Saturday, 10 October 2015

If Steve Miller isn’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, I will be jolly cross

Since its creation in 1983, there have been a total of 321 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Steve Miller isn’t one of them, and yet the following acts have been honoured: Hall & Oates, Heart, Joan Jett, Kiss, Laura Nyro, Rush,  Cat Stevens, U2 and The Young Rascals. Apart from a couple of Laura Nyro tracks, I’d happily go to my grave without hearing anything by any of those acts again. But there are at least a dozen Miller sides I’d be very sorry not to hear on a regular basis between now and clog-popping time, whenever that might be. I’d even go so far as to claim that Miller has made some of the most purely enjoyable records in pop music history. I’m happy to report that he’s one of the nominees this year (along with the likes of Yes (!), The Cars, Chicago, Deep Purple, The Smiths and Chic). If Chic and Steve Miller don’t get the nod, I'll be writing to my MP)  Here’s one excellent reason why Miller should be welcomed into the fold without further delay:

1982’s “Abracadabra” is my favourite pure pop single of the past 35 years, because it’s fun, bouncy, maddeningly catchy, has incredibly silly lyrics (“Abracadabra…I want to reach out and grab ya” might never be equalled for goofiness) and one of the most adventurous, innovative, and witty guitar solos I’ve ever heard. It always makes me smile when it comes on, and invariably improves my mood.

Miller also released some of the greatest pop singles of the 1970s, when the competition was really fierce. This is probably my favourite of his tracks from that decade (the intro is a deliberate homage to Free’s “All Right Now”):

Still sounds fabulous. And I could just as well have chosen to illustrate his glory years with “Take the Money and Run” or “The Joker” instead.

Before becoming a pop/rock hit machine, Miller spent the late ‘60s churning out an endless series of decent albums in the guise of a West Coast hairy hippy semi-psychedelic electric blues boy. Not all of this material has dated well, but “Going to Mexico” still works:

So, why was Miller able to successfully weather Punk and segue into ‘80s synth pop without looking or sounding (as so many of his fellow-rockers did) like some sad, panicked old geezer desperately trying to get down with the kids? Partly it was because he was never an egomaniacal faux-tough cock-rocker boastfully thrusting his groin at a worshipful audience; he wasn’t in the least tribal or exclusive - you didn’t feel you had to join a club and adopt a specific look or lifestyleor be in the least bit cool in order to be allowed to enjoy his stuff; he kept the music tight and respected the wider pop audience - no treble “concept” albums or fifteen-minute drum solos or pointless, masturbatory guitar pyrotechnics; he was never a “star” - when he appeared at all on his LP covers, he was either disguised or his image was distorted, so you never really knew what he looked like; he was a master of studio technique - but, again, not in a self-indulgent way; ultimately, it’s all about the music, rather than any sort of message - he just gives the impression of having enormous fun producing noise for other people’s enjoyment. As a result of all that, you can imagine his music being bopped along to by business tycoons in their private jets, blasting out across factory floors or in the cabs of long-distance lorries or on the sound systems at upmarket health clubs.

After 20 years of frenetic productivity, and following the success of "Abrabcadabra", Miller’s output went a bit Pete Tong in the mid-to-late ‘80s, and I assumed an inevitable decline had set in. Very few old rockers are able to keep the creative spark alive into middle age: they go on producing albums, but they’re invariably disappointing. So when I came across Miller’s 1993 CD, Wide River, I bought it more out of gratitude for all the pleasure he had given me in earlier days than in expectation of a return to former glories. It turned out to be absolutely brilliant. I don’t just mean it was better than I’d been expecting - it was up there with his best work. The synths had been banished, but the multi-tracked voices, the compelling rhythms, the melodies, the controlled, clever guitar playing had all been retained, along with the sense of pleasure at his own mastery. Here are the first three tracks:

And "Blue Eyes", the best of the lot:

I’ll admit Miller fell off my radar after that, but an old friend and fellow music-enthusiast mentioned recently that his 2010 album, Bingo!, was well worth a listen. I took his advice, and it’s terrific. It marka a definite return to his bluesy musical roots. That's often a sign of desperation, but not in this case. The album includes any number of energetic, expertly-constructed R&B stompers, but my favourite track is the gorgeous ballad, “Sweet Soul Vibe”:

I’ve always treated the very notion of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a degree of contempt. It just sounds so pompous. And I hate the careless and confusing American use of a term, Rock ’n’ Roll - which performs a useful function by describing a specific and definable musical genre - as a catch-all for just about any type of pop music: sloppy and unhelpful. But studying the list of the Academy's 321 inductees reveals a good mix of genres, and an impressive selection of session musicians (for instance, Spooner Oldham of Muscle Shoals, who played the glorious keyboards on “When a Man Loves a Woman”), studio owners (Cosmino Matassa, whose tiny New Orleans studio helped make Fats Domino's early singles sound so wonderful) and studio bosses like Syd Nathan, owner of key R&B label King Records, and Art Rupe, founder of Specialty. Maybe it’s worth taking seriously, after all.

Good luck, Mr. Miller.


  1. Thanks for a great post about a seriously underrated musician. He's got excellent technique and taste as a guitarist and singer/arranger as your selection shows. His father had a fairly sophisticated tape recording set up at home with the result that a number of blues legends and others like Les Paul passed by the Miller household to try new material out and taught young Steve how to play. And as Bingo shows, he has lost none of his skill or enthusiasm in his sixties.

    It's a matter of taste, obviously, but a lot of his 60's stuff has lasted better than his contemporaries' and both then and now it tends to get overlooked, possibly for the reasons you mention - he was pretty straight for a US rock star and difficult to pin down to any particular genre. Journey to Eden, Baby's House, My Dark Hour (with Paul McCartney), Seasons are all really good tunes, well sung and played and for me bring back some of the happier memories of a late1960's adolescence.

    Vote Miller!

    1. Damn, I forgot to include "My Dark Hour", which I only recently heard for the first time thanks to a recommendation. Oh, all - thanks to YOUR recommendation, ex-KCS. Anyone unacquainted with it can hear it here:

      McCartney should have stuck with Steve Miller as a collaborator, I reckon - but, then again, Miller strikes me as someone who also likes to get his own way, so it probably wouldn't have worked.

  2. An interesting diversion. The immediate post-wings Macca band had Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band as the Lennon sub, playing all the Beatles hits and very good he was. He still is, and appears every so often at the 606 club in Chelsea playing soul/funk with about the best bunch of sessioneers in London. But inevitably Hamish and Macca fell out.

    I am not sure McCartney would have wanted any one too good around him for long. His present band is a very good Beatles and Wings tribute band with no soul. I think Miller would have said "Going to Mexico" once Paul suggested a duet on Maxwell's Silver Hammer.