Album: Brave New World
. . .
Before he had all of those hits in the mid-1970s, Steve Miller had already established himself as a recording artist: 1973’s The Joker was the eighth studio album from The Steve Miller Band. Eighth!! And he started in 1968! Imagine that happening today: an artist having seven albums, none of which chart higher than #22, while their highest-charting single — 1970’s spritely “Going To The Country” — topped out at #69. Which is nice and all, but his record company, Capitol, kept funding him. Maybe because he was Les Paul’s godson?
Anyways, Miller had come out of the San Francisco scene, riding a psychedelic blues-rock vibe and some minor radio hits — I remember hearing “Living in the USA” and “Space Cowboy” occasionally, but I’d never even remotely bothered to check out his early records until a couple of years ago. And for the most part they were fine, and all had some really good songs.
But the one that jumped out at me was “Kow Kow” from his third album, 1969’s Brave New World, because if you squint hard enough, you can hear some of the same elements that made those mid-70s singles so irresistible, plus one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest secret weapons.
Anyways, “Kow Kow” — which is called “Kow Kow Calqulator” on the Anthology collection — opens up with some post-Hendrixy guitar not unlike how Pearl Jam would open “Yellow Ledbetter” a couple of decades later, but almost instantly abandoned it as keyboardist Nicky Hopkins came in, and pulled focus.
Yes, that Nicky Hopkins, who single-handedly made dozens of British Invasion songs better with his amazingly inventive piano parts, and was probably brought in by producer (yes that) Glyn Johns. Of course, Hopkins was around the San Francisco scene at that time, having become a full-time member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and playing on their immortal “Fresh Air.”
In any event, right after Hopkins comes in, Miller switches to an acoustic and quietly sings the opening verse.
Kow Kow Calqulator
Was a very smooth operator
Had himself a pet alligator
Kept it in a chrome elevator, yeah
When the sun began to shine
The alligator come outside
Kow Kow played the chimes
Together they’d go for a ride
Well look, you gotta sing something, right? It doesn’t always have to make sense. What you need to know here is that as Miller sings this verse, and the second verse — something about warring over a dead horse — the music keeps getting more and more full and more and more intense, until at some point it becomes at least a cousin to something like “Take The Money and Run,” at which the entire song comes to a stop so Steve can sing the most cliched thing can think of.
Turn on your love light
Turn it on
Let it shine inside your heart
Let it shine
Turn on your love light
Turn it on, turn it on
Let it shine inside your mind
SPOLIER ALERT: This is not going to be the last time I make fun of Steve Miller’s lyrics. I can think of at least two more examples coming up in the next week or so, starting with tomorrow. But, god damn it, with the harmonies — could be Steve or bassist Lonne Turner, definitely not Nicky — lovely and ruff, and Nicky Hopkins utterly killing it on piano, and it just fucking works, OK? Especially as they build and build into a third verse, where Steve is now yelling at the top of his range and shit is getting kind of intense.
So many times, Kow Kow heard it said before
Oh, don’t, lord, don’t go near that door
The cause of our evil you’ll uncover
Because of our misery, you discover
Well, misery seeks its own company
Kow Kow had heard it said
And now he sits there crying
Oh, with his hands across his head
After that it’s off to the races, Nicky is making run after run on his piano, drummer Tim Davis is doing roll after roll and Steve Miller is yelling about Kow Kow and love lights and it’s just utterly fantastic, over the top late 60s rock to the max which finally totally collapses into heavy chording and crashes one one last “let it shinnnnnee” after which Hopkins does a lovely piano code into the fade. Fantastic!
“Kow Kow” Live Solo Acoustic in San Francisco, 1974
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