Anthony Chaney: The Royal Scam

Chaney: RunawayToday, we welcome a guest post from Anthony Chaney, author of Runaway:  Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, on Steely Dan, Columbia House and the negative-option record club.

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has been called a lost giant of twentieth-century thought. In the years following World War II, Bateson was among the group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists who laid the theoretical foundations of the information age. Blending intellectual biography with an ambitious reappraisal of the 1960s, Anthony Chaney uses Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the decade. Surrounded by voices calling for liberation of all kinds, Bateson spoke of limitation and dependence. But he also offered an affirming new picture of human beings and their place in the world—as ecologies knit together in a fabric of meaning that Bateson said “we might as well call Mind.”

Runaway is available now in both print and e-book editions.

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The Royal Scam

I joined the Columbia House Record Club when I was thirteen or fourteen. A whole box of 8-tracks came for a penny. A number of them were not so good. Cher’s Greatest Hits, for example. I didn’t know enough about music to choose 13 good records. But I got Paul’s Simon’s first two solo records, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night and a best-of Three Dog Night, which were all great.

The Columbia House Record Club is reputed to be a scam. There was a “record of the month” which all members received and were billed for, unless they put a card in the mail by a certain date and declined it. Many people must have put off mailing it in and wound up paying for records they probably didn’t want and maybe never listened to. This is how you make the big bucks, I gather–not off a product but off a natural weakness, like laziness or negligence.

But the Columbia House Record Club didn’t work like that for me. I never forgot to send in the card. How could I forget? I thought about records all the time. That was my weakness. I lingered over the monthly catalogue for hours at a time. I plotted and mulled over potential purchases for days, never bought frivolously. Part of the deal was you had to buy a certain number of records at “regular club prices”–which were high, maybe $7.98. I stretched these required purchases out over the three allotted years. I was more interested in the catalogue’s middle section, with the mark-downs. There you could pick up records for $2 or $3. They would not count toward your required purchase, but here were the smart buys.

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, volumes one and two, were among the ones I bought from the cut-out section of the catalogue. I’d read somewhere that he was good, so I figured I could risk a few dollars on him.

I was a little older now. I bought records instead of 8-tracks. Funny, I’d noticed that these cool, futuristic 8-tracks would start to slow down or speed up or get mangled by about the tenth play. One night I met a girl from a different school. She had older siblings and knew about music. She said she thought I’d like Steely Dan. I’d not heard of Steely Dan. How can I explain this? One must consider that FM radio was relatively new at this time, that I lived in a town that didn’t have an FM station, that anyway we didn’t have a radio in our car or in the house that picked up an FM signal.

This was–I don’t know–maybe 1977? Aja was just on the verge of being released. Then “Peg” and “Josie” came out on the top forty AM station we listened to in the car. Either shortly before this or shortly after, the entire Steely Dan past catalogue was offered in the cut-out section of the Columbia House Record Club catalogue.

I don’t know. I was either feeling rarely flush–I’d been paid for some odd jobs or whatnot–or I was still thinking about that girl, but I ordered all of them. I’d never bought so many records at once. They arrived packed snug in a cardboard box, and I took them out one by one, each of them shrink-wrapped, sparkling, and clean.

Can’t Buy a Thrill
Countdown to Ecstasy
Pretzel Logic
Katy Lied
The Royal Scam

Now I know there are folks out there who aren’t Steely Dan fans. In 1977, as everyone knows, there was a very different sort of record being made. These records and the ones that followed their lead would soon voice a critique to which super-slick, non-touring jazz-heads like Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were extremely vulnerable. Aja–though it has its charms–is still a kind of poster child for how necessary this critique was and for the sort of L.A. gloss that required sand-blasting.

But come on. If you were ever a Steely Dan fan, you know what I’m talking about. I emptied the cardboard box and sat in the floor with these records all around me. Each of them, especially the first three, would bring untold hours of … well, “pleasure” doesn’t even seem to quite capture it. What did I pay for them–$12, $15 total? Plus a few pennies shipping and handling? Maybe Columbia House Record Club perpetrated some ingenious scam. But the way I calculate it, I scammed them.

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Anthony Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas. Follow him on Twitter for updates and more information.