what don’t i know
portlandia, season finale

music friday: the steve miller band, children of the future

For some time now, Phil Dellio and Scott Woods have worked on a fascinating Facebook thread, listing each of their top 100 songs of all time. I’d like to link to it, but I don’t really know how to do that for Facebook. Their lists are informed but idiosyncratic, which is to say they both know an awful lot about music, and they also know what they like. One of the more interesting aspects of their lists for me arises, I think, because they are a bit younger than I am, so there is a lot more music from the 1980s and little from the 1950s. I’ve very much enjoyed following the lists, commenting on them, and listening to the songs as they are posted (they are counting backwards and just made it to #16).

Phil’s choice for #16 is startling, and it raised a point regarding yours truly that seemed worth a Friday blog post. He chose “Thunk,” a forgotten song from Bark, the first (but not the last) Jefferson Airplane album I didn’t like. It became clear in Phil’s post and subsequent comments that he knew I’d be interested … he knows I’m a fan of the Airplane ... and Scott chimed in as well, also noting my love of the group. Both of them take it as a given that Jefferson Airplane are one of my favorite bands.

Which is odd, because I don’t know that they are. Yet it is easy for me to see why others might think this. I’m endlessly jabbering about my fetishization of 60s “underground radio” music, and I’ve said more than once that the Airplane were my favorites of the San Francisco bands of the day.

As I remember it … I’m not rewriting history in this case, this really is how I saw it, although the truth might have been different from my perception … the top bands in San Francisco at the time were the Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Steve Miller Band. Creedence blows all of these bands out of the water, but despite the fact that they were played on those FM radio stations, they seemed more like a hit machine than a group of psychedelic cowboys, so they don’t fit this rather narrow category of folk/blues-based psychedelia. Quicksilver and Steve Miller were a notch below the other three. By the end of 1967 and the Summer of Love, the Airplane had three albums (including the iconic Surrealistic Pillow), Big Brother had only one album but they’d played Monterey and Janis was already a big star, and the Dead, while they’d only released one disappointing album, were the band most identified with the psychedelia of the moment, partly because of their connection to Kesey and the Pranksters. Quicksilver and Steve Miller, on the other hand, didn’t put out an album until 1968.

Which were my favorites? The Dead were probably at the bottom, not because I didn’t like them, but because ultimately they were headed in a different direction than my taste preferences. I actually liked their first album, and a part of me thinks “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” is their best song. I liked the guitar work on Quicksilver’s first album quite a bit, but thought (and think) that their breakthrough, Happy Trails, is a mess, and the rest of their work includes some fine songs but nothing earthshaking. Big Brother had Janis, of course, and they had James Gurley, one of the greats of psychedelic guitar. They only released two albums, and Janis became bigger than the group, but I continue to believe Big Brother was her best backing band.

Then there was Jefferson Airplane. I can think of several reasons why they were my favorite. I spent the Summer of Love with my girlfriend, listening to Surrealistic Pillow over and over. I found the bizarre After Bathing at Baxter’s intriguing where the Dead’s more experimental efforts left me cold, and liked the band’s power in Crown of Creation. Volunteers was another favorite … I was ripe for its politics, the band was hot. But the biggest reason I loved them is probably Jack Casady and his bass playing on Bless Its Pointed Little Head, their live album from early 1969. As I took up the bass guitar, Casady became my god, and while the entire band does just fine on that live album, Casady is brilliant … it’s one of the greatest albums for bass playing in all of rock and roll.

So yes, I think I understand why people think I love Jefferson Airplane. I temper my current enthusiasm largely because I’m wary of overdoing the 60s psychedelic love. And while I might have liked the Airplane more than I liked the other SF bands, there were other bands of the time I liked more: Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, the Yardbirds, not to mention popular artists like Otis and Aretha. And I’m not sure any artist in any genre has ever made an album as good as Astral Weeks, which is the true cornerstone of my 60s passion.

I haven’t said much about Steve Miller yet, even though he’s supposed to be the featured artist this week. Miller was a bit of an outsider in the City. While a band like the Airplane had roots in folk music, Miller’s roots were in the blues … before coming to San Francisco, he had spent time in Chicago, playing with and sucking up influence from greats like Muddy Waters. When his band first started playing in San Francisco, they were called the Steve Miller Blues Band. My first rock concert, at the Fillmore during the Summer of Love, featured Miller and his band as the opening act for Eric Burdon and the Animals and Chuck Berry, for whom the Miller band played backup (that set later turned up on a Berry live album).

fillmoreticket

In early 1968, Miller and Quicksilver, along with Mother Earth, appeared on a soundtrack album to a documentary about hippies called Revolution. The Steve Miller Blues Band contributed three songs, an instrumental, “Mercury Blues” (which I believe Miller plays to this day), and an Isley Brothers cover, “Your Old Lady.” The latter featured some of the most screaming geetar work I’d ever heard … I don’t think I realized at the time it was Miller playing that stuff. He has never included this track on any of his various anthologies, and the original soundtrack is very hard to come by, so this remains an obscurity, but holy shit, that guitar.

I feel like Miller has said in interviews that when he came to San Francisco he was unimpressed with the musicianship. I could be wrong about this, but as I recall, Miller came in with his blues-based hot licks and found a bunch of stoners playing sloppy music. Whatever … Miller wasn’t going to be sloppy. The Airplane’s first album was essentially folk music, the Dead and Big Brother had their debuts botched, Quicksilver’s debut, which I liked, nonetheless immediately had people hoping for a live album to show what the band could “really” do.

But Miller? The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that as all the record companies swarmed over the Bay Area looking for their own psychedelic bands to get on their label, Miller held out until he got a very large advance. He then took the band to London, and had the first album produced by Glyn Johns, who later worked with such acts as The Beatles, the Who, the Eagles, and Eric Clapton. Not sloppy.

The second side of the subsequent album, Children of the Future, featured the lovely “Baby’s Calling Me Home” by band member Boz Scaggs, some punchy rock, the blues chestnut “Key to the Highway,” and a delightful take on Buster Brown’s R&B hit, “Fanny Mae.” This all could have fit in well with Sailor, their second album and the last to include Scaggs.

The first side, though, was something else entirely. It was a 17 1/2-minute psychedelic suite of five songs, two running less than a minute, with titles like “In My First Mind” and “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.).” I suppose everyone imagines something different when they think of psychedelic music … “Dark Star,” maybe, or something from more recent revivals of the music. But for me, if I want to spend some time floating along in a nostalgic reverie of psychedelia, I will pretty much always listen to side one of Children of the Future. From the cacophonic opening, to the simple lyrics of the title track (“We are children of the future, wonder where this world is going to?”), to the 38 seconds of pop music, “Pushed Me to It,” and the 53 seconds of “You’ve Got the Power” (“To open the door”), to perhaps the most gently psychedelic of the songs, “In My First Mind” (“Singing a song of love, growing each day”) and the odd sound effects and blues licks, followed finally by the three-minute fade out that culminates with a chorus singing “We are children of the future” … in its use of a Mellotron and the sounds of sea gulls, the dippy lyrics, and the music, always the music, not sloppy, this is a trip you can rely on, it won’t turn bad.

The irony is that Steve Miller was the one who made this music. Miller, the blues guy who later became a pop star, Miller who got a big advance for his first album, Miller who didn’t like sloppy and hunted down one of the best producers in the biz … Steve Miller, not Jerry Garcia or James Gurley or John Cippolina but Steve Miller who crafted the best psychedelic music in one LP side.

He never matched it, never really tried, although the opening track of Sailor, “Song for Our Ancestors,” with the foghorn kicking off the album, came close. Scaggs left for a solo career, Miller cranked out a bunch of albums of varying worth (Number 5 was released in 1970 … that’s five albums in two years), after which he hit bottom with Rock Love. Then, in 1973, “The Joker,” and a few years later, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams.

But once, there was a young Chicago blues-lover, and Children of the Future.

It’s hard to get this on YouTube, mostly because it’s broken into five parts, and also because you don’t get a lot of 17-minute videos on YouTube. But here are the final two parts, “In My First Mind” and “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.)”:

Now for extras. Here’s the scene in Revolution where the Miller Blues Band plays “Your Old Lady.” It’s not the studio version that appears on the soundtrack, the sound is tinny, the guitar work not as impressive … in short, it doesn’t live up to the raves I wrote earlier. But it’s all we got, and hey, you get to watch dancing hippies!

Big Brother, “Ball and Chain”:

Quicksilver with “Mona”:

The Dead with “Know You Rider” (no lead-in song):

And finally, Jefferson Airplane. This is from Dick Cavett, just after Woodstock. “We Can Be Together” and “Volunteers.” On the first song, you can hear the word “fuck” (and later, “motherfucker”) for the first time ever on television (yes, that’s Joni Mitchell):

This is “Somebody to Love,” followed by a jam where you can enjoy the Jack and Jorma show (yes, that’s David Crosby):

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