The Steely Dan 64 Project, Song 1

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). These links will connect you to a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57; songs 56 through 49; songs 48 through 41; songs 40 through 33; songs 32 through 25; songs 24 through 17; songs 16 through 13; songs 12 through 9; songs 8 and 7; songs 6 and 5; song 4; song 3; and song 2.]

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1. Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam)
Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are

We’ve counted upward through 64 classic tracks to reach the pinnacle of the Steely Dan catalog. As I’ve said throughout this project, not a single one of these 64 songs sucks. Half or more of them stand among the finest recordings made during the rock era. Any of the final seven or eight that we’ve covered in this ranking could easily merit consideration as Number One. Indeed, among the seemingly infinite iterations of this list that I devised on my path to this point, each of the top seven landed in first place at least once.

So why did “Kid Charlemagne” end up on top?

My glib response: “Two words — Larry Carlton.”

But there’s so much more to it than just that.

“Kid Charlemagne” is, as is generally well known by this late date, based on the activities of a guy named Augustus Owsley Stanley III, nicknamed “The Bear,” who worked as a sound technician for rock bands (most notably, the Grateful Dead) in the 1960s and early 1970s. When not designing and maintaining high-powered audio systems (and, according to legend, co-creating the Dead’s now-familiar skull-and-lightning-bolt logo), Stanley was in his bathroom laboratory cooking up high-powered LSD. He quickly gained renown as a purveyor of quality acid, becoming the preferred provider of same to musicians and other celebrities in the psychedelic scene.

I don’t know whether Donald Fagen and Walter Becker knew Stanley personally, or merely by reputation, but they used his career — specifically, the raid in 1967 that led to Stanley’s two-year imprisonment — as the inspiration for “Kid Charlemagne.” (They weren’t the first, incidentally. The Grateful Dead songs “Alice D. Millionaire” and “Truckin’,” Frank Zappa’s “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Mexico” either allude to or specifically mention Stanley; all four predate “Kid Charlemagne” by several years.)

The narrative of a drug kingpin riding high until it all goes sideways provokes some of Becker and Fagen’s most memorable lyrics:

Did you feel like Jesus? Did you realize that you were a champion in their eyes?

On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean / Everyone stopped to stare at your Technicolor motor home

And of course, perhaps the most quotable Steely Dan couplet of all:

Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car…

It’s stunning storytelling, even from two scribes supremely skilled in weaving wicked tales.

But then, we have to talk about the music. Which means that, yes, we have to talk about Larry Carlton.

Can I say that Carlton’s incredible guitar solo is the greatest guitar solo in the history of recorded rock? I probably wouldn’t go that far — although I’m struggling to come up with all that many better candidates. There is, however, an undeniable genius to Carlton’s effort; a constantly shifting fusillade of jazz chords and progressions that somehow fits perfectly within the context of a rock song — a straight-ahead pop-rocker propelled by a funky, almost quasi-disco undercurrent. And yet, Carlton brings the full weight of his prodigious fusion chops to his solo without it feeling out of place for so much as a single note.

I listened to Carlton’s playing on “Kid Charlemagne” a couple dozen times while preparing to write this essay. Thanks to YouTube, I was even able to listen to it in isolation from the rest of the track. I never got bored of hearing it; with every pass, I heard some nuance or technique that I’d never picked up on before. For example, did you ever notice that Carlton plays the last few notes of his solo by tapping the strings on his guitar’s fretboard, the style that Eddie Van Halen would make famous years later? Sheer brilliance.

Equally brilliant is the way the other musicians line up to support what Carlton is doing. In particular, the rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) digs into the groove so snugly that you couldn’t pry them out with a crowbar. The electric keyboards — a collaborative effort involving Fagen on organ, Don Grolnick on the Fender Rhodes, and Paul Griffin on clavinet — alternately push forward and swirl underneath, but never get in the way. And Fagen, with stellar support from his cast of backing singers, delivers one of his most gleefully sardonic vocal performances ever.

The result is a quintessentially Steely Dan track that isn’t stereotypical Steely Dan, if that makes sense. “Kid Charlemagne” forms, I believe, the nexus between what Becker and Fagen had been doing from the very beginning — this song fits just fine alongside early Dan numbers like “Reelin’ in the Years” — and what the Dan would morph into from this point forward. It’s an ideal blend of the Dan’s past and its upcoming.

Plus a metric boatload of Larry Carlton.

That’s why “Kid Charlemagne” wins the grand prize trophy for me.

So, that’s it, then. Sixty-four amazing songs, ranked as I hear and feel them. How did your own ranking — I presume you were (at least mentally) doing your own, for the sake of comparison — turn out? What was your #1 in the Steely Dan 64?

Explore posts in the same categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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