[Only the real Steely Dan fans listen hard enough to] know that "Reelin' In The Years" is as venomous as [Bob Dylan's] "Positively Fourth Street," or that "Do It Again" is a very black little tale about a born loser, or that "King Of The World" is, in fact, about the end of civilisation.
These are dark, even bitter, themes, and it's the special irony of this, the most ironic of rock groups, that their glossy musicianship should be a lick of paint upon a nest of Chinese boxes, in which moves intact a world so enigmatic and different in mood from the sunny image of hit-makers. Surely the disparity between their intentions and their reception by an audience is quietly enjoyed by Steely Dan's principals and cosongwriters, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, for this world of theirs is as cynical as it's brilliantly observed, a world in which they can sing, on "Black Friday," a song about a stock market crash,… or, in "With A Gun," outrageously set a jaunty, Beatlesque tune to a lyric about a psychopath.
Fagen and Becker show remarkable nerve and intelligence in their writing, which has a literary quality of coolness and detachment quite unusual in rock bands, but whose low-profile has also turned off or eluded some critics who, as American writer Robert Christgau once perceived, feel that art is dictated by Self-Expression and autobiographical imperatives. Steely Dan, on the contrary, have revealed practically nothing about themselves….
It's tempting to speculate that the paradoxes in their work have been influenced by the fact that they are from the East Coast but now resident in California…. It might also be conjectured that their music has something of the West Coast bounce, while their lyrics retain the intellectual approach of an East Coast upbringing; their second album, in fact, "Countdown To Ecstasy," was rooted in their adolescent experiences at Bard College in New York.
I believe for sure, however, that Steely Dan have made more consistently interesting records than any other rock group in the past four years, although this approval is not unstinted. Occasionally their lyrics have been so self-contained as to be disingenuous—mere private references that might work for the Dylan, say, of "Blonde On Blonde"/"Highway 61 Revisited", where the author positively invites the unbridled fantasies of his listeners, but which seem spurious within a body of work so generally controlled and economical. Yet riddles and mind-games are so obviously, and tantalisingly, a part of their writing that one eventually becomes a willing accomplice in the pursuit of their meaning, even when, one suspects in some cases, there is nothing definite….
On "The Royal Scam," therefore, it's hardly surprising that questions should be posed right from the cover, which shows a drawing of a man in an overcoat asleep on the top of a radiator as he dreams of tall skyscrapers surmounted by the giant heads of a lizard, a puma, a bat and some prehistoric animal. He's not quite a tramp, because there's a crease in his trousers and his shirt-cuffs are recognisable, and yet there's a large hole in one shoe. Someone well-to-do now down on his luck, no doubt, and oppressed in his dreams by the ferocity of the City—an interpretation partly supported by the title track itself, with its mysterious tale of foreigners from some unnamed country arriving in New York, and their eventual descent "to the bottom of a bad town amid the ruins." The measured, martial music keeps in step with the ominous inevitability of their fortunes, just as the pay-off in the chorus line ("see the...
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glory of the Royal Scam" …) ironically suggests that they are the victims of some duplicity. But Fagen and Becker resist being more specific, and the album, which is closed by this track, leaves us suspended and fascinated by its great enigma.
Most of "The Royal Scam," however, has relatively straightforward, if ingenious, lyrics….
Title song to the contrary, "The Royal Scam" is, if anything, more lyrically accessible than "Katy Lied," their previous record, which is the least melodically distinguished of all Steely Dan albums (though it contains two of their greatest songs in "Black Friday" and "Doctor Wu"). I wouldn't wish to say whether it's better than the other four. That's not a relevant question for me. Steely Dan records don't compete with each other, they co-exist. But I will say that I'm playing it to death.
And, of course, the listener doesn't have to delve into the lyrics. You can just tap your foot.
M.W., in a review of "Royal Scam," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), May 8, 1976, p. 24 [the excerpt from Walter Becker's and Donald Fagen's lyrics used here was taken from "The Royal Scam" (© copyright 1976, 1978 by Duchess Music Corporation, New York, NY: used by permission; all rights reserved)].