May 31 – Did Fans Get ‘Scam’med With This One? Probably Not…

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!

21 thoughts on “May 31 – Did Fans Get ‘Scam’med With This One? Probably Not…

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    I somewhat remember Kid Charlemagne… I just pulled up the album and I listened to Haitian Divorce…that one rings a bell also. Not my favorite album by them though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t remember any of the tracks on radio, but every SD compilation I’ve had seems to have ‘Kid Charlemagne” on it, so I somewhat know that one…but seems like no one thought it a very memorable album all in all. they got it right the next time out with ‘Aja”

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the band yet never owned the album…. if I win a powerball or something, might get it but it’s pretty far down on my “to buy” list. But probably a fairly good album nonetheless, just not near their best.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. wouldn’t that be something. I knew one guy up in Ontario who ran a record shop who managed to buy the entire inventory of LPs and EPs off a major toronto FM rock station when they went all-digital. Imagine what a gold mine something like that would have been!

        Like

      2. yep, but they still play… I once accidentally picked up a promo CD from a Brit band that had apparently been given to a radio station but ended up in a flea market sale! Whole band had signed it and it had “promo- not for resale” stickers on it… alas, it was a one-hit wonder type band not a U2 or Pink floyd type

        Like

  2. Dave. I liked this record a lot . Pull it out often. Lots of good cuts for me. The lyrics of ‘Dont Take Me Alive” is forever in y head.
    “Im a book keepers son I dont want to shoot no one .” Now you are sending me for a listen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough … funny you mention “Don’t Take Me Alive”, because I’d never heard it until maybe a month back and it suddenly was played on my wife’s playlist when we were just listening to tunes one night — I think it was like an Amazon suggests kind of song. It sounded decent enough. I think it’s likely fair to say Steely Dan didn’t put out ANY truly bad records

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep – a friend of mine who worked in radio used to say frequently “there are only two types of music – good and not good.” Of course we don’t all agree on what’s good, but it was useful in validating the idea that you could like different types of music.
        Nice game indeed! I wasn’t sure they’d pull it off, but they did. Being in Buffalo seems to have a positive effect on them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yep – while I think they could benefit from getting a good veteran catcher who can hit a bit (Mitch Garver?) to work with Jansen, all in all the offense/position players will give them a good shot of winning more games than not. It’s the pitching that’s the achilles heel… need at least one more good starting pitcher and maybe a real good lefty in the bullpen still to really have a good chance in October I think

        Liked by 2 people

      3. well, he has great potential but right now he’s on the 60 day IL and will probably take a bit of time to rehab back into shape. I’d rather see him have rest of the year in minors to get some more experience and look at him maybe being the regular guy next year… though I would put him on the field ahead of McGuire if he was available.

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s