Children of the Future at 50

A half-century down the road with Steve Miller’s psychedelic debut

Children of the Future by The Steve Miller Band

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Steve Miller is remembered for two things – the cranky, contentious acceptance speech given at his 2016 induction into the Rock Hall, and his mid-to-late ‘70s string of rock radio hits.

Beginning with the chart-topping 1973 single “The Joker,” the Steve Miller Band (of which singer, songwriter, and guitarist Miller is the only enduring member) chalked up half a dozen Top 20 hits by 1977, classic rock staples like “Jet Airliner,” “Take The Money And Run,” “Fly Like An Eagle,” and “Rock’n Me.” Miller’s last big single was 1982’s “Abracadabra,” after which he began his long, slow slide into rock ‘n’ roll history.

Miller took a seventeen-year hiatus from recording after 1993’s mediocre Wide River, returning with 2010’s collection of blues covers, Bingo! It wasn’t an entirely unexpected turn towards the blues for Miller, who made his bones playing gigs in Chicago with giants like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy during the early ‘60s (when he should have been attending classes at The University of Wisconsin). Miller even hooked up with keyboardist Barry Goldberg, a future member of Electric Flag, in the short-lived Goldberg-Miller Blues Band, the pair releasing a single in 1965 on the Epic Records label. After a short stint working as a janitor back home in Texas, Miller relocated to San Francisco in 1966 and put together the Steve Miller Blues Band.    

After a few changes in the band’s roster, Miller landed on a line-up that included his childhood friend, singer and guitarist Boz Scaggs, bassist Lonnie Turner, keyboardist Jim Peterman, and drummer Tim Davis, a college pal and former bandmate. Gigging around the Bay area, they eventually dropped the “Blues” from the band name and signed a sweet deal with Capitol Records, which would remain Miller’s label for the next 20 years. The Steve Miller Band’s debut album, Children of the Future, was recorded at Olympic Studio in London with first-time producer Glyn Johns (who would subsequently shepherd albums by the Rolling Stones, Humble Pie, Joe Cocker, and many other rock legends into being). Released 50 years ago, in June 1968, to a fair amount of critical acclaim, it’s worth taking another look at Children of the Future to see how it holds up after a half-century.

As Johns’ remembered in his 2014 biography Sound Man, Miller envisioned the first side of the album as an extended “Children of the Future” suite complete with psychedelic sound effects and tape manipulations inspired by avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, while the other side would draw upon the band members’ shared blues roots. Provided this perspective, the title tracks does, indeed, kick off the LP with a miasma of swirling, chaotic instruments clashing in the mix, fading to a dull roar before Miller’s psych-drenched guitar leads the listener towards the bright, gorgeous harmony vocals that pre-date Crosby, Stills & Nash’s initial effort by a couple of years.

All five band members pitch in, their voices meshing nicely until Miller takes over the microphone as the song runs into “Pushed Me To It,” a poppy reprise that lasts less than a full minute. “You’ve Got The Power” makes use of Jim Peterman’s Hammond organ, which tastefully dominates the minute-long song’s rambling, unfocused duration. The first three tracks of Children of the Future are spaced closely together as a suite, running less than five minutes combined, and really serve as a hallucinogenic introduction to the song that is the heart of side one (and the album). With a runtime of seven-minutes-plus, “In My First Mind” is a hauntingly beautiful pop-psych construct, with co-writer Peterman’s keyboards serving as a foundation for the unlikely musical head trip to follow.

Miller’s vocals here are somber and strident, with Goth-tinged neo-classical instrumentation layered beneath his voice, sounding not unlike an early Procol Harum recording.

The song winds out as a sort of instrumental tone poem, with sparse drum fills complimenting Peterman’s keyboard licks. Miller’s “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B.)” closes out the first side. Picking up where “In My First Mind” left off, the song slowly unfolds with various eerie sound effects and rumbling instrumentation, Miller’s guitar laying down a faint Chicago blues chorus, the guitar slung low in the mix as thunder rumbles and the wind howls and gulls screech their otherworldly paean to the sea. When the band’s voices rise to the surface, they’re approximating a harmonic sound that falls somewhere between a Beach Boys melody and chanting Benedictine monks.  

Boz Scaggs would leave the band at the end of 1968 to pursue his own dreams of solo success, which he achieved parallel to Miller with a series of mid-‘70s blue-eyed soul hits. Scaggs contributed two songs to Children of the Future, which kick off side two of the album. “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home” is an ethereal pop-psych tune that features Scaggs’s slight vocals sparring with guest musician (and future SMB member) Ben Sidran’s ringing harpsichord notes. The song is so laid back that one can’t tell if Boz is coming or going…much better is the following “Stepping Stone.” A funky, bluesy romp with a well-defined groove that puts drummer Tim Davis through his paces, Scaggs’ soulful voice and wiry leads soar above some scorching Miller guitar in a rather muddy sonic mix. With better production, and some separation of the instruments and vocals, the song could have been an early radio hit for the band.

Ditto for the up-tempo rocker “Roll With It,” which skews closer to the sound that Miller would achieve on his ‘70s-era radio hits. With magnetic vocal harmonies and flamethrower guitar, the song is punctuated by Peterman’s riffing keyboards. FM rock radio had yet to be invented in 1968, but “Roll With It” was ready and willing to take the airwaves. The early Steve Miller Band was much more of a democracy than later versions (it was the late 1960s, after all…), so just like Scaggs and Peterman had their moment in the sun, so too does Tim Davis, the band’s only African-American member, who takes on lead vocals for “Junior Saw It Happen.” Another unabashed rocker, Davis’s vox remind one a lot of Buddy Miles, adding a depth to the performance that stands in pleasant contrast to Miller and Scaggs’ different vocal styles.

Davis takes the lead again on the rollicking “Fannie Mae,” the 1959 R&B chart hit by blues singer Buster Brown. Davis’s vocals aren’t as prominent here, his hardy voice overwhelmed by Miller’s jaunty harmonica play and Lonnie Turner’s rolling bass rhythms on what devolves into a raucous, albeit rapid-fire three-minute jam. Children of the Future closes with a cover of blues legend Big Bill Broonzy’s classic “Key To the Highway.” A traditional blues tune modernized by Broonzy with his 1940 recording, and revamped again by Chicago bluesman Little Walter with a 1958 hit single, the song has been recorded by artists as diverse as Count Basie, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Captain Beefheart, among many others.

Miller plays it pretty straight here, delivering “Key To the Highway” as a slow, ambling blues dirge that depends heavily on Davis’s rhythmic timekeeping, Peterman’s background keyboards, and Miller’s own mournful harmonica playing. The song harkens back to Miller’s early days in Chicago, his musical education informed by the city’s thriving ‘60s-era blues scene. Broonzy is an obvious artistic touchstone, the country bluesman becoming one of the Windy City’s first big stars after arriving in 1920 from Mississippi. In his later years, Broonzy would help newcomers like Muddy Waters find jobs and housing, and his unique style influenced a generation of young rock guitarists like Clapton, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, and Rory Gallagher. Closing the album on a slow note would be unheard of these days, but in 1968, “Key To the Highway” merely anchored a complex and multi-textured collection of songs.

Children of the Future would provide an auspicious creative beginning for the Steve Miller Band, if not a particularly commercially successful one.

The album rose to only #134 on the Billboard magazine albums chart, and flew entirely beneath the radar in ancillary markets like Canada and Europe. Capitol Records curiously released a non-album track, the Miller-Goldberg written “Sittin’ In Circles,” as the band’s first single, with “Roll With It” included as the B-side. This order should have been reversed and, of course, the single refused to chart. Undaunted, Miller and the same band line-up would return to the studio, again working with producer Johns (this time in L.A.), to record their follow-up album, Sailor, which was released in October 1968.

Using much the same musical template as Children of the Future, i.e. blues-infused psychedelic-rock, Sailor would nevertheless include the band’s first minor radio hit in the Beatles-inspired “Living In the U.S.A.” Along with the sublime “Quicksilver Girl,” which sounds like early Big Star and was featured in the 1984 movie The Big Chill, and what would become one of Miller’s signature tunes, a cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love,” this would be enough to push Sailor to #24 on the chart and open the door to later albums both classic (1969’s Brave New World) and enormously successful (The Joker). Fifty years down the road with the Steve Miller Band, over a career littered with creative and commercial triumphs, it all began with the somewhat tentative and experimental first step that was Children of the Future.

 

             

 

 

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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