Hash’s Faves: “Kid Charlemagne”

7 Sep

The_Royal_ScamThis week’s pick is by the band Steely Dan, “Kid Charlemagne,” from their 1976 album ”The Royal Scam.” It was written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and features Becker on guitar, Fagen on lead vocals, and the L.A. A-list session crew of Larry Carlton on guitar, Don Grolnick and Paul Griffin on keyboards, Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums, and Michael McDonald, Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews and Vanetta Fields on backing vocals.

This song pretty much has everything I look for and love about the best Dan tunes – interesting chord changes, an opaque story line delivered in Fagen’s world-weary voice, obscure cultural references, and of course stellar playing, arranging, production and recording. One story online has it that Fagen originally wanted Lee Ritenour for the session but he wasn’t available; when Carlton was hired Fagen asked him to play the solo in Ritenour’s style (you can take this with a grain of salt).

Both Fagen and Becker have said that the broad inspiration for the song was legendary LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, although Owsley has scoffed at the idea. I find it credible, although the lyrics can also be fit to a storyline about anything from rock cocaine to meth. The “Technicolor motorhome” certainly refers to Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters’ day-glo bus Furthur, and an online commenter has also said that the “Is there gas in the car” line refers to an incident where Stanley got busted because he ran out gas. Whatever the case, I’ve always loved the mystery in this quintessential L.A.-in-the-70’s lyric.

As a sidebar, no one who is on speaking terms with me can corroborate this (meaning my girlfriend from the time), but back in the early 90’s I had the brilliant idea to start a Steely Dan tribute band. We were playing a lot of Dan tunes on the legendary Famous Pizza Gig (Monday nights at Bacino’s on East Wacker Drive), and we had some good charts. My idea was to use guitarist Steve Hutchins on vocals (and guitar of course), Neal Alger or John Lewis on guitar, Carter Luke on keys, Heath Chappell on drums and Mike Levin on saxes. I never quite got around to organizing it, of course, and now the landscape is dotted with Dan bands. Just sayin’…

You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGr6knsm8t0

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

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