The Steely Dan File
The Steely Dan 45’s
Volume 5 1976-“America’s Answer to Procol Harum…”
As the 1970s wore on Walter Becker and Donald Fagen realized that they would never be able to make their “perfect” album until they were free from the bonds of their ABC Records recording contract. Until they finished coughing up four more albums they’d be slaves to the pop making machine of Beverly Blvd. ABC Records, formerly known as Dunhill Records, had a turbulent history in the 1970’s with lawsuits waged against it, executives coming and going and major groups burning out (Steppenwolf in ’72…Three Dog Night in ’76)…they would eventually be bought out by MCA Records in 1979.
Steely Dan returned after almost a full year in the studio in the spring of 1976 with a 9-track album ‘The Royal Scam’ and a 4-minute single calld ‘Kid Charlemagne”, the LP’s opening track. The album seems to have been recorded in New York and LA but the credits on back cover don’t specify who, what, why, when or where…Becker and Fagen are listed as
personnel..but absent is drummer Jeff Porcaro who was the main drummer on their previous album Katy Lied. Denny Dias is still listed, but the credits do not indicate which songs he specifically plays on…others returning include Vic Feldman, Elliot Randall, Tim Schmitt and Mike McDonald, who by this point was a leader in the Doobie Brothers (“Taking It to the Streets”)….most of the bass and drums are handled by Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie.
Reflecting the ongoing pop music fascination with disco, dance music and jazz fusion, ‘Kid Charlemagne’ seemed that it would be a surefire hit when issued as a 45 in May of 1976. Becker and Fagen, as they had already announced they would not be touring to promote their new music, did consent to a few media interviews. For Cashbox magazine they actually were even shown in a cover feature that saw them leaning against a jukebox, presumably dropping a dime to play ‘Kid Charlemagne’. But alas a Steely Dan hit single was not to be in 1976 and ‘Kid Charlemagne’ became Steely Dan’s 2nd consecutive single to fail to chart in a major US publication (Cashbox), although it did reach as high as #82 in Billboard. (Steely Dan’s previous single ‘Bad Sneakers’ had failed to chart in Billboard but reached #97 in Cashbox.)
ABC Records issued a follow up single, ‘The Fez’, a few months later but it was too late. The original buzz of The Royal Scam was gone and ‘The Fez’ fizzed out at #59 in Billboard, and #71 in Cashbox. The head honchos at the record company must have started to wonder if Steely Dan was washed up as tune smiths. They hadn’t scored a Top 20 hit in over 2 years and their reclusive nature wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered.
Across the pond in the UK and Europe Steely Dan were perceived with the kind of intrigue and appreciation normaly attached to artistic geniuses like Picasso….or Rimsky-Korsakov. Becker, Fagen and Katz even flew to London for a in-depth discussion on all things ‘Dan related for Melody Maker (“Art For Art’s Sake”) the bible of UK music papers.
In November ABC Records in the UK issued ‘Hatian Divorce’, an odd 6 minute tale of love and betrayal, Steely Dan style, as a single. And surprise, surprise Steely Dan had their first (and only) Top 20 hit in the UK (#17).
But a new horizon lay ahead…disco or dance oriented music was not going away…would Steely Dan keep treading n the waters of American progresive rock? Hit Parader magazine was not optmistic and in their very brief review of The Royal Scam quipped acidly that Steely Dan were nothing more than, “America’s answer to Procol Harum, downward trend intact…”….ouch.
(to be continued)