would later say “apparently Walter Becker’s girlfriend loved the Eagles and she played them all the time. I think it drove him nuts!”
Whether too few lyrical references the public could relate to or just not a terribly great set of songs, the album stagnated commercially. It didn’t flop by any means – it became their fourth platinum one in the U.S. – and hit #15, #24 in Canada, those were less impressive numbers than their previous two records, or the one to follow-up, Aja. That might well be because they failed to lob even one song into the top 40 in North America. However, Brit ears pricked up for The Royal Scam (it was “royal” after all) and it got to #11 there and scored them their first top 30 song there, “Haitian Divorce.”
Reviews at the time were lukewarm, which rather continues to this day. Rolling Stone for example, later graded it 5-stars, but mostly praised “the rarefied capabilities of the hired studio help” who could “rock and swing all at the same time,” without particularly appreciating any of the nine songs. Allmusic give it 3.5-stars but point out it was “the first Steely Dan record that doesn’t exhibit significant progress from its predecessor” and calling it “their weakest set of songs” to that point although there was still “nothing particularly bad” on it.
Some might suggest it was their weakest cover art as well – the band themselves for instance. Becker & Fagen called it “the most hideous album cover of the ’70s”…but it nearly wasn’t their hideous cover! The work based on a Charles Ganse photo was commissioned for a Van Morrison album. But when the Irish bard shelved that particular project, Steely Dan swooped it up. No word if they were under the influence of “whatever” at the time!