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Pete Miller
Big Boy Pete's Psychedelic Archives

By Darrin Fox
"I learned a long time ago that it's silly to put something out if you know there's no market for it," states veteran English guitarist/songwriter Pete Miller. So when Miller discovered the demand for his 1968 single "Cold Turkey" had record collectors paying $450 a copy, he knew it was time to unearth the unreleased recordings made by his psychedelic alter ego, Big Boy Pete. Rummaging through his archive of master tapes, however, was a formidable task.

Miller made hundreds of home recordings between 1966 and '69, and estimates he has enough material for 30 albums - with styles ranging from rockabilly to mainstream pop to psychedelia. "I'm always working on stuff," he says. "If I have an idea, I go down to my studio, record it, put it in the archives, and, when the time is appropriate, I'll find a way to put the tracks together in a format that makes sense as an album."

Miller, who now owns a 24-track facility in San Francisco, recently guided the first two of those potential 30 albums out of his vaults: Big Boy Pete's "Homage to Catatonia" and, under his own name, "Summerland", which contains what he describes as "mid-'60s English-pop love songs." (Both albums are available from Dionysus, Box 1975, Burbank, CA 91507).

A veteran of the '60s English pop scene, Miller listened to contemporaries such as Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Vic Flick of the John Barry Seven, and Big Jim Sullivan. But it was Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Johnny Meeks of Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, and other American rockers that were his main influences. "I'd wear out the records learning the solos note by note," he remembers.

In 1961, he gained notoriety in the sax-driven instrumental group Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers. "We were basically copying American bands such as the Champs and Johnny & The Hurricanes," says Miller, "but we featured the guitar quite a lot." The Jaywalkers toured incessantly, playing more than 300 gigs a year and backing op countless acts. Miller credits the heavy gigging with developing his chops and versatility. "If there were nine acts on the bill, we would be backing up seven of them", he says. "So I was able to gain a lot of experience playing different musical styles."

The Jaywalkers released dozens of singles, with "Can Can 62" becoming popular enough to earn them second billing on the Beatles' 1963 European tour. Endless touring took its toll, and a burned-out Miller quit the band after five years. Freed from the road, he sequestered himself in his home studio in Norwich, England. Under the spell of psychedelic-influenced albums such as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, Miller laid down many of the tracks now found on "Homage to Catatonia", and Big Boy Pete was born.

Although Catatonia owes a great deal to British psychedelia, Miller's rockabilly roots poke through on cuts such as "John Celery" (where he mixes fuzzed-out wah textures with a Scotty Moore-style solo) and the all-out rockabilly rave-up on "1,500,000 Volts." On "The Procession" and "The Candleman," however, he tosses aside his roots-rock influences and unleashes lewd ring-modulated fuzz squawks that presage Adrian Belew's animal calls.

Miller tames the sonic experiments on the pop-oriented Summerland, producing more subtle textures. But that doesn't mean the songs are uninteresting - just check out the slide parts on "Forget Me Not" and the slippery fuzz lines on "Where Did It Go?" Both albums are full of well-conceived guitar parts developed through Miller's process of "letting the tune do the talking." "I always get my inspiration from the song and what the song calls for," he says ". I ask myself questions such as "What kind of tone would enhance the mood?" and "What kind of parts would help communicate the song's message?' Then I try to come up with something appropriate."

On the sessions for Homage to Catatonia and Summerland Miller used a '61 Gretsch Anniversary (his main guitar of the past 37 years), as well as Vox AC30 and Fender Pro Reverb amps. For recording clean tones direct-to-tape, he plugged into a homemade D.I. box. His stompbox collection included a DeArmond volume pedal, a Selmer fuzzbox, a Vox wah-wah, and a ring modulator - dubbed "The Googly Box" - that was built by a friend.

Because Miller was limited to four tracks at best back then, he often had to bounce tracks among four different tape machines to construct his songs with the desired instrumental arrangements. (He sometimes bounced tracks up to nine times - a dangerous move in the days when tape hiss could be a real problem.) Signal processing options were also limited. The echo- and reverb-drenched tracks on Catatonia, for example, were processed with an Italian-made Binson Echorec and a Farfisa spring reverb. To record ambient guitar tracks, he placed amps inside his bathroom, or in a concrete World War II-era bomb shelter in his backyard.

After 40-plus years of guitar playing, Miller still credits his musical diversity for keeping him fresh. "I stay out of ruts because I'm always play-ing different styles of music," he explains. "If I work in one genre too long, I burn out. So if something gets old, I put it away and get out an-other tape to work on for a while. Then when I come back to what I was stuck on, I'll have a different perspective and the left side of the brain will start working again."

Being part of the generation that produced Hendrix, Page, Beck, and so many other influential guitarists, Miller feels that young musicians can continue to learn a lot from the guitar heroes of the '60s. "For example," he says, "guitarists in those days were much more melodic than they are now. And I'm not just talking about song composition. Listen to all the signature riffs and melodic solos that '60s players produced - whether they were in pop, blues, progressive, or very heavy bands. Today, unfortunately, melodies are even lacking on some pop records!"

Miller still plays live occasionally, dragging out his beloved Gretsch Anniversary, a '60 Fender Concert, and an English-made tape echo unit, the Watkins Copycat. However, with more ma-terial waiting in his archives, he'll probably be toiling away in his studio for quite some time.

"I plan to compile nine to ten more albums, splitting them between Big Boy Pete and my other '60s work, as well as eventually releasing some rockabilly albums," says Miller. "I'll just keep releasing albums until I get sick of them, or until the public gets sick of them."

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