In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM reviews in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like in our take on Joe Goldberg’s 1976 review of Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam. A lot has changed in 46 years. Lap it up! And read more about Steely Dan in the CREEM Archive, here.
The August 1, 1976 issue of CREEM (with Paul McCartney on the cover) contains a review of Steely Dan’s fifth studio album, The Royal Scam, written by Joe Goldberg. The same review column has write-ups for Elton John, the Runaways, and the debut album by the Ramones. The winds of popular music were blowing, as they say, all higgledy-piggledy.
I’m not trying to brag, but I might be the only Steely Dan fan who truly, at my core, doesn’t care about musicianship. Or at least I’m the Steely Dan fan who cares about musicianship the least. I fully realize that this is not something a music critic should necessarily brag about, but I’m not exaggerating. All of my friends avoid me because I will go to my grave arguing that everything the Replacements did after “I Hate Music,” and its refrain of “I hate music/it’s got too many notes,” was a betrayal of a reasonably unreasonable critique. Not to say that all the songs Paul Westerberg recorded after learning a fourth chord were bad. Certainly, “Here Comes a Regular” wouldn't be such a peach of a song, and it wouldn’t have had such a terrible influence on pseudo-alcoholic regional rockists to this day, if the song’s proto-Sheryl Crowian bar-bar boo-hoo hadn’t been sung so sweetly. I’m just saying that if the Replacements had never moved past thrashing out Chuck Berry riffs (and never kicked out Bob Stinson), that’d be alright too. At very least, we all would have been spared the Goo-Goo Dolls.
I might be the only Steely Dan fan who truly, at my core, doesn’t care about musicianship.
Unlike Mr. Westberg, I’ve never had a specific, principled, problem with a shit-ton of notes. It’s more that I consume music the same way I consume chocolate cake. Chocolate cake is either one: delicious, two: not great but still cake, or three: it’s stale and gross and made from rat feces or razor blades or aquafaba or what have you. Either way, I can’t tell the exact motions of the cooks’ oceans. And even if you explained the process to me, it wouldn't change my feelings about what I just put in my mouth.
All this is to say that I intellectually understand the craftsmanship and studio preciousness involved in making a Steely Dan album, but I don’t understand how anyone attaches any moral meaning—in the positive or negative—to the skills at play. To me, fetishizing the endless apocrypha about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s studio antics is a high school math teacher psyop; it is society conspiring against me (again), trying to gaslight me into thinking that counting to ten isn’t anything to be proud of unless I show the work. Sensualist that I am, my fingers and toes beg to differ. That is, I take Steely Dan and the Ramones in the exact same way: greedily, grubbily, and on whatever medication is most appropriate to the age I’m at while listening.
Joe Goldberg doesn’t see it that way. His review of The Royal Scam is so distrustful of Steely Dan’s sheen that half the review takes place while the reviewer’s copy is still in the shrinkwrap. I was half-hopeful that I’d stumbled upon the first example of the now classic, “reviewing a record without listening to it” gag, where a critic muses wild and free on a famous band’s recording, using only their preconceived notions of said band. (As opposed to the rigorous and objective interrogation of art that critics usually partake in.)
Seemingly indifferent to future CREEM writers’ archeological aspirations, our distant CREEM ancestor does eventually (presumably after inventing fire and cocaine and using the blood of a captured pterodactyl to scrawl “Disco Sucks” on the wall of the CREEM cave) get around to putting his wax cylinder copy of The Royal Scam on his aeolipilophonic listening device.
Already claiming to be discussing The Royal Scam under Lester Bangs-mandated duress, Goldberg is now under his own gun to remain nonplussed. This is clear when our reviewer describes the music as “Hippie Muzak,” and the lyrics as being “buried in all this viscosity.” As a rule, us critics don’t use either “muzak” or “viscosity” in rave reviews.
“Dylan has a lot to answer for,” Goldberg says. “He made bad poets think songs could be about anything (or nothing) that ran through their uniquely beautiful minds.” It’s a solid line. It’s also crazy to try to imagine that there might have ever been a time when Steely Dan was criticized for taking lyrics too seriously. I’ll be the first to admit that, on “Everything You Did,” the line “I never knew you/you were a roller skater,” is delivered with a gravity one doesn’t usually associate with a rumination on the essential unknowability of a young Suzanne Somers. But for the last three decades, most of the attention paid to that particular song focuses on the chorus’s coda of, “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening,” a representative enough signifier of Steely Dan’s perceived flippancy regarding a certain kind of mid-Me Decade sordidness.
Goldberg may be right about Bob Dylan inventing a template where Steely Dan’s brand of oblique cynicism could thrive. But it’s hard to comprehend the critic’s reading of Becker and Fagen’s church organ ode to cuckoldry, an age-gap cautionary tale that the protagonist of “Hey Nineteen” would have been smart to listen to, as being “dead serious about those kinky little domestic psychodramas.”
For good or ill, Steely Dan isn’t known for granting much weight to the dashed expectations that fuel their song-protagonist’s hobbies. As cold-eyed documentarians of the national hangover that followed the 1960s, Tivoli’s Finest no doubt studied their “Blowin’ in The Wind,” but, in terms of talkin’ about their own generation, they stopped paying attention after “Blow.”
Just a year earlier, other CREEM critics, Wayne Robbins and Georgia Christgau, had written in praise of Steely Dan’s 1975 release, Katy Lied. The article reads: “The thrill may be in discovering that a rock ’n’ roll band can be as articulate as they are obscure without (emphasis added) sounding pretentious.”
While no rock magazine’s critical stance is a monolith, the difference in the two takes is even more understandable given the cultural divide between ’75 and ’76. While it’s rote to overstate the abruptness of punk’s seismic effect on pop’s landscape, it’s probably no coincidence that Goldberg’s extended eye-roll at Steely Dan ran in the same column as Gene Sculatti’s schoolboy giddiness at hearing the first Ramones album.
if I listened to “Kid Charlemagne” the same month I first heard the thuggish bubblegum of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” I’d probably have a different standard for what constitutes catchiness, too.
I don’t know if the critics were sharing a turntable but (very safely) assuming Goldberg was aware of what was going down in Queens at the time, it’s easy to understand how a pack of Girl Group panty inhalers, singing about sniffing glue as a metaphor for sniffing glue, might make a couple Bard College jazzbos—using Michael McDonald to sing about changing fads in the SF acid market like it was The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—seem a tad pompous in comparison.
Goldberg also says Steely Dan songs have no hooks. This is not a commonly held position, even by those who still loathe the band. But if I listened to “Kid Charlemagne” the same month I first heard the thuggish bubblegum of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” I’d probably have a different standard for what constitutes catchiness, too. Now, forty-six years later, using the Ramones to bash Steely Dan (and vice versa) is the sole purview of pedants; those unlucky drips who believe that the harmonic/lyrical complexity a song does or does not contain is of overriding relevance to the tune’s quality. To apply those metrics to dismiss either band is to miss the cooler truth; that the Ramones were one of the only bands of the '70s whose purity of aesthetic vision matched that of Steely Dan’s.
Whether you call it rock 'n’ roll, bubblegum, or pop, few bands of the time were so similarly uncompromising in their adherence to a singularly perfect sound forever. Even if skill levels and studio budgets differed by magnitudes of ludicrousness, and the modes of popular music the artists drew from were different—only converging at the doors to the Brill Building—the bands’ respective dreams of pop can, if one is joyfully indifferent to musicianship, be seen as essentially the same.
Both acts shared sweet tooths for melody as traditionally minded as a Vivaldi cover band. Both practiced an affected embodiment of loserdom that was as self-eviscerating as it was heroic. And both bands, regardless of changing fashion, held firm to an unshakable belief in an ideal—almost fascist in its perfection—sonic popscape, a land of bops as regimentally pristine, time agnostic, and cleanly archetypal as a black leather jacket, a heartbreaker on roller skates, or dying behind the wheel. It was hard to see in 1976, as culturally divided a time as it was (no idea what that’s like), but Steely Dan and the Ramones were creeping in the same tin-pan alley, trading in a shit and shine that, through their studio recordings, was so set in stone that a half century of historical erosion hasn’t even scuffed the veneer.