Edsel Records [Release date: 08.10.12]
This 5 album reissue of Steve Miller’s early career finds the future platinum recording artist fighting for artistic independence as he embraced west coast psychedelia.
By the time of his debut recording, the band was already a regular on the Fillmore and psychedelic ballroom circuit and Miller was on a mission. A spat with Capital records led him to London to kick start his psychedelic dream and if nothing else the first 5 albums track a nascent singer song writer and a guitarist with the chops to match his song writing ability.
The musical journey from the aptly named ‘Children of the Future’ to ‘Number 5′ is almost a cyclical one, as Miller started and finished with psychedelia, taking in some unashamedly romantic lyrics and lovingly crafted harmonies along the way.
He also toyed with experimental and signature guitar sounds and established various personas such as ‘The Space Cowboy’, and ‘The Gangster of Love’. And whatever his battles with producer Glyn Johns he broke new ground with adventurous production techniques that make much of the material unique.
Miller was also open to the possibilities of collaboration, so while he took Buddy Guy’s advice and quietly dropped the Blues Band adjunct of his band name, the earlier material was very much a band effort.
Steve brought in some top line talent ranging from Boz Scaggs and a session with Paul McCartney to Nicky Hopkins, Ben Sidran and Charlie McCoy. When you add the strong song writing contribution of drummer and vocalist Tim Davis, you get a feel for the organic nature of the early albums.
As was the case here, much of the best music of the time was to be found in the gap between a band’s outright creativity and the formulaic expectations of their record company. But Miller saw the future early with the moderate success of ‘Living in the USA’, and you can almost feel the growing confidence of a song writer destined to pen hook laden hits.
Children of the Future (EDSA 5003) remains an album of its time with a psychedelic cacophony opening a loosely linked suite of songs on side-one.
The distant sound of seagulls was adopted by Welsh band Man for ‘The Storm’, on their ’2 Oz of Plastic With A Hole in the Middle’ album, while Miller’s gentle falsetto emotes the hippy era.
The 11 tracks plus the bonus ‘Sittin’ In Circles’ are full of harmony vocals and layered psychedelic sounds, while the ‘sha la la’ intro of ‘Pushed Me To It’ is a good barometer of Miller’s penchant for poppy tunes. Lonny Turner’s bass glues everything together beautifully and the meandering keyboard progression of ‘In My First Mind’ anticipated the later Nicky Hopkins led ‘Baby’s House’ on ‘Your Saving Grace’.
Ben Sidran adds a perfect harpsichord line in tune with Miller’s emotive vocal on ‘Baby’s Calling Me Home’ and Jim Peterman’s contributes earthy keyboard parts, most notably the dirt sounding organ on a cover of ‘Steppin Stone’. ‘Children of the Future’ is full of promise, good playing and great ideas, but it ultimately lacks the kind of consistency that later made him a star. ***
Sailor (EDSA 5004) was recorded the same year in 1968 and polished the best songs into gems. ‘Songs For Our Ancestors’ is a classic psychedelic masterpiece that opens with whale noises and has a Floydian feel, while perhaps only Miller could get away with the trite lyrics of ‘Dear Mary’ in falsetto mode, without a hint of embarrassment.
‘Living in the USA’ gave him his first hit and the cover of Johnny Guitar Watson’s ‘Gangster Of Love’ gave him his alter ego, and a stage favourite, though surprisingly it only hangs around for 90 seconds and Miller’s irreverent phrasing suggests it was almost a throwaway. Some throwaway! ‘Quicksilver Girl’ features whispered vocals and has real presence, while the Bo Diddley inspired ‘Overdrive’ provides another highlight of a great album. *****
1969′s Brave New World (EDSA 5005) was almost one step forward and two steps back, as the best bits are classic and the rest forgettable. The title track has the memorable line; ‘Nothing will last that comes from the past’ and Steve adds a soaring solo on ‘Can’t You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat’ before slipping into three consecutive big hitters.
‘Kow Kow’ features Nicky Hopkins’ debut with the band, while ‘Seasons’ features close to the mic vocals and layered lush sounds, and bass player Lonnie Turner excels on ‘Space Cowboy’. The closing ‘My Dark Hour’ is a duet with Paul McCartney on drums and it also provides the riff that was to become ‘Fly Like An Eagle’. ****
Your Saving Grace (EDSA5006) was recorded later the same year, but is a frustrating effort with the gospel feel of ‘Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around’ for example, lacking the weight and presence of ‘Motherless Children’. ‘Baby’s House’ is a meandering highlight, with Nicky Hopkins being an integral part of the studio band, while ‘Feel So Glad’ is a laid back blues and the title track provides an uplifting end-piece to an album that correctly suggested Miller had much more to give. ***
1970′s Number 5 (EDSA 5007) must be Steve Miller’s most underrated album. Once you overcome the shock of the country tinged, Americana feel of side one, he settles for some of his best psychedelic rocking. ‘Going To Mexico’ finds the band at full tilt and ‘Steve Miller’s Midnight Tango’ acts as the perfect conduit to the politically charged, riff led rocking of ‘Industrial Military Complex Hex’ and the wah wah inflected blues of ‘Jackson-Kent Blues’.
The closing opus ‘Never Kill Another Man’ could be about Vietnam, and features a monumental vocal performance on more hackneyed lyrics that Steve somehow imbues with weighty authority. ‘Number 5′ marked the point at which Steve Miller had rocked himself out and shortly after a brief dalliance with the blues, he decided that well crafted, hook laden pop-rock was the future, and he never looked back. *****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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