in The People's Album

Weirdly enough, this might be the album I had to wrestle with the most so far.  The problem was, I kept asking myself the futile question “Who Is Steve Miller?” and not really being able to find any definite answers.  But nonetheless, here’s what I managed to come up with…

Album: Greatest Hits 1974-78
Artist: The Steve Miller Band
Release Date: November 1978
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 
13 Million

Why Was This Popular?

Because America Loves To Not Think

Does Steve Miller get enough respect?  I mean it’s kind of a pointless question, sort of like asking “Does Billy Joel get enough respect?” or “do french fries get enough respect?”  Because like it or not, these things are going to be a part of our lives whether we like it or not.  And for a certain kind of music fan (typically one who grew up on classic rock radio like myself), Steve Miller is one of those ubiquitous artists who’s songs have this weird thing where they’re so universally known that they’re almost kind of underappreciated.  I’d also put Tom Petty in this same category of artist who’s songs are easy to take for granted, and even easier to unexpectedly hear at some point during your day.

Now, you might think it a bit of a stretch that I’ve already made the comparison between Steve Miller and lifers like Billy Joel and Tom Petty, since I’m not sure that anyone will be asking Mr. Miller to play the Super Bowl anytime soon.  But the weird thing is that I’d put the Steve Miller Band’s hits in the same league as those other two guys’, even if Miller isn’t anywhere near being as recognizably famous as Petty or Mr. Christine Brinkley.  In fact, before writing this, I did not have a clear image in my mind of what Steve Miller looks like, though I was pretty sure that in his prime he looked like a slightly fatter Kurt Russell (which he basically did).  Yet I can imagine what Tom Petty and Billy Joel looked like in pretty much every era of their impressively long careers, and I’m merely a casual fan of both of them.  Yet, only through research do I now know that these days Steve Miller looks like your dad fronting a crappy blues band, while I don’t even want to imagine what kind of wavy mullet/jeanjacket look he was sporting in the early ‘90s.

I’d say the easiest answer as to why artists like Tom Petty and Billy Joel are so much more recognizable than a Steve Miller is that Petty and Joel were able to extend their careers over into the MTV era — an era in which image was everything.  But despite having a nearly nonexistent visual aesthetic (though judging from his album covers, he seems to like horsees), Steve Miller’s image doesn’t really matter, because his songs sound good just about anywhere.  Whether it’s in a bowling alley, a grocery store, a TV commercial, a sporting event, or on a transistor radio, Steve Miller’s brand of rock n’ roll is both propulsive and nondescript enough to serve as good background music for nearly any occasion that doesn’t require you to think a whole lot.

Did It Deserve To Be Popular?

Basically, the carefully crafted dumbness that’s inherent in Steve Miller’s songs was the key for me understanding what his music is all about.  Like most great pop music, The Steve Miller Band is far too interested in just havin’ a good time to be about anything.  From what I can tell, Steve Miller is just a simple kind of man, and his guitar-based simplicity combined with the meaninglessness of his lyrics prove that to make enduring rock music, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a message or some grand vision.

But perhaps Steve Miller’s placement in the classic rock universe is what made me initially think that there might be some kind of narrative here that I’d been missing.  After all, these days Miller tends to share the airwaves with monolithic figures like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — bands who always had a narrative and a grand vision.  But maybe that’s just a product of the past getting repackaged and recontextualized in ways that a lot of artists probably would not be cool with.  Because I kind of doubt that when Roger Waters was writing The Wall that he envisioned it would be lumped in with songs about jungle love and getting rocked by your baby.

So that brings us back to the question, “Who is Steve Miller?”.  And I think you’ve got your answer right there in his very first hit single, 1974’s “The Joker”.  Some people call him a space cowboy, some people call him a gangster of love, and some people inexplicably call him Maurice.  He’s a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a winner.  Steve Miller is all of these things, and yet he is none of them.  Because in the end, he’s merely a joker, and his ultimate gag is that we’ll be listening to his songs against our will until the end of time.

Would I Pay Money For This?

I’m not really sure to be honest.  This was an album that I was thinking about buying on CD, mainly for the purposes of listening it to in my car in preparation for writing this.  But I never actually pulled the trigger, since doing such a thing seems like it’d be kind of redundant.  Because as I’ve said, these songs are not hard to find somewhere on your radio dial, or even somewhere else in your life, which frankly makes it a little hard to see why millions of people went to the trouble of buying this collection.

Next Time On The People’s Albums: We will be gathered here to get through this thing called me reviewing Prince’s Purple Rain.