Released when I was in the womb, The Royal Scam by Steely Dan birthed some of their best-loved songs: The Fez, Kid Charlemagne and Don’t Take Me Alive. Steely Dan are another band I liked because my older sister did – as she discovered them in the late 1980s – but Haitian Divorce was the song that hooked us both.
It wasn’t just the glorious reggae guitars – so apt to have been released during a record-breaking heatwave – or that distinctive wah-wah guitar. It wasn’t just the sound so summery you could practically feel the sand under your toes. It wasn’t just the lazy, sardonic vocals or shuffling beat – or even the bass trying hard not to sound like it’s being played by a hairy white guy.
What reeled me in was the lyrics – wry, dark and ascerbic. The tale of an extramarital dalliance (cue Ross Geller: “We were on a break!“) is oddly poetic:
At the grotto, in the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all
The band was hot so
They danced the famous merengue
Now we dolly back, now we fade to black
There was something so entirely evocative about those words that you could see the scene played out cinematically, and that’s what I loved – that instead of framing it with real-world references, the song was played out as a movie. The final dénouement, as Babs’ secret is exposed, is cleverly handled, too. You don’t really feel sorry for anyone in the story, because that isn’t the intention. It’s a witty anecdote: the plot twist of a distinctly 70s sitcom.