Listen to this track by jazz-rock pseuds and sly cultural commentators Steely Dan. It’s “The Royal Scam”, the title track of their 1976 LP The Royal Scam. The song would close the set of that record, and arguably also close a phase in the career of a by-then studio bound band. They’d stopped touring two years before this, and would go even deeper into that artistic head space by their next record, the highly celebrated and meticulously wrought Aja the following year.
The Royal Scam catches them at the tail-end of their more straight-ahead rock as informed by jazz incarnation, but with some of the sonic edges still apparent on the tracks. This was a sound that can be easily identified in early hits like “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years”. It was developed completely by the time of 1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy and on through to this record, filtered through bassist/guitarist Walter Becker’s and singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen’s love of jazz, and jazz arrangement.
All the while, their songs had been lyrically populated by a pantheon of colourful American characters, from spoiled celebrity’s kids, to pretentious debutantes, to self-obsessed rich guys dabbling in eastern religions, to affable drug dealers. Each character was a part of a landscape that helped to make a subtle comment on society, but without being too earnest or moralistic about it. Mostly, listeners were meant to engage with the irony and sardonic humour underneath the lyrics, of which there is plenty to be had.
But, this song is different.
Steely Dan divides rooms among music fans. This may be in part because their sound is erroneously lumped into that soft, smooth yacht rock sub-genre to be played by baby boomer yuppies at dinner parties. While the latter point may or may not be true across the board, the thing that makes the ‘Dan something of a subversive act is that a great deal of their material is about the shallowness of that culture, and the often blinkered attitudes of that particular social set. This added a whole new level of irony as champagne glasses made the requisite clinking sounds, car keys rattled in bowls, and as the Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian made the rounds.
But, on this song, that subtle, irony-soaked approach to social commentary isn’t what we’re hearing, although it would be no less ironic as played at some posh soiree. This song deals with an entirely different subset of American life; the immigrant. Specifically, this is a narrative about Puerto Rican immigrants, straight from the city of St. John (that’s San Juan, of course) coming to New York City, lured as they are by the prospect of a new and prosperous life in the land of opportunity.
What they encounter instead is a world of seediness and indignity. This is a place where climbing the social ranks isn’t as straight-forward as they thought, with poverty and fear being the order of the day instead of the prosperity and security that had expected.
In this song, all they trade is a sunny climate for a “savage winter” in the end, while ” the tale is told by the old man back home/He reads the letter how they are paid in gold, Just to babble in the back room all night and waste their time “. The Royal Scam then continues to be perpetuated for others who dream of a land of opportunity far away, and come “without a dime” in search of it.
This is not a pretty picture of the American Dream, belonging as it does in the same space as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” as a myth that promises much, and delivers quite the opposite. Usually, the thing that had typified Steely Dan’s music had been a sort of hip and detached attitude that doesn’t really take any one side over another even if there is a serious societal question being raised between the lines of the songs. Just as often, the melodies in Dan tunes often work in contrast to the lyrics.
Here on “The Royal Scam”, even the music matches the grim tone of the song’s narrative. It’s full of minor chords held down by Fagen, and augmented by guitarist Larry Carlton’s foreboding guitar lines, Bernard Purdie’s melodically sympathetic drumming, and the powerful, lamenting backing vocals from studio stalwarts Venetta Fields and Clydie King underscore the point. The dueling muted trumpets from Chuck Findley and Bob Findley sound like human voices, stuck right in the middle of the drama. All of these musical elements give it an emotional undercurrent that singles it out among the band’s work before or since.
To me, even the cover of the album of which this song is the title track is telling of a certain view of what America has been to many people; sleeping rough while the towers of modern progress stare balefully and hungrily down. It’s perhaps not an accident that this song was released during the Bicentennial year of 1976, a time of celebration, yet also one that got many people thinking about what it means to dream about coming to America versus what it’s like to actually live there as an immigrant from a third world country. This dichotomy of thought is still very relevant today, in a time where many of these people are still being looked upon by many as the natural underclasses at best, or resource-stealing societal parasites at worst.
This song may be the most direct in the entire catalogue of the band, typified by an ingredient that isn’t seen very often in their music: empathy.
After a hiatus by the early ’80s, and a very successful comeback as a touring entity in 1993, Steely Dan are an active concern today. In more recent tours, The Royal Scam album has been performed in its entirety, along with other key albums in their catalogue.
They’re still led by Becker and Fagen, although currently sidelined in favour of solo projects, including Fagen’s most recent album Sunken Condos.