When Steve Miller Found ’80s Pop-Rock Success With ‘Abracadabra’
After a long career of making regulation-issue rock albums, with some dips into psychedelic music, Steve Miller leaned willfully into the pop world with his 1982 album Abracadabra.
Abracadabra was never going to be Miller's most popular album among '70s rock fans. And an artist as outspoken as Miller was never going to care. At first blush, it might seem like this was a sellout choice for a legacy artist who wanted to remain popular. While the material may appear to be a far cry from "The Joker" or "Rock 'n Me," Miller's other two No. 1s, it's important to remember he was always a pro at writing radio-friendly songs and hooks. With Abracadabra, he just mixed up the vocal harmonies, track length and guitar parts to better align with what was happening in music at the time.
Miller's preceding album - 1981's Circle of Love - contained no hits. Conversely, the release before that - 1977's Book of Dreams - was one of the band's bestselling albums. As the decade changed, Miller could hear how tastes in music were evolving, and he could see it reflected in his sales. So he set out to write another hit because he knew he could.
"You have to be really disciplined, but at the same time you want to get this great, spontaneous feeling on the record and you know you've got three seconds to capture people's attention at the very entrance of a song," Miller told The Washington Post of crafting the perfect pop song.
The title track "Abracadabra" began life as a different song, but Miller couldn't make the pieces work. "I loved playing the music, and I had all the sections down, but I couldn’t come up with lyrics that were good enough for the music," he explained to Guitar Player. A chance run-in with Diana Ross would prove inspirational. "I was thinking about Diana when I went home for lunch, and I just thought about what the Supremes would do with this song. After that, I wrote the lyrics to 'Abracadabra' in 15 minutes." Between "baby, baby, baby don't leave me" and "Stop in the name of love / Before you break my heart," Miller landed on "Abra, abracadabra / I wanna reach out and grab ya." That last bit is what he said he could most easily imagine the women singing.
Initially, Miller's label, Capitol Records, hated the song. "They said it was awful and that I was finished," the singer recalled. In response to that feedback, Miller canceled all his U.S. tour dates. Another label released the song in Europe, where it was a hit. That forced Capitol's hand, and soon the U.S. No. 1 followed.
"Abracadabra," with that Miller songwriting touch, became a wildly popular song. The single topped the chart for two weeks in 1982 and remains his final No. 1.
Watch Steve Miller Band's 'Abracadabra' Video
It's not shocking that the music video features a blonde woman as a magician's assistant and not a Black woman who was the actual inspiration — but it is noteworthy erasure. It also leans in heavily with flames, fire and magic to push the mind away from the euphemism driving the song, although that little touch of BDSM in the men's costumes is chef's-kiss perfect.
Most of Abracadabra was written and produced by drummer Gary Mallaber, his songwriting partner Kenny Lee Lewis and guitarist John Massaro, which may be why so many of the other songs sound like different versions of the same idea. Eight of the tracks on Abracadabra were demos for Mallaber and Lewis' band that they took to Miller, hoping he'd pick at least one song. Instead, he took them all. According to Rolling Stone, the band recorded many of the songs at the same time as Circle of Love.
Released on June 15, 1982, Abracadabra would make it to No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Despite the success of its title track, the album received little support from Miller's record label. Abracadabra would eventually sell more than a million copies, but a second hit single from it never emerged.