The Royal Scam

The Royal Scam

There’s a great moment in the 2005 web series Yacht Rock in which two actors playing the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Henley huddle around a record player listening to Steely Dan’s 1976 album The Royal Scam. “That’s really good music,” Frey says through gritted teeth. “Shh, listen,” Henley says. “Is that dark sarcasm?” The joke wasn’t just about Steely Dan playing the inscrutable nerds to the Eagles’ good-time, California jocks. It also poked fun at the idea that, buried in the folds of Steely Dan’s luxurious jazz-rock grooves, was a truth too awful to make explicit without risking the band members’ careers. The Royal Scam featured the tensest, most dreadful songs Steely Dan had recorded at that point—but also some of the most polished, elevating noir tales of desperate people in tight squeezes to almost mythological status (“The Royal Scam,” “Haitian Divorce”). Was “Kid Charlemagne” an allegory for the lost innocence of the psychedelic era? Was “The Fez” about a guy reaching for a condom before a sleazy rendezvous? Here was a world almost entirely without heroes—unless you count the kid on “Don’t Take Me Alive” having a moment of clarity while strapped with dynamite in a room filled with hostages: “I know what I’ve done/I know all at once who I am.” It’s a bleak scene. But you can also feel the band’s empathy for the “Don’t Take Me Alive” kid—or, at least, their willingness to give him the time of day nobody else could spare. As much as The Royal Scam informed the jazz-rock and adult contemporary sound of the 1970s and 1980s, the album’s spirit and vivid sense of detail live on in everything from the urban noir of Biggie’s Ready to Die and Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… to the indie-folk of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Much like Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, those chroniclers of the downtrodden didn’t redeem the cheats, addicts, and generally untrustworthy people that populated their songs, but they did give them a few minutes to exist free from the fate they know is coming, whether they like it or not. Sure, life’s a bitch, and then you die—but on The Royal Scam, Steely Dan proved that, before that happens, you might as well get a song out of it.

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