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. Continue reading →

Music, madeleines and memory

GauchoWhenever I hear Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters,” it’s suddenly fall of 1980 when I first moved to San Francisco. I see every detail of my studio apartment in a 1920s brownstone on the border of the Marina district: the honeycomb-patterned tile on the bathroom floor; the wall niche for the telephone; the space in the kitchen that once held the icebox. I relive the emotions of those early days in a new city, the excitement tinged with longings. “San Francisco show and tell.” Most songs don’t have this kind of emotional valence for me. But some do. Why is that? Continue reading →

Humor in music

Dr. Demento, eminent radio host, specialized in humor in musicGiven how prominent humor is in our culture, it’s surprising that it doesn’t appear more often in music. With some exceptions, artists tend to steer clear of humor or use it sparingly. Joni Mitchell covered the jazz tune “Twisted,” a humorous take on split personality that ends with the line “Two heads are better than one.” Others have used humor to make a point in songs that aren’t humorous per se. Tori Amos uses a line from an Eagles song in “Springtime of His Voodoo” and sings “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and I’m quite sure I’m in the wrong song.” In “The Waitress” she sings “I want to kill this waitress,” then “but I believe in peace, bitch.” And who can forget the name of her ill-fated band, Y Kant Tori Read? (This calls to mind the ironic band names launched by the punk movement, such as Dead Kennedys, Chrome Dinette, and perhaps the best of all, The The.) Continue reading →