In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
What a way to introduce yourself: “Some people call me the space cowboy / Some call me the gangster of love.” Of course, Steve Miller wasn’t really introducing himself. He’d been around, fronting the Steve Miller Band for the better part of a decade. Those lines were callbacks to a couple of his earlier songs. But if you didn’t recognize his references, you weren’t alone. Steve Miller had never had a big hit before “The Joker,” and so those lines just resonated as extremely slick nonsense. It’s a bunch of bullshit that instantly makes you like the guy. Who, after all, would not want to hang out with someone who introduces himself as both the space cowboy and the gangster of love — and, for that matter, Maurice, who speaks with the pompatus of love?
Steve Miller grew up between Milwaukee and Dallas, and he was playing guitar and hanging out with guitar geniuses when he was a small kid. (Les Paul and T-Bone Walker were family friends.) After dropping out of the University Of Wisconsin, Miller and some buddies moved to Chicago to play blues. (One of those buddies was Boz Scaggs, who left the Steve Miller Blues Band in 1968 to go solo. His highest-charting single, 1976’s “Lowdown,” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) Miller and his band played straight-up Chicago blues for a while. Then, in 1966, they moved to San Francisco. Their timing was good.
In San Francisco, the Steve Miller Blues Band developed a wilder, more psychedelic version of their sound that fit right in with what was happening there. They found a home alongside bands like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape. They were one of the bigger bands on that scene, and they backed up Chuck Berry on his 1967 blues-rock move Live At Fillmore Auditorium. They signed to Capitol for a vast pile of money and recorded with Paul McCartney. But they didn’t make hits. That took time.
Miller and his band had recorded seven albums of grand-scale psychedelic-gunk blues-rock before they made “The Joker,” and they had never charted higher than higher than #69. (The albums tended to sell better than the singles.) But with “The Joker,” Miller switched up his whole style. It’s a slippery, sidelong thing, a lazy song about being a cool motherfucker. The song is both horny and druggy, but it’s horny and druggy in silly and funny and approachable ways. Miller seems to be playing a character, and his character seems to be something like Wooderson from Dazed And Confused. (“I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree” is a very Wooderson pickup line.) I have a feeling that its extremely obvious weed reference made it onto the radio because the era’s censors didn’t know what “midnight toker” meant, sort of like how Lil Jon was able to keep yelling “skeet skeet skeet” on radio hits for so long.
There’s no effort expended on “The Joker.” It’s a sunny, indolent song about playing your music in the sun and getting your lovin’ on the run. Miller knows how goofy it is; you don’t make your guitar sound like a wolf-whistle after singing the word “Maurice” if you’re trying to be serious. And that indolence is the best thing about it. Well, it’s the second-best thing. The best thing is that wormy little bassline, a purposeful amble that puts some serious strut behind Miller’s sheepish grin.
The lyrics to “The Joker” are all stitched-together. The line about the pompatus of love came from the Medallions’ 1954 doo-wop song “The Letter.” (There’s a great story about the actor Jon Cryer tracking down Medallions lead singer Vernon Green when Cryer was starring in a 1995 movie called The Pompatus Of Love. Green had never heard “The Joker,” and he thought it was hilarious.) The “lovey-dovey, lovey dovey” bit and the line about the peaches and the tree came from the Clovers’ 1954 song “Lovey Dovey,” so Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary label exec who co-wrote “Lovey Dovey,” sued Miller and got himself a songwriting credit on “The Joker.”
And yet, for all their silliness and unoriginality, those lyrics work. Miller sings about himself with an almighty slippery-dirtbag charisma that weirdly reminds me of Sublime’s Bradley Nowell. And the band’s groove pulls off a neat trick, sounding like a Sunday-afternoon front-porch jam session but also unfolding with laser precision. Everything hits at the right time: The cymbal-splashes, the intertwined acoustic guitar lines, the backup harmonies, the wah-way solo. All of it reveals Steve Miller to be an absolute pop-music scientist in ways that he hadn’t yet explored. But he would. We’ll hear from him again.
BONUS BEATS: On their extremely grimy 1989 track “Gangster Of Love,” the Geto Boys rapped over producer Prince Johnny C’s sample of “The Joker.” Miller sued the Geto Boys and won, and on future pressings of their album Grip It! On That Other Level, the Geto Boys replaced that sample with a sample of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” (“Sweet Home Alabama” peaked at #8 in 1974. It’s a 10.) Here’s the original version of “Gangster Of Love”:
(Tragically, the Geto Boys’ highest-charting single, 1991’s “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” peaked at #23. I don’t rate songs that peaked outside the top 10, so I don’t get to tell you that “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is an obvious 10.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the flashback sequence from a 1991 episode of The Simpsons where Homer angelically sings along to “The Joker”:
THE 10S: Stevie Wonder’s thumping, passionate protest-funk masterpiece “Living For The City” peaked at #8 behind “The Joker.” It’s a 10.