The mechanised hum of another world: a comparative Steely Dan review

The mechanised hum of another world

The general consensus for nigh on 40 years has  been that Aja is Steely Dan’s greatest body of work, but I’m here to argue the corner for their album released a year previous to Aja, The Royal Scam. Aja has been so highly revered as a masterpiece of musical prowess, that it has even been included in the United States National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and has also been entered into the Grammy hall of fame. So why am I rooting for the royal scam? I intend to outline an argument as to why in this post.

A quick overview

Steely Dan were not so much a band as an ever-rotating set of bands, based around two key people. Donald Fagen, and Walter Becker. Renowned for their meticulous attention to detail, regarding every aspect of the music they moulded. From their sonic sculpting in the studio to their downright scandalous use of chordal arrangements, they crafted a sound unique unto themselves which is often imitated, but very rarely successfully. In comparison to their peers of the time such as The Eagles, Boz Scaggs, and to a lesser extent Billy Joel, they were miles ahead in their visualisation and actualisation of lyrical themes, arrangements and all around song writing.  

Lyrical content

Donald Fagens lyrics often have a scathing satire that can at first listen be off-putting to consumers. Throughout his career both with Steely Dan and his solo work, he has created his own unique lexicon littered with literary references, the band name alone is a direct reference to a strap on dildo in William Burroughs “The Naked Lunch”. So, it comes as no surprise that Fagen and Becker’s time at art school influenced their works heavily. I often think it’s Fagens nasally New Jersey accent which helps convey his caustic delivery. If we look at the opening verse to the first track on Aja titled "Black Cow".

In the corner
Of my eye
I saw you in Rudy's
You were very high
You were high
It was a cryin' disgrace
They saw your face

On the counter
By your keys
Was a book of numbers
And your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow
But where are you tomorrow

Now If we compare that to the opening verse from the opening track on The Royal Scam Titled "Kid Charlemagne".

While the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That's when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes


Instantly there are two recognizable themes in these sets of lyrics, drug use (it was the 1970s after all). But it is the lyrics from Kid Charlemagne in which Fagen is much more cryptic. The lyrics refer to 1960s LSD chemist Owsley Stanley and his exploits in the San Francisco hippy movement.  The cryptic nature of lyrics although a common tool used by Fagen, is ramped up throughout the entirety of The Royal Scam, making the album much worthier of repeated listening than Aja, you’ll find yourself returning again and again to try and decipher the meaning and overarching themes of the tracks.

Solos and session players

 If we observe the personnel used on both albums, Aja used 34 different session musicians to achieve its end goal, whereas The Royal Scam used 23. Although this is still an abnormally high number of players, it’s The Royal Scams concise placement of players which gives it the edge over Aja. Chuck Rainey and Bernard “pretty” Purdie provide the rhythm section together for all but 2 tracks on The Royal Scam, this gives the album a sonic cohesion running throughout, with Purdie’s signature half time feel pairing with Rainey’s bass tones like a cool corona on a sun-drenched July afternoon. Steely Dan are also renowned for bringing in top session players for solo work.  compare two similarly comparative solos in context and tempo, firstly Larry Carltons solo on “home at last” although very fitting for the song and technically impressive, it is Dean Parks solo on “Haitian Divorce” which is a much more stand out solo. Much more thought and reasoning has clearly been put into the tone and processing of his guitar, the use of a talk box also helps lift the solo and the track as a whole to another level. Although talk box guitar conjures up images of Peter Frampton’s blown out 10-minute blues rock jams, the recontextualization of the instrument and effect, work much more dramatically and successfully than any solo on Aja, (perhaps bar Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorters combined saxophone and drum solo on the title track).

Arrangements

 It is perhaps Steely Dan’s use of arrangement and Chordal work which is one of their most endearing features. Their deep encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz harmony and chordal structure put them a cut above their peers in the 1970s. arguably the most recognisable progression they implemented in their career was the opening chord progression in “Deacon Blues” the third track on Aja. This chord progression displays their prowess and chops, but take a similar track from The Royal Scam, “Everything you did” the chordal changes are still present and jazzy as ever but feel much more concise and timbral in relation to the song. this is a recurring happening throughout The Royal Scam and helps new listeners become accustomed to the musical forms much quicker than listening to Aja for the first time. 

Conclusion

Although Aja remains at the forefront of Steely Dans sonic legacy, The Royal Scam holds a special place not just in the bands list of works, but in  20th century popular music as a whole. For anyone interested in beginning to listen to Steely Dan, it is the bands most accessible album by far. With short concise song lengths and a more approachable tonal palette of familiar distorted guitars and soaring horns. May I also add that this is by no means attempting to put people off listening to Aja, it is a phenomenal album in its own right, but its grand stature has overshadowed The Royal Scam, which I hope I have persuaded you is the better album.

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