Periodically, SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks runs an audio clip of an interview with Steve Miller, during which the artist says something about the age of the fans of his music, that they range from 14-years-old to whatever, with the implication that it is because of its universal appeal.
That clip is followed by songs that often prove that those in the younger end of that age spectrum, at least, have an excuse for their lack of sophistication. Music that is not particularly adventurous paired with lyrics that are often simplistic, when they’re not incomprehensible.
So, coming up on the 50th anniversary of the recording of the first Steve Miller Band album, what can we say about the artist? He’s certainly been successful: 18 studio albums, with sales of more than 25 million records; 30 singles, three of them No. 1s. And he has an artistic pedigree and experience that should have produced superior musicianship.
Miller was born in Milwaukee 74 years and change ago, the son of parents who were jazz enthusiasts; his father, a doctor, also was an amateur recording engineer. His Beer City nativity always made me feel he was a Wisconsin guy, along with the fact that his best-known SMB drummer, Tim Davis, was from my hometown, Janesville; also, long-time keyboard player Ben Sidran was a fixture in Madison during my years there and afterwards.
In Milwaukee, Miller’s parents were friends with Les Paul, a pioneer in the development of the electric guitar and a popular musician who was also an innovator in guitar and recording techniques. After hearing the four-year-old Miller play, Paul offered that might “be something one day.”
Miller, though, grew up in the Dallas, Texas, area, where he formed his first band. His classmate, and bandmate, there was Boz Scaggs, who would be a member of the group Miller formed while he was attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison — Sidran was also part of that band — and an original SMB member, but better known for his solo success.
Miller never finished his college education, opting instead for a career in music, starting in Chicago. There he worked with Paul Butterfield (of the Blues Band of the same name), jammed with blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf and formed a band with Barry Goldberg, who played keyboards for Butterfield, backed Bob Dylan in his early electrified efforts and helped found the Electric Flag.
The Miller-Goldberg Blues Band made one recording and played for a time in New York City, but Miller ended up back in Texas and in college again. He then moved to San Francisco and joined the developing music scene there; in 1966, he founded the Steve Miller Blues Band (which soon dropped the “Blues” from its name).
SMB recorded Children of the Future in February 1968 and released it four months later. It was the first of five studio albums that mostly hewed to the San Fran psychedelic blues-rock sound that bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Co., etc., were working.
But those LPs didn’t produce much commercial success. Although three of them — Sailor, Brave New World and Number Five — were in the Top 25 on the Billboard chart, none produced a hit single, the highest-charting, “Livin’ in the USA,” barely making it into the Hot 100. (Next best was“My Dark Hour,” No. 126 but more notable for its cameo appearance by Beatle Paul McCartney, who is credited under a pseudonym.)
His sixth album, Rock Love, didn’t even do well on the LP charts. After that, though, Miller found the formula for hit-making: The next five SMB albums, with a near-complete turnover in personnel, were either gold, platinum or multi-platinum, all but one of them No. 2 or No. 3 on the LP chart.
That success was propelled by a string of hit singles, starting with “The Joker.” That was one of three No. 1s in that run, the others being “Rock’n Me” and “Abracadabra”; “Fly Like an Eagle” made it to No. 2.
What those hits mostly had in common were lyrics that when not overly simplistic were at times incomprehensible, at times absurd — word salads with forced rhymes and mangled metaphors. “Take the Money and Run”(please!) for instance:
“Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas/You know he knows just exactly what the facts is/He ain't gonna let those two escape justice/He makes his livin' off of the people's taxes.” Texas … facts is … taxes? And yes, most law enforcement personnel are public employees …
And then there’s “Cause I speak of the pompitous of love,” from “The Joker.” Speaking of which, Miller’s lyrics became increasingly self-referential, with callbacks to themes and personae mentioned in earlier songs: “Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah/Some call me the gangster of love.”
His recycling wasn’t limited just to songwriting, though. After “The Joker” put him atop the charts, Miller brought back “Livin’ in the USA,” backed with “Kow Kow”; he also re-released “Fly Like an Eagle” as a “B” side to “Macho City,” which went nowhere.
That was in 1981, shortly before “Abracadabra” made it to No. 1, but Miller’s mojo was running out. Not only was “Abracadabra” SMB’s last Top 40 hit, he barely broke into the 50s after that.
Miller has released just six albums in the 25-plus years since then. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago, but reportedly created something of a scene at the ceremony.
So what will Stevie Guitar Miller’s legacy be? Commercial success, for sure; some nice melodies, “Kow Kow” being an example. But the lyrics of that song — which dates from the third studio album, well before his ’70s successes — also underline his problem:
“Kow Now Calqulator/Was a very smooth operator/Had himself a pet alligator/Kept it in a chrome elevator, yeah/When the sun began to shine/The alligator come outside/Kow Kow played the chimes/Together they would go for a ride.”