The Steve Miller Band

Some people call him the Space Cowboy.  Yeah.  Some call him the Gangster of Love.  Some people call him Maurice.  Because he misheard the lyrics to a song.

But I’m listening to my collection of Steve Miller Band albums again, and I thought I’d write out my thoughts on the music he made.  I had forgotten just how much I love some of this music.

I was first acquainted with his music by listening to Classic Rock radio in the early 1990s.  The Steve Miller Band was, and still is, a staple of that format.  This was before I got sick of the radio, so I took it all in.  I bought two of his greatest hits compilations, the well-known multi-million seller Greatest Hits 1974-78

and a then-new compilation called The Best of 1968–1973.

Both of these came on the cassette format, which was the style at the time.  But the thing that made this music have an even more profound effect on me than usual was sleep deprivation.

That’s right, because of the particular job I had back then, I worked a lot of overtime at certain times of the year.  During one very busy period, I came home during a break between shifts, with not enough time to sleep, and to pass the time I listened to that second compilation, the one with songs from ’68 to ’73.  Holy shit.  I’ve rarely had music hit me emotionally that hard.

I was already a fan of songs like Fly Like an Eagle, Jet Airliner, and Take the Money and Run.  But now I heard the kind of music he was making before he made all that stuff.  Wow.

I should perhaps save my talking about that for the album-by-album run-through, so here we go.

1968 Children of the Future

This album is good.  It’s a pretty straightforward cross of Blues-Rock and Psychedelia.  If that’s your thing, you’ll really like it.  Most of the album’s songs run together, and most of side one is played like a big medley, so it’s kind of interesting that way.  Oh, if you’re a Boz Scaggs fan, then you probably know that he was also in the band at this time too, on guitar and singing some songs.  Drummer Tim Davis also sings a couple of songs.  He had a great voice, which was missed when he left the band a few albums later.

1968 Sailor

Here’s an album that might just be the best one the SMB made before The Joker came out.  I might as well mention album covers too, while I’m at it.  This is probably the best album cover a Steve Miller Band album has ever had, just from the concept alone.  Look!  They sailed to the Moon!  But it’s a damn fine album, and it’s worth getting on its own, beyond any compilations.  Even if it does end with an obvious re-write of Jumpin’ Jack Flash.  This album sounds like the band dropped the “generic” feel that many of the songs on the first album had, and added some of their own individual stamp on things.  Nice.

1969 Brave New World

Here we have the first lineup changes, at least since the records started coming out.  Boz Scaggs and the very proficient keyboardist Jim Peterman left, bringing in long-time member Ben Sidran.  Steve did most of the guitar work himself on this, and there was some session work by the famous Nicky Hopkins, and some guy named Paul McCartney.

I remember that this was one of the very last CDs I ever found, being long out of print.  This was a recurring theme with SMB music back when I was buying his albums on CD, it seems.  Most of the songs on this album are on other compilations, and they’re some of the best songs from that period.  The remainders, frankly, aren’t all that good.  Kow Kow, Seasons, and Space Cowboy are reasons to get this album, but I’d actually suggest a compilation instead.

Oh, and speaking of Paul McCartney, he’s credited as “Paul Ramon”, but you can definitely tell it’s him.  He sings, plays guitar, and plays drums on the song My Dark Hour.  Steve Miller was in Abbey Road to record, and it happened to be when Paul was there too.  And it happened to be on the very night of that most acrimonious of arguments that led to the breakup of The Beatles – whether or not to sign with Allen Kline.

1969 Your Saving Grace

My thoughts on this album are a lot like my thoughts on the one that preceded it.  There are some absolutely fantastic songs on this, like Baby’s House, and Your Saving Grace (one of my two favourite SMB songs), but I think that there are some real duds on here.  This might have the widest gap in quality between songs on an album by this band so far.  There are only a couple of tunes here that weren’t on compilations, and even one that did – Motherless Children – is unspeakably boring.  Pick this one up only if you’re a completionist, because you probably got the good songs through a compilation.

Oh, and I kind of like this album art too, for what it is.

1970 Number 5

Ah, generic.  Generic album title, generic album art.  But some of these songs are really expanding what Steve Miller’s music is all about.  Going to the Country is a real hoot.  There are also a couple of “political” songs on here.  Oh yes, the dreaded “political” song.  But they’re alright.  One of them was included in truncated form on the Steve Miller Box set from 1994, so that’s how I heard parts of it first.  It’s called Jackson-Kent Blues, and it’s about the same event that inspired the CSNY song Ohio.  Dark topic, but I like Steve’s song way better.

There are also some really bad songs on here.  Hot Chili and Tokin’s might have sounded good in rehearsal, but good god damn, they needed more work.  Maybe they should have just come up with better songs, or better lyrics, at least, for those two.

1971 Rock Love

At this point, I need to talk a bit about what was going on in Steve Miller’s personal life.  From what I’ve been able to read on the (never untrue and always accurate) Interwebs, in 1971, Steve Miller’s band had basically broken up.  It was just him and the bass player.  Still under contract to Capitol Records, he toured and started to record a new album.

Then he got in a car accident and broke his neck.  You’d think that would be the end of the album project, or at least put it on hold.  But you’re not Capitol Records.  They put out three “unreleased songs from a live recording they had made, and slapped four studio recordings together that ranged from alright, to unfinished, to rehearsal, and called it an album.

And it flopped.  It almost killed Steve Miller’s career.  I’ve been oddly fascinated by this album since I first learned about it, and then found out that it’s never been reissued.  (I’m still confused as to whether the CD versions of this and the next album are “official”, so take that with a grain of salt.)  But let’s examine what we actually have here, because although it’s the worst Steve Miller Band album, it’s not all that bad.

Side one is the live side, and it opens with The Gangster is Back, and that would become something of a live favourite for him.  It’s an energetic enough opener, and his band isn’t bad or anything.  The quality of the live recording is actually really good, so there’s that.

Blues Without Blame is alright too, though it’s straight blues.  So your enjoyment of that track will depend on whether or not you like electric guitar blues rock.  Love Shock starts off really well, but it’s over eleven minutes long, so you just know there will be some early 70s rock band fuckery going on, and yes, there is a drum solo.  Hey, the audience needs a piss and a smoke break!  For an album, we could have done without it.

Side two is where it gets inconsistent.  It starts off alright, with Let Me Serve You.  The recording is actually rather poor, but it’s kind of catchy.  Rock Love is next, and this is actually a pretty good song.  It doesn’t stand up to the best songs on his previous albums though, it’s merely the best song on this album.

Then comes Harbor Lights.  This is obviously an unfinished song.  Come on!  I would be so pissed if I was making an album and my record company put out an album with something like this on it. The lyrics are interesting, and a bit different than what Steve usually sang about, but I would have preferred to hear a finished version. The last song is obviously a studio jam, and should have also not been released.  That’s the theme of the whole album, in fact – should have not been released.

So there it is.  This album sounds like a snapshot of Steve Miller trying to make an album in 1971 and then having to stop because he broke his neck, and the record company cobbling something together anyway despite him.  It’s not very good, but then again, it shouldn’t exist – certainly not in this form.

1972 Recall the Beginning…A Journey from Eden

When we last checked in with our hero Steven Haworth Miller, he had just been screwed over by Capitol Records.  And now for no reason at all I would like to mention the literary device known as foreshadowing.

At this point, I need to talk a bit about what was going on in Steve Miller’s personal life.  From what I’ve been able to read on the (never untrue and always accurate) Interwebs, in 1972, Steve Miller had recovered from his car accident, requisitioned his groove back, and put together a new band.  Shout out to the shockingly underrated Gerald Johnson, who played bass on this and three other Steve Miller albums.  Damn it Wikipedia, what do you mean he’s not notable!  Listen to all them notes!

So the new and improved Steve Miller Band wrote and recorded an actual album, not some thrown-together monstrosity fastened with tape and staples.  And how does it sound?  It’s… good.  It’s a mixed bag, to be honest.  Side one has a few duds, like High on You Mama, and The Sun Is Going Down.  But side two is really strong, start to finish.  The album closer and title track is actually my favourite Steve Miller song of all time.  And the sound quality is much improved over Rock Love because this album was, you know, actually finished.

Or was it?  You see, it’s really hard to find out information about this album, and why it too was never reissued (see previous disclaimer).  I can see and hear why Steve doesn’t like Rock Love, and didn’t want it to be reissued.  But this?  This is better than Number 5, if you ask me.  This is a really enjoyable album.  I like it very much.  So why no reissue?  Why no CD?  Why no Cassette?  Why no 8-track?

Over the years I’ve read that it’s because 1) Capitol Records overdubbed strings and female singers on some tracks without Steve’s knowledge or permission.  or 2) Capitol records asked a different guitarist to finish a song because Steve broke his hand in a motorcycle accident.

I really don’t know how much of that is true, or if any of it is.  I just don’t know.  But the fact remains that when all of his albums came out on CD in the 1990s, this wasn’t among them.  And it’s a shame, because it’s a very good album.  It’s not his best, but it’s actually almost completely skipped over by compilations.  So if you just pick those up, you’re going to miss out on these songs.

1972 Anthology

You know what this means.  Compilation albums usually mean that the contract is up, the band is done, the career is over, the artist is run dry, etc.  We know this wasn’t the case with Steve Miller, so maybe it was just Capitol Records who thought so.  The previous album didn’t sell much better than Rock Love, so they might have seen the writing on the wall.

But this is a good compilation if you can get it.  It makes a nice bookend to the more famous and widely available Greatest Hits 1974-78 collection.  But I’ll always prefer that other compilation I mentioned.

1973 The Joker

Now this is a hit record.  But oddly, only one song from this album gets much recognition these days, and that’s the title track.  It’s one of his most famous songs, of course, but this whole album is absolutely fantastic.  There are no bad songs on this album.  And if you happen to get a compilation that only has The Joker off of this, get this album in its entirety.  Otherwise you’ll miss about eight great songs that you need to hear.  And damn, listen to Gerald Johnson on the bass!

1976 Fly Like an Eagle

So, I can’t really talk about this album or the next, unless I mention the 13-million selling elephant in the room, which is Greatest Hits 1974-78.  This is, of course, the point in Steve’s career where he became Mr. #1 selling radio superstar, co-head-lining with the Eagles in 1978.  And he was at the top of his game musically.  He could sing circles around anyone else, and that vocal acrobatic style was all over his music.

But this album came not-so-hot on the heels of The Joker, which was released three long years before.  Three years is a long time in the music industry, and when he told his record company he was taking some time off after the success of The Joker, they were stunned.

But Steve had gotten Hepatitis while he was touring, so he needed to rest.  He moved back home to Texas to recover.  Then he put a new band together with some old members returning, and built a recording studio in his home.  Over the next couple of years, he wrote and recorded Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams.

And the music speaks for itself.  It’s part of the reason why Classic Rock exists as a genre.  These songs are almost as popular with some people today as they were in the late 70s.  I remember going out drinking in the 1990s, and hearing Swingtown and Rock’n Me on the jukebox, no matter what bar I walked into.

Despite the sheer overwhelming number of hits on this album and on Book of Dreams, there are a couple of real stinkers – specifically You Send Me and Blue Odyssey/Sweet Maree.  I’ve read that the dumbass talking over You Send Me is supposedly from a Cheech & Chong film, but it doesn’t make it suck any less.

1977 Book of Dreams

See above.

Nah, I have to say more about this one.  It’s packed with hits too, and actually doesn’t have a song as terrible as You Send Me on it.  But overall, I think it’s slightly less brilliant than Fly Like an Eagle.

There’s also a funny story I read in the Box Set from 1994, about how Steve paid thousands of dollars for a synthesizer, and spent all kinds of time painstakingly setting it up to make the intro sound to Jungle Love.  Then a few months after the album came out, you could buy a toy raygun that made the exact same sound.

1981 Circle of Love

I already mentioned the Greatest hits collection that came out in 1978, so on to his next album.  You may have noticed that this came out in the 80s.  I’ll come out and say it, the era of great Steve Miller music is over.  There will be really good songs from now on, and even really great moments in those songs, but there are no more great Steve Miller albums from this point on.  Oh well.

This here is an album that I personally think should not exist.  Sorry, Steve.  The production on this album is absolutely terrible.  Sorry again, Steve.  And that guy singing is out of tune!  Ouch!

Seriously, this is the same guy who became one of the pantheon of rock gods in the late 70s?  And he’s churning out bland paint-by-the-numbers shuffle and boogie rock for the 80s?  The one decent track on this album, were it recorded and mixed well, is Circle of Love, and even that is just a shabby re-write of Something to Believe In from The Joker album.

And what is this on side 2?  It’s a 16½ minute song about US politics, which is actually just two repeating riffs and then a bunch of sound effects… and oh yeah… Steve Miller rapping.  I’m not making this up, have a listen.

Hear Steve Miller rapping

His flow is whack

We must eject this and

Send him back

Honest to god, he raps like a grade 10 student reading a book report in front of the class.  And I just can’t wrap my head around the way this album is mixed.  The drums are way too quiet, and Steve’s voice and guitar are way too loud in the mix.  And there’s horrible use of audio compression all over this album, especially the first song.  It sounds bloody awful.

But let’s say something good about it, because it is actually better than Rock Love.  Um… okay, there you go.  This album is better than Rock Love.

1982 Abracadabra

Okay, now this is better.  This might just be the best album that Steve Miller put out in the 80s, although that’s not saying much.  Steve actually sings in tune again, the album’s production isn’t shit, and the songs (mostly) don’t suck.  The song Abracadabra was even a hit for Steve, and I think it was his biggest 80s hit.  But don’t go looking for any deep meaning in the lyrics.  The lyrics might just be the dumbest he’s ever written.  I read in the Steve Miller Band box set liner notes from 1994 that it took him about 10 minutes to write these lyrics.  I believe that.

The opening track Keeps Me Wondering Why is actually a really, really great song too.  I’m not sure if such a thing exists as a Steve Miller Band 81-93 hits collection, but that would be a great way to get these good to great songs without all the chaff.  But if you cant find or assemble such a collection, this would be the 80s SMB album to get.

1983 Steve Miller Band Live!

There’s a band that called one of their live albums “Greatest Hits Played Faster”, because the running joke is that’s all live albums really are.  Well, listen to this one, if you’re in doubt as to why.  It’s basically 80% bona fide hits, with two perennial concert favourites.  The band is professional throughout, without any surprises, except for the “New Wave” take on some of the parts and passages here and there.  And honestly, it makes the record sound dated.  Norton Buffalo shines though, and it’s nice to hear a virtuoso on the harmonica when he goes to town.

But these hits really are played faster.  The first few times I listened to it, there was something “off” about it.  Then I realized that this album (ripped directly from compact disc) is too fast.  The pitch and speed are wrong on at least my release, giving everything a slight case of the chipmunk effect.  I fixed that with my audio editor, and cleaned up and EQ’d the sound, but this is still not a great live set.  There are live performances from the 70s that are much more worth listening to.  This would only be for completists.

1984 Italian X Rays

Look at that cover.  Look at it.  Accept it before it destroys you.

Steve Miller invented the vaporwave aesthetic.

Now that we have that out of the way, as you can probably guess, this album is full 80s.  And I mean FULL fucking 80s.  Synths, samples, hell, this was apparently one of the first all-digital albums to ever be recorded.  The digital recording console came from Japan, with instructions in Japanese, and took a very long time to figure out.  At least that’s what Steve claimed in the liner notes to that 1994 box set.

So how does it sound?  Have you ever been shopping in a store, and heard an airy, inoffensive, bright and breezy Steve Miller song about a bumble bee making honey?  That’s from this album.  That song is called One in a Million, and it’s… I honestly don’t know why it became a hit.  It’s alright, I guess.  Out of the Night is a better song, and the last one Steve Miller wrote with Tim Davis.  There are some more inoffensive “Adult Contemporary” type muzak songs on here, a couple of short synth instrumentals like on his late 70s albums, and… oh god… Bongo Bongo.

Some things should never leave the studio.  That is a seriously cool album cover though.

1986 Living in the 20th Century

Speaking of cool album covers, this one is another great one.  I’ve noticed Steve likes horses.

And this album is something of a return to form for him.  Steve started off as an electric blues musician, so this album takes him back to that style – but it’s still steeped in a mid 80s style, and it sounds like it came out of 1986, that’s for sure.  There are indeed some throw-away generic blues moments, but there are some really great songs on here that are definitely among the best he released in this decade.

Slinky, Maelstrom, and Behind the Barn are worth checking out.  I remember immediately liking them from the 94 box set, and they fit in well on this album.  And then there’s the hit from this album, I Want to Make the World Turn Around.  It is for my money, the best song Steve recorded and released during this entire decade.  That’s even considering the appearance of Kenny G on sax.  I think his sax solo in this song is pretty damn great, to be honest.  It’s not cloyingly maudlin like the other fluff I’ve heard from him.

So maybe if you’re looking for another Steve Miller Band album from the 80s, get this one too.

1988 Born 2 B Blue

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA MY EARS!!!!!

I don’t know why I got this album.  There were three prominent warning shots on the 1994 box set.  Did I pay heed?  No.  I have no one to blame but myself.

I don’t know why this is a “solo” Steve Miller album, and not a Steve Miller Band album.  It was his band, his name was on the outside of the building, so to speak.  Oh well.  In any case, this is thoroughly skippable, unless you are upset right now at what I’m saying about the genre of “Easy Listening”, or at what I said about that little goblin Kenny G a few paragraphs ago.

1993 Wide River

So half a decade passed, and we all heard from the mighty Steve Miller Band again.  There are some great songs on this album, and the title track got a lot of radio play from what I remember.  I also remember Steve started touring again, and this was when the whole “Classic Rock” revival was happening, so it was good to have him back.  I like this album.

But I do have to complain about some glaring flaws that it has.  Remember when I said that Steve was singing out of tune in 1981?  Yeah… he got out of practice with his voice again since 1988 it seems.  And this album is even worse for him singing out of tune.  He’s multi-tracked out of tune with himself on several songs, and oh god… I wish he had spent some more time in rehearsals.

The guitar playing is great though, but the way this album is mixed, that’s almost all you get.  Steve’s voice and guitar are loud and proud in the mix, and the drums might as well be on the forthcoming album.  This album is mixed even worse than Circle of Love, I’m afraid.

I’ve always hoped that there would be a professional and enthusiastically done proper remix (not just remaster) of this album.  If I had the resources and access to the master tapes, I would cut the reverb on the drums, mix the drums louder, mix the guitars and vocals quieter, and I would autotune Steve’s vocals.  Not to make him sound like T-Pain, but the way autotune was intended to be used on singers when it was invented.  Because it really needs to be done.

But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.  So enjoy this album if you can get past the guy singing way too loud out of tune, and the hint-o-drums effect that some times accompanies the tracks.

2010 Bingo!

AKA “Old Men Got The Blues Volume 1”.

Some people really like the blues.  Some people really like the shit that they play on the radio these days, so there’s that too.  But I personally find straight up blues to get really boring after a while.  And 40 minutes of straight up blues is about 30 minutes too much for me.

But your mileage may vary.  The incarnation of the Steve Miller Band you can hear on this album is actually really, really, really good.  I’d say they haven’t been this tight of a band since Abracadabra.  And this album sounds a lot better production-wise than the last one, or any since Abracadabra, really.  Steve’s voice has matured and lowered, and he’s in key again throughout, thankfully.  But oddly, he had his touring vocalist Sonny Charles sing about half the vocals on this album.

Though it seems odd to me, it gives this album immediate similarities to the first several Steve Miller Band albums, with their blues rock sound, and the vocal presence of Tim Davis.  That’s kind of nice, and it definitely makes this collection of songs sound more like the Steve Miller Band than plenty of the albums released in the 80s.

But there are no original compositions at all to be found here.  These are all covers.  So weigh all that of you’re considering getting this.  The audio quality sounds great, the playing is professional, and Steve’s guitar and voice are in top shape again.  It’s just an album of blues covers.

2011 Let Your Hair Down

See above.  But how bout that pun!  Huh?  Huh?

This album was recorded at the same time as Bingo!, and released a year later, kind of like what Steve did with Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams.

2002 King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents the Steve Miller Band

I have to talk about this one too, even though it’s out of print.  You might be able to find the same audio content under the title “The Sessions”, which was released in 2007, but without all the great liner notes in the CD booklet.

It’s really sad that this is out of print, because the two live concerts here are incredible documents of Steve Miller in his prime.  The first one is from 1973, to support the album The Joker.  The second performance is from 1976, after Fly Like an Eagle had been released.

Unlike his “official” live album from 1983, these are more-or-less complete shows that show a great performing band doing what they did best.  The live versions of songs are usually changed up in interesting ways, making this not just a retread of what you hear on the albums.

So if you can find this at all, get it.  Unless it costs you $369.13, like I saw on Amazon.  Maybe hold out for a sale, or something.