Steely Dan: Kid Charlemagne
The Royal Scam (MCA 112051)
Venetta Fields, Clydie King, Shirley Matthews (vocals).
Composed by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
Recorded: Los Angeles, CA and New York, November, 1975-March, 1976
Rating: 100/100 (learn more)
Larry Carlton's fierce solo on "Kid Charlemagne" is widely viewed as one of the most important guitar recordings in history. Its status has been cemented by the tune's inclusion in the "Rock Band World Tour" video game, but, without Donald Fagen's dire reflections of 1960s San Francisco acid culture, the tune would not exist. Seemingly in reference to Ken Kesey's novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the protagonist is a chemist on the lam. Unfortunately for him, his fame has exceeded expectations, and, if he is caught, prison time is assured because of the nature of the crime-mainly, manufacturing and selling drugs.
The character referenced in the song's title is someone who exists on the fringes of the then-current 70s world which had longed for the conservatism that future president Ronald Reagan embodied. His generation, according to the narrator, has no use for a person such as an LSD manufacturer whose time in the drug scene was obviously limited in the scene of alternative lifestyles by the sheer weight of his notoriety. "You are obsolete/look at all the white men on the street," he is warned, and he is later deemed an outlaw in the eyes of the law.
At the end, when the character loosely based on the enigmatic Owsley Stanley is arrested after his car runs out of gas, a police officer tells him that even he knows of his reputation amongst the prisoners in the jail ("The people down the hall know who you are") and you get the feeling that he should have taken the officer's advice to minimize the amount of illegal items that he carries on the city streets. This is a story without unexpected twists that never ends well.
Reviewer: Marcus Singletary