Steve Miller Band

TrackAlbum
Children Of The Future (suite)Children Of The Future
Quicksilver GirlSailor
Going To The CountryNumber 5
Enter MauriceRecall The Beginning
FandangoRecall The Beginning
The JokerThe Joker
Wild Mountain HoneyFly Like An Eagle
SwingtownBook Of Dreams
Who Do You LoveItalian X-Rays
Sweet Soul VibeBingo

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Contributor: Peter Viney

The Steve Miller Band’s first recording (as The Steve Miller Blues Band) was backing Chuck Berry on his Live At The Fillmore album in 1967. That’s not an auspicious start necessarily as Chuck was never picky about backing bands. After signing to Capitol, and recording their first album in England, The Steve Miller Band developed a fanatically loyal cult following in the late sixties with a series of albums, Children Of The Future, Sailor, Brave New World and Your Saving Grace which mixed psychedelic suites with basic blues. I first encountered him in 1970, and the Steve Miller fans from that era probably would be happy to stick there and take all ten from those four classic albums.

He recreated himself in the seventies as a soft-rock superstar, when the classic platinum The Joker spawned a new career highlighted by massive hits like Fly Like An Eagle, Take The Money And Run, Swingtown and Jet Airliner. In the eighties he meandered from great but not great-selling albums like Italian X-Rays to the supper club ambience of Born 2B Blue. He reappeared on Paul McCartney’s Flaming Pie album, with his guitar sound intact. After a pause, he’s done two recent albums of R&B covers.

If you go back to the 1968 vinyl LP, Children Of The Future has a “side title” for side one, covering the five tracks. There are no breaks. I’m going to put it down as “Children Of The Future Suite”. So much of the future destiny of the band is set out. The actual track Children of The Future goes from a guitar freak out (like the end of a long jam) into seabird noises to the high-voiced “when I get high …” section. It sounds a bit like The Beach Boys then segues into Pushed Me To It, a great 39 second track that sounds just like mid-70s light-soul hit era Miller and straight into You’ve Got The Power for 53 seconds. In My First Mind, once so good, now sounds lugubrious, and at 7 minutes 35 seconds, it is. The side finishes with The Beauty Of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.) which shows the penchant for adding sound effects before going into a blues band as if recorded two doors away, then we’re into Arctic winds with weird choral chanting (We are Children of the Future) again. The “no breaks” idea may come from Sgt. Pepper. Turn to Side Two and you get a significant Boz Scaggs’ song, Baby’s Callin’ Me Home, and a typical Steve Miller composition in Roll With It. It wasn’t a track I noticed in 1970, but now I’d rate it as the best track on the side. The side returns to blues with Fanny Mae and an extremely languid organ-drenched Key To The Highway. The album might be the first choice of the stoner fans.

Quicksilver Girl comes from the second album, Sailor, again produced by Glyn Johns. Boz Scaggs was still in the band. I’d rate it as easily the best of the first four albums. There are strong tracks on there … Gangster Of Love and Livin’ In The USA would be in many people’s tens. I’m doing the iTunes Most-Played. For three consecutive years Quicksilver Girl was my most-played song of all by anybody. I’m addicted to it. It whispers to you over gentle backing.

Brave New World started the association with Paul McCartney who played drums, bass, guitar and sang on My Dark Hour. It’s only the two of them. It was recorded at the tail-end of a Get Back session, which Miller was watching. Lennon and Starr failed to turn up for the next session, and Miller showed Paul the song, and they recorded it there and then. Paul says he was in a filthy mood with the others and needed to get it out of his system with the aggressive drum fills. Space Cowboy borrows the guitar riff from Lady Madonna, presumably with permission, as well as adding Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Steve Miller’s linking obsession between songs and characters is already on display … I told you about Livin’ in the USA

Your Saving Grace in 1969 continues the Glyn Johns connection. There’s some notable piano on Baby’s House and Feel So Glad from Nicky Hopkins, who wrote Baby’s House with Miller. The title track, Your Saving Grace sounds like pastiche Traffic, and it’s a pretty close pastiche too, which is positive. The title track is the best but only until you get to the sincere spoken voice bit in the middle. It was written by Tim Davis who plays drums and is credited with lead vocal. It may be called The Steve Miller BAND, but Mr Miller himself is the only constant (though Ben Sidran and Gerald Johnson played on a lot), and I’m directing towards Steve Miller’s own material, or own leads. All in all, it’s my least favourite of the first four albums.

Going To The Country comes from Number 5 a popular track from a heavily-criticized album. The band adds Charlie McCoy on harmonica and Buddy Spicher on fiddle. It represents the country rock aspect.

Recall The Beginning comes from that difficult middle period. It’s been utterly rejected by Miller, who once stated that it would never be released on CD. The earlier album, Number 5, was disliked by the critics too, but that’s been available on silver disc for years. Rock Love, immediately preceding it, is also unavailable. When the lavish CD box set appeared a few years ago, only one track from Recall The Beginning, the final Journey From Eden represented this album. The same track was the only representative on Anthology. One other track, Nothing Lasts, appears on a 1973 live radio show, which is on half a dozen different CD versions. I’m coming from a strange angle here. My honest and strictly personal choice of ten would include FIVE tracks from Recall The Beginning, Enter Maurice, then the whole of side two of the LP: Love’s Riddle, Fandango, Nothing Lasts and Journey From Eden. It ranks with Abbey Road side two, or Stage Fright side two as one of my ultimate album sides. The band gels: Miller, Gerald Johnson on bass, Ben Sidran on keyboards, Gary Mallaber and Jin Keltner on drums. Strings and horns by Nick de Caro. Steve Miller recorded it following an early 1972 European tour in which he was in severe pain from an undiagnosed broken neck following a car accident, and when he was later hospitalized for the neck injury, he found out he had hepatitis. He was off the road for six months after its release, and apparently Jesse Ed Davis’s guitar was added to it without his knowledge or approval, so no wonder it doesn’t bring back good memories for him. I wouldn’t call it lethargic, but there is a discernible painkiller haze. The whole album meanders after the same failing/failed relationship, so it may have personal unpleasant connotations for Miller. I’m restricting myself to no more than two per album, So with huge reluctance, Fandango is going in to represent Side Two (just so long as you know I really mean “all of side two.”) It starts off so hazy and spaced then erupts into terrific ensemble playing with a great guitar solo, then back to the eerie vocal again. Classic Steve Miller construction.

Enter Maurice on side one introduces us to the ‘pompatus of love’ which is name-checked along with ‘Maurice’ as an alter-ego in The Joker along with The Space Cowboy (from Brave New World) and The Gangster of Love (from Sailor). Steve Miller knew his doo-wop. The pompatus of love comes from the Medallions hit The Letter in 1954. Then there’s Somebody Somewhere Help Me which fits seamlessly with the big big hits five years later … try it in a playlist. The opening short instrumental Welcome is a slight variation on it. High On You Mama might have fitted better on Side Two. I love every track on side one too. A few years back, I was in the car with two friends who knew it in 1973. They hadn’t heard Recall The Beginning in years and were astounded by the playing and the production quality. The final CD release in the UK and USA was announced and delayed three times in 2014. It’s been released in Argentina apparently, but not from master tapes. My CD copy is taken from my own LP.

The Joker is where the string of major hits started. The album was released in 1973. The song is a Levis ad classic apart from anything else and was a 1990 UK #1 on the back of the Levis ad. k.d. lang did a significant cover on her smoking-themed album Drag. Gerald Johnson plays the bass line, then there’s that guitar solo. I love the guitar “comments” on the lyrics. It has the ultimate good-time vibe, and I’m a picker, I’m a grinner, I’m a lover and I’m a sinner … I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker… I couldn’t stop playing it. In spite of the familiarity, it’s one where your hand will automatically reach out and turn up the volume on the car radio. The Joker album has two others that were seriously considered. Sugar Babe opens the album, and there’s Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma. The latter is a perfect example of the Steve Miller Band stretching out and playing a song with a long instrumental section, and might have got in if the title hadn’t irritated me for being hard to type.

When the first compilations came out, Best of … 1968-1973 went up to The Joker album (missing all of Children Of The Future, Recall The Beginning and Rock Love), then there was Greatest Hits 1974-78. The Joker is on both. The exclusion of Children Of The Future is a surprise, but maybe only Roll With It would fit. The hits came rolling in, and Greatest Hits 1974-1978 is a spectacularly high selling album at 13 million copies. Was it a change to a more radio friendly style, or did the public just latch on to what was already there? We still have strong prominent bass lines, interestingly different drums, odd sound effects, insistent fluid guitar, slightly spacey vocals. 1976’s Fly Like An Eagle had the title track (US #2), Rock ‘n’ Me (US #1) and Take The Money And Run (US #11). Serenade is a strong song. I’m choosing Wild Mountain Honey which like Fly Like An Eagle, was written by Chris McCarty. The sound and ambience is not far at all from Recall The Beginning and it’s a consistent song in live sets.

Book Of Dreams in 1977 has Jet Airliner (US #8), plus Jungle Love (US #23) and Swingtown. My choice from this one is Swingtown which continues the groove of earlier material. This stuff is highly catchy. True Fine Love and Jet Airliner would both be in a Toppermost twenty. True Fine Love is a fabulous tribute to early 60s songs with late 70s guitar solo.

Then there was a gap until 1981’s Circle Of Love, where the 16 minute Macho City occupied the whole of side two. It indicates a lot of time dedicated to listening to funk. I wouldn’t call the beginning “rap” exactly (maybe it’s just his accent and calm voice) but it is rhythmic spoken voice over funky bass-heavy backing. There are some fascinating and unusual guitar effects and stereo is over-used to move them around. I guess he was using fascinating and unusual guitar effects back in 1968, but technology has improved the possibilities. On side one, Baby Wanna Dance With Me is another visit to doo-wop country on vocals with 80s bass.

1982 brought Abracadabra with another US #1 for the title track, which was also a UK #2. Cool Magic, written by Gary Mallaber and second guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis, and Give It Up were the other singles from this album. Gary Mallaber gets the greatest number of writing credits on the album. 1982 was one of those years of memorable big hit after memorable big hit, and among them, I never really liked Abracadbra.

Italian X-Rays from 1984 has DIGITAL RECORDING splashed on the sleeve and was something of a return. The songs are interspersed with instrumentals. If you don’t like 80s production it’s a prime example, and you’ll hate it. The three best songs (all worthy of a place), Italian X-Rays, Shangri-La and Who Do You Love all come on what would be side one of an LP – each “side” starts with an instrumental “Radio One” and “Radio Two”. I bought it on CD in the first place. Who Do You Love is not the Bo Diddley song with the same title, but a languid melodic piece. It just edges out the title track, Italian X-Rays which gains points for a great lyric (She talked about virtue, she talked about vice, She acted kinda naughty but she looked real nice), but loses for sounding SO eighties. Still, that will come back into fashion. My most played tracks are instrumentals, Daybreak and Harmony of The Spheres, but that’s because I long ago put them on a “relaxing” playlist. Who Do You Love gets its place because it’s an archetypal Steve Miller melody and an equally typical hypnotic process.

Steve Miller has had a lot to say about why he retreated at this point. He declined to pay payola. He discusses it in the liner notes to Wide River:

After Italian X-Rays, I’d pretty much had it as a result of the payola and the thugs who had taken over my record company. I decided I wasn’t going to “take care” of those people. It was pretty shocking to go from a platinum album like ‘Abracadabra’ to selling 26,000 copies – pretty bizarre! … I felt there was no reason to keep doing this kind of work. I had become disgusted with the whole process and feel it was a waste of time and money and effort. I finished up my obligations to Capitol and moved on.”

Does his “poor sales” comment refer to Italian X-Rays on Mercury, or to the next one, 1986’s Living In The 20th Century which brought a return to Capitol? Living In The 20th Century returns to the format of interspersing new material with re-treads of well-trodden blues standards on side two …I Wanna Be Loved, My Babe, Big Boss Man, Caress Me Baby, Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby. Isn’t three Jimmy Reed covers on one album a tad too much? It does sound as if he was getting rid of his obligations to Capitol fast. I Want To Make The World Turn Around, with a Kenny G sax solo, was the lead track, topping the Album Tracks Radio Play chart for six weeks.

Born 2B Blue in 1988 was a jazzy oldies album. Ben Sidran is the constant on keyboards. The covers run from Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah and Ya Ya to Gold Bless The Child and Ray Charles’ Mary Anne. Milt Jackson guests on vibes on the title track. Beautifully played but nothing startling.

Wide River in 1993 had my expectations up, and it met them too, not that it sold well. Ben Sidran’s there on organ, and the song Wide River was a Steve Miller/Chris McCarty co-composition. The track I played constantly though was Horse And Rider, another Miller/McCarty song – it has that gentle, laidback whispery feel again. It’s my “eleventh” choice.

After a seventeen year pause, two albums of blues covers followed in quick succession. Both were recorded at the same time with veteran producer Andy Johns. Sonny Charles joins the Steve Miller Band as extra vocalist.

Bingo! came in 2010 and Let Your Hair Down in 2011. Sweet Soul Vibe is a cover from Bingo! It’s recent, fits his style and has his classic fluid guitar sound. It’s a Jimmie Vaughan/Nile Rodgers song from 1994, and Joe Satriani joins Steve Miller on guitar. Hey, Yeah is another Jimmie Vaughan track on Bingo! His most recent album is The Joker-Live from 2014, a ‘whole album live’ release celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Joker album with the current band.

Steve Miller was one of those Toppermosts where I most found myself wanting a twenty. I agonized over excluding Livin’ In The USA, Nothing Lasts, Journey To Eden, Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma, Sugar Babe, True Fine Love, Fly Like An Eagle, Serenade, Jet Airliner, Italian X-Rays and Horse And Rider. However, my predicted “What no …!” comments are Song For Our Ancestors and Seasons.

Steve Miller Band Official Site

Steve Miller Band biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #399

2 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jan 12, 2015

    My wot no is Rock’n Me… You mentioned my other two in your near misses… So many great songs – 20 might have done it.

  2. Glenn Smith
    Jan 15, 2015

    It’s the summer of 73-74 and the Golden Cue pool hall across the road from Maroubra Beach has its jukebox pumping, faced out into Marine Parade for maximum effect. High on rotation were Angie, Diamond Dogs and The Joker. I can’t hear that song without thinking about chalking up a cue. what a bass riff and as Peter says the guitar echo on the end of each line.Ah “some people call me Maurice”, does it get any better than that? Since then he has snuck up every couple of years and dropped a beauty, Rock N Me, Jetairliner Abracadabra, all part of growing up in Australia in the 70’s and 80’s. Great list Peter as always, with this and your Toppermost on Rodriguez you’ve eerily got the 70’s Australian zeitgeist tapped, nice one.

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