Friday, January 4, 2008

Making the Transition

Steve Miller's career can be divided into two phases.

There is, of course, the multi-platinum superstar from the late 70s and early 80s. The guy who showered the airwaves with mega-hits such as "Fly Like An Eagle," "Jet Airliner," "Take the Money and Run" and "Abracadabra."

Wait, where are you going?

Then there is the more obscure Steve Miller from the late 60s sand early 70s. The guy who learned his first guitar chords from Les Paul and went on to jam with the likes of Paul McCartney, Boz Scaggs, Chuck Berry, Paul Butterfield and Nicky Hopkins. The guy whose blues-based songs were mostly relegated to the FM radio ghetto until he hit it big in 1973.

And oh yes. The guy who many music lovers (myself included) infinitely prefer.

Which gets around to the point of today's post.

Which is to spotlight the transition between the old Steve Miller and the more successful Steve Miller, as demonstrated by the Steve Miller Band's 1972 album Recall the Beginning … A Journey from Eden.

Never released on CD and supposedly dismissed by Miller, who has sparingly included tracks from the album on his compilations, the band's seventh album is nonetheless an solid collection of songs that offers all kinds of clues as to where Miller was going.

Most obviously, the evidence comes in the albums second track: "Enter Maurice." Yes, that Maurice. Who does indeed speak of "the pompatous of love," one year before "The Joker" became Miller's first big hit. The made-up word was not Miller's. It actually came from a 1954 doo-wop tune by the Medallions, according to Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope.

Download "Enter Maurice."

This song is a lot of fun. As far as doo-wop parodies go, in my view, it is on par with Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). It features orgasmic screams from the female chorus, a basso narrator and the final lyrics delivered in deadpan style by Miller. “Just remember sweetheart/I bought myself a gun/And I will be the only one.”

There’s nothing quite as hilarious on the rest of album, which definitely has its moments. Lyrically, Miller has never been the best wordsmith. He stumbles between earnest (if clich├ęd) social criticism of his earlier days (i.e. 1968's "Living in the USA" and 1970's "Jackson-Kent Blues") and the dreamy idealism that would mark his later work.

But musically, Miller keeps "Journey…" on a steady groove.

The moody title track features a haunting melody punctuated by a well-placed string section. "Somebody Somewhere Help Me" has a killer bass line that, along with a Chicago-style brass section, helps the song lift off. On the album, you hear all kinds of musical snippets that Miller would employ to greater success on his biggest albums, 1976's Fly Like An Eagle and 1977's Book of Dreams. Produced by former bandmate Ben Sidran (a jazz aficionado and future NPR host), the album features the debut of drumer Gary Mallaber who would play an essential role in the recording of Miller's Fly Like An Eagle and Abracadabra (1982).

But let's talk a little bit more about the transition between the two Steve Millers.

A few months after this album was released, Miller suffered a serious car accident that had him out of commission for months. It apparently left him with a lot of time to think. His next album would be the last under the groundbreaking deal that he signed with Capitol Records in 1967 – one that gave him unprecedented artistic control over what he recorded.

Obviously, he wanted that deal to continue. As he recounted in the excellent DVD documentary that accompanies the 2006 30th anniversary re-release of Fly Like An Eagle, he decided at that point to drop all political commentary and record songs that adopted a more optimistic outlook on life.

A perfect example: A funked-up 1972 demo that began its life as a song called "In The Ghetto," in which Miller (among other things) criticizes the American government for its treatment of Native Americans.

Download "In The Ghetto"

By the time the song was released four years later, that line was gone. And "In The Ghetto" had morphed into "Fly Like An Eagle."

And the rest is history.

At least for the Postal Service.

Watch this blog for more discussions about the evolution of Steve Miller…

1 comment:

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