01. Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller Band
The Very Best Of (1991)

Steve Miller Band album cover

In keeping with the goals of this project (see CONTEXT for details), I went for one of Miller's best-of discs, choosing the one that contains all of his 1970s and early 1980s hits, skipping his more recent stuff.  As always, I did no research into these records before listening.  I just played them and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  The only editing to my comments was for spelling and clarity.

"Space Intro"
These spacey intros were popular in the 1970s.  E.L.O. was the king of them of course.  Why was no one doing this in the guitar era?  They're always synthesizers.  It's like "look!  We have a synth!  We're trendy!  But... what do we do with it?".  These spacey intros are the one thing the Beatles never did.  They had to wait for their successor Jeff Lynne to figure it out.  Then Steve Miller nicked the idea.  So did Gene Simmons on his 1978 solo album (he shamelessly grabbed the entire intro to E.L.O.'s Fire on High wholesale).  And Rush.  And everyone else.

"Fly Like An Eagle"
This song has a pretty good groove.  A lot of space in it.  Are there two different Hammond organs playing?  The synth effects are mixed really loud in the second half of the song, they overwhelm the song.  They need to be half the volume and with some reverb.  We got the message during "Space Intro": yes, we know you've got a synth.  This is 1976.  It shouldn't be a big deal by this point.  Is Steve Miller a guitar player?   He's buried here.  He's barely doing anything.  Dynamically this song keeps threatening to go somewhere, and then it sort of collapses.  There are no verses.  Just a sort of intro thing ("time keeps on slippin'..."), then a chorus, then more spacey stuff.  Then it repeats.  This song probably feels deep if you're stoned.

"The Joker"
Ok, jumping back to 1973 here.  This thing was a #1 hit?   The band sound bored.  There's no urgency here.  I guess there isn't supposed to be.  But they sound like they've played this song too many times and are phoning it in.  I wonder how many takes they did.  This snare sound is pretty solid for 1973.  It sounds triggered, but they hadn't invented drum triggers yet.  Did they remix it later?  What's up with the "wolf whistle" guitar slide when Steve sings that people call him "Maurice"?  Is Maurice supposed to be a sexy name or something?  His vocal has been a little buried in both songs.  At least he plays guitar on this one.  They need to change up the underlying ostinato by the third verse, it's getting old.  Miller seems to hate adding rhythmic variations, key changes, extra layers, anything a little different to keep a song fresh.  They all end the same way they began with no development.  This song doesn't deserve to be almost four and a half minutes long.  It's a three-minute idea.  Needs to have ended well before the 4:00 mark for sure.  He's not adding anything new during that last minute.

Into the eighties.  The tempo of this one jumps up after the relaxed "The Joker".  But the groove still isn't pushing forward.  The last two songs perhaps accomplished what they needed to do by laying back and chilling with a lazy groove, but to seem relevant in the 1980s, this song really needs some urgency.  That's the one thing that the classic rock bands who tried to "go new wave" never got right.  The twitchy manic energy of Talking Heads or Devo is always missing from older bands who tried to update their sound.  The Steve Miller Band sound as bored here as they did on "The Joker", but this song really needs them to be ahead of the beat.  Seems like the players were just feeling stoned when they needed to be excited.  These lyrics suck.  They sound like a pre-adolescent wrote them.  Rock doesn't need to be deep by any means, but for fuck's sake Steve, can we try just a little?  And once again: the synth.  Guitar is buried and not doing much anyway.  Maybe Steve is secretly a shitty guitar player?  Or, if the delivery of his material is any indication, he's just lazy as hell.  This middle section with the bouncy boinging guitars sounds like it was done with several takes on different tracks.  There is a good idea there, contemporary to its era, but not executed well.  And the almost-melodic part at the end of that section is played sloppily.  The fade at the end of the song doesn't work.  This song needs a proper cold ending.

"Rock N' Me"
Another #1 hit.  At least we've got Steve playing some real guitar here.  The band almost sound awake, there's almost some forward momentum here.  But man that guitar tone is crap.  He's all over the place timing-wise.  The songwriting has some development to it at least.  A bit.  It more or less kind of goes somewhere.  Oh, right at 2:03 coming into that verse, it sounds like there's an edit there.  This one actually fades a bit early.  I'm not loving it, but it should start to fade eight bars later.  The idea can sustain itself a little longer.

Another fucking spacey synth intro?  When is this from?  1977!  Dude!  Stop.  You just did this.  Miller has a real issue with coming up with fresh ideas.  Maybe that's why all of these songs are just too simple and repetitive for their own good.  

"Jet Airliner"
His 1976 spacey intro led into a song about flying (like an eagle), and his 1977 spacey intro ("Threshold") also leads into a song about flying (in an airplane).  Same deal as before: his guitar is sloppy, there's nothing inventive here, and the song never takes advantage of any opportunities to develop the musical or lyrical ideas.  His tunes are meant to be radio friendly.  We're not looking for a level of complexity heard in King Crimson or Rush here.  But pick any of these Miller tunes, and they could all do with just a few more musical ideas per song.  And some tighter playing.  This stuff is just low-effort.  No one here sounds like they're trying very hard in either songwriting or performing.  But somehow he kept having hits with it.  Sigh.

"Jungle Love"
Oh no! Another spacey intro!  Oh wait, it's just a few seconds.  Phew.  What's up with the whistling?  With a "jungle" theme, maybe they're going Martin Denny on us.  Birdcalls and frog sounds made by band members were good enough for Denny, so why not Steve Miller?  Ok, good, the band sounds awake here, and the lift into the chorus is the kind of basic "songwriting 101" trick that Miller needed to have figured out three albums ago.  Not sure I'm liking the lead vocals being doubled and hard-panned.  They're also sibilant as hell.  The engineering here sucks hard.  The "J" every time he sings "Jungle" is blowing out his mic, as well as all the "S" and "Z" sounds.  That's so easy to manage when recording, and can also be mitigated when mixing.  Yes, even in the 1970s.  Who was asleep behind the desk?  The double-tracks are not tight with each other either; that's on Steve, not the engineer.  But the producer should have been pushing Steve harder to get those right.  This album followed an LP with a #1 hit and a #2 hit on it.  Therefore, it's likely that they had the budget to get this one sounding right, but they still screwed it up.  See, the cold ending - like the one needed on "Abracadabra" - it works here.

"Take The Money And Run"
The "two young lovers on the run" lyric is tedious.  From Bonnie and Clyde forward, and maybe before that... Romeo and Juliet?... this theme has been done to death.  Whatever.  The handclaps are fun.  The guitar is sloppy and bad sounding here too.  That rhythm guitar in the left channel just sounds like whomever was playing it gave no fucks, and the engineer gave even less.

Oh, this is Steve Miller?  Never knew that.  This song is familiar to me.  So far, it's the best example of his songwriting limitations.  It basically just does one thing repetitively for three minutes, and that one thing is not really interesting, musically or lyrically.  How was this thing a single?  This might have grooved when played live if the right people were on stage.  Has any listener ever been emotionally moved by this song, ever?  And that solo that comes in!  Ow.  It is musically crappy, and mixed so damned loud.  Then - of course - the synths doubling the vocalizations.  The song never peaks. It just waffles along with a zero-effort lyric and then fades into a - wait for it - spacey synth OUTRO!  Shoot me now.  Ok, that's all of the songs I was familiar with.  Let's continue into a few more that I don't know.

"Keeps Me Wondering Why"
This was a non-charting follow-up to "Abracadabra".  The stabbing square-wave synth.  Is he trying to go Devo?  Well, it's not working.  Once again, he doesn't know how to effectively use a synth in his music, and he really needs to learn because he hasn't done anything impressive with a guitar yet.  The verses build nicely into a promising pre-chorus that makes it seem like he took some songwriting lessons, but then the song develops into a totally lame chorus.  There's some vocal layering after the second chorus that shows some production ambition that we haven't heard from this band before, but it doesn't save the song.

"Wild Mountain Honey"
Ah!  Martin Denny!  This thing totally feels like a rock band channeling Martin Denny.  In the intro at least.  The bendy synth leads are effective too.  But then his vocals take over, pushed way on top of the mix - more so than ever before - and are over-compressed.  He is also struggling with pitch.  Maybe that's why his vocals were always so low in the mix on much of his earlier material.  The man has pitch issues.  This is from 1976, the year before "Jungle Love".  The band's lazy and laid back vibe works here, this is the kind of song suited to that unhurried groove.

"Winter Time"
Another whoosy synth intro.  Are you joking, Steve Miller?  Well you are "The Joker".  Make it stop.  Oh, I see, the whooshes this time are supposed to evoke winter winds.  Do I detect some Mamas and Papas here, in lyric and in feel?  For a bit. Why not just commit to that: the backing harmonies would sound much better with a woman singing them.  But again, this song takes one idea, repeats it, and never really develops dynamically.  It also starts and ends with the same amount of energy.  This was the b-side to "Swingtime".  Swing time, winter time, I'm not sure I have time for much more Steve Miller.

"The Stake"
This one has a bluesy vibe.  This suits the band.  I personally dislike this southern blues-rock sound, but it seems to play more to this band's limited strengths.  Really, this one feels like what they should have been doing all along.  The guitar tone sounds decent at least.  The guitar tones have never been this good on any of their other records.  It's from the same album as "Jungle Love", "Jet Airliner", and "Swingtime" so why aren't those songs, the hits, recorded as well as this deep cut?

"The Window"
This one takes us back to the beginning.  The organ player from "Fly Like an Eagle" is here (it's from the same album), and we're also staying with the bluesy vibe.  I'm really not into this personally, but like "The Stake" it's objectively better performed and recorded than his hits.  The songwriting is no more inventive, but I am at least buying the sincerity of the performances more.  But yeah, that synthesizer - again - needs to come down a notch and play nice with the guitar, rather than fighting with it.  

Is the Steve Miller Band one of those acts whose hardcore fans hate the "sellout radio hits" and love them for the deep cuts on the albums?  If I want to be charitable after kind of blasting them a lot in this post, I'm going to just assume that's the case.  I'm going to declare - with limited evidence - that Miller's band are best when playing blues rock, and they spat out some pop hits to pay the bills.  Rather successfully.  Stylistically, I am not personally a fan of "The Stake" or "The Window", but these songs are clearly the band in their element, demonstrating what they should have been doing all along.

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: 
"Jungle Love", in spite of the tragic quality of the vocal recording.

Next post: Asia, coming May 01, 2021.

3 thoughts on “01. Steve Miller Band

  1. Ghod, how I HATE Steve Miller band! They were as crass and meretricious as the day was long! The only Steve Miller Band song I could ever bear, and I was exposed to about half of the contents of this album on AM Top 40 and FM Rock from ’73-’79, was the ’68 hit “Living In The U.S.A.” which got a hell of a lot of airplay on my local FM Rock station a full decade later.. “Abracadabra” I was exposed to on MTV. We’ve discussed that on as part of the Then after that, nothing! Thank goodness. As a ten year old, the repulsive hit “The Joker” made my flesh crawl. The lyric “I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree” made me want to die whenever I heard that song, and I heard it a lot since it was a #1 smash. Then the wolf whistle wah-wah lick in that song was insult to injury.

    Everyone maintains that Steve Miller really was a blues musician but one that paid the bill with his poor pop hits. It’s been so long [but not long enough] since I heard the songs I am familiar with, that I have no insights to the production issues your engineer’s ear brings to your criticism. But even so, the fact that you cite the deep cut “blues” tracks “The Stake” and “The Window” [which I’ve never heard] as perhaps the saving grace of this disc speaks volumes.

    Looking to the future, I actually bought the “Asia” album on release since the Prog-pedigree of the band [John Wetton’s work with King Crimson has never been anything but great to my ears] still had a little sway with me in my last year of high school. I didn’t erect a firewall to Prog completely in 1979 but I did eject the bulk of it from my Record Cell. Can’t wait to hear your insights.

    1. >Everyone maintains that Steve Miller really was a blues musician but one that paid the bill with his poor pop hits.

      Ah, thanks for confirming my suspicions. This is so clear to me, even after having listened to just this one disc by him.

      Well my friend, as of now, my Asia comments are now live. I think I was a little more gentle toward them compared to Miller. Thanks for kicking off the comments!

  2. Thanks for putting up with this album long enough to write the review. Having read your “context” post, I can say that my musical roots and awakening are similar to yours. I remember the Steve Miller Band’s music as being very common on the radio in the Seventies, but hearing it didn’t spark any urge either to turn up the volume or change the station. It was just, you know, *there*, week in and week out. And I don’t remember any of my friends being hardcore Steve Miller fans, although most of them had at least one of Steve’s albums in their record collections. (Because who among us, in those days, didn’t see our friends’ record collections and instantly start thumbing through them? Hey, you’ve got to see if they have any of the same albums as you, or if they have a new one you’ve been meaning to pick up, or if there’s anything new, cool and interesting that they might let you borrow.)

    But what astounded me was that, a decade later, I was meeting so many people who were into Steve Miller’s music in a serious way. It seemed like a time when Steve’s music was being rediscovered … except that these people weren’t digging into any deep cuts, or exploring Steve’s roots. They were just listening to the Seventies hits, and seemingly taking them at face value. I couldn’t believe how many people I knew who would include “Jet Airliner” or “Take the Money and Run” in their mix tapes. Nearly everyone I knew had a copy of SMB’s *Greatest Hits ’74-’78* (an album that’s sold 15 million copies in the US, according to the RIAA). And Steve became an annual fixture on the touring circuit, hitting Red Rocks every summer — and selling out, year after year. And he’s still touring, hitting the mid-sized amphitheaters around the country every summer, from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma. All this, for a guitarist who admitted in a 1980 interview that he hadn’t learned a new guitar lick in 20 years. (Let that sink in: he was admitting to that, in 1980.) I didn’t get it: what were these people hearing that my ears had missed?

    I’ve tried a few times to re-evaluate Steve Miller’s hits — not by sitting and listening to any album, but by pausing to listen more closely whenever I hear one of his songs. (And I get to do that frequently, because those damn tunes still are ubiquitous.) And I always come back empty-handed. Just as you say, he’s a weak songwriter, a lazy singer, and a guitarist of very limited ability — arguably the most overrated musician of his generation. And he seems determined to work with musicians who won’t upstage him … which, in this case, really is saying something. I guess I’d chalk it up to people’s tendency to maintain a soft spot for the music that reminds them of when they were young. Being that Steve’s music was inescapable in the Seventies, that would account for a lot.

    Before I wrap it up, I’d like to invite you and your readers to check out “Twenty Flight Rock,” a weekly radio program hosted by yours truly. It’s a two-hour show full of great songs from the punk/post-punk/New Wave era, along with newer tracks from up & coming artists and a few deep cuts from the classic rock canon. Fridays at 8:30PM Pacific time, streaming live at http://www.kser.org

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