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. 1
    Matt DC on 24 Jan 2011 #

    I’d never heard that Groove Is In The Heart story before! I quite like this, although it’s tied in with its time as one of the few songs it was socially acceptable to sing in the playground. The word ‘smoker’ might have helped.

  2. 2
    Tom on 24 Jan 2011 #

    I should have said “is best known AMONG THE NERDS” I think.

    http://www.everyhit.com/number1quirks.html “Eager to deflect the flack which flew when this came to light, the chart compilers subsequently announced that “The Joker” had, in fact, on review of the figures, sold eight more copies than “Groove Is In The Heart.”

    So there you go.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 24 Jan 2011 #

    when I heard this again recently I was reminded what an odd song this is to get to number one in the UK. It lurches along amiably while ‘Steve’ apparently makes up a lyric in his sleep. If he wasn’t such a diehard Creedence fan I can imagine The Dude listening to this in the bath – pre-marmot visitation.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I have to report that this was hugely popular in Crown Woods School sixth form circles, more so than anything contemporary. Eltham kids considered it to be ‘proper geezer music’ – i.e. non-weird melodic rock, while Lewisham kids heard the lines “I’m a smoker – I’m a mignight toker!” with tremendous approval, frequently singing them when toking themselves (“Skin oop!”)

    I absolutely *despised* this single at the time, Steve Miller seeming to be the embodiment of every winking-“Chill out mate”-unfunny-‘laidback’-although-actually-very-manipulative-unthinking-inconsiderate-lad-geezer-JackDaniels-stoner-wanker that I’d ever met.

    I’ve just heard it again. Jesus God, that bit where he makes the guitar wolf whistle is grotesque.

    Yuck.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I quite like ‘Abracadabra’, though.

  6. 6
    JonnyB on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Wow. I am gobsmacked that this made number one. Being, as I was, in my ZX Spectrum is better than pop music phase at the time.

    I just assumed that this was one of the tracks that had sort of fallen into Radio 2. Ummmm – it’s reasonably amiable. The wolf whistle is – erm – well, it’s probably nothing that a million other male guitar player led bands hadn’t done.

    I have nothing against this particular song. But nothing for it either. Taking a step back, it’s memorable – choosing it for an ad was a good move, probably. But give me the Bellamy Brothers any time.

  7. 7
    flahr on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I was worried the Groove effect was going to lead to you going unduly harsh on it, but I reckon 5 is a fair summation – I bought it off The Internet recently and it got dull quickly but I enjoy humming it to myself.

    How delightful incidentally to note that your last.fm profile currently reads “Steve Miller Band – Deee-Lite – Half Man Half Biscuit”.

    EDIT: Oh! Speaking of Spectra and video game consoles and whatnot, Wiki tells the story of how Lady Miss Kier sued Sega because she thought they’d stolen her likeness for Ulula in Space Channel 5. A pleasing intersection.

  8. 8
    Billy Hicks on 25 Jan 2011 #

    So, erm, what happened in the second half of 1990 to make the number 1s suddenly go back in time? We’ve had a Stock/Aitken/Waterman throwback cover from Mr Mallett, now a re-issue, and it’s not the only one to come this year. Just a few months earlier we had the likes of Snap, Adamski and Madonna with tracks as up-to-date as you could imagine for 1990, but they’re not bothering the top spot anymore.

    I like The Joker. It’s ridiculous in a good way, especially the ever-welcome “WAHP-WOAWW” bits (including the one right just before the fade out, which catches you off guard and is hilarious). But it sounds as out of place in 1990 as if, say, New Kids On The Block suddenly got to number 1 again now, it’s almost the same time length away as 1973 was then.

    Dee-Lite would have been a much more deserving #1 had the UK 7″/radio edit not ridiculously edited out Q-Tip’s rap, which is my favourite part of the song. God knows why, probably same reasons as 2 Unlmited…

  9. 9
    Seb Patrick on 25 Jan 2011 #

    There is one thing, and one thing only, that saves this record’s reputation: and that’s its use on The Simpsons.

  10. 10
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jan 2011 #

    That’s odd because Q-Tip is present in the video version as played on TOTP). I give GIITH a 9 (tho it is surely one of the five most beloved floor-fillers of the decade)), The Joker a dismal 3 – always found it way too corny.

    For me the next chart-topper is worse tho so am torn between wanting it out of the way ASAP or delaying the pain as much as possible (fortunately not my decision…). The second half of 1990 really did feel like a retro relapse and the revenge of the “golden” oldies (Bobby Vinton, er, one or two others…that said I do prefer these to ‘The Joker’).

  11. 11
    JLucas on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I am utterly incapable of being objective with this one. I HATE IT.

    Seriously, seriously hate it with every fibre of my being.

    Nothing to do with the ‘Groove’ injustice, though that was an infinitely more deserving #1.

    I just find every second of this hideous, hideous record completely unbearable.

    Glad to get that out of my system. *exhales*

  12. 12
    anto on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I don’t love Groove is in the Heart as much as a lot of other people seem to. It’s good and fun and everything but it’s one of those records that contributed to the overbearing haughtiness of a lot of the dance scene in the nineties. Not that Dee-Lite can be held accountable. The actual vibe of their record made for an endearing fantasy.
    No such fantasy is discernable on The Joker. An unwanted arm around the shoulder and a dodgy chat-up line at the Grafton on a Saturday evening. It’s a smarmy record and the sound effects/double entendes just make it twice as tacky.

  13. 13
    weej on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I can’t find it in myself to hate The Joker, as much as I’d prefer GIITH to have got there instead. If I had a time machine I’d probably pop back to 1990 and buy 10 copies anyway though.

  14. 14
    Jonathan Bogart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I love both songs equally, though given my historical fetish for keeping everything in its place I would have vastly preferred to read about Deee-Lite in this spot.

    Very odd to think of “The Joker” having any traction in the UK at all; its arrhythmic Deep-South-by-way-of-San-Francisco vibe is I would have thought one of the more quintessentially American sounds, a genial album-rock goof that became an unexpected (but by my lights deserving) sleeper hit thanks to a clever combination of old blues tropes and Miller recycling the least sensical bits of his own old songs, and that wolf-whistle guitar scratch standing in for a hook until they thought of something better. Lazy is right, and all the more lovable for it.

  15. 15
    Hectorthebat on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Can I be the first in with the “fact” that Steve Miller Band is in fact the father of David and Ed, notable Labour politicians?

  16. 16
    vinylscot on 25 Jan 2011 #

    This was number one in the States in January 1974, and it got a fair amount of airplay over here around that time, especially on Radio Luxembourg.

    Although it certainly doesn’t sound like it now, it was probably originally a little ahead of its time, as far as the UK was concerned. Songs like this and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue” would probably have been hits if they had been released in 75 or 76, once the wider public had been more exposed to the likes of the Eagles et al.

    I enjoyed it the first time round, and I still like it now, but I too was surprise it did quite so well in 1990, even with the help of the Levi’s ad.

  17. 17
    Mark G on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #15, vg

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #2 Isn’t the “sold 8 more copies” justification likely to be a load of rubbish though? My understanding of how the chart worked is that, effectively, it was a survey. A sample of record stores around the country – the chart return stores – would have their sales data collected and run through a data entry processor and the chart would be complied from that – this seems to be supported by the pages in England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage dealing with the GSTQ issue. As such, the data is dependent on the sample used and is not a full scale audit of all the sales in any given week from all the shops selling singles. Unless the sample was absolutely huge, 8 copies must easily be within the margin of error, surely? (And, yes, I won’t call you Shirley – that joke works so much better out loud than on the page). And if within the margin of error, you can’t really say that it definitely sold 8 more copies.

    Does anyone know better and can correct me? Logisitics of the compliation of the chart not necessarily being my strong suit.

    On chart return stores as well, I heard a few tales of people finding out where the chart return stores were (which should have been kept a secret to stop chart rigging) and going and buying masses of copies from them (although not necessarily in this case). Is this true?

    The song. Meh. Dad liked it and it was on in the car a lot. Can’t say I hate it but it’s hardly outstanding. 5 seems about right – though from the comments above it seems, that for the people who have replied thus far at least, it’s a lot more polarising than I would have thought.

  19. 19
    the pinefox on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I would tend to agree with the last poster that it is hard to believe that the difference between the top 2 records was really 8 sales.

    I don’t think it makes much sense to talk of a ‘notorious injustice’. Would you say it was a notorious injustice if the chart positions had been reversed? I think that this mixes up two things: your feelings about a track, and its commercial performance – which in most cases are understood to be unrelated. If you mix them up then you have to start granting statements like “it’s a notorious injustice that 69 Love Songs wasn’t the biggest selling LP of 1999-2000”.

    But I then agree with most of what the article says about the record – the observation of tone is finely judged.

    I didn’t like the record, really – not because it wasn’t futuristic but because it was bland, creepy, insidious. I think the two little things I slightly like about it are the rising acoustic guitars and harmonies in the chorus.

  20. 20
    Tom on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #18 Well I guess the chart return shop system meant the charts were full of statistically insignificant differences which nonetheless determined position. The 8 sales thing still smells like bullshit – we did a recount and look! our rule got the right answer after all. And it was unnecessary: if you’re going to disallow ties, highest climber seems a fair way to do it. They were fools not to have gone for the extra column inches a tied number one would have generated.

    As for chart return shops, their identity certainly wasn’t a secret, even if it was meant to be. I was talking last year to a guy who was running a record shop in the late 70s, and one week he suddenly started getting a load of pluggers in offering him free stock, displays, posters etc. He asked one of them what was going on and the plugger said oh, you’re chart return mate. He said, no I’m not, and the guy said, well you’re about to be. And he got the letter a few days later saying do you want to be part of our sample etc etc. So the PR people had the information before the actual shops! That said I think full-scale buy-ups of singles was relatively rare (but not unknown) – part of the data cleaning process was to check for unnatural clumps of sales. Certainly though as a chart return shop you would get a ton more attention from the record companies.

  21. 21
    Tom on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #19 Mea culpa Pinefox, I originally wrote “notorious perceived injustice” but didn’t like the pile-up of polysyllables.

    Tho the injustice isn’t “The Joker” getting to #1, it’s “Groove Is In The Heart” NOT getting there – since in the Steve Miller Band’s second week it outsold “Groove”, it’s the difference between 2 weeks for this and 1 week each: “Joker” would have been a #1 whichever.

  22. 22
    enitharmon on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Well, for what it’s worth I like it. I seem to catch a taste of sour grapes in this thread. It’s a very acceptable piece of country rock (you couldn’t imagine a British band doing it at any time). 5 is harsh. 6 from me, 7 on a good day. I’ve been called reactionary lately – well if this is reactionary so be it.

  23. 23
    the pinefox on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I never liked ‘groove is in the heart’ myself (so would never be troubled to see it failing to achieve something) – though over time, somehow, I think I softened towards it and started to think it had *something*. That thing might well be the melody of the line ‘I couldn’t dance with another’.

    I also may have been a bit swayed by Billy Bragg’s band’s surprisingly competent live cover of it, at least after I’d taped it off the radio and heard it a few times.

    I think you were on quite a good point in saying that the two records’ japey moods might be quite similar.

  24. 24
    wichita lineman on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Re 20: Agreed, Tom, that highest climber seemed the fairest tie-breaker rather than “greater sales increase” – I’m still not entirely sure what that means. More shop orders is a given – it was the number one record in the bleedin’ country! Seeing as The Joker had already been number one, you think they’d give the new kid in town the benefit of the doubt. Also, GiitH must surely have had more sales in specialist shops than The Joker?

    Re: chart return shops. By the mid 80s they had a little black box on the counter into which the sales were fed, so no great secret there. Even though I worked in the Peterborough branch of Virgin in 1985 I can’t remember how we fed the the info in – barcode, I imagine.

    Having seen (and done) it, large-scale buy-ups of singles – ten in one hit, anyway – did happen!

  25. 25
    flahr on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #21 Isn’t there the possibility that “Groove” being named #1 in the first week would have given it enough momentum and publicity to outsell “Joker” in the second week?

    I agree that your fantasy of one week for each of them would have been a nice one however.

    #15 afraid not given we first had it back in the Soul II Soul thread!

  26. 26
    Erithian on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Indeed, the gag was rather played out back then, when the Labour leadership campaign was in full swing. Sadly, no mention for the even more neglected fourth Miliband brother, Glenn, who’s been missing for some time now.

    I liked “The Joker” a lot when it first came out, although wouldn’t die in a ditch as to its merits (prefer “Rock’n Me” or “Fly Like An Eagle”, the latter of which was to be purloined by a certain white rapper we’re going to meet shortly). “Joker” was a feelgood song, none too serious, and of its time. Would have loved it to be a big hit in 1973, but here it did seem out of place and indicative of the power of the ad campaign rather than the music when, as many here have said, people wanted to get on with the 90s.

    Wouldn’t have begrudged GIITH a turn at the top, either. I think DJ Punctum of this parish was well aware of his local chart return shop, if memory serves…

  27. 27
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    If ‘The Joker’ had come out in 1973, nobody would have noticed!

  28. 28
    swanstep on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Much prefer The Joker to GIITH but agree with the general anti-revivalist sentiment many have expressed. The record’ is a 7 in the ’70s but presumably less than that in the ’90s (looking ahead there are some *ace* record revivals coming up that are going to be painful to have to score relatively lowly for lack of timeliness, oh well).

    Somewhat related to Tom’s Tarantino point: there was a (rather Apatow-ish/bromantic) 1996 rom com called The Pompatus of Love which featured endless sub-Reservoir Dogs dialogue about The Joker and its famous, silly line.

  29. 29
    Erithian on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Well it was the US number one in January 1974, replacing Jim Croce’s gorgeous “Time in a Bottle”, so someone noticed! Whether it had a UK single release in ‘73 I’m not sure.

    Wiki notes that the 1990 reissue also reached number one in the Netherlands, New Zealand and Ireland (where it was deposed by the Saw Doctors!)

  30. 30
    the pinefox on 25 Jan 2011 #

    From reading these pages I get the impression that Mr Billy Smart went to school very near me. The names of the schools clang like old bells in my head.

    Some people were into ‘smoking’, but you never heard about ‘toking’.

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