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There 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't be fully understood until years later?
Sample of Big Boy Pete's "Baby I Got News for You (the demo)"
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Pete Miller is one such artist. For the past 40 years, the British native and longtime 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.
"I saw him duckwalk across the stage and it was 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 secondhand guitar and gathered some schoolmates 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 by a 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 were in 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 says, "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 "Cold Turkey" 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 company.
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.
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