|How Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" Took Off
Written during a 1973 tour, the song started as a political statement and morphed into a rock
In 1973, Steve Miller's months spent experimenting on an early Roland synthesizer paid off. After the Steve Miller
Band released "Fly Like an Eagle" that August, the single reached No. 2 on Billboard's pop chart while the album of
the same name reached No. 3.
Recently, the rock singer-songwriter reflected on the song's evolution in the month's "The Buzz."
By the end of 1973, I was pretty fried. We not only toured about 200 cities that year, we also recorded an album,"The
Joker." After the title single was released that fall, it went to No. 1, and the album reached No. 2. I needed some time
to slow down and write.
For much of '73, we were booked into rock theaters and ballrooms that we called psychedelic dungeons. Audiences
loved long-form rock, so performances became more like events than shows. Instead of short sets, we'd commonly play
for three hours. That meant we needed songs that would let us stretch out and jam. "Fly Like an Eagle" was one of
I wrote the song at a string of Holiday Inns during the tour. Sitting on the bed in my room, I wrote the song in reaction
to what I saw on the road. In '73, things hadn't gotten all juicy and 70's yet. American troops were returning home from
Vietnam to a recession, and people were living on the streets. It was a bad time.
Originally, I wrote the lyrics as political statement. The words were from the perspective of Native Americans and the despair they felt, especially after the
Wounded Knee standoff earlier that year. It was a feeling and an idea, especially in the song's first chorus: "Time keeps on slipping/slippin' away/Time keeps on
leaving me/on this reservation."
The second chorus also touched on this: "I wanna fly like an eagle/let my spirit carry me/I wanna fly like an eagle/from this reservation." Same with the verse: "What
about people/livin' in the street/What about the Indians/on the reservation."
I didn't have other songs about social injustice in mind, like Marvin Gaye's "What;s Going On" from '71. The energy from the group War probably had some
influence, since I had played some gigs with Eric Burdon and War.
In '73, I had a different band than the one that recorded "Fly Like an Eagle" in '75. That earlier band - we called it the Joker Band - had a gritty funky feel.
Putting It All Together
So once I had the two choruses and a verse, I wanted to get a groove going. During a soundcheck, I got together with Gerald Johnson, our bassist, and John
Kings, our drummer. Gerald was our groovemeister. When we had the right groove, Dickie Thompson layered in his organ. I also hooked up my guitar to an
Echoplex so the notes would echo. But "Fly Like and Eagle" was still in flux. As I sang the song on the road, I came up with new lyrics and kept the ones I liked best.
At some point on tour, I broadened they lyric's focus, replacing "reservation" with "revolution." I wanted to reflect everyone who was suffering and wanted change. I
was always socially conscious. In the early 1960's, when I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, i joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
and traveled down South as a Freedom Rider. We'd ride public bus lines there to challenge racial segregation. I also demonstrated against the Vietnam War.
In early '74, when the tour was over and royalty checks started rolling in from "The Joker," I decided to take a year and a half off. I broke up the band and began
woodshedding song ideas in my home in Novato, Calif. Writing and recording demos on my 3M 8-track tape recorder, I still felt the same way about the state of the
world. I just didn't want to harp on it in my music. As I polished "Fly Like and Eagle," I realized I didn't want the song to sound bossy and preachy. i wanted to put it
on the good foot and make positive records. The word "revolution" was still in there as a lyric, but it was less pronounced.
I also looked critically at the music. "Fly Like and Eagle" had been a great live jam but it wasn't cohesive or interesting enough yet as a studio record. It needed
more dimension and texture. Revising the song, I had a visual image of a mirror ball with light bouncing off of it. The song needed sparkle.
So I drove to my local music store in San Rafael and asked for the cheapest, dumbest synthesizer they had. Back then, players tweaked keyboards to get
sophisticated horns and strings sound. I wanted one with unhip presets like the sound of the wind, and oboe and muted trumpet. I left with a Roland H-2000. At
home, I hooked up the synthesizer to my Echoplex. As soon as I began fooling around with Roland on "Fly Like an Eagle," the song sounded great. I created
effects on the keyboard that felt like an eagle taking off and flying. I'd long been fascinated by electronic music and using the studio as an instrument. When I was a
kid, I listened to a lot of music by avant-garde composers like La Monte Young and Stockhausen.
I then decided to add the Roland with the spacey settings on all the songs for my next album. I put together a new band wit Lonnie Turner on bass and Gary
Mallaber on drums. We recorded the basic track for "Fly Like an Eagle" at CBS Studios in San Francisco. But I didn't hear the live vibe we had in concert. We
re-recorded the song, but still no luck. The third time, we recorded the basic track at Pacific High Studios with Joachim Young on the Hammond B-3 organ and
nailed it. I had recorded my Roland overdubs at CBS but decided to go up to Kaye-Smith Studios in Seattle to finalize the track. It was a modern studio with quad
sound and the latest bells and whistles. There I hooked up the Echoplex so the sound would build up on itself. After the wind, I played ascending glissandi on the
Roland through the Echoplex, creating the feeling of elevation and flight. My guitar riff the followed was similar to my riff on "My Dark Hour" in 1969. Nothing had
happened with that song in terms of the charts, so the riff was fair game.
I also wanted to add some spacey effects at the end. To do so, we needed to splice more tape onto the reel to extend it. But the studio was out of new tape. So
Jim Gaines, who was doing the mastering, found a reel of used two-inch tape that had been bulk-erased. When you bulk erase, a machine spins the reel on top of a
big magnes and wipes the tape clean. For some reason, the magnet didn't catch everything. Listening back to what I had overdubbed near the end - just after all
that cosmic stuff but before the fade out - we heard these beeps every few seconds. They were like the beeps you hear when NASA controllers are talking to
Apollo-mission astronauts in space. The beeps were perfect. We kept them in. Also great was Joachim's organ, which warmed up the Roland's synthetic sound.
The combination of the two different keyboards was really interesting.
I still have that Roland today, Last year, I took the Roland out, put it on the counter in my studio and hooked up the Echoplex. Then I switched it on, wondering how
it would sound after all these years. I hit the tones I wanted. Like magic, out came exactly what's on the record,
. . . .
Feel that cosmic groove again and take flight with Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle."
"Fly Like an Eagle"