24
Jan 11

STEVE MILLER BAND – “The Joker”

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#650, 15th September 1990

“The Joker”‘s quick run at Number One is best known for one of the chart’s notorious injustices – it tied in sales with Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” and took the honours owing to a greater sales increase. Cue a certain amount of outrage and a hurried rewriting of the rules, which naturally have never been needed since. No conspiracy, just rotten luck, and “Groove”‘s status as a nailed-on wedding floorfiller means it’s as inescapable as any early 90s #1 anyway.

Even so it looks like a win for tedious old rock over playful frothy pop. But hold on, because the two songs have more in common than it might appear. At heart, both take a unit-shifting genre and inject it with some likeable silliness: Deee-Lite turned clubbing into a kitschadelic hip-hop party, Steve Miller turned easy 70s AOR into a goofball slacker stroll. And back in ’73, Miller’s silliness might have been the more striking – here’s a seven-album chops-heavy veteran of the psychedelic jam scene making up words and going “Maw-REECE” and digging into nudge-wink 50s innuendo about peaches and trees.

But in 1990? It was just, you know, 70s rock. The Levis ad – of course it was a Levis ad – which brought the song back to consciousness uses the song as a marker of preposterous cool and is hard to work out. It seems pregnant with 90s knowingness, teetering on the point of laughing at itself but not quite willing to play that card when it knows that a hot biker riding rings round the squares will still – just about – sell as that. And the thing about the song is how Miller is having his laidback cake and eating it in a similar way – drawling out the words, wandering round the melody, then rolling into a self-mythologising chorus he must have known was a winner. He’s not taking himself entirely seriously, but seriously enough to sell the song to guys who want to be the joker even if they don’t know what a pompetus is.

At the time, of course I hated it – it was the past and communicated nothing about the now or the future. And it’s part of a wave of covers and revivals that will drown the next year or so. But 90s pop wasn’t going to be as straightforwardly futuristic as I might have liked, and “The Joker” fits into other strands. If Levi’s hadn’t raked it up, it might have ended up on a Tarantino soundtrack. It might even have found a place in The Dude’s 1991 LA. It’s that rarity, a revival that happened too soon.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    heather on 29 Jan 2011 #

    This is harmless enough as old-trouser songs go. I don’t like the wolf-whistle, but I like the bassline, so it evens out. A score of 5 seems about right. I’d consider 6 if the advert had been one of the better ones. (I think my favourite trouser-song-advert is one that didn’t chart very highly and had a very atonal techno song underlying a story about condoms and the littlest pocket).

    And the Steve Miller Band have been in people’s consciousness again in the last year for the oddest reason – jokes about how they were entering the Labour leadership race.

  2. 102
    Tom on 29 Jan 2011 #

    Re. Depeche – IMO they only BECAME naff around “Songs Of Faith And Devotion”, before that they were unjustly maligned, as everyone here is saying. “Black Celebration” is their best album, with vaguely diminishing returns either side of that (Violator not all that much cop beyond Enjoy The Silence, which would have been a terrific #1).

    But the Dave Gahan: Rock Star phase was excruciating.

    They may have improved since, I think I’ve only heard one of their singles in the last 10 years, and maybe a remix or two.

    EDIT: Shocked actually that they’ve never even gone Top 3!

  3. 103
    Tom on 29 Jan 2011 #

    I remember getting the Singles 81-85 album (with their faces on the cover, not a neon sign) in 87 or so and being really impressed that they’d printed all their reviews, good and bad, in the sleeves. I suspect it was meant to be a “we don’t care about the critics” move but I thought it was very candid and interesting.

  4. 104
    thefatgit on 30 Jan 2011 #

    I think it upset a lot of people in the music press, that Depeche Mode broke the USA in a way that The Clash never could. Although their success over there was short-lived, it must have riled some that UK rock/pop was being repped Stateside by Daniel Miller’s pet teenpop project.

  5. 105
    swanstep on 30 Jan 2011 #

    Dave Gahan’s solo single, Kingdom, from a couple of years back was pretty solid. It’s quite Violator-ish. I like Violator more than Tom does it seems, with great opening and closing tracks and Policy of Truth as my highlights. (I’m less enthusiastic about Enjoy the Silence than most people are – too much of a New Order knock-off to my ears.) Someone above mentioned an early DM song, The Sun and the Rainfall: its lovely long fade out ending is v. similar to the last 20 bars or so of Wonderwall. Probably Oasis arrived at it independently (the perils of living too long – e.g. 2, the intro to Eminem’s Lose Yourself always just sounds to me like warmed over Cure, 10.15 on a saturday night).

  6. 106
    Rory on 30 Jan 2011 #

    I feel like a Bateman cartoon: “The Man Who Liked Songs of Faith & Devotion.” Possibly because it’s the only DM album I own, and I have no other context apart from dim memories of “Just Can’t Get Enough”.

  7. 107
    wichita lineman on 31 Jan 2011 #

    Ice Machine, on the flip of Dreaming Of Me, is possibly my favourite Vince Clarke song, with an unusually elliptical lyric, minor OMD-ish chords and some nice harmonies.

    After Clarkey left I struggled with their heavier direction, enjoying the odd single, and Violator quite a lot. But their move into R+O+C+K rather than techno/electronica in the early 90s was where I said goodbye for good.

    Having said THAT, I’ve just been offered a run of all their 7″s in mint condition. Should I be tempted?

  8. 108
    Conrad on 31 Jan 2011 #

    My favourite Depeche Mode period is 81-82. I love See You and Meaning of Love, and the early Vince Clarke tracks. Bubblegum synth pop at its finest.

  9. 109
    23 Daves on 31 Jan 2011 #

    @ 107 – you’ve just been offered a run of their mint 7″ singles for free?! Take for God’s sake, take take! I probably bid too much on ebay for just five of them last year (and not in mint condition, either).

    Their run of singles from 1981-1989 is pretty much without fault (“Meaning of Love” is the only slightly clunky effort to my ears). After that, there are definitely diminishing returns and the misfires become more frequent, but it’s a set worth owning. And if you don’t want it, somebody on ebay will probably bid handsomely for it.

    Still, most Depeche B-sides tend to be a bit ropey, but you can’t have everything.

  10. 110
    swanstep on 31 Jan 2011 #

    @wichita. Yeah, Ice machine (on youtube in lots of places e.g. here if anyone’s interested) is fun. To me now it sounds quite a lot like stuff from Muse’s second album, Origin of Symmetry (except for not having massed guitars gallumphing in about the 3 minute mark of course!). Now I think about it, there’s definitely a bit of DM’s dna in Muse overall (somewhat similar regional uncoolness to begin with I gather, and there’s something about them both that makes it easy to keep one’s distance so that *they* always have to win you over afresh, which they often manage to do, and surprisingly DM’s live rep. although not at Muse’s levels has always been very good).

  11. 111
    hardtogethits on 31 Jan 2011 #

    re # 36′s point over the closeness of the sales, and the general discontent with the charts tie breaker. It would be a reasonable conclusion that neither record sold significantly higher than the other. However, there were rules there to determine how the winner would be decided, and the rules were applied. This happens all the time in sport, and all manner of other competitions and contests. I think we are stopping ourselves from having fun if we suggest that there is no meaning to be extracted from close-run chart contests of the past.

  12. 112
    Chelovek na lune on 1 Feb 2011 #

    Hmm, I like “…Faith and Devotion” too; not their best album by any means, but some very fine songs on it.

    (I don’t think “Black Celebration” is the very best either – more the first one that threw off the kind of self-consciousness “seriousness” that had made some really embarassing lyrics in the transitional phase before that). My battle for number one DM album would be fought out between Music For The Masses and the penultimate one up to now (the name of which I forget, but it has “Lilian”, and “John the Liberator” on, that one)

    But what went wrong after that (mostly) wasn’t the music (for all that Ultra is a patchy and unsatisfactory album); it was the image/lifestyle/drugs/taking themselves too seriously in the media (as opposed to in their lyric-writing, as in 1984/5) thing. Yes there were hits and misses, but, for all that general public interest died, DM continued to deliver the goods – I think there is even a case to be made that their output during the 2000s (if not the 1990s) is better than that of the 1980s. Ah, if only that were true of the Pet Shop Boys…

    ANyway I’m glad we’re discussing the Mode here. (Who would rule out a posthumous/post-final split number 1 tied in to some advertising campaign or unanticpated revival/remake though? Not I) Much more worthy of discussion than the Steve Miller Band

  13. 113
    Mark G on 1 Feb 2011 #

    “Meaning of Love” is very dancey.

  14. 114
    DanielW on 3 Feb 2011 #

    “Abracadabra” was a brilliant single, whilst this is merely average. Would’ve much preferred the former to have been re-released than the latter.

  15. 115
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2011 #

    A couple of things have occurred to me regarding this entry.

    First, prompted by
    a) discussion of Joni Mitchell on the Unchained Melody thread
    b) Billy Smart’s review of Steely Dan’s ‘Haitian Divorce’ over at his blog
    c) the recent repeat of the BBC Fleetwood Mac documentary
    is how relatively little impact the US West Coast acts had on the UK single charts. This may have been that they were largely album acts who weren’t able to appear on TOTP but I’m surprised that The Eagles for one didn’t have more single success.

    Secondly, I’m curious to know to what extent Quentin Tarantino altered the perception and use of older recordings a couple of years after this. I can imagine this tune being used instead of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ for example and wonder how much that would change its reputation.

  16. 116
    Mark G on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Well, the Eagles and FMac did alright, but for a while that kind of “rock” was inescapable thanks to Commercial Radio preferring to play that rather than the UK / new wave.

    Then again, why buy “Hotel California” if you know you can hear it within 16 minutes of turning the radio on?

  17. 118
    DV on 29 Nov 2011 #

    sorry if this has already been mentioned, but my recollection is that Mr Abusing really nailed this one.

  18. 119
    lonepilgrim on 8 Dec 2011 #

    Putting Steve Miller in his place:

    http://twitpic.com/7ldktv

  19. 120
    Mark G on 8 Dec 2011 #

    Nobody ever smoked, toked, picked and grinned? Apart from Stevie?

  20. 121
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 8 Dec 2011 #

    ^^^joke-a-mouse

  21. 122
    malmo58 on 13 Jan 2012 #

    As a student in 1990 I just enjoyed this as a fun party tune. A year later I won a karaoke competition in the students’ union bar singing this – never saw hide or hair of the promised £25 prize though.

  22. 123
    Chelovek na lune on 12 Jan 2013 #

    Some interesting (and, to me, at least, new) suggestions about the source of some of the lyrics of this number – including the Pompatus of Love

    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/972/in-steve-millers-the-joker-what-is-the-pompatus-of-love

    and “Another line from “The Joker” goes “I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree. / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time.” A similar line may be found in the Clovers’ 1953 hit “Lovey Dovey”: “I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time.”

    Hmmm

  23. 124
    Patrick Mexico on 19 Feb 2014 #

    Groove is in the Heart was undoubtedly brilliant but I can see why that drove some people up the wall, what with the Trunchbull-esque intro of “We’re going to dance / and have some fun” – and that video with its naff psychedelic horseshit that was Austin Powers at best and at worst, a fucking Skips advert.

    Maybe that’s just because I see the sixties revivalism of the 80s arse-end – everybody from Tiffany to the Stone Roses – as some kind of faux-innocent time compared to the current brutal materialism – as the predecessor to the (mostly Eurodance and hip-hop based, plus the least interesting Britpop) nineties’ current vice-like grip – i.e. “Hey! I know all the words to the Fresh Prince theme even though I was born in 2000!” Amusing for someone born in 1985.

    I’d be interested to know if any people here who were old enough in 87-91 were extremely cynical about acid house and rave culture, despite all the documentaries making me think it was an all-conquering religion that saved everyone from those Horrible Mean Nasty Gordon Gekko Eighties. I’ve heard Mark E Smith say “[Salford brickies trying to hug me].. preferred it when they used to threaten me… [Ecstasy is] State Control: Brave New World”, Alan McGee say “well, you’re saying “maaan”, which for someone who was a teenage punk rocker was [uncomfortable]” and an over-discussed Welsh Bunny act sing “Everybody’s taking drugs because it makes governing easier” but not much more. Any good first-hand anecdotes?

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