Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Music Journalist: “What is the song ‘The Royal Scam’ about?”
Walter Becker: “About six-and-a-half minutes.”
Let’s get it out of the way: we have no answer to the question, What is ‘the royal scam,’ anyway? The music industry? The American dream? The pretense that Steely Dan was an actual band and not just two cynics named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen?
Only one thing is clear: Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam is a great album that lives in the shadow of the even greater album that followed it: Aja. Aja is certainly the band’s commercial peak, and it’s probably their artistic peak too. It seems to get all the attention. Therefore, we are bringing The Royal Scam out of the shadows today, and reviewing a masterful and varied set of songs as filtered through other artists’ imaginations. We’ll hear the glory, but through new ears.
The covers collected here are tinged or suffused with many musical styles—some rock and R&B, some reggae and soul, some Nordic art music (well, kinda), a touch of disco, and most definitely some jazz (acid-jazz, jazz-fusion, even some smooth jazz in small doses). But it’s not that we chose outlandish covers: it’s that the album itself is worldly and multicultural. Aja is much less adventurous in that regard. Actually, come to think of it, maybe The Royal Scam album is the band’s artistic peak. Yes, it definitely is.
Enough preamble. Is there gas in the car? All right, let’s go.
Rachel Z–Kid Charlemagne (Steely Dan cover)
“Kid Charlemagne” may have the most coherent, acidic, and witty lyrics in the whole Steely Dan catalog. The words were important enough to Kanye West that he wrote a personal letter to Becker and Fagen. The letter asked them to reconsider their refusal to let him sample one line of “Kid Charlemagne” for his work-in-progress, “Champion.” The letter worked.
Not everyone listens to the words, of course: their love for the song may be more about the fiery guitar work of Larry Carlton. Or maybe it’s the groove, the song’s unique movement and rhythm—the work of the dream team of Bernard Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass.
But say goodbye to most of the above when you play the Rachel Z version. A jazz pianist with a strong rock/pop orientation, Z leads her ace trio on a rippling instrumental version that’s not too tame and not too twisted. Z respects the structure of the original, and doesn’t stray far from the melody, but she seems to hint that her trio could absolutely do a Bad Plus number on it—destroy or deconstruct it. That’s the road not taken here. The quicksilver playing, and the sensitivity of the trio as a whole, keeps things at top-shelf quality. The assertiveness of Tony Levin (ex-King Crimson) on bass and Bobbie Rae on drums is key to the magic—they basically put the gas in the car. It’s high octane.
Perri–The Caves of Altamira (Steely Dan cover)
One marker of mid- to late-period Steely Dan is the addition of female backing vocalists. The element is critical to many of their hits—try to imagine the “Kid Charlemagne” chorus without the women’s voices. So it feels right to have a track by Perri. Perri consists of the four Perry sisters from Bakersfield, California. Here the women’s voices are front and center (they’re in the backing chorus too). Sibling harmonies are a rare enough treat, but a whole quartet is a special gift. Four voices, one purpose. This is way more interesting than the vocals on the original.
The original is a bit thin overall: “The Caves of Altamira” dates from the earliest period of the Becker-Fagen partnership. Compared to the newer, more developed material, it pales. It’s a solid song with its share of fans; it just belongs on an earlier album.
Gov’t Mule–Don’t Take Me Alive (Steely Dan cover)
Now for Steely Dan in rock mode—there may be more power chords than jazz chords in this one. Gov’t Mule likes to start “Don’t Take Me Alive” with a tease: the band locks into a slow, loose-limbed groove, as if rolling into a long bluesy jam. A couple minutes in, they throw the switch: singer/guitarist Warren Haynes breaks suddenly into that distinctive arpeggiated chord that opens the original song. Some opening chords are so correct on the original release that it’s forbidden to play it any other way, even if your name is Warren Haynes. This is obviously one of those chords (Larry Carlton gets the credit once again). Haynes goes on to reel off Carlton’s opening solo pretty much note-for-note. It’s all a little reheated and by-the-book, perhaps–but what a book!
For the record: The guest keyboardist that Haynes calls out is Jeff Young, who toured with Steely Dan and worked on Fagen’s solo projects during the Dan’s hiatus.
Owen York–Sign In Stranger (Steely Dan cover)
This version of “Sign In Stranger” by young Owen York is a refreshing find. And it’s not all about his age (or lack of age). It’s the fact that Owen owns it. It’s a surprisingly rare thing. Watch a handful of Dan covers posted by highly-polished musicians: you’ll find they have a truly remarkable unwillingness to take their eyes off the sheet music and improvise a little. Just a little. How such a funky (and funny) band should inspire such zombie-like performances is a conundrum. So let’s give it up for players who can get it together and then let go and stretch out, like Owen York: he’s a champion in our eyes.
Groove Thing (Bill Ware and Georg Wadenius)–The Fez (Steely Dan cover)
When Becker and Fagen decided to re-form a Steely Dan touring band after a break of 20-plus years, two guys from the acid-jazz band Groove Thing got the gig: Bill Ware (vibraphone and percussion) and Georg Wadenius (guitar). Ware/Wadenius and company take us for a free-wheeling ride on “The Fez,” a jam-friendly party song that ought to be covered more often. Their rendition is a swirling instrumental (the lyrics didn’t have much point anyway, except as a PSA for prophylactics). A favorite moment is when the band takes a brief side-trip into “Deacon Blues.” Great vibrations throughout, and not just from the vibraphone.
Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist–Green Earrings (Steely Dan cover)
For such an enigmatic song, it’s appropriate that the cover presents another enigma. It seems improbable that two female vocalists in Sweden would team up to release an entire album of Steely Dan covers-but yes, it happened with 2011’s Fire in the Hole. Adding to the strangeness is the sparse accompaniment: for the most part there’s just an acoustic piano. No rhythm section, no horns, no frantic guitar solos. All the groove removed. Never has airy Scandinavian minimalism sounded so good.
The Isaksson/Törnqvist version of “Green Earrings” has to be the least jazz-inflected of all available versions of the song, and the most bare-boned. It’s powerful because of—not in spite of—its simplicity. The close harmony vocals are haunting, the monotony of the piano generates a pleasant tension. Nordic noir. Replacing Fagen’s New York swagger with a subdued feminine sensibility makes for a beautiful translation of this song.
Sons of Soul–Haitian Divorce (Steely Dan cover)
You wonder how hard Fagen winces when he hears the talk box on the original track (it was Becker’s doing). For all the timelessness of the Steely Dan sound, this one effect grounds the song in 1976, which it can’t quite escape. Not that it blemishes the song in any serious way, it’s just a rare case of the Dan looking a little gimmicky or faddish. (And yes, we know musicians have put the talk box to good use in every decade since. Still!)
To their credit, the Sons of Soul bypass the talk box; they don’t overplay the song’s reggae hand, either. In fact, they show a fair amount of originality throughout. The lead singer brings his own flavor to the melody, for one thing, and the backing vocals are a nice touch. The guitarist steals the show, though, with a smooth segue into “The Wind Cries Mary” on the first guitar break, and joyfully soloing on the way out as if freed from a bad marriage.
Genya Ravan–Everything You Did (Steely Dan cover)
The storied singer and producer Genya Ravan has been a presence in the New York rock and punk music scene for ages. Ravan’s first band, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, were the first all-female rock band signed to a major record label (Ahmet Ertegun himself spotted them and signed them). What happened next gets revealed in her autobiography. Not to suggest that Ravan’s story is over: at the age of 80 she’s still creating, still producing. For her all-covers album Undercover, she selected “Everything You Did,” one of Becker/Fagen’s most embittered lyrics. Ravan lashes it out with attitude to spare. In a nod to her CBGB and record-producer days, she changes the song’s semi-famous lyric “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening” to “Turn off the Dead Boys…” (she produced their debut). You have to wonder if the Dead Boys ever responded in kind, the way the Eagles did with their “Steely knives” comeback in “Hotel California.”
If the guitar work on Ravan’s version sounds familiar, it’s Elliott “Reelin’ in the Years” Randall. He appeared on several Steely Dan albums, including The Royal Scam.
Kung Fu–The Royal Scam (Steely Dan cover)
This last one has a tribute band vibe, but rest assured it’s not. Tribute: yes. Tribute band: no.
Kung Fu is a self-described “new-funk” outfit. They write and perform their own brand of genre-defying music, with elements of fusion, EDM, and rock. When they do embrace the music of other bands—The Who and Steely Dan are favorites—they don’t just try it on for size, they go all out.
The treatment here is a little fussy (the tribute band problem), but there’s some liveliness to appreciate in the dual-guitar bits and in the ad-libs from the horn section. Then there’s the two honored guests sitting-in for the evening: Jon Herington, the go-to guitarist for both Becker and Fagen since the ’90s, and legendary drummer Bernard Purdie, whose beats are all over The Royal Scam, Aja, and a few hundred other great albums.
Check out some more Steely Dan covers from all phases of their career.
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