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.
A lot of exciting things happened in the ’80s pop charts. Gloopy soft-rock ballads faded away. MTV helped lead to the rise of towering, iconic blockbuster pop stars. Jittery art-school new wavers started enjoying real success. The energy changed. But the boomers weren’t going away — not yet, anyway.
The ’80s pop charts are heavy with ’60s-vintage pop stars who started dicking around with synthesizers, made videos for MTV, and managed to hold on to pop relevance for longer than should’ve been allowed. A few of those boomers even became bigger than they’d ever been. Sometimes, these stars found interesting new directions to push their sounds, using electronic ’80s textures to explore new aesthetics. (A couple even managed to find new levels of pop success in the late ’90s.) More often, though, they made terrible, thin, dinky synth-rock records that only barely hinted at past glories. Some of the time, those records hit anyway.
This baby-boomer endurance makes sense when you’re talking about cultural titans like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, artists who’d built up generations of goodwill. It makes sense when you’re dealing with triumphant narratives, stories that the public could get invested in. (That’s what happened with Tina Turner, who will eventually appear in this column.) It makes less sense when you’re dealing with goddamn Steve Miller.
The Steve Miller Band started out as wild psychedelic blues-rockers in late-’60s San Francisco, and they evolved into a prime ’70s sleazy-cheesy hit machine. “The Joker” and “Rock’n Me,” the two Steve Miller songs that hit #1 in the ’70s, are perfectly shallow, breezy, fun classic-rock jams. Miller had a lot of those. After “Rock’n Me” hit #1 in 1976, Miller kept cranking out hits. The 1977 album Book Of Dreams yielded “Jet Airliner,” which peaked at #8, and a couple of other songs that made it into the top 40. (“Jet Airliner” is 7.) But then Miller took another four years to make an album, and it started to look like his fortunes had faded.
The biggest hit from Miller’s Book Of Dreams follow-up, 1981’s Circle Of Love, was the autopilot rambler “Heart Like A Wheel,” which only made it up to #24. By the time Miller released 1982’s Abracadabra, he’d farmed most of the songwriting duties out to drummer Gary Mallaber and guitarist John Massaro. But Miller did write the album’s title track, an extremely lazy ode to horniness. Miller says that he wrote “Abracadabra” after running into Diana Ross on a ski slope and remembering playing the TV show Hullabaloo with her in the ’60s. Miller didn’t say this, but it’s implicit that he wanted to reach out and grab Diana Ross.
So: “Abracadabra.” Not about magic at all, unless you think there’s something magical about a 38-year-old man with a boner. Uses the word “magic” a whole lot anyway. Title rhymes with “reach out and grab ya.” Rhymes are all as obvious and dumb as possible: “You make me hot, you make me sigh/ You make me laugh, you make me cry,” “I see magic in your eyes/ I hear the magic in your sighs.” (Pop lyrics don’t necessarily have to be clever or even literate, but you should be taken out of chart contention if you rhyme “sigh” with both “cry” and “eyes” in the same song. There should be a commission or something.)
Once upon a time, Miller had enough charming dirtbag swagger to sell a song full of pickup lines. But on “Abracadabra,” the pickup lines are dumber, and Miller isn’t selling them anymore. On “Abracadabra,” he sounds halfway checked-out, like he’s annoyed at his own shitty nursery-rhyme lyrics. The song itself would’ve been flat and lifeless even if it weren’t for a relentless, maddening staccato synth-bleep sound that does nothing for it. There’s no hook, just a nyah-nyah chorus that goes nowhere. Maybe there are a few interesting things in the guitar solo, the way the morse-code pings phase from speaker to speaker. But “Abracadabra” never moves. It just sits there, blinking away, refusing to even fade gracefully into the background.
Even the video sucks. A model and two shirtless guys do magic tricks, aided only by the absolute cheapest of early-’80s special effects. Miller himself was touring in Europe when the video was shot, so he’s not in it. He’s only in the clip through the magic of still photography — a snapshot moving slowly across the screen while the model girl has to look like this is somehow turning her on. It’s rough.
Why did “Abracadabra” hit the way it did? I have no idea. It doesn’t make any sense. “Abracadabra” is the sort of song that immediately scans as garden-variety bad and then becomes worse when you think about it more. Every new detail makes the song more detestable. It’s the opposite of a grower. But “Abracadabra” was a genuine global smash, topping charts in Australia and Canada and all across Europe. Somebody else will have to explain how or why this happened. I am lost. Maybe Miller was doing actual dark magic.
Once that “Abracadabra” run was over, Miller pretty much disappeared from the pop charts. He never came anywhere near the top 10 again. By the time the ’80s were over, Miller was firmly entrenched in the classic-rock touring circuit. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2016, and then he made a big, beautiful stink about how the experience was “unpleasant“: “Everybody is kind of a dick and an asshole… This whole industry fucking sucks and this little get-together you guys have here is like a private boys’ club and it’s a bunch of jackasses and jerks and fucking gangsters and crooks who’ve fucking stolen everything from a fucking artist.” This version of Steve Miller is a deluded asshole even when he’s right, but I like this Steve Miller a lot more than the Steve Miller who hit #1 with “Abracadabra.”
Steve Miller got his loving on the run. He won’t be in this column again. These days, we’ve got a whole new Steve Miller to worry about.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sugar Ray’s 1999 cover of “Abracadabra”:
(Sugar Ray’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Every Morning,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: DJ Shadow interpolated “Abracadabra” on “Gabracadabra,” his 2007 collaboration with Blackalicious rapper the Gift Of Gab. Here’s that song: