Review: Five from The Steve Miller Band (1968-1970), Reissued on Edsel

By The Second Disc, on 10 Oct 23, 2012

The 1968 debut of the Steve Miller Band begins with a shattering cacophony, followed by an acoustic strum emerging like a beacon of light amidst the darkness and clatter.  The album’s title track “Children of the Future” is far removed from the ironic detachment of “The Joker” or the sleek majesty of “Fly Like an Eagle,” later hits that proved the group could go “pop” while still showing off their versatility and impeccable musicianship.  Edsel Records has just afforded listeners the opportunity to revisit the band’s hard-to-find first five albums, recorded for Capitol in an incredibly prolific period between 1968 and 1970.  These well-designed reissues are all housed in uniform digipaks, containing colorful booklets with full lyrics, liner notes from San Francisco rock journalist Joel Selvin, ample photos and memorabilia, and the original LP front and rear artwork.  Each title has been remastered by Phil Kinrade at Alchemy.

Though the blues-rock guitarist from Wisconsin rose through the ranks in the fertile Bay Area psychedelic rock scene, Miller’s first album was recorded by producer Glyn Johns at London’s Olympic Studios.  Miller and his band (originally Boz Scaggs on guitar/lead and background vocals, Lonnie Turner on bass/background vocals, Jim Peterman on mellotron and organ/background vocals, and Tim Davis on drums/lead and background vocals) married blues guitar licks to hazy, lysergic melodies.  The centerpiece of Children of the Future is the side-long suite which opened the LP, primarily written by Miller.  It’s bookended by the title song (“We are children of the future…wonder what in the world we are going to do…When they get high, they can see for miles and miles/When we get high, I can see myself for miles…You know I’ve got something that you can use”) and the B.B. King-influenced closer “The Beauty of Time is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.),” an instrumental with only the “We are children of the future” mantra for lyrics.  What Mr. King thought of it, I don’t know.  Miller did, indeed, get high, as his lyrics went, and was busted and imprisoned for marijuana possession while recording the album.  The suite’s lyrics combine optimism with hippy-dippy cosmic belief redolent of the period (“In my second mind, I can see you grow/Feel you flow/It moves my soul, yeah”) though traditional love song sentiments and blues tropes are also present.

The second side is more traditional, though songs still flow into one another.  Boz Scaggs, on the verge of coming into his own as a solo artist, contributes two tracks to Side Two.  His pretty, ethereal pop song “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home” (with Ben Sidran on harpischord) segues into the electric rock of “Steppin’ Stone” (not the Monkees hit).  Long before “Jet Airliner,” Miller contributed the folk-rock “Roll with It” (“There’s a plane goin’ down the runway…Believe I better go with it/There’s a train goin’ by the highway…believe I better roll with it”) with its wailing guitar solo.  The album is rounded out by Jim Pulte’s “Junior Saw It Happen” and a couple of R&B covers, “Fanny Mae” (with its striking R&B harmonica and a riff that was also semi-appropriated for The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda”) and the slow-burning “Key to the Highway.”  The new reissue adds one bonus track, the shimmering non-LP single “Sittin’ in Circles,” written by another well-regarded tunesmith, Barry Goldberg of the Electric Flag.

Join us after the jump for more, won’t you?

Portentous foghorns announced the lysergic drone of “Song for Our Ancestors,” the slow, hazy instrumental that opens Sailor, the quintet’s sophomore effort released later in 1968.  Glyn Johns returned as producer, this time manning the controls from Hollywood’s Wally Heider Studios.  The band largely adhered to the same template as their debut: originals from Miller (the soft, spare and horn-flecked “Dear Mary,” the blues-rock “Living in the USA”) and Scaggs (“Overdrive,” the hard-driving “Dime –a-Dance Romance” with its “Jumping Jack Flash”-esque guitar and Dylan-esque impressionistic lyrics) plus some blues staples (Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love,” Jimmy Reed’s “You’re So Fine.”)  Jim Peterman contributed his own organ-driven “Lucky Man,” and Scaggs and Tim Davis co-wrote the searing and acerbic “My Friend.”

By the time the prolific Miller set up shop to record 1969’s Brave New World, the line-up had been slimmed down.  Scaggs and Peterman had departed as 1968 came to a close, but Miller welcomed some very special guests to the new album: returning friend and Miller’s sometimes co-writer Ben Sidran (who had played on Children of the Future), Nicky Hopkins, and Paul Ramon, a.k.a. Paul McCartney!  Though the songs are tighter and a bit more pop-oriented than on the first two LPs, Miller’s blazing guitar rocked harder than before, and the album’s songs were the group’s most consistent yet.  Produced by Glyn Johns in Hollywood in the midst of his work on The Beatles’ Get Back, Brave New World offered group harmonies on Miller’s optimistic, catchy title track (originally written for an abortive sci-fi concept album; also see the album’s “Space Cowboy”) and Miller and Sidran’s “Celebration Song,” with its “Sha-la-la” refrain.  Their “Seasons” is also one of Miller’s loveliest pieces of music.  Tim Davis’ breakneck “Hey Baby, Can You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat” is Hendrix-style blues-rock, while the band went back to basics on the bluesy riffs of “Got Love ‘Cause You Need It” and Lonnie Turner’s “LT’s Midnight Dream.”  Nicky Hopkins’ glistening piano chords added a new dimension to the group’s sound on “Kow Kow,” with a familiar-sounding Miller melody set to an absurdist lyric.  McCartney played bass and drums and sang background vocals on the album closer, the rousing and raucous “My Dark Hour.” Synthesizing blues, rock, pop and psychedelic soul influences into one cohesive LP, Brave New World augured for the band’s more commercial future.

Recording began on Your Saving Grace in June 1969, the same month Brave New World was released.  The same three-person line-up of the band soldiered on, with Johns returning for his fourth SMB album and Nicky Hopkins and Ben Sidran back on piano and electric piano/organ, respectively.  This was a more down-to-earth collection of songs than Brave New World, but again lacked a breakthrough, extractable hit single.  Still, Miller offered up a couple of solid blues-rock originals such as “Little Girl” and “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around.”  The latter was very much in the youthful spirit of ’69: “You got to keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’, marchin’ to the freedom land/Well don’t you let the policeman turn you ‘round…”    Hopkins added a bit of boogie-woogie to Miller and Sidran’s “Just a Passin’ Fancy in a Midnite Dream,” and the pianist even co-wrote the wide-eyed ballad “Baby’s House” (“Oh, Lord, filled by her man/A child begins to grow/Oh, Lord, who can understand?”) with Miller.  A majestic piano-and-organ interlude transported the low-key ballad to the next level; the simple ballad grew into an epic of nine minutes’ length.  “Feel So Glad” similarly benefits from Hopkins’ touch.  Miller’s guitar took center stage on the obligatory blues cover, this time the traditional “Motherless Child,” but the song sounds like a retread.  Lonnie Turner and Tim Davis each contributed one song, the surreal “The Last Wombat in Mecca” and “Your Saving Grace,” respectively.  “Your Saving Grace” blends a radio-friendly melody with an experimental spoken interlude, showing that the band hadn’t totally abandoned its spacey roots from Children of the Future.

The fifth album in Edsel’s program is 1970′s aptly-titled Number 5 which brought the first era of The Steve Miller Band to a close.  Before heading to Nashville to record the album, Miller parted ways with both Glyn Johns and Lonnie Turner, leaving just Tim Davis from the original band line-up.  Bobby Winkelman of Frumious Bandersnatch was drafted for bass duties, and Nashville regular Charlie McCoy (owner of the studio where Number 5 was recorded) contributed harmonica to a few tracks.  Sidran, Hopkins and even Turner reappeared to make contributions, and Boz Scaggs appeared as a co-writer of an old bluesy onstage favorite, “Going to Mexico.”  McCoy’s harp added a different, though still blues-based, sound to Miller’s repertoire, and the change in scenery must have paid off when Number 5 became the group’s most successful album yet.  Miller’s distinct voice enlivened the jaunty “Going to the Country” (“Hey ho!  One thing I know!  People in the country really let themselves go!”), co-written with Sidran.  Buddy Spicher’s fiddle and some fine harmonies also made an impression.  Bud Billings added mariachi brass to the light-hearted “Hot Chili.”  Serious, topical issues were still on Miller and co.’s minds, however.    Tim Davis professed his belief in the banjo-accompanied “Tokin’s” that “in a while, I know it’s gonna change,” and Miller echoed John Lennon in the foreboding, musically experimental “Jackson-Kent Blues,” imploring listeners to “give peace a chance.”  Miller also took the opportunity to decry the “Industrial Military Complex Hex” and speculated on those young soldiers, asking them, “When the wind blows you home/To the shores of home/Will you be one of those/Who killed another man?”

In 1971, Steve Miller suffered a car accident, and Capitol released Rock Love, an album of vault material.  It was followed by the other “lost” album of Miller’s career, 1972’s Recall the Beginning…A Journey to Eden.  The same year, an Anthology capped off this period of the artist’s career.  In 1973, the Steve Miller Band released The Joker, and solidified its place in classic rock history.

Whereas many of Edsel’s other recent reissue series have included copious amounts of bonus material, the Steve Miller Band series instead concentrates primarily on the original albums with just one bonus track on one album.  The addition of lyrics and liner notes, however, make these presentations the best yet for these often-overlooked and once hard-to-find albums.   Before Steve Miller flew like an eagle, he was grounded in the blues and San Francisco psychedelia.  Fans will likely relish hearing how that great career started.

All titles can be ordered by clicking on the album artwork!