As stated at the end of last week’s part one of our Steve Miller Band Guide, 1972 and 1973 represented a transitional period for Steve Miller. His upcoming eighth album would be the last under his groundbreaking contract with Capitol Records, and disappointing sales for his last two releases made it fairly clear that he was in danger of being dropped. In addition, Miller was in a bad car accident that kept him off his feet for several months – and left him lots of time to think about his future.
Determined to make his next album the one that would finally put his music before the masses, Miller made a critical decision: He would make all of his future songs positive and fun, abandoning the social criticism sprinkled throughout his first seven albums. “I had one at bat,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it was good one.” Positive songs, he also realized, were more enjoyable for him to compose and play.
But there were also more radio-friendly numbers such as the smash-hit title track, the sweetly sunny “Something to Believe In,” the singalong “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma” (still a concert staple) and the song that started Steve Miller on the way to multi-platinum success, the Number One hit “The Joker.”
Miller, who frequently referred to past songs in his previous releases, pulled out all the stops with “The Joker.” “Some people call me the Space Cowboy” refers to the mini-hit of the same name on Brave New World; “Some call me the Gangster of Love” brings up his cover of the Johnny “Guitar” Watson classic on Sailor; and “Some people call me Maurice/Because I speak of the pompatous of love” refers to “Enter Maurice” on Miller’s previous release, Recall the Beginning … A Journey from Eden.
With Miller now on top of the world, everyone at Capitol was eager to build on his success with a heavy schedule of touring and a quick follow-up record. But Miller, never one to listen to “others,” took his first big royalty check from The Joker and basically disappeared. Unsatisfied with the recording studios where he had previously worked, Miller took the money and ran – literally, to his home in the Pacific Northwest backwoods, where he would build his own studio, take his time recording his follow-up album and make sure everything sounded perfect. On the Fly Like an Eagle 30th anniversary CD/DVD released in 2006, you get to hear some of this tinkering: A version of “Take the Money and Run” that inexplicably used the melody line from “The Joker,” and a countryish, loping “Rock ‘n’ Me” that Miller ultimately vetoed. In fact, at one point, the music of “Rock‘n Me” and “Take the Money and Run” were reversed. When he had come up with about 25 songs, he called in Mallaber and bassist Lonnie Turner, a band member from the Fillmore days who played on the band’s first five albums, and they recorded the album in less than two weeks.
“Fly Like an Eagle,” a song that Miller first composed in 1972 and had been playing in concert in jams that lasted 12 minutes or more, also underwent a major revamp. Originally called “In the Ghetto,” the song fired shots at the government’s indifference towards child poverty and Native-American rights. But Miller took a scalpel to the song, deleting the latter reference. To soften the social criticism and avoid being what he later called being “preachy,” Miller inserted the eternally hopeful line “There’s a solution” to get away from the naysaying that he knew would prevent a killer song from being played on top 40 radio.
Yet he wasn’t completely satisfied with the song – until the day he brought a brand new synthesizer into the studio and started noodling with it. The music he created, he realized, was a perfect way to start the song. Accidentally, he and engineer Jim Gaines heard the beeping sound on the bulk erase tape and decided to keep it on the song as it segued into “Wild Mountain Honey.”
“My goal was to make a record that once people put it on, they couldn’t take it off,” he said in “Making of” documentary that accompanies the 30th anniversary release of the album.
Indeed, if there’s a Steve Miller record where fans of his early work can agree with those who want to hear “Jet Airliner” for the 1,368th time, it’s Fly Like an Eagle, finally released in May 1976. Wrote Rolling Stone in its review: “Fly Like an Eagle may be the most complete and effective musical statement Steve Miller has ever made, Always enigmatic, always eclectic, Miller’s albums have usually been ill-fitting jigsaw puzzles, but in this latest album he puts all of his cards on the table, face up. The result is a full house of rock & roll.”
One could argue that the album’s first two Number One hits, “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock‘n Me,” shrewdly calculating but ultimately empty, are among the weakest on the album. “Fly Like an Eagle,” despite being overplayed and stripped of its political overtones, remains one of Miller’s strongest tracks. It’s no wonder that everybody from Les Paul to the Neville Brothers have covered it. If there’s any Steve Miller song that resists overexposure, it’s this one.
On “Wild Mountain Honey,” the song that follows, Miller’s aching tenor has never sounded as sweet. The electric sitar is the perfect complement to a song that also manages to soar – albeit in a different way.
“Serenade,” with its nearly magical switches between major and minor keys and propulsive beat, remains a personal favorite. “Dance Dance Dance” is another fun number from an artist who never takes himself too seriously.
Unlike the majority of his later records, Miller includes plenty of nods to his past as a blues musician – most notably on a duet with the great harmonica player James Cotton, “Sweet Maree,” and also on “Mercury Blues,” a cover that the early Steve Miller Band originally recorded for the San Francisco-centered documentary Revolution in 1968.
Thanks to his in-studio productivity, Miller could have released Fly Like An Eagle as a double album. Instead, he saved 12 of the tracks and released them almost exactly a year later as Book of Dreams, an album that was nearly as successful thanks to smash hits such as “Jungle Love,” “Swingtown” and “Jet Airliner.”
The last tune is worthy of discussion because, as mentioned by Dw. Dunphy last week, it’s actually a cover of a blues tune written and originally recorded by the great blind guitarist Paul Pena. He had recorded it for an album being produced by Miller’s friend and former bandmate, Ben Sidran, who sent the recording to Miller. Some (like myself) may prefer the Pena version, but Miller’s take on the song is highly respectable and it’s another example of how Miller adopts the blues to suit the blues-tinged AOR sound he pioneered.
Something worth noting at this point: Miller, unlike many of his rock contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Jimmy P. and Robert P.), has always given credit to to the blues musicians who wrote the songs that appeared on his albums. Pena, a long-ignored musician who died in 2005, is no exception. Writes Sidran, in his autobiography A Life in Music: “At times the royalties (from “Jet Airliner”) have been all that stood between Paul and destitution.”
So, whatever you may think of Miller as an artist, he is one of the few good guys in the music business — and, from what I’ve heard, a rock star who doesn’t act like a rock star. Perhaps somewhat to his detriment in this scandal-happy day and age, there will never be a VH1 Behind the Music documentary about him.
But I digress. Back to Book of Dreams, which isn’t quite as cohesive as Fly Like an Eagle, though the theme of “spaciness” and sunny optimism is ramped up a notch. Yet it does have its moments. Personally, my favorite track is the album’s most non-commercial tune: The bluesy “Sacrifice,” co-written by Miller and one-time Allman Brother Les Dudek. The track not only features some great guitar playing by Dudek, but is reminiscent of the band’s early days in the FM “ghetto.”
For the next three years, the world went without any output from Miller – save for greatest hits album that basically contained all the hits from his two previous albums, plus “The Joker.” (If you are looking for a place to start with Miller, don’t buy this album. Instead, I highly recommend the 2003 compilation Young Hearts that includes much of his early work – or even the 1972 pre-Joker “hits” album Anthology.)
When Circle of Love was finally released in October 1981, Rolling Stone called it “a disturbingly empty exercise from a semiretired rocker who’s been holing up in the wilds of Oregon for too long.” The album contained just five songs, including the side-long “Macho City.” Although much reviled, Miller has persistently defended the track as an early precursor to rap songs such as “The Message.”
Leaving that statement alone, I think the album – as light on material as it was – has its moments. The title track is another beautiful piece with multiple overdubbed harmonies that displays all of Miller’s abilities as a crooner. And “Heart Like a Wheel,” the subject of Miller’s first-ever music video, has some killer guitar riffs that managed to overcome some of the song’s tired lyrical clichés.
Though recorded concurrently with Circle of Love and released a year later, Abracadabra actually had the least amount of Miller of all his albums. He only wrote two of the 10 tracks, including the title cut, which put him at the top of the charts once again. Otherwise, Mallaber and guitarist Kenny Lee Lewis collaborated on most of the compositions and recorded many of the backing tracks by themselves. As a result, Abracadabra is a pop record that could have easily been recorded by Hall and Oates. Miller’s rock and blue influences, always on center stage, were almost completely missing – making the frothy optimism of Miller’s songs even less appealing. The one exception may have been the track “Goodbye Love,” which mimics the backbeat of “Serenade” from Fly Like an Eagle while throwing in some nifty banjo picking and Beach Boy vocals. “Keeps Me Wondering Why,” with its call and response chorus, also has a certain catchiness that makes it tolerable.
In 1983, capitalizing on his latest chart success, Miller released his first full live album, Steve Miller Band Live! It’s not terribly memorable, except for an interesting choice that Miller made: Along with all his big hits, he performed his first semi-hit, “Livin’ In the USA,” and promoted it with a retrospective music video that includes shots of his early career. He got a few points in my book for that alone.
Two years later, Miller was back in the studio – and producing mixed results. Although it included inane songs such as “Bongo Bongo” that tried (unsuccessfully) put a New Wave face on the Steve Miller of 1984 (as Popdose’s own John Hughes pointed out a while ago), many of Italian X-Rays’ other songs manage to cover some of its faults. “Out of the Night,” one of two songs Miller co-wrote on the album with his original drummer Tim Davis, features some blues riffing that had been absent from Miller’s music for far too long. (Sadly, they were the last two songs Miller and Davis would co-write. Four years later, Davis would die after a long battle with diabetes.)
I’ve always had a soft spot for the gentle “One in a Million,” which managed to overcome its repetitiveness (and inappropriate synth drums) with some pretty Miller vocals and acoustic guitar picking. He has said that he was inspired to write it a la Harry Nilsson after visiting Nilsson’s house in L.A.
The next two albums finally saw Miller playing the kind of music he wanted to play. While not quite hearkening back to the days of Boz Scaggs and Paul McCartney, they provided a degree of satisfaction to longtime Miller fans who wanted to see the guitarist go back to his roots.
Released in 1987, Living in the 20th Century still had the sheen that had become a hallmark of Miller’s later work – most notably on the hit “I Want to Make the World Turn Around,” which topped the rock radio charts for six weeks and featured a saxophone solo from Kenny G (the ultimate Mr.. Slick).
Side one (yes, it was released on vinyl first) sees Miller going back to blues rock and similar influences that he established as his niche – then abandoned. With a killer guitar riff and equally memorable hook, “Nobody But You Baby” is the great Miller hit that almost nobody heard.
The rest of the first side is a mixed bag: The title track is a weird amalgam of a Bo Diddly beat, a Chuck Berry riff, a synthesizer and programmed drums. The big hit is a little too MOR to be the “Fly Like an Eagle” update that Miller obviously was aiming for. Two of the other tracks, “Slinky” and “Maelstrom,” are extended instrumental filler.
But the second side is where the album takes a turn for the better, following through on Miller’s repeated promise to make a record of only blues covers. Well, half a record at least.
While lacking the rawness of his early blues songs, Miller has a good ol’ time covering three songs of his professed idol, Jimmy Reed. Among the noteworthy tidbits about this session: It marks the point where harmonica player Norton Buffalo officially joined Miller’s band – a slot he would fill until his recent death from cancer. The album closes with a non-cover called “Behind the Barn” that not only fits into the proceedings, but reunites Miller with some key Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams veterans such as James Cotton and Les Dudek.
Poorly marketed, as were many of Miller’s post-“Abracadabra” records, the album never was the big hit that many hoped it would become – including the early SMB devotees who, at least initially, thought Miller was turning back the clock.
My friend Martin, a fellow fan of Miller’s early work, was among those who have since reevaluated the record. “At the time, I thought it was awesome and Miller was back, “ he said. “While I don’t disagree with any of my original analysis, it has to be tempered. There were only three original songs on here. There were two instrumentals and six blues cover songs that Steve could probably have played in his sleep. It was a welcome return to form, but nothing groundbreaking.”
Released on 1988, Miller’s next record was somewhat groundbreaking because it was his first album as a “solo” artist and the first time that the eclectic Miller tackled one genre that up until then had not shown up on his radar: Jazz.
The impetus? A reunion with Sidran, who not only produced the record, but provided Miller with the backing band and an impressive cast of cameo players. Born 2 B Blue featured vibraphonist Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet and saxophonist Phil Woods, a jazz workhorse whose biggest contribution to pop music was the iconic sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are.” Writes Miller in the CD’s liner notes, which also includes a paragraph from horror writer Peter Straub (!): “To me blending jazz and pop is a natural progression, and to be able to share it with such great musicians and with you is a real pleasure.”
Sidran, a longtime friend and a bandmate on some of Miller’s best early recordings, had carved out his own musical niche since leaving the band. Returning to Madison, Wisconsin, where he and Miller met as college students, Sidran turned his attention to academics and jazz. While recording 25 solo albums and several soundtrack scores, most notably Hoop Dreams, Sidran also made a name for himself as host of the National Public Radio program “Jazz Alive,” and VH-1’s “New Visions.”
Miller had played with Sidran’s several times over the years – somewhat memorably on a jazzed-up live recording of “Space Cowboy,” the song Sidran originally wrote for Miller’s Brave New World album – but this was the first full-flung reunion in more than a decade.
In my eyes at least, it was a success – albeit, once again, not a commercial one. To be sure, Miller will never make anyone forget Mel Torme or Wes Montgomery. But his interpretation of standards such as “God Bless the Child,” “Red Top” and “Born to be Blue” (a near-duet with Jackson) showcases Miller’s vocal abilities, along with some of his most graceful guitar playing in years – quite reminiscent, in fact, of his godfather Les Paul. Personally, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Miller’s interpretation of the Disney tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the lilting album opener that was wound up being a surefire bedtime lullaby for my sons during their infancies.
By this time, Miller had found an incredibly lucrative racket touring the country, playing all of his best-known songs before adoring fans who had grown up listening to Miller’s hits.
Five years later, in 1993, he decided to go back to the recording studio in yet another attempt to recapture a little multi-platinum magic for his new label, Polydor. With Sidran producing and playing keyboards and nary a synth drum in sight, Wide River had the basics for a smash. The title track, “Wide River,” became a top 40 hit, but that was that. America issued a collective yawn. When Miller played tracks from the album in concert, fans would inevitably take a bathroom break.
I like Wide River. But I don’t love it. I’m still trying to figure out why. Miller’s guitar playing is up-front in a way that it hadn’t been for several albums. Two songs – “Conversation” and “Cry Cry Cry” – have Miller once again referencing old lyrics, this time singing about the “Pompatus of Love” for a third time. The title track is also damn catchy, one of his very best pop songs.
But the album seems to lack passion – as if, once again, Miller was composing the album in his sleep and rehashed old riffs, instead of rediscovering new and different ones. That said, it is growing on me. Part of my initial response has to do with the wide gap between albums, the fact that I had stopped listening to music during that period in my life and I haven’t ever given it a fair shake. Some day, I’ll probably rediscover it and really like it – but, of course, it still won’t come close to Miller’s pre-1973 output.
Hurt by the public’s indifference to Wide River, Miller vowed to never record again but concentrate on playing his now golden oldies live. (He has since broken that vow: A new album recorded at Skywalker Ranch, produced by Glyn Johns’ brother Andy and featuring one-time Phil Spector vocalist Sonny Charles, is in the works).
There were cameos. Miller reunited with Paul McCartney (his secret collaborator on “My Dark Hour” from Brave New World) on the former Beatle’s acclaimed 1995 record Flaming Pie. Besides the three songs that were released, including the middling duet “Used To Be Bad,” McCartney and Miller jammed together on about a dozen unreleased blues covers that Miller has given McCartney permission to release at a later date. He also rerecorded “Fly Like An Eagle” with his godfather Les Paul, the man who taught him his first guitar chord, on Paul’s all-star 2005 album Les Paul & Friends American Made, World Played, which we featured last week. The 1994 box set included an unreleased collaboration with Journey’s Neal Schon on a hook-filled track called “Rock It” that briefly recaptured the magic of the Fly Like an Eagle-era Miller.
Will the old Steve Miller ever be back? Maybe, maybe not. Even with the new album coming, I tend to doubt it. But chances are, he’ll keep playing.
“For me, it’s always been about music,” he said in the Fly Like an Eagle documentary. “I want to do it until the day I die.”
I’ll end this opus by embedding two really cool videos: A montage with plenty of vintage Miller material that ASCAP put together before giving him a lifetime achievement award in 2008 and an interview that “CBS Sunday Morning” conducted with Miller a few years ago.
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One of the themes of the CBS interview: Why isn’t this monumental hitmaker getting more respect from his peers? Specifically, they point out that he’s never been elected to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That’s something that bewilders me as well – if you consider all the big ’70s and ’80s rock acts already in there (Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Abba, Madonna, et al) and how, at the time, Miller was just as important (if not more) in terms of defining the sound of his era. Unfortunately, thanks to “The Joker” and “Abracadabra,” Miller gets thought of as a lightweight – nothing more than a novelty act, which tends to disguise what a master guitarist he is. Or how successfully he brought synthesizers into the mainstream. Or how he – in a different way than Led Zeppelin – reimagined blues licks and turned them into classic rock and roll.
Some day, I hope, he’ll get his due.