Smiths Complete - Available at Rhino.coma-ha "Hunting High & Low" and "Scoundrel Days" Deluxe Editions Rhino Handmade raids the vault!

Monday, September 08, 2008

When New Wave Happens to Old Artists - Steve Miller Band

Okay, this one might sting a bit.

The Steve Miller Band was riding high after the huge success of 1982’s “Abracadabra” LP and single – the single was just about the biggest hit of that year and the album followed suit, peaking at #3. The secret of “Abracadabra’s” success was pretty simple – take a basic, catchy Steve Miller tune (not altogether different from “Swingtown”, really), add some current synth and production touches to keep it fresh and bam!, there’s your smash. Was it telling, though, that the album was unable to produce one Top 40 follow-up single, even with “Abracadabra’s” momentum? Hmmm…

oh dear god

We got our answer in 1984, with the release of “Italian X-Rays”. Now there are plenty of examples in pop history of an artist losing the plot, but boy, this is a prime example of one not only losing it, but intentionally taking it, digging a 12 foot hole in the ground, tossing said plot inside, filling the hole with cement and covering any tell-tale signs of the deed with sod. So, what happened? Only Steve can tell us for sure, but it sounds like someone along the line, whether it was the band or their record label, decided the new wave touches that made “Abracadabra” a smash should be expanded and layered to ridiculous levels. If a little worked a lot, then a lot would work…well, not at all.

The terror began with the album’s first single, “Shangri-La”. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. Truth be told, I kinda like “Shangri-La”. You have a funky bassline, a catchy call and response vocal melody (even if it is unintentionally hilarious when the backing vocals sing “Celebrate” with absolutely zero enthusiasm), and hey, cowbell! But I can only imagine old school Steve Miller fans standing mortified, mouths agape when they first heard this. It was too radical a sound shift for old fan, too muted and wrapped in that Steve Miller laid-back style for the new wave fan. Just who was supposed to enjoy this?

If long-time Steve Miller fans were simply appalled at “Shangri-La”, I’d love to have an old Beta tape of their reactions to the follow-up single, “Bongo Bongo”. Oh, “Bongo, Bongo”…where to begin? This song was notorious in my little group in high school because it was just so god-awful and gimmicky, and yet you simply could not get it out of your head after you heard it. I’m warning you now, if you download and listen to it (get past the annoying and unnecessary 30-second keyboard intro), you will spend the rest of your day walking around singing “ba-ba-ba-bongo bongo” and looking like a moron. File this one under “What Were They Thinking/Snorting?”.

“Italian X-Rays” did some damage. The Steve Miller Band never returned to the Top 40 and it took a few albums and a highly publicized “return to blues roots” album before Steve regained a fraction of his old fans. New Wave is a bitter mistress. She can bring you joy and equal amounts of pain.

Ba-ba-ba-Bongo Bongo.

”Shangri-La” peaked at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984.
“Bongo Bongo” peaked at #84 on the Hot 100 that same year.

A label called Eagle Records had the courage to re-master and re-release this in 2005.

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posted by John, 9:08 AM