Saturday, February 14, 2004

One non P+J thread that's attracted lots of comments is this one on Steely Dan. Someone even posted the liners to the Royal Scam, a certifiable 5-star, 10.0 classic.

So I went and dug up this unpublished review I did last year, partly inspired by Vernon Reid and Greg Tate's paean to Becker and Fagen in Tate's book on whiteness, Everything But The Burden.

The review is part of a bunch I'd like to put up on the cantstopwontstop website later this year. Concept: revisionist rock reviews from a hiphopcentric point of view. Oh yeah, hip-hopism to match the old rockism.

Whoo hah. Hope I stop blogging before I get (really) old.

Steely Dan
The Royal Scam
MCA 1976

In 1977, the year of punk's rebel cry and hip-hop's street uprising, Steely Dan retired to the floating world of Aja. While the kids spat and spun hurricanes, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen painted Malibu hilltop Buddhist retreats that stirred samba carnival heights of ecstasy. Two against nature perhaps, but it could be they were just ahead of their time. Their masterpiece, The Royal Scam, had been released the year before, spiritual kin to the recognizable rage and incomprehensible joys of a new generation.

On the Dan's bleakest, funkiest album, the losers are trapped on the far end of beautiful, among zombies dripping with mojo or menace, carrying drugs or explosives or everything they own, and the ends they face are downright ugly. Freedom here is only available in fleeting moments of wordplay and deep grooves.

At the time of its release Robert Christgau bemoaned the group's "melodic retreat", although one listen to Larry Carlton channeling B.B. King on the soaring solo in "Kid Charlemagne" is strong counter-evidence. The melodies weren't the point anyway, it was all about the beats. In a sharp departure from the prettified rock of their first four albums, Becker and Fagen dollied back and faded to black, leaving the groove in the hands of bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Pretty Purdie. With a pocket as big as Aretha's "Rock Steady" on nearly every track, the other players, especially guitarists Carlton and Denny Dias, turned in some of the most inspired playing on any of the Dan's records. Clearly the funk moved.

So, freshly dipped in their hips, Becker and Fagen were released to conjure outlaws and outcasts in circumstances moving inexorably toward violence, and to capture them in their moment of clarity before the great collision: the bookkeeper's son whose Oedipal revolt has become a SWAT scene ("Don't Take Me Alive"), the bored, alienated housewife who scandalizes her white-bread home with an kinky merengue episode in a Caribbean hotel and then returns to the states to domestic violence ("Haitian Divorce", "Everything You Did").

The mixed-up, miscegenated baby of that consensual union--unwittingly born into a world of rejection and desire--is a metaphor for the album's true concerns. The Royal Scam is the rare rock record to directly confront the complexities of racial wages and debts. In other words, the close relationship of funk and race is no coincidence. If Aja remains Steely Dan's most accessible record, The Royal Scam is its most influential, cited and sampled by Prince, Vernon Reid, Pharoahe Monche, and DJ Shadow (another reclusive, cerebral young white studio hound with a jones for black music) the way the Dan had Ellington, Silver, the Atlantic Records house band, and Piri Thomas.

"Kid Charlemagne" chronicles a superfly San Francisco pharmacologist who has "crossed a diamond with a pearl" and turned on the world. This is the story of a fall, Charlemagne plunging from all-city champ to man-on-the-lam. When the hammer comes down, his "low rent friends are dead", his white hippie patrons have "joined the human race", and he's assed-out. "You are obsolete," Fagen sings. "Look at all the white men on the street." A pusher's tale suddenly sounds like a race fable, a people's history of American popular culture. Becker and Fagen are winking at their rhythm section. They could be those white men on the street. Or perhaps, in the daisy-chain of pop permutation they are also two Kids Charlemagne, the Eminems of the rock era.

Katy Lied, this album's immediate predecessor, ended with "Throw Back The Little Ones", in which a white hustler tried Godfather-like to move product into the barrio and instead fell in love with the place and the people. This album reverses the process. The moody epic title track opens with a family of Puerto Rican immigrants arriving fresh-faced in the big city with little else but dreams of gold. They end up living in fear amidst ruins and fallen kings. The most literal, didactic track Becker and Fagen have ever cut is also their most pessimistic—the baddest acid from a career-vat of cynicism. In the end, all America has to offer is "the glory of the royal scam".

posted by Zentronix @ 1:44 AM   0 comments links to this post


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