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Feb 05

ROGER MILLER – “King Of The Road”

Popular39 comments • 2,871 views

#194, 15th May 1965

The beat boom tide has begun to recede, having changed root and branch the way music gets made, bought and taken seriously (as commerce, as art) in the UK. Its main players are changing their sound, its successors are plotting their various coups. At the top of the charts, though, this means a return to normality. Which is…?

Let’s imagine a kind of popular music that has a direct origin in youth subcultures (leaving aside the question of how to define those). This – we won’t try and name it – is fairly well-represented in a list of No.1s, but it’s obvious that it doesn’t cover most of the material on said list. Expand the definition to include music that is indirectly linked to those subcultures – that imitates or tries to exploit them – and you cover a lot more ground. But there are still plenty of enormous hit records which seem to have nothing to do with any history of pop that bases itself on what ‘youth’ does or listens to.

This is part of why I find the charts so interesting. As well as being a barometer of what happens when subcultural trends bubble up to the surface, they’re also a log of whatever whims happened to grab the occasional record buyer. Filtering out the whims pasteurizes the story. “Normality” in the world of No.1 hits means a stew of novelties, trinkets, and songs which history and her assistants have fished out and wiped down as ‘classics’. All of which give one another a kind of context.

Lecture over. Roger Miller’s charming “King Of The Road” must have won a lot of friends through the simple likeability of his voice. Perhaps it won others because in 1965 people had begun to like the idea of the free life, of “means by no means”, beholden to none.

I think – and honestly I have no basis for this other than a few old childrens’ books – that the British were once culturally (if not actually) friendlier to vagabonds and men of the road than they are now. And here is the lifestyle presented crisply, evocatively, romantically – with a sprinkling of US exotica. Trailers and stogies, far more other than caravan parks and fag ends. I’m still very impressed by the economy and poetry of the lyric (“pushing broom”) – and the warmth. If ever a song could have a glint in its eye, this does.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Frank Kogan on 10 Jun 2005 #

    Roger Miller is the only contemporary country performer to cultivate a large rock audience as well…. He mixes rural earthiness with urbane whimsy and comes up with a cogent blend of Hank Williams and Ogden Nash.
    –Richard Goldstein, The Poetry of Rock p. 96

  2. 27
    Doctor Casino on 15 Nov 2006 #

    ….wow, this is a HELL of a comment thread, I’ve never encountered one so fierce on this blog before.

    I love “King of the Road.” It’s not my favorite Roger Miller recording, but it’s one of his best compositions, and it definitely feels natural that this be his biggest hit. Like many, many texts about hobos, it appeals to people who in real life have little actual fondness for the unhoused. It’s certainly a dated trope – Miller’s proud rambler somewhere along the way turned into Oasis’s caricature (“sniffin’ in a tissue, sellin’ the Big Issue”) and society’s elephant in the room. I wonder if part of “King of the Road”‘s success can be traced to its ambiguity – if you’re convinced the hobo is a noble wandering philosopher (we’re a few short years from Easy Rider), the material is certainly there to support it – but you could also probably dig on this if you were inclined to think of him as a seedy, unwanted tramp: he’s breaking and entering while puffing on a gross discarded cigar, and you can take the lyric as Miller making fun of this stereotypical creep who is telling himself he’s got it made. Obviously the slant is towards the former reading and you’d be hard-pressed to miss it, but I think it’s at least sort of open-ended.

    (Compare to the more direct statement – in a very different context – from Dylan: “…where people carried signs around saying ‘Ban the Bums’ / I jumped right in line, said I hope that I’m not late / When I realized I hadn’t eaten for five days straight.”)

    A girl I once dated could never get her head around “Don’t pay no union dues.” “Why does he say that?” Well, because he’s the sort of grinning fellow who sees a bright side in the fact that he’s unemployed. “What’s so bad about paying union dues?” etc.

  3. 28
    pcwag on 13 Dec 2006 #

    You can always make “Dang me” the encore.

  4. 29
    Waldo on 21 Feb 2007 #

    Why would any self-respecting hobo ride in a boxcar to Bangor, Maine? This boy’s a fool.

  5. 30
    jeff w on 2 Nov 2007 #

    This got an airing by Radcliffe and Maconie* on R2 earlier this week (or was it last week?). If it wasn’t for this thread I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to the song. On reflection, I think I’m with Tom on this one.

    *who also pointed out that Miller was the voice of Allan-a-Dale in the Disney animated Robin Hood, a movie with which I was mildly obsessed as a nipper.

  6. 31
    Marcello Carlin on 2 Nov 2007 #

    I still say it sounds like a Morecambe and Wise song.

  7. 32
    flahr on 29 May 2010 #

    It’s been quite eye-opening reading the comments to this entry, seeing what strong feelings people have either way. My prominent association with this record is a road safety campaign from around the time I was growing up – and thus “King of the Road” has a rather comforting presence. It feels like a standard, faintly fatherly & warm, with a roguish charm in his travails (how can a record with that many fingerclicks be anything but roguish?).
    The other result is that when listening to the actual song, the sudden change in the tune just over one minute in is faintly disturbing. But I still find the record as a whole pleasantly comforting (moreso than enjoyable, really). A 5.

  8. 33
    TomLane on 1 Jun 2010 #

    Didn’t realize that this went #1 in England until I glanced at the recent comments thread. For a very short period of time in the ’60’s, Roger Miller was some kind of genius. “Dang Me”, “Chug-A-Lug” and his other off-beat hits and album cuts are inspired lunacy as much as this is inspired American lyricism.
    But what is going on with this thread? Dean Martin’s “Houston” better than KOTR? The Proclaimers cover better? A comparison to Perry Como or the Stones? And what does “Sixteen Tons” have to do with anything?
    The original 7 score by Tom Ewing made me cringe as well as surprised me. Seems like a lot of the earlier posts just followed his advice and dissed this. A great song is a great song no matter what genre. I think a lot of the posts are by people who don’t know much about Country music. That this reached more than just the Country audience tells you how far-reaching Miller’s lyrics are.

  9. 34
    Billy Smart on 5 Jan 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Roger Miller performed King Of The Road on the Top Of The Pops transmitted on 8 April 1965. Also in the studio that week were; Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers, Dave Berry, Donovan, The Bachelors, The Barron Knights and Them. David Jacobs was the host. No copy survives.

  10. 35
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISCS WATCH:

    Jackie Charlton, Football manager(1996).

  11. 36
    hectorthebat on 11 Apr 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    CMT (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music (2003) 37
    Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (USA, 2003) 63
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 88
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee

  12. 37
    Duro on 14 Sep 2014 #

    All these comments and not one reference to his exploits at Italia ’90 a quarter of a century later? Smh

  13. 38
    lonepilgrim on 25 Jul 2015 #

    it’s fascinating to see the controversy that this generated back in the day. Given the passage of time and with a larger number of hits and marks to compare I wonder if this seems such a big deal. I feel quite fondly towards the song, probably because I associate it with the Junior Choice show of my childhood and also because I’m a sucker for songs about the exotic lure of America. There’s a line in the Grateful Dead’s ‘Jack Straw’ which goes: “Catch the Detroit, running out of Santa Fe/The great Northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea” which makes me want to tie a hanky full of essentials to a pole and hit the road.
    It’s interesting to think of this song after seeing the ‘Mad Men’ episode ‘The Hobo Code’ (and others), where men of Don Draper’s generation who grew up in the Depression were vividly aware of how close they were to a life of insecurity and poverty – as well as the appeal of walking away from daily responsibilities. Of course the disparities of wealth weren’t as great then as they are now – the song isn’t very aspirational – so what may have sounded complacent back then sounds downright irresponsible compared to the studied self-centredness of the Stones

  14. 39
    wichitalineman on 25 Jul 2015 #

    No one has mentioned Gentle On My Mind, lyrically the most comparable UK hit (no.2 for Dean Martin in ’69, radio hit for Glen Campbell), though more self-conciously poetic:

    “I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling, crackling caldron in some train yard
    My beard a roughening coal pile, and a dirty hat pulled low across my face”.

    As for King Of The Road, doesn’t Roger Miller’s style bear some resemblance to Lee Hazlewood’s (who Tom gave a 10 in his only Popular appearance)? An urban country, with lyrics residing in a mythical west, a distant, disappeared frontier? Hazlewood played the “cowboy” thing to the hilt, even though he’d been a DJ and record producer for more than a decade before Boots and Houston.

    To be honest, though, King Of The Road gets on my nerves. But I loved it when I was a kid and objectively (the finger clicking, the disappearing over the horizon coda) I should like it, so I’m not sure why this is.

    Also, if we were following the NME charts this whole conversation would never have happened (KotR was kept off the top by Ticket To Ride). But we WOULD have got to talk about the Yardbirds’ cosmic For Your Love a couple of entries back. Too bad! Damn you, Guinness.

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