Listen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.
In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.
There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.
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. Read more