Songs of 74: The Joker / Steve Miller Band

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that charted in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music.

The Steve Miller Band are experiencing a career revival at present thanks to Eminem. The no longer Slim Shady’s (Shady’s dead, in case you aren’t across what’s happening) song Houdini samples Abracadabra, a No 1 in Australia in 1982. Houdini has reached No 1 in the US, UK and here – Eminem’s first in a decade.

Despite Eminem’s assistance I feel The Joker, which charted in February 1974, reaching No 8 on the Australian Kent Music Charts, and No 1 in the US, is The Steve Miller Band’s best known song, still beloved on Classic Hits stations and up to nearly 500 million listens on Spotify.

It was also ripe for many memes (like above) before such things existed. There was a recent poll of iconic starting song lyrics, which if memory serves me right Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London quite rightly topped. The Joker must have been up there though.

There’s few more iconic introductions than:

Some people call me the space cowboy, yeahSome call me the gangster of loveSome people call me Maurice‘Cause I speak of the pompatus of love

Pompatus isn’t even a real word. It was something Steve Miller thought he heard in the lyrics of another song. The word he misheard was puppetutes in the 1954 song, The Letter, with lyrics by Vernon Green. Puppetutes isn’t a real word either. Green invented it to describe paper-doll fantasies. We still don’t know what Miller’s definition was/is. None the less pompatus has become parlance now, the name of a movie with John Cryer from the 90s, featured in other songs and even used by Stephen King in his novel Lisey’s Story.

The first three lines are no less strange. Steve Miller did create for himself the three different characters of a space cowboy, a gangster of love and Maurice for previous album releases, and must have been an influence for Kiss, David Bowie and others.

Steve Miller’s background is no less remarkable. His mum was a jazz singer and his dad a pathologist who moonlighted as a recording engineer. Les Paul would often pop around and told Miller when he was six that if he kept on with the guitar he ‘might amount so something one day’. The family moved soon after and a new visitor was T-Bone Walker who taught Steve to play guitar behind his back and with his teeth when he was 10!

In high school Miller started a band teaching his classmate to play guitar so he could join. That classmate was Boz Scaggs, whose career would go alright too. They’ve worked together across the years and remain close friends. Miller, by the way, owns upward of 450 guitars.

When The Joker was originally released it didn’t crack the European market (except the Netherlands, make of that what you will). In 1990 Levi’s released an ad featuring Angie Everhart, a man on a motorbike and that song. It made The Joker a massive smash in places it hadn’t charted first time around, including going to No 1 in New Zealand and the UK. One final piece of trivia is that the second week it was at No 1 in England it sold exactly the same amount of copies as Deee-Lite’s one hit wonder Groove is in the Heart. When there is a tie the song with the greater percentage increase in sales gets the No 1 spot, which was The Joker.

He was a winner, and grinner, that Space Cowboy.

Jen Seyderhelm is a writer, editor and music trivia nut for Radioinfo

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