Chances are, your initial reaction to the above is something along the lines of “Who the hell is Scott Miller?”
Well, rest assured, you’re not alone.
Let’s travel back in time, to 1987. Back then, Newbury Comics was a severely hip record store, rather than the tacky tourist trap chain it’s become - virtually the only place I knew of, for instance, where I could find the latest issue of Bucketful of Brains, an “underground” music fanzine I was especially fond of. One Saturday, while looking around for something interesting, I noticed a couple of albums called “Enigma Variations” and “Enigma Variations 2,” which looked to be samplers of a bunch of different artists who were signed to the Enigma label. I’d never heard of any of the artists, but it cost about $6.00 for the two of them, so I thought to myself, hey, what the hell, why not?
Some things are just meant to be.
The first volume didn’t have a lot that grabbed me - with one gigantic exception. The song was “24,” and the band was Game Theory. A lovely little guitar riff, and a singer with a slightly nasal but sweet voice, more than a little reminiscent of Chris Stamey of the dB’s. Interesting, intelligent lyrics - and my God, the melody was just gorgeous! The song blew me away.
Volume 2 had a couple more Game Theory songs on it. “Shark Pretty” started out with a vaguely rockabilly guitar, and a breathy, almost sexy vocal, and, again, smart, fascinating lyrics. I wasn’t completely in love with this one, not like “24,” but it was still damn good. And there was still one more song (with apologies for the video…it was the ‘80’s, remember…).
“Erica’s Word” was…well, perfect. It’s a perfect pop song. The first perfect Scott Miller pop song I ever heard, but far from the last. The melody was absolutely amazing, and the lyrics were like nothing I’d ever heard before, at least not in a pop song. The first two lines of the song were nothing short of brilliant:
“Erica's gone shy/Some unknown X behind the why.”
I was an English major, but I knew clever mathematical wordplay when I heard it.
I was back at Newbury Comics a few days later, and I left with a copy of “Lolita Nation,” the newest Game Theory album. I eventually had their entire available catalog, and they had become one of my absolute favorite bands, which they
remain to this day. Me and about a thousand other people - which doesn’t exactly spell huge album sales.
Game Theory broke up around 1989, and Miller started another band a couple of years later called The Loud Family, named not for the SNL skits about, well, a loud family, but for the 1970’s PBS reality series, “An American Family.” The Loud Family essentially broke up around 2000, after years of great music, and disappointing record sales.
I really wish this story had a happy ending, but it doesn’t. In fact the ending sucks. Scott passed away suddenly this past April, at the age of 53. He’d been “retired” from the music industry for several years, but had been talking about a possible Game Theory reunion. In the meantime, he had written a well-received book called “Music: What Happened,” a collection of insights and commentary into his favorite songs of the past 40+ years. He was working full time in the technology industry as a software engineer. He left behind a beautiful wife and two adorable little girls - and a lot of heartbroken fans.
I’m not writing this blog to explain the reasons behind the lack of success of these two brilliant bands, and, in particular, of Scott Miller. I can’t explain the reasons, because I honestly don’t understand what they are. I expect everyone to fall in love with music and lyrics of this caliber, the way I did. I am always surprised when they don’t.
So, anyway, let’s get to the 5 reasons why Scott Miller - a man who sold maybe 200,000 albums over a 30+ year career, and is apparently only the second most well known Scott Miller in the music industry - belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1. The Hair
One look at a photo of Scott Miller and you know you’ve stumbled upon one of the great heads of hair in the history of pop music. Masses of auburn curls frame his face so perfectly, it looks as if he’s spent hours achieving “the look.” This hair is easily the equal of the young Morrison or Plant in all respects. It’s nothing short of magnificent.
|Photo by Robert Toren|
|Photo by Robert Toren|
2. "Scott Miller Said" by the Revenants
Okay, admittedly, this is not exactly the Replacements/Paul Westerberg masterpiece “Alex Chilton”…but the Revenants, an Irish band, actually did record a song with this title. The first line of the song is, “Scott Miller said ‘you can’t get good in an afternoon,’ ” which is a reference to a line in a song on Game Theory’s cult classic album, “Lolita Nation.” Not a lot of rockers have themselves immortalized in a song title, even if it’s some completely unknown Irish band, and the song isn’t all that good. (Hey don't blame me, I told you it wasn't very good.)
3. The Melodies
Okay, obviously, the above is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. (Although I will defend Scott’s hair to anybody, any time!)
But, the bottom line is, I sincerely believe this man to be the equal of any songwriter of the past 50 years. And, yes, I am familiar with Lennon-McCartney, Dylan, Brian Wilson, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and pretty much anyone else you care to throw out there. Scott Miller’s ear for melody is the match of any one of them.
His best songs unfailingly feature beautiful, memorable, and sometimes haunting tunes that stick in your mind long after you’ve heard them.
Trying to pick out a few favorites for inclusion here has been truly difficult. For one thing, the music of Game Theory differs quite a bit from that of the later band, The Loud Family. If you’ve heard differently (a lot of people basically refer to the latter as “Game Theory, continued”), I’m here to tell you, whoever told you that could not be more wrong.
I’ve struggled with the words to effectively convey the difference between the two bands, and I think I can sum it up this way - Game Theory played shimmering, melodic pop music, with occasional flashes of dense, visceral rock’n’roll. The Loud Family played dense, visceral rock’n’roll, with occasional flashes of shimmering, melodic pop music.
Both bands produced more than their fair share of incredible music.
For sheer melodic gorgeousness, it’s hard not to give Game Theory the edge. Their music was sweeter and more wistful. Miller later referred to the songs as “young-adult-hurt-feeling-a-thons,” which is actually not a bad description…but they were also damn good.
"We Love You, Carol and Alison" is such a lovely, joyous anthem, it came as no surprise to me when I learned recently it was written as a wedding song for some friends. The song literally shimmers.
“The Real Sheila” is reminiscent of “Erica’s Word,” in its outright pop perfection. Why neither of these songs was even a minor hit is something I will never understand.
The Loud Family could come up with some beautiful songs, too. How about “Inverness,” from their wonderful debut album, “Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things” (yes that’s exactly where the name comes from).
4. The Voice
I can clearly picture Scott up there, looking down and reading this - and laughing hysterically as he notices reason #4. He was always his own worst critic, particularly when it came to his singing voice. The liner notes of Game Theory’s brilliant “Big Shot Chronicles” include a musical credit that reads, “Scott Miller – guitar, miserable whine.” My own husband cannot listen to Game Theory, and the reason he gives is Miller’s singing voice.
Sorry. I disagree with both of them.
Yes, it has a tendency to sound a bit “whiny” at times, particularly on the older Game Theory albums. But it’s also such an expressive voice! Whether Scott was singing about a girl who broke his heart, or about “MIT grad alley cats with time on their hands,” his voice always conveyed the mix of emotion and intelligence that marked his best work.
“The Red Baron” was an early Game Theory song, a hallmark of the afore-mentioned “Young-Adult-Hurt-Feelings-A-Thon” period. It's also an absolute gem. The vocal is maybe a little bit “whiny” for some, but the emotion is hard to deny. The way Scott sings the “stay the way I hate you” lines never fails to kill me.
The more I listen to “Some Grand Vision of Motives and Irony” from The Loud Family’s afore-mentioned debut album, the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. The vocal is astoundingly heartbreaking, and, for me, one of Miller’s best. Sadly, there is no direct link to this song that I was able to locate, and try as I might, I could not for the life of me figure out how to make and upload a slideshow. There is a link to the entire album, but that’s the best I can do. The song comes on at right around the 20:00 mark. Seriously, it’s worth the effort.
Aside from the amazing vocals, that Zachary Smith guitar is nothing short of perfection, and the lyrics are terrific.
This is such a perfect “torch song,” I think my husband could do almost anything...and if he stood under my window and sang this song, I’d probably forgive him.
Another of my favorite Loud Family songs is on 1996’s “Interbabe Concern,” recorded shortly after the breakup of Miller’s first marriage. The song is “Top Dollar Survivalist Hardware” (the boy had a way with song titles). It isn’t one of the emotional powerhouses on the album. In fact, it might be the heaviest rock song Scott Miller ever wrote, with an absolutely killer Kenny Kessel bass line that literally invades your gut. It also features a vocal that manages to be effeminate, whiny, and obnoxious all at the same time - and yet, it works, and has become one of my favorite of Scott’s vocals. Check out the way he goes into that one-syllable, almost-falsetto in the refrain. I love this song - a lot.
5. The Lyrics
Ask any Scott Miller fan the main reason they’re a fan, and chances are they’ll talk about Miller’s way with words. It’s nearly impossible to pick out just a few examples. His lyrics are that good, managing to combine his love of literature (he was a huge James Joyce fan), mathematics and science, clever wordplay, humor, and intelligence into some of the best lyrics in pop music.
From “The Real Sheila,” one of Game Theory’s “shoulda-been-hits”:
“Lord knows that I’m not exactly the boy of my own dreams/And if I were a girl with dreams, I’d have dreams as big as you please.”
The “Lolita Nation” album closes with the masterful “Together Now, Very Minor.” Difficult to listen to since Miller’s passing, it carries a real emotional punch. It was 1987, but he was basically writing his own obituary:
“And write the obit when you do/He never ran out when the spirits were low/A nice guy, as minor celebrities go/Alright, all together now, very minor/I know.”
From Game Theory’s final album, “Two Steps from the Middle Ages,” the song is “You Drive” – the words, those of a lifelong “outsider”:
“Across the nation, every sports bar turns the pre-game on/And every regular is sneering like we don’t belong.
No, it’s not true, I played a lot of baseball in my younger days/One day, the diamonds were all gone.”
The Loud Family’s “The Tape of Only Linda,” from 1994, isn’t nearly as strong an album as their debut album. Still, it shows flashes of brilliance, including what might be my single favorite Scott Miller line. Deceptive in its uncharacteristic (for Miller) simplicity, it’s in the song “My Superior”:
“We kiss, and fix whatever’s wrong/But I don’t stay kissed long.”
So unassuming, and yet, so complex. We’ve all been in a relationship like that - whether we want to admit to it or not.
1996’s “Interbabe Concern,” as I’ve mentioned, deals with Miller’s private bitterness and heartbreak. With lines like this one, from “Screwed Over by Stylish Introverts,” you get an idea of where his head was at - heartwrenching, but at the same time, superb:
“You let me know that calling just because I’m lonely is completely rude/You could work this into a lecture to the starving not to beg for food.”
Okay, I could ramble on about these songs for the next six months. But then I’m pretty sure no one would ever read my blog again. So that kind of defeats the purpose. I’ll leave you with one more glorious lyric, from one more glorious Scott Miller masterpiece. This one is called “Sister Sleep,” and it’s on the 1998 album ”Days for Days”:
“Girl, being close hurts/So I’ve called from the outskirts/With road noise at a phone booth/So we won’t hear the whole truth.”
I think you can probably guess by now, I don’t actually mind that Scott Miller is not ever going to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I have very little, if any, respect for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For God’s sake, they passed over Joan Jett.
What I mind is that this brilliant, talented man died without ever achieving the kind of status he should have achieved as a songwriter and musician. What I mind is how many Scott Millers there no doubt are out there, right now, working their asses off, writing great songs, and being ignored while the public rushes out to buy (okay, download) the latest crap from the major labels.
If this little blog gets even a couple of people to listen to these songs and say to themselves, “wow, this guy was good,” then I’ll have done something.
Rest In Peace, Scott. And thanks for all the beautiful music.