are certain musicians who are so perfectly in tune with the times that they
practically define them. Elvis, Madonna, the Carpenters -- all of them truly
embodied their eras. But what of those artists who are out of step with
modern fashion, whose labors are far too eccentric to be popular, who can'tbe
fully understood until years later?
Pete Miller is one such artist. For the past 40
years, the British native and long time San Francisco resident has firmly
adhered to the philosophy espoused by Danny & the Juniors: Rock 'n' roll
is here to stay. He has been at ground zero for numerous musical revolutions, having
toured with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and most of the rest of the
British Invasion; released one of the first English psychedelic songs; rediscovered
rockabilly; and recorded the San Francisco punk scene. Yet Miller and his
nom de plume Big Boy Pete are far from household names. Why? Perhaps, as
Brian Wilson once sang, he just wasn't made for these times.
Miller was just a simple teenager in the English town
of Norwich when he went to see Rock, Rock, Rock, a film featuring Chuck Berry.
"I saw him duckwalk across the stage and itwas
all over," Miller says with a laugh. ""Sorry Mum, sorry Dad,
I'm not going to be that doctor you wanted.'"
Soon after, Miller sold his train set for a second-hand guitar
and gathered some school mates together to form the Offbeats, a quintet that
played covers by early rock 'n' rollers like Berry, Gene Vincent, and Eddie
Cochran. The group lasted until 1961, when Miller got lured away bya more
successful local band, Peter Jay & the Jaywalkers. In a city of 100,000
people, there were only six bands; Miller was in two of them.
"Back then, you were a weirdo if you werein
a band; now, you're weird if you're not," Miller says.
With Miller on lead guitar, the Jaywalkers scored several
hits on the British charts, and began a grueling tour schedule of 300 shows
a year. There were no major highways at the time -- it took 15 hours to go
350 miles -- and the band often played its own set and served as backup for
solo acts. In Miller's five years with the group, the Jaywalkers toured with
the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Dave Clark 5, the Byrds, Cream,
and a certain Fab Four.
"The Beatles were our friends," Miller says.
"They were just another band, like us."
Eventually, the Beatles asked the Jaywalkers to open
for them on what became known as the Beatlemania tour. When asked about those
tempestuous times, Miller leans back in his chair and smiles. "I remember
we were flying to Ireland. We were on the runway and all of a sudden the
pilot comes on the intercom and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're very
pleased to have aboard the Beatles. John, Paul, George, and Ringo -- welcome
to Aer Lingus!' And John stands up and yells, "Don't you mean cunnilingus?'"
By late 1965 Miller had grown tired of the incessant touring
and quit the Jaywalkers. His first solo single, "Baby I Got News for
You," was released under the name Miller and featured Peter Frampton
in the backing band. Alas, Miller's ferociously fuzzy guitar riff and Troggsy
snarl -- which earned the single the arguable title of first British psychedelic
tune ever -- was far too rough for the Mersey-beatrothed public.
Disappointed by the rigors of the star-making machinery,Miller
decided to leave London in early 1966 and return to Norwich to "churn out
hits for stars" as a staff writer for a music publishing company.
In an interview in Ugly Things magazine, Miller remembered
that time: "I would go [to the Washington Club] five hours a night,
hang around with the strippers, smoke hashish, drink barrels of beer, get
in loads of trouble, and then go home and write all the songs. I'd get up
the next afternoon, go to my studio and start recording them. It would happen
like that six, seven nights a week; it was almost like a regimented procedure
in those days."
In 1968, he made one last stab at commercial success, putting
out "Cold Turkey" under the name the label chose, Big Boy Pete.
The song was the kind of bluesy hard rock that bands like Blue Cheer would
eventually popularize; at the time, however, no one wanted to hear it. When
Polydor suggested he promote the single, Miller refused, and the label hired
someone else to play his songs. (Years later, when "ColdTurkey"
was reissued on the Electric Sugar Cube Flashbacks compilation, people were
still arguing about who Big Boy Pete really was.)
From 1966 to 1969, Miller wrote several hundred songs
for his company; a hundred were published and fewer than 20 were used by
artists. Numbers such as "Crocogators," "A Dog Called Doug,"
and "Knit Me a Kiss" were deemed too bizarre by his publishing
But they were nothing compared to World War IV, his
concept album about the end of the world. Over the course of a year, Miller
labored at crafting a multilayered, hallucinatory work that would stand alongside
Sgt. Pepper, the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Jimi Hendrix's
Axis: Bold as Love.
"I got tired of turning out pop and said,"Now
I'll do something I want to do,'" Miller explains. "When I was
done, I took it to the music publisher and he said, "What am I going
to do with that?'"
Miller had him send the bizarre "symphonic poem"
to Apple, the label that the Beatles were running. John Lennon liked what
he heard and wanted to put it out.
"I knew I was leaving England in June and I
knew I wasn't coming back so I said forget it," Miller says. "But of
all the tapes of songs I made in seven years of recording, World War IV was
the only tape I took with me to Bangkok."
Miller and his new bandmates the News had cooked up
a crazy idea: They planned to drive by land from England to Thailand. Miller
had even gone as far as to write drug companies for prescription drugs and
concentrated food supplies. Unfortunately, on a trial run through France,
Miller and friends flipped and totaled their VW Bus.
Luckily, a buddy who sold medical supplies for profit
in Thailand found the band a job playing for the troops and sent them plane
tickets. Miller soon began another grueling tour schedule, this time in the
jungles of Southeast Asia. There were 15 to 20 bases scattered throughout
the country, with three clubs on each base (enlisted, officers', noncommissioned
officers'). The band would often play all three clubs in one night, then
have to sleep in the village "hotel" and drive a whole day to get
to the next camp. Then there was the occasional sniperfire.
"It was hell, man," Miller says. "The Viet
Cong got $50 for every set of American dog tags. We had to jump out of the
bus a couple times. Once, we went into town looking for drugs and this drunk
VC is waving his gun at us, thinking we're soldiers. Our guide kept pulling
at our hair, saying, "Long hair, no GI, long hair, no GI,' and he finallylet
us go. We would've been dog meat if we didn't have long hair."
By 1972, Miller had had enough of the Orient. After a
few months in London in the midst of a miserable winter, he headed for Hawaii,
where his most recent girlfriend was waiting. They stayed for a year, until
rock fever drove them to San Francisco.
Many of the Jaywalkers' records had been produced by
Joe Meek. The eccentric Brit -- best known for the 1962 instrumental "Telstar"
-- was England's first independent producer/engineer, working out of a studio
he'd fashioned himself.
"He was the English equivalent to Phil Spector, "Miller
says. "He really had an ear. I would hang around with him after he was
done recording us -- ask questions and pick up stuff."
When he settled in San Francisco, Miller implemented what
he'd learned from Meek and his own recordings by putting together his own
studio. For 23 years, until it closed in 1998, the small studio in a quiet
courtyard off of Union Street served as Miller's livelihood. He recorded Marshall
Crenshaw, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the Chicago Jazz Quartet, local jazz and
Tejano acts, and -- beginning in 1978 with the first songs of the Avengers
-- tons of local punk bands.
"I enjoyed working with them," Miller says,
recalling the punks. "They injected life back into the scene."
With punk, Miller was again on the periphery of a
musical revolution, but his own albums fared no better than before. In another
case of too odd, too soon, 1981's Pre C.B.S. and 1986's Rockin'Is My Biznes
each came out a year before the Stray Cats and La Bamba made rockabilly and
old-time rock popular again.
By the 1990s, Miller was all but forgotten. Then in
1997, a copy of "Cold Turkey" sold for 400 pounds at a Sotheby's auction.
David Wells, owner of British archival record label Tenth Planet, called
Miller to ask if he had any unreleased tracks lying around.
" 'About 200,' I said," Miller laughs.
To date, Tenth Planet has issued four collections of
his '60s demos, while stateside labels Dionysus and Gear Fab have released them
on CD. Even though Miller dismisses these recordings as commercial drivel,
the songs are well-crafted, skewed pop, suffused with strange lyrics, trippy
effects, and plenty of hookah smoke. An upstate New York band, the Squires
of the Subterrain, was so taken with his tunes that it is working on an album
Miller himself is putting together a reunion album with
the original members of the Offbeats. While the style of the album is a close-kept
secret ("If you print it, I'll kill you," Miller says), I can tell
you this: As usual, it is completely out of tune with the times. And World
War IV, which is finally seeing release after 31 years-- well, let's just
say that LSD-inspired, apocalyptic concept albums are never in vogue.
"In the early '60s we had to record what we were
told," Miller says. "When I was writing, I was trying to write
what was popular at the time for who was looking for songs. At the end, I
said, "Fuck it, I want to do what I want to do and have fun doing it.'"
History, they say, is written by the winners. But Pete
Miller's stories are too good to write off, even if his name hasn't gone
down in the books -- yet.