Feb 05

ROGER MILLER – “King Of The Road”

Popular39 comments • 3,429 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.



  1. 1
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2005 #

    In what kind of bizarre world does Roger Miller outscore the Rolling Stones?
    No, there is nothing you can say to redeem yourself now. Don’t beg, don’t blame the drugs (which you evindently did not take enough of), don’t say that you are Roger Miller’s grandchild. Nothing. You may as well be the representative of my parent’s generation – tonedeaf, confused and left behind.
    Val Doonican anyone?
    Vicus Scurra | Email | Homepage | 02.21.05 – 7:31 pm | #


    Isn’t that what the third paragraph explains? Doesn’t everyone like “King Of The Road”?

    I know some twins from Auchtermuchty who do. Or are they from Musselburgh?
    Alan Connor | Email | Homepage | 02.21.05 – 8:24 pm | #


    blount | Email | 02.21.05 – 9:19 pm | #


    Not even my mother liked it. Nor did my father who liked Perry Como.
    Doctor Mod | Email | 02.22.05 – 2:11 am | #


    Have never been able to stand it by dint of (if nothing else) the upwards vaudeville vocal flourish throughout (“roooooom to let 50 cents”) which makes me think of it as virtually a Morecambe and Wise song (every bloody song they did had that flourish in it).
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 3:05 am | #


    I am genuinely surprised by the outpouring of hate for poor old “King Of The Road”!

    I think I wouldn’t have marked it quite as high if the Northern Line hadn’t been shut yesterday evening, forcing me into a brief period of vagrancy between Balham and Tooting Broadway.

    Readers whose tender sensibilities are offended by this outscoring a Rolling Stones song are advised to hide behind the sofa when the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s get going.
    Tom | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 3:20 am | #


    70s? Were people still recording music? I thought Hendrix and Janis were dead by then.
    Vicus Scurra | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 5:25 am | #


    But it’s true, Tom, it’s true. We REALLY hate this one. (But have you noticed that the song we really LIKED, even loved so far this month was “Concrete and Clay”?)
    Doctor Mod | Email | 02.22.05 – 5:35 am | #


    Readers’ reactions (not to mention Tom’s reaction) to the biggest selling single of 1965 (which comes up towards the end of the year) are keenly awaited, by me at any rate. Some might say that it makes “King Of The Road” sound like Coltrane’s Ascension.
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 5:50 am | #


    one thing i like alot about this song is it’s probably one of the more silent songs i’ll still hear alot on commercial radio (college radio is filled with cat power and various other residue from the velvet’s and big star’s third album + hardly as normally compressed and, well, alive (?) as commercial radio); i can’t think of anything else with a similar emptiness to it i’ll hear outside of oldies radio, where it wouldn’t leap out at you anyhow.
    blount | Email | 02.22.05 – 6:01 am | #


    King Of The Road vs Sixteen Tons anyone?
    Pete | Email | 02.22.05 – 6:21 am | #


    Much prefer 16 Tons, though you could argue that King Of The Road is how the protagonist of 16 Tons ends up if he’d decided to quit “the company store.”
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 6:39 am | #


    I like its inauthenticity. Was it big in the States? It’s kind of ersatz Kerouac, which is all most kids could afford. The single was hitting around the time that beat culture was big in England on a mass level, with Bob Dylan still on a beat tip (just) and the big Ginsberg/Corso gig at the Albert Hall. Dylan was in the Uk April and May. I like Wenders’ ‘Kings of the Road’ too — the song is meant to represent the impossible road-myth in eastern West Germany there.
    Henry Miller | 02.22.05 – 6:46 am | #


    i’d be surprised if brit-based beat culture caused this to be a hit (tho it may be why it wz written and sung i spose) (i’d be surprised at this too)

    but pro-tramp cultural fascination long predated kerouac (my mum’s mum owned and loved this book, and she could hardly have been less vagabondish herself
    p^nk s | Email | 02.22.05 – 6:56 am | #


    Clearly “Breakfast In America” was the sequel to “King Of The Road” then.

    I always preferred “Engerland Swings Like A Pendulum Do” which later, er, inspired “Dick-A-Dum-Dum (King’s Road)” by Des O’Connor, whom readers will be pleased to hear we will be encountering further down the Popular road!
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 7:01 am | #


    the stones ultimate prob = they called into being this triumphant world in which they were a eternal SHOO-IN for best-pop-ever w/o even thinking (ie they won ALL comparisons aLWAYS INSTANTLY): hard to think of a set-up which could do more to corrode their anti-authority authority, really)

    certain mark s as a punkity little late 70s punk tht them very ladidah and established and lame, and it took me years (and frank kogan) to persuade me otherwise

    ie i wz v.counter the “counterculture qua culture” – to get the force of stones et al, you had to take seriously the notion that eg roger miller etc might conquer and rule pop, and to do THIS you have to be able to explain this would-be takeover CONVINCINGLY (ie not by saying “well ppl are lame of course”, when actually the stones won after all, hence ppl can’t be lame, hence RM cd never have “won” hence hence hence)
    p^nk s | Email | 02.22.05 – 7:03 am | #


    Ignore the hippies: King of the Road is a fine song.
    Mark M | Email | 02.22.05 – 7:19 am | #


    “i’d be surprised if brit-based beat culture caused this to be a hit (tho it may be why it wz written and sung i spose)” — indeed. i was thinking False Beat might’ve been at work in the song’s popularity.
    Henry Miller | 02.22.05 – 7:28 am | #


    the Proclaimers cover is far superior – it made my 1990!
    stevem | Email | 02.22.05 – 7:49 am | #


    The charts of ’64-7 were essentially a pitched battle between Radio Caroline and the Light Programme.
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 8:32 am | #


    I like the Joe Tex version, of course.
    Tim | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 12:31 pm | #


    People DISLIKE “King of the Road”? It’s the best country song of all time!

    And all the Stones songs so far have been pretty weak.
    My name is Kenny | 02.22.05 – 12:54 pm | #


    Three cheers for a great simple songs.

    Roger Miller would have been 29 when KOTR became # 1 in the UK

    Until then , Miller was a recognized country artist. Country music was still very much alive in the USA & Canada at this time. Four years later Dylan would release ” Nashville Skyline” but country never went off the screen.

    Indeed country is probably closer aligned in singer/songwriter terms to ” Pop” at this time than. lets say, Al Martino or , dare I say it Jackie Trent or even Tom Jones.

    Obviously it crossed over from North America to the UK and presumably around the world. .It won 6 Grammy Awards.

    He wrote many country classics “Invitation To The Blues,” by Ray Price , Ernest Tubb’s “Half A Mind,” Faron Young’s “That’s The Way I Feel” and Jim Reeves’ “Billy Bayou,” “If Heartache Is The Fashion” and “Home.”

    Today he’d be a major cross over artist.
    Brian C | Email | 02.22.05 – 12:59 pm | #


    Count me in with the folks who are fond of “King of the Road.”

    Some time in the 1980s, there was a good career overview of Miller published in the Village Voice. It noted that Miller’s peak period, the two or three years when he had a bunch of hits, coincided with his years as an amphetamine user. Those hits stood out in part because of the narrator’s unusual voice, wry, ironic, and mordant (best heard in “One Dyin’ and a-Buryin'”), and the music’s blend of country, novelty, and some darker tones. Before the hits, Miller wrote some popular, if nondistinct country songs, and after he kicked his habit on advice from his doctor, he didn’t write much of interest, until his comeback in 1985 with the Broadway success of “Big River,” a musical adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn.”

    The irony here is that the guy who appealed to the parents of the hippie crowd was a success in large measure due to his enlistment in the drug culture.
    wwolfe | Email | 02.22.05 – 2:11 pm | #


    Loved it then. Love it now. will always love it. Honest, simple country music, and a great lyric. I have to report that if you crank this one up on an acoustic guitar in a pub even now – in 2005 – people love to sing along. I’d have given it 9, just for coming out of left-field and winning us all over at a time when all the hip money was waaaaaaaaaaaay over there at the edges of psychedelia.
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 – 4:01 pm | #


    “Honest, simple” “an acoustic guitar in a pub” “people love to sing along”

    Everything I despise in two lines! Thanks Mark!

    Look, chaps, it got to number one because Bob Holness kept playing it on Junior Choice.
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 4:11 am | #


    Aww Marcello. Sorry to have touched a nerve. Suggest you go to pubs with jukeboxes in future. Then you won’t have to listen to people actually (shock, horror) singing anymore.

    As for your reaction to ‘honest’ and ‘simple’, I can only conclude you prefer ‘devious’ and ‘overblown’. Probably a Queen fan, then…
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 4:32 am | #


    It’s not King of the Road VERSUS Sixteen Tons. Or King of the Road VERSUS A Love Supreme. Or King of the Road VERSUS the Rolling Stones. Dammit, I like them all. What I can’t stand is cynical.

    And before all you idiots who love the Stones say anything else about country music, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go back and listen to the country that’s all over every Rolling Stones record ever made (except maybe We Love You).
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 4:38 am | #


    I don’t like pubs or jukeboxes either. Dishonest and convoluted is much more up my street.

    King Of The Road VERSUS Bohemian Rhapsody = stuff Chinn & Chapman wrote for Smokie VERSUS stuff Chinn & Chapman wrote for the Sweet.
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:05 am | #


    Stand by your instincts Tom. Don’t let the tunnel-visioned absolutists bully you into only acknowledging their own music!

    I didn’t like this at the time. This was mainly because it was the sort of thing my dad liked, and would sing along to. It was uncool to like the things your parents liked. Now my dad has been dead for twenty-eight years and I remember him very largely for his joy in singing things like this. And I love a lot of the things my parents liked these days – they were, I realise, far from tone-deaf and happy to be where they were without feeling they had to try to keep up.

    I rather like KotR too, now. One reason is its singalong character. Music is affective, and it reminds me of my former partner Frank, who sadly died last year. He did a splendid rendition of KotR. He did a fine Dean Martin impersonation too. He didn’t care if anybody thought he was uncool and I admired him a lot for that.

    So it’s a sentimental song of life at the bottom. It’s a
    rosie | Email | 02.23.05 – 6:24 am | #


    “Crank this one up on an acoustic guitar” is the best sentence I have read on the internet this year.
    Matt DC | 02.23.05 – 6:25 am | #


    It’s a world away from John Lee Hooker’s ‘Hobo Blues’ (which reminds me to mention in passing that much of the music I liked didn’t make much impact on the charts) but it’s not so far removed from Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ – one of my all-time favourite books.

    Some people should open their minds a little!
    rosie | Email | 02.23.05 – 6:26 am | #


    Dean Martin’s “Houston” is way better than KotR. “I haven’t eaten in about a week/I’m so hungry, when I walk, I squeak.” Now that’s class.

    The urgent and key question, however, is: does anyone here ever smoke old stogies they have found?
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:35 am | #


    cannery row also in the “diary of the supertramp” literary vein re um wannabe hobo culture

    (that term sounds more snarky than i mean it to be: i think the “wannabe other than myself” element in chartpop is a good thing)

    of course the stones deliberately played up the ludicrousness and imposture of “wannabe other than myself” (i mean in a good way)

    use other lies please: bob holness did NOT play sax on “baker street”
    p^nk s | Email | 02.23.05 – 6:36 am | #


    actually i’m amused and sorta plzd that the arrival of the stones has introduced a crackle of conflict into popular’s comments, since – to get ahead of ourselves – the key to stones innovation is contained in “two’s a crowd on my cloud”: their new unseemly sexiness wz directly related to their willed ability to divide audiences against themselves (this insight is pure uncut kogan incidentally)

    (and now i am going to summon kogan to this commentary) (tho i doubt he is awake yet, in denver)
    p^nk s | Email | 02.23.05 – 6:41 am | #


    According to Jimmy Young, the sax on “Baker Street” was played by an obscure squadron named R.A.F. Ravenscroft (You See).

    Perhaps it was John Peel all along!
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:41 am | #


    Matt DC – thank you for noticing. Please throw money…
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:53 am | #


    37 comments. Is this a record?

    (Whoops. That’s 3
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:54 am | #


    (It’s a record for Popular yes, I think.)
    Tom | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 6:55 am | #


    My partner literally cannot bear to hear this song. If it comes on the radio or TV unexpectedly, he begins shouting and wailing and putting his hands over his ears and going LA LA LA very loudly until I switch channel or kill the volume. He doesn’t do this with a trace of irony, either – the song genuinely causes him intense distress. The same thing happens with Billy J Kramer’s “Little Children”.

    He admits that this has little to do with the objective merits or flaws of either record.
    mike | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 7:22 am | #


    Marcello Carlin wrote “The urgent and key question, however, is: does anyone here ever smoke old stogies they have found?”

    I’ll be celebrating Supersmug Day on Thursday of next week to mark the first anniversary of my last fag. In my days an an inveterate smoker of Old Holborn rollups I quite often found myself, when skint, rooting through the ashtray in order to recycle the unsmoked tobacco.
    rosie | Email | 02.23.05 – 7:28 am | #


    That’s why rollups have to be short but not too big around. That way all the deposited tobacco would be used up.

    The urgent and key question, however, is: does it ever rain in Indianapolis in the summertime?
    Marcello Carlin | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 7:32 am | #


    I once had the dubious pleasure of staying the night in a flophouse in Davenport, Iowa. I have to report that in 1976 at least there were a lot of grubby looking people for whom two hours of pushing broom bought a eight by twelve four-bit room. Allowing for a little inflation, of course.

    In point of fact we didn’t complete the night in the flophouse. We went and slept in the local park instead. It felt safer.

    In those days I frequently pirated the ashtray when the Golden Virginia ran out…
    Mark Gamon | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 – 9:26 am | #

  2. 2
    Doctor Mod on 23 Feb 2005 #

    In the words of Noel Coward, strange how potent cheap music is.

  3. 3
    Mark Gamon on 23 Feb 2005 #

    Well he would know…

  4. 4
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2005 #

    As Muddy Waters is to Last Time , King of The Road is to Country Honk

  5. 5
    Frank Kogan on 24 Feb 2005 #

    Yikes, had to set up a blog to get an automatic sign-in here! Don’t worry, I’ll never post to it.

    (Does having a blog mean I’m no longer King of the Road?)

  6. 6
    Alan Connor on 24 Feb 2005 #

    I wrote:

    Isn’t that what the third paragraph explains? Doesn’t everyone like “King Of The Road”?

    I know some twins from Auchtermuchty who do. Or are they from Musselburgh?Oh, I see. Looks like my radar for “what folk like” is as keen as ever.

    Welcome to the pro-KotR team, Giant Sand.

  7. 7
    Frank Kogan on 24 Feb 2005 #

    I don’t think of Miller and Stones as representing some kind of poles in regard to old MOR vs. new Youth. The problem with such a division isn’t just that (1) while Stones might have represented some Youth (and no non-Youth), Miller wasn’t crossing from (or to) non-Youth specifically, and (2) Youth and Grownup cultures/subcultures were hardly unified in themselves, and tended to interpenetrate by age (e.g., country wasn’t a youth subculture, but some of the kids in high school who’d be called hoods, and many others who’d be called farmers or rednecks, would listen to some country), but also (3) the success of the Beatles and (esp.) the Stones totally disrupts the social map, and things don’t even begin to settle until 1968, and don’t achieve much (temporary) stability until about 1971. E.g., the kid social map in 1963 is, let’s say, Preps vs. Hoods [adjust names according to your own locale], with most kids actually being in-between but leaning one way or another, as do the other subgroups – brains leaning towards preps, farmers leaning towards hoods, etc., jocks leaning towards preps but being a potential path of mobility between prep and hood, and artsy-fartsies being the wild card. Then as now there’s no easy matchup in relation to musical taste, and pop bands tend to hit across the board. Nonetheless, and despite their being hoods themselves, Beatles tend to be marketed as pop and to play to the preps. Whereas hoods tend to be sticking to the 4 Seasons and that sort of stuff, which is about to become pass�, with the Stones in the wings to become the hero of the hoods. But the wild card is that both the Beatles and the Stones play to the artsy-fartsies, i.e., to the freaks. And the freaks are the ones who threaten to destabilize the system (the system not being “Preps Rule” but “Preps vs. Hoods”), since the freaks can claim to be more out and oppositional than the hoods, even, but also are willing to challenge the preps’ claim to authority and respectability. The hoods know their place, the freaks don’t, and the more powerful the freaks become, the more everyone else loses his or her sense of place.

    So, where does “King of the Road” fit? Well, it’s gentle enough to appeal to adults for whom the Beatles are “What’s that?” and the Stones are the devil’s spawn, but is devoid of show music and old pop (Perry Como, et al.) signifiers, is folky and hobo enough to play to the bohos, is slick enough to play to the sophisticates, but has enough subtle country inflections to appeal to the farmers. Which is to say that despite the hate evidenced on this thread (which has more to do with 2005 than with 1965, I think), “King of the Road” didn’t play as anyone’s other – except maybe the guy who thinks everything turned to shit after Debussy – hence didn’t raise sociological barriers to enjoyment.

  8. 8
    Frank Kogan on 24 Feb 2005 #

    As for the difference between Roger Miller and the Rolling Stones 1965, Miller thinks you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, whereas the Stones are trying to roller skate in a buffalo herd.

  9. 9
    Anonymous on 24 Feb 2005 #

    Thank you, Frank, for the acute analysis–I think you are, by and large, quite right. My own personal disdain, though, is as grounded in 1965 as it is in 2005, and for the same reasons. As an unusually bright fourteen-year-old (neither “prep” nor “hood” but surely a “freak”), I could intuit (but probably not articulate) what offended me.

    It seems to me that the political context has been completely overlooked here. This recording represents something of a backlash against all the other trends of the moment, particularly what many Americans, at least, would see as the infiltration of “furners” (trans., foreigners) into a traditionally American popular music culture. Thus we have this bit of hokey Americana, a nostalgic pseudo-pastoral apotheosis of American freedom that, in reality, never was–at least not in this glorified manner. Growing up in the US, I saw this as what I was “supposed” to like as opposed to what I did like, a reimposition of the standards of the previous decade.

    In 2005, I still thoroughly dislike this song–perhaps even more than in 1965–because I know exactly who wants to blind us with counterfeit nostalgia for a “lost” America and reimpose those falsehoods and repressions NOW.

    It’s not so much that I can’t stand the song itself (“hate” is too strong a word), but rather the idea of it.

    Would this song be a hit in 2005? I can imagine a performance of it in the White House, even in the age of “compassionate conservatism” that would call any self-styled king of the road a “homeless person” and therefore a problem.

    Doctor Mod

  10. 10
    Frank Kogan on 24 Feb 2005 #

    Wouldn’t say that Muddy Waters has much to do with “The Last Time.” The riff is a descendant of “Smokestack Lightning” (perhaps played by future NY Dolls fan Hubert Sumlin) and “Susie Q” (riff by James Burton), the song structure and some of the lyrics from an old gospel song (the Staples Singers version called “This Could Be The Last Time,” James Brown’s slightly secularized version “Maybe the Last Time”). While Pa Staples would put some bluesiness in his guitar playing, in general dirty blues lines don’t make it into gospel or pop material until the Stones put them there. And with good reason, since you have to be looking for a fight if you’re going to include such socially antagonistic elements. In its gospel versions, the reason this could be the last time we see each other is that death can hit at any moment. But the gospel songs have a sense of basic social unity, a common pool of shared belief (and the gospel groups promise that we’ll meet again on the other side). The Stones take a razor to that unity, and Brian’s guitar line is the sound of that razor.

    Tom’s right about words, guitar, and singing playing at odds with one another, and though Jagger may sound upbeat and as if he holds the cards, his words say otherwise, divide Jagger the lyricist from Jagger the singer. Girl holds power by saying no, and put “The Last Time” with “Heart Of Stone” and you’re planting the seeds for Iggy going “Come and be my enemy so I can love you too,” and Axl saying “Turn around bitch I got a use for you.” But where does that get you? I don’t know… [into the fade out, the best and longest fadeout to that point in music history, and he really doesn’t know].

    Staples Singers are to “The Last Time” as Ptolemy is to Copernicus.

    It’s somewhat closer with, say, Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now” vs. the Stones’, but the Valentinos going “Hurt my nose open, that’s no lie, tables turn now it’s her turn to cry” still feels, in that version, like standard man-woman stuff, while the Stones going “Hurt my eyes open, that’s no lie, tables turn now it’s her turn to cry” is done with threat, arrogance, a social tough-guy-ness like Brando in The Wild One. It’s meant to hurt our eyes open, about a world that is wrong, and is the precursor to “God save the queen/The fascist regime/Made you a moron…” etc. and there is no future in England’s dreaming. Her turn to cry.

    Of course, now that the songs are golden oldies, a lot of this is lost; we’re used to that guitar line, and there’s no way it’s a razor anymore. You want a razor, you make one yourself.

  11. 11
    Frank Kogan on 24 Feb 2005 #

    D. Mob, what you say is interesting; in 1965 I was to young to have understood that part of the subtext, and didn’t hear KoTR anyway since I was averse to pop at the time. At age 11 I liked folk music and sneered at (and feared) the Top 40. Had I heard KoTR in a Kingston Trio cover, I’d have liked it fine. But seems to me that in its time KoTR could go in at least two very different directions, (1) to off-road vehicles and survivalism, wide open spaces, (2) to the mystery tramp and Miss Lonely meeting in the urban wilderness, where if you ain’t got nothin you got nothin to lose, and anything is possible. Dylan simply takes the frontier and brings it to the street. And the freaks could be said to be acting out that Myth – “Myth” not meant to mean “lie” but (as per def’n 2 in the American Heritage) “any real of fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions.” There’s nothing inherently conservative about the myth, even if George W. Bush is more adept than Kerry at exploiting it, at pretending to adventure.

  12. 12
    Anonymous on 24 Feb 2005 #

    Being a “freak” under this paradigm differs radically from being either a “prep” or a “hood” because the two latter categories generally require conformity and thus consensus. “Freaks,” on the other hand, are freaks because they don’t conform and like what they like regardless of consensus; ergo, what one freak likes is not necessarily what another freak likes.

    This freak, for one, never bought into the Dylan myth either–which is not to say that I can’t appreciate Dylan on some level–and, indeed, hasn’t been much impressed with the “American frontier” mythos in more recent figures such as Springsteen and Mellencamp. Rather, I see all these figures (with the exception of Dylan, who has a keen sense of irony) as the mourners of an American dream that is rapidly becoming more and more untenable. Being American, white, straight, and male might not be the passport to an absolute freedom that answers to no one that it was, in previous decades, imagined to be. Even so, to our own perdition, there are still those who try ferociously to cling to this notion.

    What does this have to do with “King of the Road”? It is both a throwback and a harbinger of things to come in this vein.

    You say you’d have liked it better by the Kingston Trio. I’d have been able to like it by Fairport Convention or the Strawbs, artists who would have put it in a rather different context and who weren’t invested in this particular myth.

    Doctor Mod

  13. 13
    Don Allred on 26 Feb 2005 #

    Not too surpising that such a laidback song would get run right over by all sorts of if-you-start-me-up-I’ll-never-stop autocommentary. It’s really just a pleasingly skewed view, like Morgan Freeman provides in Million Dollar Baby: not dispensing Funky Wisdom, as is usually the function of black people (incl, females of all ages, not just Cool Old Dudes). He does care, and does comment, to viewers and other characters. He’s an audience/character-gatekeeper, and an embodiment (not a speech/wisdom-giver) of a saner/more appealing lifestyle than that of the two obsessos, Eastwood and Swank. But the King Of The Road is even more laidback. Shady and funky even in the context of the King Of The Road Motel (an actual place in Nashville, which I’ve always assumed is the setting of the aong, although I suppose the latter might’ve been the daddy of the former). Much appreciated by mid-60s teenage me, even though I dug all the songs that, implicitly or explicitly, were urging me on! To catch up! Get Down and Get With it! Like a Rolling Stone, a college loan, join the Pepsi Generation and the Dodge Rebellion, get your Mama to buy you some striped bells in the Mod Corner at J.C. Penny! Clearasil that zit, Dippity-Do and Scotch Tape those bangs, and for godssakes buy every rock-‘n-roll book on the magazine stand, but last week’s singles, this one’s too! Be a Marlboro man, and figure out,”Should a gentleman offer cigarillos to a lady?” Certainly,*don’t* go sniff old stogies, whatever you do…not like…that guy over there, in the corner of the speaker of that transistor, crackling on the Fartown bus. H’mm. And especially a h’mm appeal to teenage me in in the American South, with prosperity and any sense of buyable happiness and standing, of Pop Culture, for instance, being a precarious novelty. Maybe some of its appeal in mid-60s England too, for similar reasons? (Or older people may have been less likely to take *general* prosperity, vs, teen-self conditions, for granted, cos they were old enough to remember how rough things had been, and of course were still paying their teen’s bills).Thanks to Marcello for explaining “short, but not too big around.” I thought–well, never mind. Mark mentioned hobo literature. I entered “Hobo” on Amazon UK, and got over 100 items, although quite a few had no pubisher’s description or reader’s reviews. On the original Amazon, entered You Can’t Win, Wm. Burroughs’ fave, and got a ton of items and descripions. Hit record predecents of “King” might include pleasingly skewed (funning on stuff that just ev’rbody knows about, funning on the wide-eyed outsider who just wandered in, too, but he turns being an outcat into something charming, kinda cool and kinda not, “kinda dumb and kinda smart,” as in Bobby Goldsboro’s very kinda touching hit, “Honey”): Andy Griffith’s early hit monologue (pre-rap-rap? Anyway, a hit spoken single, not even musical accompaniment):”What It Was, Was Football.” (or just “Football,” mebbe). Before that: Spike Jones with Homer & Jethro, and hillbillies report on the Opera-not-Opry:”Hillbilly Pagliacci.” Homer and Jethro did a lot of stuff like this, and may well have influenced Roger, but the “King” and England Swings” and othees say later for H&J’s acrobatic pickin’. (PS: in a slight slice of S.F. archived at thefreelancementalists, Dylan is referred to as “our King of the Road,” since he really is, beyond our Motel King, and also, when I’ve seen him, usually does look like he’s gonna sniff stogies and check locks in between sets. Also said in the Voice that Luc F.’s Les Anecdotiques “as Ferrari intends, swings in and out of meaning like a pendulum do”(while privately imaging Luc Sante in a Ferrari with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Mary Quant, as per Donovan’s “Portobello Road)If you start me up

  14. 14
    Matt on 27 Feb 2005 #

    The biggest batch of bullshit in this comments line is being peddled by Marcello, who is peddling some kind of English music-hall snakeoil because he does not understand the very American impulse to hit the road, to start over, to drop one kind of life for another. He also seems to imply that there was some kind of payola conspiracy to ram this song down the throats of good sensible British folk. Even if this was true, it would have been a really good kind of conspiracy, one I heartily approve of.

    This song is about many things but the Rolling Stones is not one of them; neither are the Proclaimers nor amphetamines. What is about is the grimy glamo(u)r of living on one’s own terms, ready to drop everything in a heartbeat and move on, the mobility that guarantees freedom from all commitment and therefore heartbreak, even if that means that you are a useless bum.

    No one ever heard this song and said “Hey I wanna be like that guy,” but if you have never met any one of these completely untethered off-the-grid individuals then I can understand why you think this is hokum. I don’t know why so many of these guys are named Fred, but many of them are, and they all have lived in Wyoming at some point. They don’t have to smoke old stogies anymore, but sometimes they probably do just to do it. It’s kind of like hono(u)ring fallen homiez by pouring out a 40.

  15. 15
    Mark Gamon on 27 Feb 2005 #

    Phew. I’ll say that again. Phew. Who’d have thought a simple country tune about hobos would have got all the Popular commenters so hot under the collar? Tom, you must be reeling under the onslaught.

    Here’s my sixpennyworth. King of the Road was a hit because it’s a damnably singable tune with a well-crafted, memorable lyric. Anyone who thinks Roger Miller was thinking about subtexts on the nature of the American Dream is just plain crackers.

    Ditto some of the comments about the Stones. Give us a break, guys.

  16. 16
    Matt on 27 Feb 2005 #

    1. Roger Miller was a hit songwriter for many years and won a Tony Award for “Big River,” a huge Broadway show about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” To say that he never thought about subtext is to be frightfully naive.
    2. If you really think that all songs with damnably singable melodies and well-crafted lyrics hit #1, and that the opposites of that never happen, you need to learn more about the way pop music works. Songs strike chords with people, or don’t.
    3. And if you think that music can really be reduced to “good words, good melody, don’t think more about them,” then you aren’t very familiar with Tom’s work. Yeah, I went overboard with my comments; I’m trying to work something out. If all I had to say was “it’s a good song,” I wouldn’t bother to write anything down.
    4. But yeah, I AM crackers.

  17. 17
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2005 #

    I accept being called “crackers” with grace and dignity.

    Doctor Mod

  18. 18
    Anonymous on 28 Feb 2005 #

    “To say that he never thought about subtext is to be frightfully naive.”

    That’s not what he said.

  19. 19
    Mark Gamon on 28 Feb 2005 #

    Matt – thanks for the biog info on Roger Miller. I had no idea he was such a professional. I’m still not convinced concepts like subtext have anything to do with it, though: most pro songwriters are far too busy trying to A/make it rhyme; B/make it witty; C/make a tune people want to whistle (or dance to). Then, as you so rightly point out, all they can do is sit back and pray it strikes some kind of public nerve.

    If I’ve got this right, understanding why a number one hits that magic button is exactly why Tom is doing this site, and I applaud him for it. All I’m saying is let’s not invest the songwriters and musicians and producers themselves with too much intellectual engagement. Most of them run on instinct, and music (popular or otherwise) is all the better for it. Look what happened when rock musicians started thinking too much about what they were doing: Jon Lord gave us ‘Deep Purple and the London Philharmonic’ (or whatever it was called), and Pete Townsend gave us ‘Tommy’.

    Of course I’m crackers too, so the above may just be a load of old hooey of the sort you might find in a Chinese fortune cookie…

  20. 20
    Frank Kogan on 1 Mar 2005 #

    Subtexts tend to be felt more than thought about. That’s why they’re called “subtexts.” They’re there whether you want ’em or not, whether you think about them or not.

    I have no trouble sympathizing with Mardello’s and D. Mod’s antipathy, though I don’t share it. Did spend a few hours last week trying to find what services there are in Denver for homeless teens. Not a lot (presumably fear of lawsuits is a big deterrent from helping the young and disenfranchised).

    Fingersnappin’ and walkin’ bass = hipster signifier (but one that’s already out-of-date)

    Text that no one but Don has noted: “every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around.”

  21. 21
    Frank Kogan on 1 Mar 2005 #

    I’d also sympathize with Mod’s and Marcello’s irritation with me, should they feel any, for misspelling their monikers.

  22. 22
    Frank Kogan on 2 Mar 2005 #

    he does not understand the very American impulse to hit the road, to start over, to drop one kind of life for another…. This song is about many things but the Rolling Stones is not one of them; neither are the Proclaimers nor amphetamines. What it is about is the grimy glamo(u)r of living on one’s own terms, ready to drop everything in a heartbeat and move on, the mobility that guarantees freedom from all commitment and therefore heartbreakMatt, it seems as if some parts of your mind are not in communication with the others. Just what do you think the phrase “A rolling stone gathers no moss” means? Cf. “Ruby Tuesday” – or “Heart of Stone,” for that matter. Or “I’m free to choose who I see, any old time.” Jeez!

    Of course, the Stones, being more thoughtful than Miller, portray such “freedom” as very problematic.

    But even if there were no thematic connection between Stones and Miller, they’re connecting by sharing the same pop chart at the same time (and are automatically connected on this blog when “King of the Road” 7, “The Last Time” 6 come in near succession). Furthermore, back in the day, once the Stones hit, a “you’re-either-with-’em-or against-’em” vibe was created. You can’t understand 1965 if you don’t understand this. Mick Jagger was one of the most hated men in the world. And therefore everything on the charts was somewhat defined as either being similar to the Stones or dissimilar. You didn’t have a choice. And, obviously, as Mark Sinker points out upthread, traces of this vibe remain 40 years later, hence Popular gets testy once the Stones show up.

  23. 23
    Lena on 13 Mar 2005 #

    Wow, all these posts and no one has mentioned R.E.M.’s rather late night and drunken take on it…as for the Rolling Stones, I cannot imagine any of them rollerskating anywhere.

  24. 24
    Alan Connor on 15 Mar 2005 #

    Resurrection Watch: Swingers, a film I hate more the more I think about it.

  25. 25
    Pete (Not the usual Pete (ed - Pete)) on 2 May 2005 #

    Ah, R.E.M.’s version is magnificent. And, IMHO, it’s a good song, so what if it ain’t the Stones?

  26. 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

  27. 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.

  28. 28
    pcwag on 13 Dec 2006 #

    You can always make “Dang me” the encore.

  29. 29
    Waldo on 21 Feb 2007 #

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

  30. 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.

  31. 31
    Marcello Carlin on 2 Nov 2007 #

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

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 35
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Jackie Charlton, Football manager(1996).

  36. 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

  37. 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

  38. 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

  39. 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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