The Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 ranks among the biggest selling greatest hits collections of all-time, in the company of such acts as the Eagles, Madonna, ABBA, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Queen. Not bad for a band who did most of its most iconic work in a four-year period.
But like many rock bands trying to survive the ’70s as it evolved into the ’80s, the Steve Miller Band also dabbled in the new sound of disco. In this they were not alone. Acts like the Rolling Stones, the Who and KISS, to name but a few, made gestures towards club music, oft-times doing little more than adding a more prominent kick drum on a single and then waiting out the trend. Yet no rock band made a track as weird and leftfield as Steve Miller Band did in 1981.
With its clanging percussion, migraine throb, laser spurts and dark alley dub, “Macho City” is a singular track, topped by Miller spouting lines about “macho men shooting up history’s pages” while shouting out El Salvador and Afghanistan. It’s as slyly political as “The Joker” and it’s as deep into leftfield as leftfield disco can possibly go, earning a slot on Paradise Garage playlists and Joey Negro and Sean P’s epochal Disco Not Disco comp. To find out the story behind the track, we reached out to former Steve Miller Band drummer Gary Mallaber in California and the album’s engineer, Rick Fisher, in Seattle.
How long were you a member of Steve Miller’s band?
In the 20 some odd years I spent with Steve Miller, the vast majority of all those songs that we tracked were basically done by a trio. It was Steve Miller, Lonnie Turner on bass and me on drums. That was the main body of all the hits. Later on, when we cut “Abracadabra,” we brought in Byron Allred to cut it in the studio with us rather than just do overdubs.
I worked with Eddie Money, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, Ned Doheny. The first Steve Miller album I was on was Recall the Beginning...A Journey from Eden. Steve got his first hit off “The Joker,” which was a throwaway song. But after that, the next two albums were a concise body of work. Things were going so good that we continued writing songs in the studio and wound up with the two albums where we had all the hits. Basically, those two albums: 1976’s Fly Like an Eagle and 1977’s Book of Dreams were from the same segment of sessions just split across two albums.
Steve was way ahead of the curve in how records are made now. He would start with a groove, then strip it down and cut it up.
Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits was a giant album, one of the most successful collections of hits ever. But there was a significant amount of time after that and before 1981’s Circle of Love was released. After that success, did that put more pressure on the next album?
When Steve made Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, he knew what he wanted. My observation was that he was searching a little bit on this one. I recall Steve booking some time at Kaye-Smith Studios in Seattle and just showing up with the band and we cut grooves for a week. Then he disappeared for six or seven months.
The thing I would note about the time period after 1977 is that disco went nuts. And then boom, we had wholesale slaughter in the record business in 1980. They couldn’t get rid of artists fast enough. Everything was in trouble in 1980. Radio and everything changed and Steve was trying to figure out what he was going to do. There was a lot of upheaval in record making and what was attractive in radio. There was punk, new wave, the business was in trouble and he was making Circle of Love right in the middle of it.
Steve was way ahead of the curve in how records are made now. He would start with a groove, then strip it down and cut it up. We would go into the studio and he would be slashing and grooving, making lyrics up. We would end up with all this tape and he would disappear for two or three weeks and return with a list. We’d build working songs from the cut tape. He was not recording the whole band and then putting the solo and vocal on top. He used the multi-track technology, building it up and tearing it down.
Six months later, he calls the studio up to do more sessions, wants me to help him finish the record. We worked on a pile of different songs for two years. I can’t tell you what he was thinking or how he was trying to react. He turns over lots of rocks and explores when he’s in the studio and he had the means with all these synthesizers in the studio.
Circle of Love was more a contractual obligation. It was just something for Steve to hand in as an album. I didn’t think it had the writing or compositional prowess and power that his other stuff had. I don’t think we even got back there until “Abracadabra.” At the time that we made Circle of Love, Steve was trying to put his studio together up in Oregon while I was down here formulating my first studio in Sherman Oaks, using equipment which people considered “toys.” But if you use them right, they are tools. And that’s what went into “Abracadabra.”
I did a lot of homework on that cut. Steve was doing this particular guitar rhythm, which I used to call “the rake.” He would rake his fingers across the strings and I said to him “That’s a million dollar rhythm!” I thought that if we did that at the right tempo, it was really going to do something. So we took it to the lab and about four months later, that song came out. It had this pre-designed tempo which I understand was where Europe was at the time, and it became #1 in 16 countries.
But before “Abracadabra,” you guys cut “Macho City” and I wonder where on earth that came from?
The whole rap thing was beginning to start and all those little funk rhythms were coming up, little tributaries off of that. Sometimes you just take a rhythmic posture and say something on the top of it. We were coming into the age at the beginning of the 1980s where everyone was using computers and everything was being digitally composed. Eventually, we’re going to be way back on the backburner. We knew it was happening way before it happened.
“Macho City” was really just more of a rhythmic stance. It was kind of a cartoon, we felt. I don’t think we had a full song or an embodiment of composition to really deliver a great message. It wasn’t something I consider to be true song composition. It was a rhythmic stance akin to what those South Central bands were doing with a computer and keyboards.
We saw that dance music and nightclubs were coming up where DJs were running the show, not bands.
So Circle of Love was just a contractual obligation? One side was retro, very early rock & roll and rockabilly, songs about going to the drive-in. But “Macho City” was the other side and is very futuristic and idiosyncratic.
No, it wasn’t just a contract thing. When we did “Macho City,” we made it extra long because that’s when most of the dance clubs were beginning to take over. It was beginning to transition from the generation that used to fill the stadiums and hockey arenas for rock bands in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And we just don’t have that anymore. Then, that generation that grew up with rock & roll was all older now, the people that loved that form of music and watching bands play, they were going to pay mortgages and have families. Things had shifted.
We saw that dance music and nightclubs were coming up where DJs were running the show, not bands. And we designed “Macho City” as something to accommodate a dance hall. I don’t think there was enough compositional aptitude deliberately put into that record. We could make stuff like that in the studio all day long. We just jammed it all day long. We weren’t working with computers at the time. If you reverse engineer “Macho City,” there’s no melody, there’s just a riff. There’s no smoke and mirrors, we just executed it in real time. It was mainly a jam and we kept going as Steve whispered arrangement orders over the vocal mic. It went on for well over ten minutes! That track was then vocalized, edited and overdubbed to Steve’s liking.
That’s three different drum tracks on “Macho City.” The beat on the end was from the original sessions in 1978 made with a different engineer. It’s a great tribute to Gary that there’s no tempo adjustment. Gary did not play to a click track. We’d load the tape and even eight months later, Gary would count it off and the tempo would be in sync, a perfect fit.
All the funny helicopter noises on “Macho City” are from the Prophet 5, the synthesizer of the day. The rainstorm I believe Steve recorded on a portable Nakamichi tape deck at his house in Bellevue. There was a thunderstorm and I think he did it with a handheld microphone, just stuck it out the window and recorded it. He’s also a serious boater so he may have recorded it on a boat, but my recollection is that he made it at his house. And then there’s the crowbar sound.
The crowbar sound?
That metal percussion sound that comes in is from a struck crowbar. Kaye-Smith Studio had a soundstage in the building. We were working late one night and we went out there where all these tools were laying around. And so we absconded with a crowbar and went into the studio with it. We just hung the crowbar from a mic stand and Steve just hit the crowbar with a wrench, banging on it for 18 minutes.
It’s also Steve Miller’s most – for lack of a better word – political song, using the word macho as a sense of American aggression and shouting out El Salvador and Afghanistan.
There was a lot of political stuff going on at that time period. Americans had come to distrust their government after Watergate. Carter was in trouble in Iran and we then elected an actor. [laughs] The record business was floundering. Steve was very concerned where things had gone, politically. Steve got fixated on the word ‘macho’ at the time from another song.
From the Village People song, “Macho Man”?
No, it was another song of his. It was a song that morphed into “Abracadabra” but originally it had the word “macho” in it. I must have recorded 40 versions of that song. And then it became “Abracadabra.”
No one has talked to me about this album in over 30 years .
Were you surprised that on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, they sampled the bassline from “Macho City” for “Regimen’s Spirit”?
To this day, I have no idea who sampled what or when or why. So I just listened and wow, I never heard that! Now I ask myself: why would they want to sample us? And then make it sound like a Taliban feeding frenzy, silly infidels!
There’s no samples on “Macho City.” We weren’t sampling. Whatever you are hearing on those records, that’s not us using any samples. It was just coming up at that time. We would make analog tape loops, running a reel of tape around the room with everyone holding up the tape on pencils. That was the original looping. But there’s no looping on “Macho City.” None whatsoever. Production-wise, I was distant from that record. I didn’t feel there were enough songs on that album. It was all remnants being played with.
Did you ever play “Macho City” live?
Yes, we did. We were over in Germany playing the Lorelei Festival there and “Abracadabra” was at #1 on the charts there. It was around ‘83 or ‘84, we played a version of “Macho City.” People were relating to it, but they weren’t really getting down to it. But when we went into “Abracadabra,” it was pandemonium.
Rick, Circle of Love was your first big artist album. Do you recall how the album was received?
The label wasn’t wonderful; nobody got excited when he turned in Circle of Love. It was fun to put together and it was my first big record. No one has talked to me about this album in over 30 years and after you wrote, someone else reached out to ask me about the song “Circle of Love.” To be contacted about two separate tracks after not talking about them for 30 years was a trip. But it’s a lost record.