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.
After nearly a decade of cranking out high-fidelity psychedelic blues, the Steve Miller Band finally hit #1 at the beginning of 1974 with “The Joker,” an irrepressibly silly jam built on a perfect bassline. All of a sudden, Steve Miller was something like a pop star. And Miller couldn’t handle it. After “The Joker” hit #1, Miller quit touring for a couple of years, and he didn’t make another album until nearly three years after The Joker — a relative eternity during an era when virtually every big band would churn out about one album per year. Miller bought a farm in Oregon and took a nice long break — at least until someone shoveled a pile of money in his direction.
Talking to Ultimate Classic Rock earlier this year, Miller explained the genesis of “Rock’n Me,” the song that would become the second of his three #1 hits. While he was in the middle of his hiatus, the organizers of the UK’s Knebworth Festival got in touch with Miller. They wanted him to play the 1975 festival, a massive affair that Pink Floyd, a band that will eventually appear in this column, would headline. (Also on the bill that year: Captain Beefheart, Linda Lewis, Roy Harper, Monty Python. What a good, weird lineup!)
Miller didn’t like the idea of taking the booking, and he thought he’d be in the death slot before Floyd: “The sun would be going down. It would be really cold. There wouldn’t be any lights on the stage. It would be a lousy time.” But he couldn’t bring himself to turn down the money. So Miller decided to write a fun rock song, something that would get the crowd on his side and potentially “kick [Floyd] in the butt.” “Rock’n Me” is what he came up with.
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits, Miller had this to say of “Rock’n Me”: “I just put it together and didn’t think too much about it.” Yeah, no shit. “Rock’n Me” is not an overthought song. It’s a breezy, tossed-off rocker — a song about traveling that seems custom-made to play during road trips. Miller ripped the opening riff directly and intentionally from Free’s 1970 blues-rock smash “All Right Now,” and that whole Knebworth crowd must’ve recognized the riff immediately. (“All Right Now” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) These days, a move like that would’ve almost certainly got Miller sued. In 1976, evidently, nobody cared.
Miller didn’t overthink the “Rock’n Me” lyrics, either. On the song, Miller sings about driving around, looking for work, constantly hustling to support his “sweet baby.” He goes from Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma, and then to Philadelphia, Atlanta, LA. (Miller should plan out his road trips better; that itinerary doesn’t make any sense.)
Miller also spends some time in “Northern California, where the girls are warm” — the type of line that makes you doubt whether he’s really just doing this to provide for his sweet baby. But Miller repeatedly insists that his woman is a friend of his. So maybe they have an understanding. Maybe friends let friends get with warm Northern California girls.
Even in Northern California, things had changed since the late-’60s, when the Steve Miller Band were standouts on the San Francisco psych-rock scene. Miller recognized this. He produced Fly Like An Eagle, the 1976 album where “Rock’n Me” first appeared, himself. The album is full of strange, spacey sounds — layers of astral synthesizer, funky bongo ripples, spaced-out organ gurgles. Miller effectively reinvented the psychedelic blues of his early years, transforming them into space-age stoner music. Songs like “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Wild Mountain Honey” are state-of-the-art woozy planetarium jams. They sounded nothing like the music that Miller had made, and nothing like what his old peers were doing in 1976. (“Fly Like An Eagle” would later peak at #2. It’s an 8.)
But unlike those other tracks, “Rock’n Me” is no technological marvel. It’s just a sprightly, fun chug of a song — the kind of thing that wouldn’t have worked as well if Miller had thought more about it. It’s simple and straightforward, and it’s got a chorus that’s just the same phrase repeated four times. Miller brings back the same loopy charismatic-dirtbag persona that he exploited so expertly on “The Joker.” He does the same thing on “Take The Money And Run,” another Fly Like An Eagle single that had already peaked at #11 earlier in 1976. On Fly Like An Eagle, “Take The Money And Run” and “Rock’n Me” show up back-to-back — two future classic-rock-radio staples keeping the same ambling groove going.
It’s possible to hear a song like “Fly Like An Eagle” as Steve Miller’s response to disco and funk and prog, and to the electronic sounds that were only just starting to dominate popular music. But you can’t do that with “Rock’n Me.” Instead, “Rock’n Me” sounds like exactly what it is — an expert studio-rocker knocking out a dumb, fun song without putting any effort into it whatsoever. Steve Miller could do that. The guy knew how to come up with a hook. He’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: “Fly Like An Eagle” has been sampled about a million times. The same is simply not true of “Rock’n Me,” even though “Rock’n Me” was a bigger hit. In fact, “Rock’n Me” has basically no noteworthy samples, covers, or soundtrack appearances outside of video games like Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto V. So here’s the not-exactly-revelatory “Rock’n Me” cover that glam-metal veterans LA Guns released, for whatever reason, in 2010:
(LA Guns have never had a top-10 hit. Their highest-charting single, 1989’s “The Ballad Of Jayne,” peaked at #33 even though it’s really fucking good.)