650. ‘The Joker’, by The Steve Miller Band

If the most important chart trend of the late-eighties/early-nineties was the emergence and dominance of dance, then the second was surely the random re-releases…

The Joker, by The Steve Miller Band (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd September 1990

Such as this! There are usually two reasons for a golden oldie like ‘The Joker’ making number one years after its original release: use in a movie, or use in an advert. Place your bets… Yes, it was an advert this time, for Levi’s, that gave the Steve Miller Band their biggest hit, a mere twenty-five years into their career.

There’s little point in analysing this record from a musical point of view. It’s a strange little country, bluesy, slightly psychedelic number, recorded in 1973; and so in terms of its style and its production values it sounds a world away from ‘The Power’ (I will leave you to decide whether or not that is a good thing). It’s also very silly, with one of rock and roll’s great opening lines: Some people call me the space cowboy, Some call me the gangster of love…

Who is Maurice (wheep whoop)? What is a pompatus? They are references to earlier songs by Steve Miller but also, perhaps, the real answer lies in the Eaglesy chorus: I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker… Yes, it’s an ode to ganja, and the joys of the doobie. It’s ironic that in 1990, as Britain’s youth raved their nights away, it took a seventeen year old AM radio staple to bring the drug references to the top of the charts…

It’s a fairly random, but very welcome, chilled-out, interlude in our countdown. There’s a great solo, played through some cool vocal effects, as well as the ridiculous cat-call effect in the verse. And a wonderfully filthy line towards the end: I really love your peaches, Wanna shake your tree… It didn’t make the UK charts in 1973, but it did make #1 on Billboard, meaning that Steve Miller Band now holds the record for longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers. (The ‘band’ is basically Steve Miller, and a revolving door of supporting musicians. He’s still going, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-2010s).

They had already come close a decade earlier, when the equally fun ‘Abracadabra’ had peaked at #2. Except, in finally making #1, ‘The Joker’ caused some controversy. It sold what appeared to be exactly the same number of copies as that week’s number two single, Deee-Lite’s fabulous ‘Groove Is in the Heart’. But, rather than have two songs share the top position – as had happened often enough in the 1950s – Steve Miller won out thanks to having seen the largest sales increase over the previous week. You could bemoan the fact that a crusty old re-release beat a fresh and innovative dance number on a technicality – aren’t the charts supposed to be for what’s current and all that? – but ‘The Joker’ is fun and lively enough to get a pass from me. Plus, the chart compilers eventually confirmed, presumably after several recounts, that it had in fact sold a whopping eight copies more than Deee-Lite, and was there on merit. Just…


10 thoughts on “650. ‘The Joker’, by The Steve Miller Band

  1. Rating: 5/5

    I love The Steve Miller Band (well, their singles anyway, their only album of worth is Fly Like An Eagle which contains the pop rocker US No. 1 “Rock ‘n’ Me (4/5); the spacey US No. 2 “Fly Like An Eagle” (5/5); and the stupidly fun US No. 8 “Take the Money and Run” (4.5/5)). They, like the Eagles, are way, way more popular in the US, specifically in the mid-west and the south (side note: let’s be real, real American rock n’ roll comes from the heartland). Though the Eagles are much more popular worldwide than SMB.

    “The Joker” was his first No. 1 in the US and a belated No. 1 in the UK (he holds the record for the longest gap between dual US and UK No.1s). I’m glad this song was the one that got to the top. It’s one of my all-time favourite songs. I first heard it when I was in high-school during the late-2010s and it’s stuck with me ever since. The blend of blues rock, country rock and psych-rock create one of the definitive stoner anthems. That slide guitar is absolutely killer too. The bassline is also quite chunky and gives it a nice groove. It’s a song only an American could make.

    I mean, “Some people call me the space cowboy/Some call me the gangster of love/Some people call me Maurice/’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love”, that’s almost Marc Bolan worthy of lyrical genius. What’s a pompatus? Who cares.

  2. This would have been like raining money for me..an unexpected surprise in the middle of all of those damn dance tracks. He was so popular over here…I looked at his discography and not much in the UK at all compared to here.
    He got played so much over here that people now are tired of a lot of his songs.

    • Yes, I believe only ‘Abracadabra’ had been a big hit for them prior to the Levi’s advert and this being re-released. I can see why you might get sick of this one pretty quickly – it is very dumb – but as a blast of something different at the top of the charts then it’s great.

  3. I second Badfinger’s opening comments – a bit of quality music for old gits like me. Always enjoyed The Steve Miller Band, and I remember this one from its first outing at the end of 1973 when Johnnie Walker was singing its praises on his Radio 1 lunchtime show and nobody else seemed to want to know. This was an eye-opener for me – I’d never thought about all the druggy references in the lyrics before but see it now.

    • I suppose there’s only one explicit drug reference in it – the ‘midnight toker’ – but the overall feel of the song is very much a stoner anthem. That bizarre guitar effect could only have been dreamt up under the influence of something…

  4. It’s kind of a trippy cool tune, but I can also see how overexposure to “The Joker” can make you tired. Frankly, that’s true for many other songs as well. I don’t recall hearing “The Joker” on the radio back in Germany all too often, unlike “Abracadabra” – that song to me has largely lost whatever magic it first had!

  5. I was happy to see this finally a hit in the UK, it had popped into my personal charts in early ’74 and I rated SMB throughout their career, but i agree their best period was 76/77. Rock ‘n Me should have been the one to do it. Plus Groove is the better record and deeelite were robbed 😀

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