Steely Dan
The Royal Scam


4.5
superb

Review

by Brendan Schroer CONTRIBUTOR (261 Reviews)
July 31st, 2021 | 20 replies


Release Date: 1976 | Tracklist

Review Summary: An absolute blast to listen to; if you enjoy funk, jazz fusion, hard rock, or progressive rock, I can’t give The Royal Scam a higher recommendation.

Part V: When "Refined" Meets "Funky"

“Kid Charlemagne”, the opening track off The Royal Scam, accomplishes more in its 4:38 runtime than many progressive rock epics do in 20 minutes. Marrying jazz rock with a slick funk sound, the track manages to be both ornately detailed and catchy as hell at the same time. And despite the fact that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote the tune, it’s guitarist Larry Carlton who leads the charge here. His lead parts - capped off with a truly showstopping solo - make for one of the most complex and impressive performances you’ll find in a pop rock song. And in just four minutes, we as the audience know what sound Steely Dan were aiming for this time around.

The Royal Scam is affectionately referred to by fans as the duo’s “guitar album”, and for damn good reason. As with previous Steely Dan releases, this one shows yet another facet of their core jazz-rock sound: guitar-driven funk. Prior records had their funky moments as well, but they were never featured quite as prominently as they were here. More importantly, as is the case with funk rock in general, the chemistry between the guitar and the rhythm section is crucial to the quality of these songs. Luckily, the lineup of guitarists featured on The Royal Scam is absolutely fantastic. There’s Larry Carlton as I previously stated, but there’s also the return of legendary Steely Dan alumni Denny Dias, Elliott Randall (remember that amazing guitar work on “Reelin’ in the Years”?), and Dean Parks. Add Walter Becker himself to the mix and you’ve got an amazing all-star cast.

But of course, they’re all used in the service of these amazing tunes. “Kid Charlemagne” might be an incredible opener, but what it really does is give us a taste of just how eclectic and crazy this record really is. Despite being more funky in nature, this might also be one of the most diverse tracklists the group ever put out; jazz, pop, funk, hard rock, progressive rock, and a hint of blues can all be found on the album. In fact, just after the opener, we get a complete change of pace with the horn-driven number “The Caves of Altamira”; the song marries a story about the genesis of creativity and expression with an arrangement that only gets more complex as it goes on. Lots of jazz, of course, but also a hint of R&B in the verses and some prog in each post-chorus. Meanwhile, “Don’t Take Me Alive” might just be one of the most hard-rockin’ Steely Dan numbers; Larry Carlton’s lead guitar work absolutely tears it up on this fast-paced number, perfectly complimenting the dark lyrics about a criminal who’s killed his own father and wants the cops to shoot him. How pleasant!

And the stylistic contrasts continue. But it’s not like any of this detracts from the cohesion and focus of the record. If anything, each song is like its own unique extension of the Steely Dan style while still very much being in the Steely Dan style. This is perhaps best represented in some of the album’s deeper cuts, most notably “Haitian Divorce” and “The Fez”. The former is a song that I never would have expected to enjoy; I’m not much of a reggae fan as it is, so I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of a Steely Dan song using rhythms and guitar leads reminiscent of the genre. And yet, it somehow works! I think the band’s infusion of jazz into the mix, as well as the haunting and melancholic chorus, are really what pull it through in the end. Those backing vocals in the chorus are just lovely, and they only make the song even darker and more atmospheric than it already was. “The Fez”, however, is an interesting experiment for the duo as well. The music covers pretty familiar funk rock rock territory, but the lyrics are quite minimalistic. “No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on; oh no!” is repeated as if it were a mantra, while the strings in the background make you feel as though you’re in a 70s cop show. Honestly, it’s fun as hell. And it culminates in the beautiful jazzy harmonies that make up the chorus.

If I had to give a label to The Royal Scam, I'd say it’s probably Steely Dan’s most “fun” album. The energetic funk-inspired sound is just a blast, and the incredible roster of amazing guitarists just makes it even more exciting. Additionally, with the lens of hindsight, you can definitely tell that it was the immediate precursor to Aja. While it’s a lot funkier and more fast-paced than its successor, The Royal Scam was even more drenched in jazz influence than its predecessors and paved the way for songs like “Black Cow” and “I Got the News”. Simply put, this album absolutely rocks and I can’t give it a higher recommendation. But if you put it on, just make sure to turn down The Eagles; the neighbors are listening!



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user ratings (307)
4.1
excellent
other reviews of this album
ValenDreth (5)
...

BurgerMcJackson (4)
A very solid album, mixing all sorts of styles into one. Straight up good, unpretentious music....



Comments:Add a Comment 
Koris
Contributing Reviewer
July 31st 2021


20823 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Oh shit, the Aja review is next in the lineup! Quite excited for that.



Anyway, this one rules. Such a fun record.



Also, this will be my last review on Sput for a while. Gotta focus on myself irl for a bit, so I won't be back for another month or two. I'll be back though :]

YoYoMancuso
Staff Reviewer
July 31st 2021


18794 Comments


great review dawg and enjoy your time away!

Gyromania
July 31st 2021


36908 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah this is a near masterpiece. Haitian Divorce is their best song

Sunnyvale
Staff Reviewer
July 31st 2021


5651 Comments


I've actually never heard this album somehow, will definitely have to check.

@DivergentThinking, hope you are well and look forward to your return!

DavidYowi
August 1st 2021


3510 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I don’t drink or use tobacco but this album makes me want to down shots of whiskey while huffing the fattest cigar. Great write up as always!

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

or just be a new yorker on the beaches of LA, same feel

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Fagen is playing this live in a few days in it's entirety, long live Steely!

MetalMarcJK
August 1st 2021


974 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Nice, twlichty! Enjoy it, and report back to us with how the show was.



Excellent album. It is the Dan’s most fun album - if we can classify it as such - but the cover art and title track are both ugly. Don’t get me wrong: TRS is a great song, but it’s just dark...ugly.



Brendan, great review! You got the gift!

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Marc - oh i wont be there unfortunately, they just announced an east coast tour,



hopefully if that goes well they'll add some west coast dates, and i'll be there

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

"cover art and title track are both ugly"



hmm, as a kid i always thought it was interesting and dark, i like it

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

rainy night in denver, love and loss in the air



Royal Scam kinda night...

twlight
August 1st 2021


8616 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I'm bumping this to 5,



Deserved

sonictheplumber
August 2nd 2021


17533 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

:D

wham49
August 3rd 2021


6341 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

dont take me alive is my jam

Koris
Contributing Reviewer
August 19th 2021


20823 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

^ Yeah, that's a damn good one

BitterJalapenoJr
Contributing Reviewer
August 28th 2021


996 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Pleasure reading your work as always Brendan. This is one of the few Dan albums I'm not familiar with. I shall rectify that immediately.

Koris
Contributing Reviewer
August 30th 2021


20823 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thank you! Definitely check it out. I think you might already recognize Kid Charlemagne though, that's one of their best-known songs

Koris
Contributing Reviewer
March 4th 2022


20823 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Haitian Divorce rules so much

Butkuiss
January 12th 2024


6553 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Some days I think this might be the best Dan and then I remember The Fez, is an anti-rawdog anthem

Butkuiss
January 12th 2024


6553 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Average Steely Dan fan listening to the Royal Scam:



https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=V9J1qBunLC0



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