Crime is the unusual concept behind Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam

The Royal Scam album focuses on crimeI miss concept albums. We digest music primarily piecemeal now. It used to be a joy to contemplate how songs interrelated and supported one another. That was one way pop music took itself to another level. Steely Dan’s 1976 The Royal Scam was one of the most unusual concept albums. The subject matter made it unusual: crime. Steely Dan was not the kind of band that typically produced concept albums, either, although certain themes might loosely play out through several songs on an album.

Drug Dealers, Thieves and Fugitives

“Kid Charlemagne” describes a successful West Coast drug dealer. “Every A-frame had your number on the wall,” sings Donald Fagen. Then the tide turns. He loses popularity, and by the final verse it’s time to clean the mess up and flee.

The hard-edged “Don’t Take Me Alive” features a fugitive holed up in a standoff. He crossed his old man—exactly how we’re not told—and has fled with a case of dynamite. He describes a darkness inside himself. He knows what he has done. Perhaps hounded by ridicule, he has been driven to this desperate situation. We get clues but no specifics. The title suggests it will end badly.

The lead character in “Green Earrings” is an unrepentant thief. “I remember the look in your eyes—I don’t mind.” The verse and chorus are built on alternating chromatic chord clusters that create a wonderful dissonance for the lyrics.

“Sign In Stranger” describes a lawless outpost, ostensibly on another planet named Mizar Five. No policemen patrol there, and you can erase your past no matter what you’ve done. Steely Dan often uses somewhat obscure references, as in this case the phrase “collecting Turkish union dues.” I didn’t understand until years later that this refers to extortion.

Adultery

Although no longer a crime, adultery is a serious matter that factors into other crimes or divorce. “Haitian Divorce” and “Everything You Did” both explore this theme, but from different perspectives. A reggae beat appropriately undergirds “Haitian Divorce.” After heated arguments with her spouse, a wife decamps to the Caribbean for a one-night stand. Nine months after her “tearful reunion” with her husband, however, the evidence of that encounter returns when the mixed-race baby arrives. In “Everything You Did,” Fagen embodies a cuckolded lover who knows all. Or is it just paranoia? He threatens to get a gun. Another argument ensues. My favorite line features “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.” The song ends with the threat of rape: “Now you’re gonna do me everything you did, baby.”

Songs That Don’t Fit the Crime Concept

The cryptic lyrics in “The Fez” are hard to decipher. What exactly does “I’m never gonna do it without my fez on” mean? Most people instinctively feel it refers to sex, which is a safe bet. I encountered a discussion chain in which someone claimed to have heard Fagen explain in an interview that “fez” was a euphemism for condom. In any event, this song clearly does not fit within the overall concept.

Another song, “The Caves of Altamira,” doesn’t quite fit with the crime concept either. It’s an earlier, unpublished song that Steely Dan re-worked for the album. (See “Steely Dan’s Caves of Altamira: before and after” for my post discussing the metamorphosis of this song.) The song talks about the paleolithic artist who produced the cave drawings in Spain. Fagen tells how the cave art predates man’s fall from the Garden of Eden. The urge to make art and tell stories “when there wasn’t even any Hollywood” is an ancient impulse. In one sense, this could be a commentary on the album’s overall story-telling.

“The Royal Scam” ends the album with a tale of disillusionment. Poor immigrants arrive in New York City from the city of St. John, a “sunny island.” This could refer to St. John in the Virgin Islands, which would be an apt metaphor to describe the newcomers, or perhaps to San Juan in Puerto Rico. But reality betrays the promise of jobs and success in America. As one interpretation puts it, they end up cordoned off in a ghetto and driven to addiction. “By the blackened wall he does it all,” sings Fagen. The crime here is not literal, but metaphorically the scam that betrays the immigrant dream.

8 Comments

  1. Possibly the most intricate and interesting rock album of them all. Never forget the first time I bought this album in 76 and listened from Kid Charlemagne to the Royal Scam on a Sunday afternoon. Blown away.
    Then recorded Larry Carlton’s guitar solos on a reel to reel at 7.5 and slowed them down to chart all the notes at 1 7/8 playback two octaves down. Never quite covered Carlton’s magic, but they liked it in the pubs.
    High-water mark of rock before drifting down to the 80’s, IMO.

  2. This album came out my freshman year of college and it almost ruined me. All I could think about was getting some bud, putting the headphones on, and losing myself in a world that seemed very syrange and exotic.

    I try not to limit my interest in music to what I liked as a young person, but I do periodically revisit this album–which is probably my favorite SD.

    Appreciate your analysis. Fagan/Becker can seem be obtuse at times–at least I know know the meaning of Turkish union dues!

    As time goes by I have a massive amount of respect of what was accomplished by young men in their late twenties (mostly) here. Great music that I wonder if we’ll ever see the likes of again.

  3. The Royal Scam is about the repopulation of The States with whites posing as the Royals while destroying the indigenous population of copper colored rulers. The world is not what we think. Architecture all over the world proves this. The States were actually populated before Europe originally. Europe was mostly black ruled as well, and Africa was white. Blacks were relocated there. Cheque your history. This is not a race thing, I’m white…

  4. This was Steely Dan’s last album before Aja, and the change in music-making that entailed: more horn arrangements, jazzy-influenced compositions, and frankly, less emphasis on the guitar solo. Peter Griffin’s piano on Sign in Stranger, Larry Carlton’s guitar in Kid Charlamagne, his guitar also to start Don’t Take Me Alive and Walter Becker’s bass on The Fez are highlights for me. Lyrically, certain lines have stayed with me for years since I had the greatest hits Double LP in the late 70’s. “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car!” “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening!”

    As a child of the 70s rock, I am indeed enamored with the concept album, though I never really thought of The Royal Scam as a concept album. Perhaps The Wall was the most damaging of them all. As an adolescent, it felt like The Wall was an invitation to darkness. Supper’s Ready was like redemption out of that darkness. Perhaps my favourite concept album of all time is Wish You Were Here, bookended by Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

  5. I never used to think of The Royal Scam as a concept album, either–certainly not during the years when I frequently listened to it after it came out. It was only more recently, reflecting on Steely Dan’s body of work, that I made the connection between the lyrics in each song. Sly devils!

  6. Steely Dan’s concept album would not follow any of the convention of, say, prog rock, so I’ll give them that. I guess it doesn’t feel like a concept album to me because of the lack of musical, as opposed to lyrical, connection between the songs. Even the first two The Cars albums were conceptual in how the songs kept within a whole beat between songs, and this is the secret of the maddening listenability of the first one and Candy-O. So in that sense I feel the concept that can turn a set of songs into a side that you could stack and play with all your other sides on your record player.

    The album cover for the Royal Scam did even fold out for the cool art to stare at while the music plays. Right? I sold all my albums in 1987 for a song, ha ha. One of my few true regrets, so I’m not sure if it was a fold-out. I don’t remember it that way.

  7. I can almost picture myself folding open the album, but an online search suggests the album did not fold out. So we must both be wrong on that count!

  8. When I first got this album, I was painting my parents house. Alternated both sides for days. The Royal Scam still holds up today.

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