Steely Dan’s Original ABC/Dunhill Reissue Notes, Part 5: The Royal Scam

Reprinted–nay, stolen from the band’s website whole cloth, out of fear it will be taken down there. (Hopefully they won’t force it to be taken down here. This is Dan Fan gold.)

In the 90s, Andy Mckay of ABC/Dunhill Records asked Donald and Walter if they’d write liner notes for a reissue of the their Dunhill albums. The notes appeared in sequence on each album as it was released. They are now collected here: 

THE ORIGINAL ABC/DUNHILL REISSUE NOTES by Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

THE ROYAL SCAM 

“Bring me some bandages and there’ll be sex”. – girl in a Bruce Jay Friedman novel 

“If the 1960’s can be seen as a decade largely characterized by musical alienation, with its more radical manifestations often directed explicitly against the status quo, against traditional concert music, and against the concert situation itself, the 1970’s represented a period of widespread reconciliation.” 

-Robert P. Morgan, “20th Century Music” 

It was the hippest of times, it was the squarest of times – mostly the latter. And while it was certainly true that we found ourselves in the unenviable position of being label mates with people like Tommy Roe, The Grass Roots and Freddie Fender, we yet aspired to see our own names written on the stars alongside the greats, near greats, and ingrates of jazz, funk, and/or rhythm and blues, depending. As the seventies wore on, we stood in the dim half-light of our near-quasi-celebrity and found ourselves feeling kind of empty and raw inside – as though driving home from a sodden one-nighter with some fading TV movie queen, say Sharon Farrell, or even the excellent Susan St. James. 

Blinded by the as-always-too-bright L.A. skyscape, at once faintly hungry and vaguely nauseated, we switch on the scratchy car radio to soothe our weary psyches, and lo – we are mocked and assaulted by the tinny bleat of our own recorded music, its every flaw hideously magnified, its every shortcoming laid bare. O cosmic hipsters, ye mighty gods of Fatback – why hast thou forsaken us? Well, probably for lots of good reasons, both known and unknown, but we come away from this soul wringing thought experiment convinced of two things: a) This town is Going Down With The Beast; and b) These L.A. cats, talented as they may be, are, relatively speaking, making us sound like a couple of goddamn pissants. 

Having recently received our first check of any consequence, we relocated to the 457 zone (that’s out Malibu way, babies) to work undisturbed on a new collection of fresh and ultra-hard-hitting tunes designed to redeem ourselves on the public airwaves. It so happens that, on a certain moonless night, both of your by now addled narrators had strangely similar precognitive dreams involving a) the Brill Building, their old haunt in midtown Manhattan, b) Larry de Tourette, abusive doorman/mascot of same, and c) fear of lifetime employment at Colony Records, located on the ground floor of same. The effect of these apocalyptic visions was much as though we had both drawn “The Hanged Man” during a Bard College stoner party on Halloween night. 

In other words, we were, according to these distressing prognostications, well and truly fucked – unless we took heed and reinvented ourselves on the streets of the City of Class. 

A period of research and reconnaissance ensued, the chief purpose being to determine: a) Exactly which NYC studio ace played the drums on a certain Laura Nyro track (Herb? – Bernard? – Artie Schreck?) 

b) Whether the EMT echo chambers at A&R Studios on Seventh Avenue were still being properly maintained. Was the roast beef still rare, the corned beef lean, the skies still slate gray, the cabbies psychotic? 

And c) Was our old pal – A&R engineer Elliot Scheiner – available to record our new stuff? In short, did they remember us still on Funky Broadway? Was it possible for food to taste other than it did at the blighted Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard? Was the mustard still brown? Or was it too late for us to reclaim our rich cultural birthright as citizens of the Greater Metropolitan Area? The results of our inquiries were encouraging. Passage was booked, leaves taken, rhythm charts passed around, and the rest is musical history, of a sort. 

Fast forward to mix-down time, back in L.A. Comfortably arrayed in our customary listening positions at ABC Studio C, we found ourselves feeling all fat and sassy. Serotonin receptors sipping at a seemingly inexhaustible supply of whatever, we feel as though we are strolling down a realer-than-real virtual Broadway, past the dependably sordid City Squire Hotel, and then we’re underground, riding the A Train down to the Village. We surface in front of the Waverly Theater and stroll over to Trudy Heller’s just in time to catch the last set of the boogaloo band of our dreams. Instead of the usual Long Island scrubbers, we find ourselves rocking out to the righteous sound of A-list NYC studio killers: Bernard Purdie and Ricky Marotta on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass, Paul Griffin and Don Grolnik on keys. Wait a minute, here comes a guitar solo – it’s Larry Carlton, dude – no problem there. 

Our bliss at this particular point in time would be ultra-complete save for one thing – namely, we have not as yet found a cover shot for the album. A look through our our copious stash of colorful Big Apple swag – a cracked brass sconce from the St. Regis, Hotel, Polaroid snaps from the Metropole, a receipt from Tad’s Steakhouse, an empty pack of Delicado Olivados, those thick terrycloth bathrobes from the Essex House – leaves us still wanting for suitable thematic material for the desperately needed cover art. The deadline approaches. 

Luckily for us, we are in Los Angeles where, more than anywhere else in the known universe, bad taste abhors a vacuum, and before long we find ourselves staring, mouths agape, at one of the most hideous album covers of the ’70s, bar none (excepting perhaps Can’t Buy A Thrill). Why are those buildings morphing into reptilian horrors, or vice versa? What squalid back alley of the human condition is meant to be invoked by this contused nightmare panorama? And what manner of man – ill-shod, unshaven – dares sleep peacefully in the shadow of this fearsome and repulsive protomorph? But, as the deadline approached, that’s all she rote. 

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