“The Royal Scam”—last song, side two of The Royal Scam (1976)

I bought this record, The Royal Scam, Steely Dan's 5th, the year it came out, 1976, and I don't think I was appalled by the gnarly album cover until many years later. I'm not going to describe it, except to say I had the feeling my eye was drawn, for some reason, to the hole on the bottom of the guy's shoe, and that struck me as particularity disturbing. But then, looking at the back cover, it's just a close-up of part of the image on the front—the part with the bottom of the shoes. So it must have been after I saw the back cover that I became more focused on that part of the front cover. Many things in life are like this. Anyway, it's a great record. Every song is good. The song, “The Royal Scam,” is the last one on the record, and also the longest. It makes me think of a movie, for some reason—maybe it's the horns popping in and out—very cinematic. Also, it's kind of repetitive. There are three verses, no chorus—though each verse ends with: “See the glory of the royal scam.” This very well could be a fairly well known reference that I don't know, but I don't know it, if it is. I have no idea what this song is about. Is it terrible if I say I don't care enough to research it? I mean, I feel like what you need to know should be there, but it sounds like some reference from history involving immigrants coming to New York City. The third verse, however, is very specific, and without knowing the origin of the text it's drawing from, it's impossible to know what it's about. At any rate, what I particularly like about it is how the last line of the song (before repeating the royal scam line three or four times) is the same as the first line: “And they wandered in from the city of St. John without a dime”—which both gives the song a circular feeling and also the feeling that we have just come in on on something that's just going and going endlessly—we're just getting a glimpse of it and then leaving, while it keeps going on without us.

—Randy Russell 11.11.18

Current Ranking: No. 33