While most people are well aware of the massive amount of hits Steve Miller scored on pop radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s, fewer know of the storied history that began in the mid-’60s and made him a star of the burgeoning progressive-rock scene later on.
Though his candy-coated melodies and catchy choruses all but guaranteed he’d become a chart staple, it was his blues-infused dalliances early on and his heady psychedelic soirees that endeared him to the underground and made him an essential part of the same San Francisco scene that produced the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the other outfits that made that city essential environs for American music.
Miller’s early albums — Children of the Future, Sailor, and Brave New World — helped establish the identity that made him a darling of FM radio and essential listening in college dorms from coast to coast. He took more of a commercial route with 1973’s The Joker and, from that point on, rarely looked back, with subsequent albums Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams yielding a steady succession of radio-ready fare in the form of “Fly Like an Eagle,” "Rock’n Me,” "Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Airliner" and "Jungle Love” all but guaranteeing his ongoing success.
An extended absence did little to diminish his standing, and indeed, his 1982 opus Abracadabra showed that his ability to write chart-topping singles was undiminished. Miller hasn’t fared well since, although later albums showed he was willing to dally with experimentation, and his renewed commitment to touring found him back in the public eye.
Still, because Miller’s earlier history is largely overlooked, it’s worth recapping some of Miller’s most significant songs, those that make him an essential artist even now.
10. “My Dark Hour,” 1969
Little more than a raucous rave-up, its recording took shape at Olympic Studios in London. As luck would have it, the Beatles were recording there at the same time, but after their session ended acrimoniously, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr walked out, leaving McCartney on his own. Miller, looking for a free studio and noticing that Macca was left with little to do, eagerly accepted Paul’s offer to play drums and organ and sing backup vocals, lending his efforts under the pseudonym Paul Ramon. Engineer Glyn Johns let the tapes roll, and what began as a spontaneous jam eventually ended up as a single.
9. “Going to the Country,” 1970
Ostensively a song about escaping the pressures of urban existence — a popular theme in the heady months following the counterculture celebration that was Woodstock — it became one of the Steve Miller Band’s catchiest tunes in a strictly cerebral era. “Hey ho, let yourself go, people in the country are happy you know.” Hmmm... with a lyric like that, perhaps the Ramones were gleaning an early influence.
8. “Song for Our Ancestors,” 1967
Culled from the album Sailor, this lead-off song showed the Steve Miller Band was an outfit that wanted to be taken seriously. An atmospheric number, it opened the set on a somewhat ambiguous note but bode well for the band’s ongoing experimentation. It’s worth noting that Boz Scaggs, he of the smooth croon and significant hits of his own, was a key member of the Miller Band at this time and helped ensure both their credibility and their cool.
7. “Quicksilver Girl,” 1969
A highlight of the album Sailor, “Quicksilver Girl” was little more than a love letter to an idyllic object of affection, but its easy, shimmering melody gave it a luminous quality as haunting as it was embracing. It’s still considered one of Miller’s best ballads.
6. “Come On in My Kitchen,” 1973
Clearly an attempt to retrace his roots, this blues standard and reliable standby showed that Miller hadn’t abandoned his fondness for the traditional tunes he purveyed early on whilst still a journeyman guitarist prowling the blues clubs of Chicago. Though the song is often covered, Miller’s take sets the standard.
5. “Space Cowboy,” 1969
One of many great tunes that littered Brave New World, “Space Cowboy” gained immediate status as one of Miller’s signature songs, a tune that would remain a constant of his live repertoire for years to come. Although others would later claim to be cosmic cowboys, this song’s forward thrust and indelible hooks showed Miller had a jump on that claim many years before.
4. “Swingtown,” 1977
Though largely overshadowed by the hit songs that made the album Book of Dreams so successful, “Swingtown” possesses an irresistible rhythm and steadfast energy that grabs hold instantly and refuses to let go. “C’mon baby, let’s dance,” Miller implores his partner, and indeed, that beckon call to fun and frivolity is hard to resist.
3. “Baby’s Callin’ Home,” 1967
Despite its psychedelic trappings, the album Children of the Future wasn’t nearly as farsighted as its title implied. Indeed, this mellow taste of folk blues took a nod toward Miller’s unconstrained past.
2. “Never Kill Another Man,” 1970
Miller joins the revolution that was raging at the time between antiwar protesters and the fat-bellied establishment. A poignant rebuke to the rampage of the Vietnam War, it followed another unequivocal protest song in “Jackson-Kent Blues.” Although 5, the album on which these songs appeared, was largely unheralded at the time, in retrospect it remains one of his better albums.
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1. “Kow Kow,” 1969
Being situated at number one on this list shouldn’t imply that this was one of Miller’s greatest achievements. Indeed, we’ve deliberately omitted his hits and standards, Still, this expression of love for what could be construed as an early computer does testify to Miller’s foresightedness. And it’s got a lovely melody to boot.
Steve Miller Band
8 p.m. Sunday, March 6,at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $40 to $60 plus fees. Visit ticketmaster.com, or cal 1-800-745-3000.