24
Jan 11

STEVE MILLER BAND – “The Joker”

Popular127 comments • 6,484 views

#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. 61
    swanstep on 26 Jan 2011 #

    I think anyone whose formative musical experiences were at the end of the ’70s/beginning of the ’80s has a serious soft spot for the Doors. They were all over the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now and were an essential ingredient of Joy Division’s and the Bunnymen’s sounds. Siouxsie used to cover Riders on the Storm, the Cure often did Hello I Love You, the lyrics Thom Yorke most wishes he could take back are: “Growwww my hair, Grow my hair I am Jim Morrison
    Growwww my hair, I wannabe wannabe wannabe Jim Morrison”
    And so on. Music’s full of people like Morrison and Nico and Robert Smith who are inconsistent and also kind of embarrassing when you are in certain moods, but who are great when they’re on their games.

  2. 62
    Mark G on 26 Jan 2011 #

    I remember thinking “Abra” must have taken him 10 mins to write, tops.

    At least “The joker” by default doesn’t, purely as it references a bunch of his older songs.

  3. 63
    Tom on 26 Jan 2011 #

    #60-61 – This is interesting, not because it will help me like The Doors, but the division between laughable-but-awesome and laughable-yet-not-awesome is a very hard one to nail down and good to think about. Obviously wrt The Doors my problem with “The End” isn’t the “Father/Mother” bit but the fact that aside from the intro it’s the only thing I can remember in the 13? 17? 20?? minutes of it. So in that sense it’s one of the best bits as well as being terrible. I really love the sensation of someone pushing through idiocy into greatness and the question of why the Doors’ DON’T have that effect for me is an intriguing one. (Maybe I will give them ONE MORE SPIN)

    Good point about the Doors as bubblegum – tho I’m pretty sure this element of them wasn’t what my contemporaries who liked them were picking up on. Also, even their bubblegummy stuff feels pretty lead-lined and weighty to me – they don’t seem particularly GOOD bubblegum.

    Swanstep’s post-Doors lineage is interesting too because – Siouxsie aside – it’s full of people I think I like a great deal less than most rock critics. Joy Division I respect more than enjoy. Echo And The Bunnymen are fine but I couldn’t tell you when I last played an LP by them. Nico, Radiohead, The Cure… I like individual tracks but my tolerance for them all is pretty low. So maybe there is a Morrison Taint at work!

  4. 64
    Billy Smart on 26 Jan 2011 #

    D’you like Julian Cope, Tom? Things like ‘Reynard The Fox’ owe quite a bit to Jim Morrison I think, but – crucially – with an element of playfulness and awareness of irony/humour that I can never detect in The Doors.

  5. 65
    Rory on 26 Jan 2011 #

    Funny how that single sleeve anticipates one of the iconic movie images of 1991:

    http://store.infinitecoolness.com/coolposters/personalities/terminatormovies/terminatormovieposter009.jpg

    “I’ll be… Maurice.”

  6. 66
    wichita lineman on 26 Jan 2011 #

    The Lillian Roxon piece (which made me re-assess them, a little) suggests the Doors were an awesome underground LA act, with a ferocious first single Break On Through (imagine it as a one-shot group on Nuggets) that “defined their sound and image perfectly but got nowhere. The album, on the other hand, scored up the biggest local following any group had ever had.” The End “was straight out of In Cold Blood”, which I like as a contemporary map ref. With their next single Light My Fire “Morrison was lost to the underground forever… the underground drew back first in dismay, then in disgust” at their lame second album and teen mag appearances. The Doors were in it for the money, Morrison was nothing but a teeny idol. Then came the “big beautiful bust in New Haven” where Jimbo did his Lenny Bruce bit about police harrassment on stage (in front of teenyboppers I imagine), then the arrest for simulated wanking, another arrest in Miami for lewd behaviour on stage, and by 1969 “things are looking up for the Doors. One more bust and they’ll be back in favour with the underground.”

    Looking at NMEs from ’79/’80, the Doors are mentioned frequently, treated with exactly the same weight (an influence, untouchable canon) as the Velvet Underground. Being 14/15 at the time I “knew” they were very important but didn’t like LA Woman (played a lot in the sixth form common room) one bit. But I REALLY liked Joy Div, Echo/Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes. Always assumed Ian Curtis was doing a Jim Morrison impression.

  7. 67
    Tom on 26 Jan 2011 #

    #64 I was a HUGE Cope fan! Though with pronounced and inconsistent opinions on which of his records were actually any good – never had much time for Peggy Suicide, adored the (frankly quite similar) Jehovahkill. I remember being 18 and playing “Reynard” for some new friends in an introduce-each-other-to-music session. They really liked it but said, “this is prog”. As an upstanding NME reader I was duly horrified. Prog! But no! “Just listen to it, it could be Peter Gabriel”. An important scales-from-eyes moment for the young Tom.

    The Morrison connection wasn’t discused but it’s totally there.

  8. 68
    the pinefox on 26 Jan 2011 #

    I’ve never been involved in an introduce-each-other-to-music session. Certainly not when I was 18. I wish I had been.

  9. 69
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 26 Jan 2011 #

    I am still trying to get my head round the idea of you as a schoolboy, PF!

  10. 70
    LondonLee on 26 Jan 2011 #

    My sister was a big Steve Miller fan in between growing out of The Bay City Rollers and discovering The Clash so I knew both the ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ and ‘Book of Dreams’ albums really well (very good they are too) but neither of us liked this much. Maybe it was because we didn’t really understand what he was on about but even then I think we twigged it was all some old hippy joke. Seeing it become a hit over a decade later was a surprise but I still didn’t like it much.

  11. 71
    chelovek na lune on 26 Jan 2011 #

    Answering my own q at @39- the house version of “Fly Like An Eagle” was by Habit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKAc2NTz2iA
    It singly failed to set the charts alight, with one week on the top 100 at no 89 in April 1990.

    No-one else remember this? I still think it sounds good, and is a respectful cover of the song too!

  12. 72
    Ed on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 66: Good point about the Doors’ untouchable status in the Post-Punk Ages. That was when I got hooked. As you say, they were up there with the VU, and well ahead of now-cooler reference points like Love and the Stooges.

    Has any band ever suffered wilder swings in credibility than the Doors? From scene heroes, to pop sell-outs, to cult classics, to the pariahs they are today.

    And is there any less hip record in the world than a Fatboy Slim track feat. Jim Morrison?

    The fact that Britain’s opinion of the Doors has swung about so much suggests we don’t quite know what to make of them. Maybe there is something about them that doesn’t quite translate properly in the UK. Like the way that Americans loved Depeche Mode so much partly because they never saw ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ on TOTP, and had never heard of Basildon.

    Anyway, bands that allow multiple readings in that way are more interesting, aren’t they?

    Re 63: Other contenders for laughable-but-awesome: “I am Iron Maaan”; ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’; Nicki Minaj starting to feel like a dungeon dragon, ruh, ruh!

    Sorry to wander off the jeans commercial again…

  13. 73
    Elsa on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Speaking from the disadvantage of being an American, I think the Doors were good because they were good and not because the NME mentioned them a lot or because Echo & the Bunnymen liked them. I wonder if Jim Morrison was the first pop singer to turn his back to the audience. Perhaps that kind of confrontation was another innovation that seems “immediately clumsy and stupid as soon as it happens,” as Tom puts it, but other bands have been doing similar and derivative things ever since – so it was some kind of milestone. But beyond the theatrics, in my opinion the Doors had six albums of interesting, at least, sometimes great material that bolsters their status among the big ’60s bands. I’d say their output compares favorably to that of the Jefferson Airplane and very favorably to that of the Grateful Dead. Or to Love, who are responsible for one and a half to two albums worth of memorable material (does anyone disagree?). Sometimes I think the posthumous hype surrounding the Doors, from Rolling Stone magazine (“He’s hot, he’s sexy, he’s dead”) to the Oliver Stone film, hasn’t done the group any favors.

  14. 74
    enitharmon on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Ed @ 72

    What is this “Britain’s opinion of The Doors” of which you speak? I liked them at the time and I like them now, the content of their albums hasn’t changed any more than my view of them, and they hold up well after forty-odd years as far as I can see. Maybe some people change their opinion according to what they read in NME but those opinions that swing with the fashion hardly matter.

    It’s not compulsory to like them of course, any more than it’s compulsory to like Abba (another outfit whose star has risen and fallen and risen again over the years), but the fact that opinion is so divided surely makes them interesting. Does anybody love or hate the Steve Miller Band with such virulence?

  15. 75
    Mark M on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 72/73: I wrote a (not entirely successful) essay for my MA examining various theories of whether meaning lies with the author(s), the work of art or the audience in reference to the fact that I found Oliver Stone’s The Doors one of the funniest films I have ever seen (I was properly howling with laughter, to the probably reasonable annoyance of most of the other people in the Hyde Park Picture House that evening).

  16. 76
    the pinefox on 27 Jan 2011 #

    @69: this is a very comforting thought and encourages me as I start another day in the challenging world of adults.

  17. 77
    Mark G on 27 Jan 2011 #

    The Doors managed two hit singles and three hit albums in the UK before Jim left.

    None of which made top ten. (LA Woman only got to 28)

  18. 78
    Mark M on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 74: I think the significance of a changing critical consensus is not so much that existing listeners felt compelled to hide their albums at the back of the pile or haul them down to Record & Tape Exchange, as that the next batch of 15-year-olds trying to decide which supposedly seminal band they’ve heard OF but heard little BY to take a punt on would in 1985/6 have gone for (say) Marquee Moon or the third Velvets album over Strange Days (and about five of their friends would have taped it off them, spreading the word).

    Re 77 & others: The Doors always seemed vastly more popular in every other country I’ve spent time than in the UK. Morrison is second only to the inevitable Marley as a stencil on cars and scooters of the young(ish) all over Europe. They were huge in Mexico in the early ’80s on the back of the 1980 Greatest Hits and 1983’s Alive She Cried. And they were huge in Italy, where – as I’ve mentioned before – they take rock VERY VERY SERIOUSLY, and the idea that Jim Morrison was in any way funny would be considered truly bizarre (re 72, Italians also really like Depeche Mode, of course).

  19. 79
    chelovek na lune on 27 Jan 2011 #

    I remember a bit of graffiti in the lift in the tower block I lived in for a month in 1994, on what was then the final street in St Petersburg (the family I was staying with joked that they live in Finland). It read (in English) “DEPECHE MODE ARE GOOD”.

    Who can argue with that? They were very popular indeed in Russia – perhaps the similarities in living conditions (in cetain regards) and “civic ethos” (ditto) between the dystopia of Basildon (parts of which today frankly verge on resembling a shanty town) and the dystopia of high-rise Soviet suburbs goes some part of the way towards explaining this.

    That, and DM being really bloody good, of course.

  20. 80
    DietMondrian on 27 Jan 2011 #

    The RARURUAURURURR bit on The End was a necessary fudge to avoid the record being banned for obscenity, was it not? Risible though it is to modern ears.

  21. 81
    Elsa on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 78: The Doors actually performed in Mexico City in June 1969. They did several shows and these were considered the first ever rock concerts in Mexico. This engagement came amid student demonstrations and probably cemented the band with a reputation for being important in that country.

  22. 82
    Tom on 27 Jan 2011 #

    #78 on my (so far only) visit to an Amsterdam coffee shop I was awed and delighted to encounter a shirtless man with a full back tattoo of Jim Morrison’s head.

    #80 I think it’s (marginally) *more* effective for censoring the punchline!

  23. 83
    wichita lineman on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 79: An amateur architectural historian notes: Basildon was built on the site of various shanty towns – Laindon, Langdon Hills and Dunton Hills were all plotlands developments with no connection to the national grid or sewage systems, bulldozed postwar to make way for the new town. There’s a small but excellent museum in the one remaining plotlands house.

    Re D Mode (seeing as they won’t be bothering Popular) – I love the opening to Jeremy Deller’s doc on their fans in which he asks some Russians to describe how they imagine Basildon: “It has castles…”

  24. 84
    Tom on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Also, mention of N Minaj upthread (who I think is awesome but sometimes frustrating, as opposed to being particularly awesome-through-idiocy) made me imagine the Kanye album as a Doors record which feels right somehow.

  25. 85
    Ed on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Re 80, 82: I loved ‘The End’ for years in my teenage innocence without having any idea what he wanted to do to his mother. Get $5 off her so he could go to the shops? Have her find his missing shirt? Ask her if there was anything good on TV that evening?

    I agree it is much better if it is not explicit

  26. 86
    Ed on 27 Jan 2011 #

    82: OK, you said “marginally”… It is just me who thinks it is “much” better

  27. 87
    Tom on 27 Jan 2011 #

    I think if I had first heard it in innocence I would agree! But I heard it after learning about Freud so the set-up line “Father I want to kill you” kind of telegraphed it. :(

  28. 88

    It says the killers puts his boots on — but nothing more. Is he fully dressed in the non-censored version?
    And what happens in his brother’s and sister’s rooms? I glumly assume more of the same, but Oedipus didn’t have siblings (at least not before arriving in his mums room).

  29. 89
    lonepilgrim on 27 Jan 2011 #

    re 75: my experience of ‘The Doors’ movie will be forever associated with one of the other audience members becoming noisily confused over the separation between cinematic and actual reality – due, I suspect, to some over indulgence in various substances – and attempting to converse with ‘Jim’. He was eventually removed from the cinema by staff, just as ‘Jim’ was being dragged from the stage in the film, which seemed to reinforce his perceived relationship with his idol.

    ‘The End’ does get silly at..um..the end – but I remain fairly well disposed towards it because of its use in ‘Apocalypse Now’ where it’s mix of dread and bombast seems as appropriate as the ‘Ride of the Valkryies’ later in the movie.

  30. 90
    Tom on 27 Jan 2011 #

    It also works very well when it turns up in Osymyso’s “Intro-Inspection”

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