Features Editor Clint West writes: When the country went into lockdown, not only were we deprived of the experience of live music, but here at AUK the live reviews also came to an end. To fill that particular gap we came up with ‘A Night to Remember’ where we all got to reminisce about our past gig experiences. We hope you enjoyed that feature, but as live music returns, it’s time to put it to bed and to pick up again on those live reviews. So folks, there will be just two more in that series which is now switching to Thursday.
In the Tuesday slot that it previously occupied, we are replacing the series with not one, but two new features which are set to run on alternate weeks (more about the other one next week). The first of them begins this week and is called ‘The Other Side of Me’. Although AUK is an americana site, our writers (and we suspect readers) are not limited only to this genre for their listening pleasures. Here we give them a platform to extol the virtues of a favourite artist from outside of the americana classification. Thanks go to Gordon Sharpe for brilliantly kicking off the series with a fascinating look at the Steve Miller Band.
Steve Miller Band – The Early Years!
Even I think Steve Miller is perhaps past his sell-by date – but there was a time when he wasn’t and could reasonably be described as one of the most anonymous and least well-known superstars of his time. He was always much bigger in America than here with 60 million-plus albums sold, entry into the rock and roll hall of fame, said to be worth 40 million dollars and pretty much all based on hard work and talent and no hype. ‘Book of Dreams’, and, ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, sold by the container load but for me the real interest lies in those first five albums, a run ending with a disc imaginatively called, ‘Number 5′, and recorded in Nashville (actually you can add, ‘Recall the Beginning’, in there which was his 7th album, but that’s a bit untidy).
Whilst Miller became known in the late seventies and early 80s as the quintessence of radio-friendly or Adult Oriented Rock his earlier work was of a different order. This was in my view, his best period and excellently represented in the Capitol Records double set, ‘Anthology’.
I would never argue that everything was rosy in the garden and the first album, ‘Children of the Future’, has its share of clunky moments, ‘The Beauty of Time is that it’s Snowing (Psychedelic B B)’, being one of them. Well, I suppose they were all at it then, weren’t they? Already though, on the title song, you can hear that great voice. The standout here is, ‘Babys Calling me Home, with harpsichord and acoustic guitar – quite an imaginative mix though to be clear it is a Boz Scaggs rather than Miller track. From then on it’s straight-ahead R&B, as we used to know it, and blues with a pretty passable version (if you compare it with Clapton’s dreary effort) of, ‘Keys to the Highway’.
‘Sailor’, the second effort hits a creative high. The pose is of arrogant youth on the front cover, looking down at the world and clearly meaning business There are several great tracks on this album not least, ‘Song for our Ancestors’, making use of some found sound – the San Francisco bay fog-horn – before anyone else was really looking. If you’ve heard, ‘Song For’, on later live albums you will certainly agree that a synthesised fog-horn is nothing like the real thing! Miller couples this with some tasteful and minimal chorded guitar, washes of organ and cymbals before segueing beautifully into, ‘Dear Mary’, which highlights the beguiling voice and some great trumpet. It’s a simple lyric but there always seems to be that heartfelt vocal quality. I would not deny that a lot of his later writing veers toward maudlin cliches, but then rock lyrics without the music can often just be plain embarrassing. It’s a shame, ‘Quicksilver Girl’, doesn’t come in as the third track – it would make for a very cohesive triptych – instead, we get the very acceptable upbeat, ‘My Friend’.
‘Closing the first side of, ‘Sailor’, is what came to be one of Miller’s signature songs, ‘Living in the USA’, with excellent introductory harmonica and the refrain, ‘Living in a Plastic Land’, quite prescient really. ‘Gangster of Love’, introduces something else that runs through Miller’s music – a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself; “The last Wombat in Mecca’, on, ‘Your Saving Grace’, ‘Got Love Cause you Need it’, on, ‘Brave New World’, ‘Enter Maurice”, on, ‘Journey from Eden’; he’s having a laugh, in the best possible way – something of a rarity in that era. Side two gets genuinely down and dirty, starting with, ‘Lucky Man’, all the way through to, ‘Dime a Dance Romance’, so different to some of the fluff of the later years.
The third album, “Brave New World”, sports a pretty dark cover, maybe too dark for today and it feels distant from the hippy sensibility of the first album. Something endlessly repeated, to no great interest, is that McCartney plays on the final track, ‘My Dark Hour’, but the real master musician at work is Nicky Hopkins who pops up again on “Your Saving Grace”. Hopkins, in his unfortunately shortened life, appeared on more classic recordings than you can shake a stick at. “Got Love ‘Cause You Need It”, does have a very dubious lyric, “Anticipating what I’m gonna do to you”, though it does seem to be essentially tongue in cheek and, again, very much of its time. The most notable, if not necessarily the best track is, “Space Cowboy”, destined to become one of Miller’s various alter-egos.
Scattered elsewhere are some notable musical moments: the vocal harmonies of, ‘Brave New World’, and, ‘Celebration Song’, the driving drum intro to the upbeat, ‘Can You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat’, and the guitar throughout, most notably on “Kow Kow”, (which also has some highlights from Hopkins). The band’s diversity gets a showcase, from, ‘My Dark Hour’, to the acoustic prettiness of “Seasons”, the up-tempo, “Space Cowboy”, and back to the acoustic weirdness of, “LT’s Midnight Dream”. Miller can craft memorable guitar lines without the need to spend all his time at the bottom end of the neck – though he is capable of rocking out when required.
Next up, ‘Your Saving Grace’, has a cover that dates the contents, ‘Brotherhood – Consciousness – Peace – Conservation’ ; all very worthy if a little outdated. The highlight is a genuinely original version of a song so often recorded as to seem redundant, but Miller’s version of, ‘Motherless Children’, is the best I have heard – a great vocal and guitar both stark and bold with a cutting edge missing from the latter half of his career. The album starts with, ‘Little Girl’ – not the first or last song in Miller’s career to feature a notable bass riff. ‘Just a Passing Fancy’ is another one of the slightly dark tracks wherein Miller reduces his voice to a menacing semi monotone. Looking at the credits for this track are a reminder of how many feature able assistance from Ben Sidran. After the dark comes, ‘Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around’, joyful, sing-along and with great guitar – a great sentiment and as naive as they come!
‘Baby’s House’, changes the mood again and highlights the feeling that the more allusive and cryptic Miller becomes the less the lyrics convince. This extended track is an acquired taste but may well feature Hopkins’ finest moments with the band. Contrast that with the bit of fun that is, ‘The Last Wombat in Mecca’, – about which I offer no explanation other than that it might be a chemically assisted lyric? Nice guitar though. “Feel so Glad”, features another of those engaging breathy vocals at which Miller excels and more sterling work from Hopkins and a guitar that is happy to be well down in the mix. The last track, ‘Your Saving Grace’, is a personal favourite and I was heartened recently to hear someone else compare Tim Davis’ vocals to those of a soulful Stevie Winwood (the spoken word break in the middle could even be reminiscent of, ‘Hole in my Shoe’, and is equally dispensable). The organ and acoustic guitar backing beautifully augment the vocal which despite some research regarding the lyric on the Internet remains essentially impenetrable – although still pleasingly mysterious and suggestive. Sounds great though!
With, ‘Number 5′, Miller arrives in Nashville which seems to me, on the evidence of several tracks from the 3rd and 4th albums, absolutely no surprise. On this album, Miller showcases his already apparent 12-string skills and some country/blues-tinged tracks, another aspect of his wider repertoire; examples being, ‘Keys to the Highway’, ‘You’re so Fine’, ‘Mercury Blues’, and, ‘Come on in My Kitchen’.
‘Industrial Military Complex Hex’, and, ‘Jackson-Kent Blues’, take care of the political side of things – apparently, in his later career, Miller swore off any comments about such matters – looking at the lyrics to the latter it may well have been a wise move given the cliched naivete on display. It’s no, ‘Ohio’.
‘I was down in Nashville just payin’ my dues / Headed for Ohio when I read the news / ‘Bout the people demonstrating ‘gainst the President’s views / Four were shot down by the National Guard troops / Just like Uncle Sam I put on my fighting shoes / School shot down cause there’s no more to lose’.
The opener is, ‘Good Morning’, which somehow seems to morph, quite convincingly into, ‘God Rest you Merry Gentlemen’, (on which note the album’s last track closes). ‘I Love You’, is plainly and simply a great song and if that simplicity of approach does not always serve him well in other aspects of his writing it does in Miller’s love songs. ‘Going to the Country’, ‘Hot Chilli’, and, ‘Tokin’s’, continue in similarly light fashion, the former ending with an excellent guitar solo. ‘Hot Chilli’, essentially rather inconsequential, has a Tex-Mex feel and some nice trumpet whilst ‘Tokins’, is equally light if one of the few drug references in his oeuvre.
‘Going to Mexico’, changes things quite dramatically and moves away from the country sound with a dynamic tale of a broken relationship – with yet more great guitar. Then another favourite track, ‘Steve Millers Midnight Tango’, – another of those ever so slightly unsettling tunes, complete with harpsichord, about love and yet delivered in that flat monotone,
‘You have a cup of coffee and another cigarette / You’re waiting for your baby but she hasn’t shown yet / And if she doesn’t make it, well you’ve got no regrets / Because you can’t win or lose if you ain’t made no bets / And then she comes in walkin’ lookin’ fine as you please / You wanna stop and drop right down on your knees / And say, baby’
Lyrically his writing fares much better in affairs of the heart than it does politics.
The album finishes off in a swirl of strings with, ‘Never Kill Another Man’, with Miller on much safer, if still mysterious, lyrical ground. The arrangement is undeniably dramatic whatever it is he is actually saying.
So here’s why I love this period of his music.
There’s variety; humour, romance, politics (of a sort – but he tries) and sometimes just downright weirdness (fog-horns, Bulldogs with passports, pet Alligators and the like). Some of the songs are hard to fathom (let’s not mention later effort, ‘The Joker’, and, ‘The pompatis / tos / tous of love’ ) but some have a direct simplicity that is captivating.
There is a wonderful array of musicians involved who make great contributions on all fronts; the great Boz Scaggs, Nicky Hopkins, Jesse Davis, Ben Sidran, Charley McCoy, Curley Cook, Wayne Moss et al.
Remember, he does go by the sobriquet Stevie ‘Guitar’ Miller and there is a reason for that. He plays excellent 12 string as well as full-on and dynamic electric guitar with some great, imaginatively memorable soloing – and that warm, plaintive voice just seals the deal. Anyone else singing, ‘I Love You’, as on, ‘Number 5′, would run the risk of sounding ridiculous and twee – Miller just seems to have the capacity to make it honest and convincing.
Miller’s later work may be worthy enough and there are moments on the two big-sellers, ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, and ‘Book of Dreams’. ‘Mercury Blues’, for instance, has a real grungy feel but the invention and interest declined over time. I can’t even begin to contemplate an album called, ‘Bingo’, or a track called, ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’, and I declined the opportunity to see Miller on his last tour, so probably never will.
But listen, if you will, to those magical early days, some misses for sure but plenty of interesting and imaginative hits and all five albums completed between 1968 and 1970. And by the way, the second side of, ‘Recall the Beginning … a Journey from Eden’, is well up to the mark. However, don’t go anywhere near the sixth album, the contract filling live album, ‘Rock Love’.
Here’s a YouTube concert clip of the early band in action, the quality isn’t always good, but….. well it is 50 years old.
And here’s a good review of this phase of Miller’s career. I swear I only read it after I wrote my article – some of the conclusions are spookily similar!