Steely Dan / The Royal Scam

  • A Royal Scam like you’ve never heard, with seriously good grades from first note to last
  • This pressing of The Dan’s hard-rockin’ classic from 1976 has the right sound for this music – rich and meaty, with powerful rhythmic energy
  • 5 stars: “Drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie lashes out the rolling grooves on most of the nine tracks, establishing the album’s anxious feel, and Larry Carlton’s jaw-dropping guitar work provides a running commentary to Fagen’s strangulated vocals… These are not the sort of Steely Dan songs favored by smooth-jazz stations.”
  • Steely Dan’s fifth release is a Must Own Album from 1976, Every one of the first 6 albums belong in any audiophile quality Rock and Pop music collection worthy of the name.

The best copies of Steely Dan’s brilliant effort from 1976 — so different from the album before, Katy Lied, as well as the album to follow, Aja — manage to combine richness and smoothness with transparency and clarity, a tough combination to find on The Royal Scam.

This vintage pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What The Best Sides Of The Royal Scam Have To Offer Is Not Hard To Hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1976
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

What We’re Listening For On The Royal Scam

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt — Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner in this case — would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

Extensive Track Commentary

We really spent some quality time on the track commentary for this one, so make sure you refer to it while comparing what we are saying to what you are hearing at home, using whatever copy you own.

If you end up with one of our Hot Stampers, listen carefully for the effects we describe. This is not an easy record to reproduce — everything has to be working in tip-top form to even begin to get this complicated music sounding the way it should — but if you’ve done your homework and gotten your system really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life.

A Tough Record to Play

This Dan album ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale. Do not attempt to play it using anything other than the highest quality equipment.

Unless your system is firing on all cylinders, even our hottest Hot Stamper copies — the Super Hot and White Hot pressings with the biggest, most dynamic, clearest, and least distorted sound — can have problems . Your system should be thoroughly warmed up, your electricity should be clean and cooking, you’ve got to be using the right room treatments, and we also highly recommend using a demagnetizer such as the Walker Talisman on the record, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that’s going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you feel you’re up to the challenge. If you don’t mind putting in a little hard work, here’s a record that will reward your time and effort many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process (especially your VTA adjustment, just to pick an obvious area most audiophiles neglect).

Side One

Kid Charlemagne

By far the most sonically aggressive track on this album, Kid Charlemagne is a quick indicator of what you can expect from the rest of the side. The typical copy is an overly-compressed sonic assault on the ears. The glaring upper midrange and tizzy grit that passes for highs will have you jumping out of your easy chair to turn down the volume. Even my younger employees who grew up playing in loud punk rock bands were cringing at the sound.

However, the good copies take this aggressive energy and turn it into pure excitement. The boys are ready to rock, and they’ve got the pulsing bass, hammering drums, and screaming guitars to do it.

Without the grit and tizz and radio EQ, which could have been added during mastering or caused by the sound of some bad ABC vinyl, who can say which, the sound is actually quite good on the best of the best copies. It’s one of the toughest tests for side one. Sad to say, most copies earn a failing grade right out of the gate on this album.

The Caves of Altamira

This is the best test for side one. There are sweet cymbals at the beginning, and Fagen’s double tracked voice should be silky and smooth, but on the really hot copies it’s also big and alive. When I was first doing these shootouts, I noted that the high hat is front and center in the mix of this song, and when that high hat sounds grainy or aggressive, it’s positively unlistenable.

That high hat needs to sound silky and sweet or this song is going to give you a headache, at least at the volume I play it at: GOOD and LOUD.

Don’t Take Me Alive

The vocal chorus on this track can be irritating on the typical copy. ABC pressed out millions of these, and when they did a bad job, or used grainy vinyl, the result is edgy and unpleasant. This is probably why I and many others liked the Japanese version. They used good vinyl, not the grainy garbage ABC did, so even their sub-generation copy tape ended up making a more listenable LP.

But when you hear the real thing, pressed right, from a better tape.. man, it’s awesome!

Sign in Stranger

Love the piano work on this track. Another one of my favorite Steely Dan songs of all time.

The Fez

Side Two

Green Earrings

The first two tracks on this side tell you everything you need to know about the sound. Most copies are going to be aggressive. There’s an edge to Fagen’s vocals. It’ll become especially apparent when the backing vocals come in on the line, “The rings of rare design.”

If it sounds midrangy and edgy, you do not have a good copy. You will probably not find the experience particularly enjoyable. Rather than finding yourself lost in the music, you may find yourself wondering what the fuss was all about when this album came out.

On a musical note, it’s songs like this one and the two that follow that make me realize how ENERGETIC an album this is. It’s actually the last high energy Steely Dan album, second only in that respect to Countdown To Ecstasy.

Haitian Divorce

Lovely, delicate cymbals open this song, with deep, funky bass coming in right after them. (Some copies have hollow sounding bass on this track, and many copies are light in the bass here as well, which just kills the magic.)

But the key to this track is the voice box guitar. On the typically aggressive copy, that sound is irritating as hell. On the good ones, that guitar sounds JUST RIGHT. You know it when you hear it. It ain’t rocket science. There’s nothing fancy about good sound. It’s just CORRECT.

Like I say, that grainy ABC vinyl wreaks havoc with the amount of high frequency information on this recording. Without a good pressing, there’s just too much of that edgy, dry, grainy quality added to the (admittedly) processed vocals and upfront percussion. The high hat is actually mixed louder than the vocals half the time!

Everything You Did

Another All Time Top Steely Dan song, which continues the energy of this side.

The Royal Scam

Rolling Stone

When they concocted The Royal Scam in 1976, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were under the influence of “a seemingly inexhaustible supply of whatever” (as they put it in their notes to the 1999 reissue), which surely helped them summon the on-the-edge characters who populate the album. “Kid Charlemagne,” which describes the misadventures of a San Francisco acid dealer who has run out of customers and time, introduces a song cycle on which making a getaway is high on the agenda of practically every one of the protagonists.

These urban desperadoes are captured by Fagen and Becker in vignettes as sharply focused and unromanticized as Diane Arbus photos — such as the conjugal combatants of “Everything You Did,” one of whom interrupts the hurling of recriminations to civily suggest, “Turn up the Eagles/The neighbors are listening.”

The individual performances seem to rise out of the narrative itself, thanks to the rarefied capabilites of the hired studio help; having dispensed with their original lineup three years earlier, Fagen and Becker assembled a talent pool composed primarily of jazz specialists who showed they could rock and swing all at once when so inspired.

Drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie lashes out the rolling grooves on most of the nine tracks, establishing the album’s anxious feel, and Larry Carlton’s jaw-dropping guitar work provides a running commentary to Fagen’s strangulated vocals, notably on the noir rocker “Don’t Take Me Alive,” in which the howling, jagged opening riff brutally articulates the psyche of a bookkeeper’s son gone wild.

On “Haitian Divorce,” Dean Parks’ extended guitar solo is transformed by Becker’s talk-box manipulation into the quintessence of henpecking. These are not the sort of Steely Dan songs favored by smooth-jazz stations.

The Royal Scam vividly encapsulates that post-Watergate/pre-punk/coked-up moment when you could trust no one, least of all yourself. * * * * * [Five Stars]

– Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 10/14/04.

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