Released as both single and double disc compilations, Ultimate Hits is an odd one. The single disc does everything a compilation should do, giving the listener the feel for the Steve Miller Band’s long career, whereas the double disc version I am reviewing is a game attempt to fill a particular niche. The single disc version is a solid introduction for the newcomer who might only know them as the band who had big hits with songs like “The Joker” and “Abracadabra”, the deluxe edition aims itself at the established fan by including a whole load of live cuts, and seemingly tries to sequence the whole thing as a sort of loose narrative. It’s an interesting approach, but one that can be a touch disorientating if you’re a newcomer to the Steve Miller Band who decides to spend a little bit more on the deluxe edition in the assumption that it will be better value for money in the long run.
The history of the Steve Miller Band is an interesting one. Les Paul and Mary Ford were friends of the family (that’s Les Paul the infant Steve Miller is talking to on the first track), the band started off in the late 60s as a backing band for bigger name acts, Chuck Berry among them. They would later release a number of hard rocking psychedelia tinged albums that centred around Miller’s bluesy guitar work, before the band shifted direction with The Joker in 1973, which saw them head into more radio-friendly territory. The mid to late 70s would prove to be a productive period for Miller, and he enjoyed huge success with albums like Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, as well as co-headline tours with fellow big-hitters The Eagles. While Miller seemed to lose his way a little at the very start of the 80s, the Steve Miller Band would return to have one last huge pop hit in the shape of “Abracadabra”, before becoming increasingly sporadic in their output and hitting the top of the UK charts in the early 90s when “The Joker” was re-released on the back of a an advertising campaign for Levis.
Musically, this compilation makes the case for the Steve Miller Band as a well polished radio-friendly classic rock act. While here in the UK they are primarily known for “The Joker” and “Abracadabra”, they were a much bigger act on the other side of the Atlantic, where their late 70s material remains celebrated as some of the best AOR of the era. The live material on offer here shows that their musicianship and polished feel transferred particularly well to the live stage, with Miller displaying his ability to connect with his audience.
Where this compilation stumbles are the transitions between tracks, where the jump from live tracks to studio material can be jarring. There’s also the small matter of this album not quite knowing what it wants to be. While the single disc version is aimed squarely at those who just want a basic best of compilation, the deluxe version, in trying to appeal to established fans as well, ends up falling somewhere between the two, sounding somewhat muddled and confused in its sequencing and sadly resulting in a compilation that is less than the sum of its parts.