Anyone who followed the first part of Steve Miller’s career was in for a big surprise when The Joker was released during October of 1973. His early albums had been firmly rooted in a psychedelic rock and blues sound. Now he began to change his sound as he moved in a pop/rock direction. While The Joker may not have had the pop sheen of Fly Like An Eagle or Book Of Dreams that would follow, it was nevertheless a radical departure from his previous sound.
Miller was the only member left from his original band except for bassist Lonnie Turner, who appeared on one track. He kept it fairly simple as he was backed by bassist Gerald Johnson, keyboardist Dick Thompson, and drummer John King. The only other musician on the album was Pete Kleinow who contributed the pedal steel guitar sound on “Something to Believe In.”
“The Joker” was Miller’s commercial break through as it became a million-selling single. The music was catchy and melodic, but it was the lyrics that made it memorable. Lines such as “gangster of love,” “the space cowboy,” and “pompitous of love” may not have changed the music world but they made it a lot more enjoyable.
“Sugar Babe” is a sometimes overlooked track, but it was catchy pop/rock and the equal to just about anything he would produce in the future. “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” was a rhythm & blues hit for the Clovers in 1954, but Miller smoothed it out and put the emphasis on the keyboards and guitar, which turned it into a pop creation. Add in the enjoyable jam, “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma” and the catchy “Lovin’ Cup,” and you have the foundation of the album that launched the second half of his career.
The two live tracks, Robert Johnson’s blues tune “Come on in My Kitchen” and his own composition “Evil” are fine but a little misplaced as they pulled the album away from the pop/rock style of the better tracks.
The Joker is sometimes overshadowed by the focus on the albums that would follow, but it remains a good listen as it catches Miller honing his new sound. I don’t know how his old fans reacted to the album, but his new ones made it a huge commercial success.