Jan 11


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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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  1. 31
    enitharmon on 25 Jan 2011 #

    erithian @ 26

    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 don’t think lex has caught up yet.

    A further thought on retro. Tom is on record as saying he dislikes The Doors (though I don’t recall him saying why). In less than a year from this point in Popular time we’ll be reaching the twentienth anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death, marked by Oliver Stone’s tribute film. It isn’t a very good film, but through it many of the young North Kensingtonians I knew at the time, who admittedly may not have been representative of young people in general, discovered the old West Coast sound and saw that it was good, at least the equal of much contemporary music.

  2. 32
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    There was a lot more of a drug culture in my school than (almost) any group that I’ve known since. Cannabis everywhere and the focal interest of Lewisham kids, some E, but oddly acid still had quite a following at the time (“Ya tripping? Ya tripping?”), which you don’t really think of as being a 1990 London concern. I don’t remember there being any speed, though there was some experimentation with amyl nitrate.

    I didn’t really feel a part of any of this, though I was coerced into toking on occasions, always with the abrasive effect of the tobacco far outweighing any mellowing power that the cannabis might contain.

    It was a difficult time.

    Oddly, my generation weren’t very interested in drinking though, the presence of alcohol being taken as a given, and its effects being seen as much less interesting than drugs.

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Re 31. Yes the 1991 revival of ‘Light My Fire’ was also big in sixth form circles, Morrison’s “We couldn’t get much HIGHER!” frequently being sung alongside “I’m a midnight toker”, much to my irritation. “Chill out mate!”

  4. 34
    the pinefox on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I’m with Ewing on that one – don’t know the Doors that well but they strike me as the worst of the major 1960s bands – if they were indeed a major 1960s band.

    This makes me think that I sort of like all 1960s bands except when they’re really psychedelic / prog or something (eg I don’t think I like J Airplane, or Pink Floyd bar the very early songs that everyone knows). Doors had other bad things going on though – vocally, lyrically, bathos, bad in lots of ways, I would think, and not that much to redeem them.

  5. 35
    wichita lineman on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Doors – first successful rock group to have a logo, ergo the beginning of corporate rock.

    Lillian Roxon puts up a convincing contemporary love/hate argument for them in her 1969 Rock Encyclopedia.

  6. 36
    Cumbrian on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #18 I imagine you’re right – a lot of “close run things” would have had to be sorted out this way. Speaking as someone who works in data analysis for a media company though, if I turfed up data that was that close my conclusion would not be “this one is higher than that one” but “these are, on the balance of probability the same”. Agreed that basically that this was a failure of imagination on behalf of the charts – they could have run with the story if it were a tie.

    Interesting stories on the chart return stores – the leaking of their location must have been people at the relevant research companies taking a back hander to let people know where they were going to be. The PR companies knowing before the shops involved is pretty funny.

  7. 37
    Tom on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Yeah I don’t think I have any very interesting reasons for not liking The Doors – I know almost nobody who likes them and so have perversely tried to get into them but there are still huge barriers. Decent band, TERRIBLE frontman is my not specially original view on them! On something like “The End”, with the “Father I want to kill you / Mother I want to RARURUAURURURR!” bit, I just end up laughing, and I can put my historical hat on and think – yes, this was groundbreaking, nobody had been doing stuff like this before but it’s an innovation that seems immediately clumsy and stupid as soon as it happens.

    I do have a kind of guilty pleasure soft spot at the moment for really declarative, yearning rock but I think it’s more likely to end up with me finally liking Van Morrison than finally getting into The Doors.

  8. 38
    Tom on 25 Jan 2011 #

    #28 at least one upcoming revival is a song I couldn’t stand anyway.

  9. 39
    Chelovek na lune on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Boring, in short. And I am happy to be described, not inaccurately, as a reactionary. “Abracadabra” is miles better…But compared with “The Joker”, Deee-Lite would easily have been the more worthy chart-topper, even if they were a bit overhyped.

    (Sure there was a stripped-down dance version of Fly Like An Eagle out around the summer of ’90 – or possibly ’91, but can’t recall who the artiste responsible was)

  10. 40
    Mark G on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Funny really, at the time it made No1 in the USA, it was held up as an example of how inferior the UK charts were compared to the US.

    I believe it did get released over here. As did a whole bunch of his singles from this point onwards, with plenty of airplay, to no effect until “Rock’n’me” finally crept into the lower reaches…

  11. 41
    wichita lineman on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Do you think “Maurice” refers to the character in Northern Exposure with the unfeasibly young wife? It might explain the wolf whistle, which was put to even better effect on Go Kart Mozart’s Here Is A Song .

  12. 42
    Conrad on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I loved Groove is in the Heart and still do, especially its cheeky purloining of that great bass line from, if memory serves, Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack to Blow Up?

    And talking of bass lines, The Doors would have benefitted from a bit of bass guitar on their first few albums. Very tinny sounding they are. And not very good really. Part of the problem is they are so precious as musicians, without any of the verve of contempories like Hendrix, the Stones, Zep etc

    Quite like bits of Morrison Hotel and LA Woman though – Love Her Madly, Peace Frog, Queen of the Highway

    As for The Joker, it bored me. But then I hated the whole Levis ad tie-in thing.

  13. 43
    thefatgit on 25 Jan 2011 #

    One way of reconciling the two records is “Groove…” for the beans, “The Joker” for the bong. There’s not much more to add really.

  14. 44
    Tom on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Just listened to the next ten songs we have coming up, btw – if there’s a more stylistically diverse (tho hardly always good) run of ten in Popular I dunno where I’d look for it.

  15. 45
    MikeMCSG on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I was quite happy for Dee-Lite to fail as I thought they were over-hyped but compared to some of the crap to come “GITH” was brilliant.

    You do wonder why people without the slightest interest in 70s stoner rock would nevertheless buy this because it was on a commercial. Was this the high tide of Levis revivals ? – I remember the following year a glam fan at work getting very excited that Marc Bolan was going to get another number one when they used “20th Century Boy” and it didn’t happen. Mind you given the contemporary crap they hoisted to the top we might have been better off with the oldies.

    #41 Northern Exposure wasn’t running in 1973. “Maurice” actually refers back to one of his earlier songs.

  16. 46
    Matthew H on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I think Smash Hits must have run a report on chart return shops, showing a picture of a Dataport (possibly) machine, because we kept trying to lean over the counter in WH Smiths to see if they had one.

    They probably didn’t, or Duran Duran would’ve had way more No.1s.

    The Joker? I didn’t like it, but I remembered a mid-80s Spandau Ballet interview where Gary Kemp said they had a special dance for it at school.

  17. 47
    punctum on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Miller’s men were played endlessly on the daytime Radio 1 of my youth, in silent reproach at the record buying public for repeatedly, and thoughtlessly, neglecting to put them in the charts where they belonged. 1968’s Sailor was their masterpiece, and one of the first and firmest of stumblings towards that end-of-sixties doped/can’t-find-our-way-home roundelay with its “Song For My Ancestors” and “Dear Mary” and “Quicksilver Girl”…and Miller never quite seems to have found his way out of that particular cloud of smoke.

    The Steve Miller Band’s seventies and early eighties output was pretty adventurous in its own ways; in other words, those strange, alien winds at the elongated end of “Swingtown” or the flurries of synth crenellating the beached rock whales of “Fly Like An Eagle” or the fourteen vacant minutes of “Macho City” (the Eagles do Tago Mago?) are residual layers of psychedelia pasted onto formalist seventies stoner AoR, and in their manner antecedents of World Of Twist (whose “The Storm” should perhaps have gone to number one in 1990 rather than “The Joker”).

    And what exactly was “The Joker” doing at number one in 1990? Prior to this, the SMB had only racked up two UK Top 40 hits; “Rock ‘N Me” (#11 in 1976) and Squeeze-gone-wrong tribute “Abracadabra,” which rather surprisingly made number two in the declining New Pop midsummer of 1982 despite being represented on TOTP by a magician, clearly recruited from the long-term classified section of The Stage, performing excerpts from The Boys’ Book Of Basic Tricks. So “The Joker,” despite being an American number one and being played to death on 1974 Radio 1 by Noel Edmonds and Johnnie Walker, had not previously been a hit in Britain; but, as ever, the introduction of the word “Levi’s” will explain everything.

    By 1990 the Levi’s ad campaign had moved away from Classic Soul towards Classic Rock, and despite the “Joker” ad featuring an intent biker, totally at odds with the song’s subject matter and delivery, it did the trick. It’s still not very clear how it got to number one, however; every atom of “The Joker” seeps stoned 1974 denim from its furtive smoke. The band play the song as slowly and meanderingly as possible such that it distorts into a slight unreality – the original dope beat – while a clearly out-of-his-tree Miller burbles in a Van Morrison “Sweet Thing” fashion (“Lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time”) and allows the occasional wolf whistle to escape from his lead guitar. Starting with a quick precis of his works to (1974) date, citing “Space Cowboy,” “Gangster Of Love” and “Little Maurice” (in which latter the phrase “pompitous of love” makes its first appearance in Miller’s work), it then slackens into a rapture of non-committal love (“I’m a midnight toker,” “I’m right here at home”) and slovenly winking double entendres (“Really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree”). On the 45 mix the song fades out with gradual slowness and you are left with the impression that it could drawl on forever. Was this a sideways acknowledgement on the part of an astute music consultant of the E’d-out Second Summer Of Love? An odd and rather baffling number one for this age, and in this case not necessarily No Bad Thing. It doesn’t sound much like Glenn Miller either.

  18. 48
    Erithian on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Here’s Steve and the latest incarnation of his band playing “The Joker” on Later with Jools last October, with 2010 Poptimist favourites Cee-Lo Green and Janelle Monae appearing to rather enjoy it:
    I do love that bass line and the drum sound, though, even if the song isn’t all that great.

  19. 49
    23 Daves on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Oddly, I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was the first time I heard The Steve Miller Band. I was eight years old, and listening to the Tuesday afternoon chart run-down on Radio One (I adored that as a kid, and would rush home from school at lunchtimes just to catch it and get the news ahead of Thursday’s “Top of the Pops”). As a treat, my mum had given me a jam doughnut and a plate (“just to catch the mess, you know what you’re like”). Then “Abracadabra” came on the radio, the first I’d ever heard of this mysterious Steve Miller Band who so far hadn’t really been beamed into my boyish world.

    My response was immediate and reflexive. I bloody hated it, and remember saying so. “Oh God Mum, this song is boooring”, I whined. The main reason my memory of hearing them is so picture-perfect in my mind is because I couldn’t comprehend why this dirge was so high in the charts and what anyone was getting out of it. It baffled me more than “O Superman”. It was rock, but it was lifeless rock, a lazy, repetitive approximation of what I was used to, and I found its pace and the vocals somehow simultaneously odd and dreary. I suppose I expected some kind of edge and found that there was none there.

    A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, but some things remain the same, and I have to confess that even as a grown man, The Steve Miller Band are a total blind spot for me, one of the few bands who genuinely cause me to physically yawn when I hear them (although The Doors would be another, interestingly enough). Both “The Joker” and “Abracadabra” in particular are over-familiar enough to be duller to my ears than any of their other output would seem. I know what they’re driving towards and I suppose I can see the appeal this kind of stoner-rock might have to some, but to me it just sounds bone-idle and smug about its effortlessness. The best stoner music is frequently sonically rich, but SMB just seem to capture the lethargy and tongue-lolling stupidity of that state of mind and nothing else here. Sometimes when I hear “The Joker”, all I can see in my mind’s eye is Dylan off “The Magic Roundabout”.

    For all that, I remember a lot of my school friends buying “The Joker” at the time and going on about how great it was. It was definitely one of those rare singles which got a lot of love from the Classic Rock brigade and also a much younger generation, making it a natural number one. Some of this was down to the “toker” line, but clearly others were getting plenty more from it than I ever managed.

  20. 50
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Jan 2011 #

    I never really noticed this before, but SM sounds VERY like Elvis Costello. Or I guess vice versa.

  21. 51
    Jonathan Bogart on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Just one note to add for the record that the phrase “the pompatous of love,” which most people know from this song, is a direct quote from a very strange 1954 doo-wop single by the Medallions, “The Letter.” (Yes, I know you all know, but for the Googlers.)

  22. 52
    swanstep on 25 Jan 2011 #

    All these ads are new to me (thanks youtube). The T-Rex one that #45 mentions appears to be this one with Brad Pitt (in his Thelma and Louise prime). It’s the best ad in the bunch by a mile I think.

    And while we’re reviewing Steve Miller generally, I’d like to put in a good word for ‘Take the Money and Run’. Many a tedious car-trip in the US has been enlivened by trying to nail its nifty hand-clap sequences that come in somewhat irregularly.

  23. 53
    ace inhibitor on 25 Jan 2011 #

    pinefox@30 – I went to the same school as Billy S, though 10 years previously (before drugs were invented). It was at that time the biggest single-site school in the country, so perhaps not surprising there’s one or two or us around. later became newsworthy when it successfully challenged the very very evill chris woodhead in the courts to be taken out of OFSTED special measures. The joker was a quintessential late-night capitol radio song circa 1976. its re-emergence in the 90s was slightly unfathomable.

  24. 54
    wichita lineman on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Beyond the ad The Joker’s belated success was, I imagine, partly due to

    1) the popularity of 98bpm.

    2) the rise of Teenage Fanclub, which signalled an appetite for carpet-walled 70s rock that had been off the menu for well over a decade.

    Re 45: Sorry Mike, it was a lame gag. But I do love the idea of someone writing a song about a character in Northern Exposure (or Dream On, or Quantum Leap. Definitive 1990 TV, along with Twin Peaks natch).

  25. 55
    Elsa on 25 Jan 2011 #

    Getting back to the digression on the Doors to correct a couple of errors, the band did use a bass player on all of their records except for a few songs on the first album. Larry Knechtel played on the debut. Douglass Lubahn was used a lot. Harvey Brooks and Jerry Scheff were also used and so were others. And, if it needs to be said, we’re coming upon the fortieth anniversary of Morrison’s death, not the twentieth (the twentieth of the Oliver Stone film).

    Look at the band Love’s first three albums. There’s a logo that predates the Doors’. Could’ve inspired it even.

  26. 56
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jan 2011 #

    WL “1) the popularity of 98bpm.”

    also highlighted by Paul Oakenfold’s short-lived Movement 98 project (‘Joy And Heartbreak’).

  27. 57
    Mark M on 26 Jan 2011 #

    Re 54: the compilation tape I put together to remember my first year flat at university certainly suggests we had tuned into a connection between 1990 and early ’70s burnout – it features Big Star’s I’m In Love With A Girl, Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down, the Stones’ Happy (from Exile) and then – as anticipated – Teenage Fanclub’s Everybody’s Fool…

    For all that, we all loved Groove Is In The Heart and definitely would’ve favoured it over The Joker.

  28. 58
    crag on 26 Jan 2011 #

    RE;55-The Beatles and the Monkees both had “logos” before the Doors or Love.
    Speaking of which, weren’t Deelite on Elektra?
    The only Levi’s song I bought at the time was Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” which sadly got nowhere…
    Re#54- I’d blame the Fannies for the Joker’s success-at this they’d just released a debut album that would have had little impact on non-Melody Maker readers or Peel listeners. As Tom says the proper 70s revival didnt really begin for another year or so..

  29. 59
    wichita lineman on 26 Jan 2011 #

    Re 55: You’re right, I’m sure they pinched the idea, but that’s why I said “successful” rock group – Love’s one Top 40 hit doesn’t really compare to the Doors’ record, even though their rep is probably higher than the Doors’ these days.

    Re 58: the first Love album predates the Monkees’ debut by almost a year. The Beatles’ “logo” was on a drumskin and only used as corporate identity by Apple from 1982 onwards.

    Sorry if I was unclear Crag but I wasn’t implying Teenage Fanclub themselves helped The Joker to no.1 – I meant there was a new appreciation of 70s rock in the air, backed up by Mark M at 57 (and I was also discovering a lot of hitherto forbidden fruit in 1990 – Rod Stewart’s early albums, Neil Young’s Zuma) which predated but probably inspired Bandwagonesque.

    Alan Betrock reckoned the first pop act to use a logo was Dee Dee Sharp and he may well be right.

  30. 60
    Ed on 26 Jan 2011 #

    Re 37 But why should laughing at the Doors stop you liking them? The feeling of “this is a bit silly but actually really cool as well” is surely one of the natural emotions of pop fandom. On a thread where there has (rightly) been so much love for Deee-Lite, I shouldn’t have to argue that.

    IIRC, the Doors were despised as a bubblegum teen pop band by Sixties hipsters. (Partly because of Morrison’s looks, obv) The real heads were into – what? Dylan? The Floyd? The Dead? Something a lot more serious and less obviously laughable, anyway.

    Would it help to think of them as the Pet Shop Boys of the Sixties? With the Doors it is straight camp, of course, but it’s still camp.

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