Stealers Wheel's Eponymous Debut Still Provides Dark Pleasures

Gerry Rafferty has long been under-appreciated. Oh, sure, "Stuck in the Middle" was an unlikely hit when first released by A&M in 1972 and later found its way into Quentin Tarrantino's "Reservoir Dogs" where the bouncy, anthemic, Dylanesque record company exec knock reached a new audience.

Once in your head, the tune is difficult to get out, aided and abetted by the "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right" line that resonates well today. But few make the move beyond the song to the rest of Rafferty's repertoire.

This album when first released was not a big seller and Rafferty was off the charts and out of most people's minds until years later when he hit it big with "Baker Street"—another unlikely hit that had for its hook, of all things, a saxophone solo.

Rabid Rafferty fans, though, still clamor for Ferguslie Park, Right or Wrong and Can I Have My Money Back?, the latter solo album released a year before this album in the U.K. on Transatlantic and in America on Blue Thumb.

While the artists were from the U.K. (Rafferty was Scottish) and the recording venue was in the U.K., this was most likely an A&M America deal, which explains the fabled Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songwriting and production team's involvement.

The band here consisted of Joe Egan on vocals and keyboards, Rafferty on vocals and guitar, Paul Pilnick, lead guitar, Tony Williams (not the drummer), bass and Rod Coombes, drums. In other words, it's a much simpler production compared to the dozen or so musicians who played on Ferguslie Park, but what's not there in manpower is more than made up for by high energy and spare, purposeful arrangements.

As for the Rafferty/Egan duo, my old friend Bud Scoppa put it best on a "best of" compilation issued in 1978 where in the annotation he wrote, "Vocally, Egan and Rafferty were pop chameleons with the uncanny ability to blend the gristle of Dylan and the glistening brightness of McCartney into vocals of dazzling character."

The folk/pop tunes range from the somewhat morose opener "Late Again" to the exuberant "Stuck in the Middle" to the inspirational closer "You Put Something Better In Me", which can be about a lover or perhaps about faith. "Another Meaning" by Egan is a particularly sad song about searching for life's meaning that ends with the rather pessimistic "And it looks like everyday gets a little bit harder/For me, me, me, me...."

"I Get By" is a gritty Egan song of perseverance mixed with resignation set to a cutting, hard rock rhythm, but it too is pretty bleak, ending with "Everybody knows I'm bound to get there late/I don't try too hard, but I get by". No one knows what happened to Egan but based on these songs, can it have turned out fine?

Side two's opener by Rafferty stakes out similarly bleak territory. It's about searching for meaning but with lines like "Don't you know life's as good as being dead?" the going is tough, but at least Rafferty sings about making the effort!

The ethereal, mysterious "Next to Me" may be the album's best song and arrangement and it too is about the search for self "Each day you try on a different person/Trying to find out who you really are".

"José", which was the flip side of "Stuck in the Middle" is an odd song—at least coming from a Scotsmen. It sounds like a message to a migrant or an undocumented (I refuse to use the word "alien"). "Gets So Lonely" is a melodic but bleak interlude, simply arranged. It sounds like something McCartney could have written.

The aforementioned closer "You Put Something Better Inside of Me" is a remix with additional instruments added (strings and brass), mysteriously tacked onto the tape used for this reissue. Its origin is lost to time and space but I'm betting it was done for Stuck in the Middle With You-The Best of Stealers Wheel a 1978 collection that closes with the version found on this reissue. That's a good thing because the original sounds like a hasty production and mix. It's a wonderful closer that a guy like Rod Stewart could still cover well. Apparently Rod recorded "Late Again" back in 1972 but never released it. Too bad.

The eponymous Stealers Wheel is a relatively short record with but five songs per side, but it makes up with quality for what it lacks in quantity, though the further you delve into the lyrics, the more dreary the going. For those of us who enjoy a good wallow in darkness, this record does well, wrapping its desolation around some pretty tunes.

I always say I wouldn't bet against either Bob Ludwig (RL) or George Peckham (Porky, Another Porky Prime Cut, Pecko Duck) but in this case it would be a losing bet. Kevin Gray's cut from "best analog sources available" (I admire and greatly respect reissue producer Shane Buettner's honesty and integrity here) is the best sounding version of this album I've yet heard. There's more detail to be heard overall, better instrumental layering, greater transparency and more honest equalization (the "Porky" is upper-midrange "pushed").

This was probably sourced from a flat transfer safety copy of the master. I figure the master was lost in the great Universal fire along with (the album is dark enough without going there so I won't).

The packaging is first rate laminated Stoughon Press "Tip on" jacket with John "Patrick" Bryne's fabulous cover art beautifully reproduced (Byrne was commissioned a few years earlier for the cover of what become The Beatles "White Album" but obviously the equally colorful, fanciful cover art was never used). Byrne, incidentally, grew up in a housing project called Ferguslie Park.

So you have first rate packaging, Kevin Gray's impeccable mastering, and RTI's plating and pressing. Reissues do not get any better than this.

Music Direct Buy It Now

IR Shane's picture

Michael, thanks for the great review! Your instincts here are on the money regarding the source: it was a ½” 30ips “safety copy” of the original stereo master. Fortunately it sounded great! And it had to, as we had the original UK Porky/Pecko you mention for reference.

Auric G's picture

Can't wait to give it a spin. Will most likely be getting the look sharp lp as well. I will interested to see what you guys have lined up next.

Paul Robertson's picture

Great review, I'm sold! I have 3 Rafferty LP's and enjoy them very much. I've always liked Stuck in the Middle, as in who deosn't? Given that, I've also always been on the look out for used Steeler's stuff......but it's not easy to come across and when you do, they are always too rough to consider even with my hungry record cleaner waiting patiently stage left. I'm looking forward to this one!

IR Shane's picture

US pressings of these records are really hard to find! I looked for this record and Ferguslie for years, and in all that time I found one passable original US pressing of the first record. I bought clean UK pressings on Discogs, and by the time I got them shipped over here they cost more than my reissue, and don't sound as good! Thanks, I think you'll be very pleased!

Bigrasshopper's picture

I also have a clean UK, through Discogs, not first, no initials and no release date available. But it sounds very good, probably a testament to Geoff Emerick. When I compared it to this my intitial impression was that the earlier one had more energy and articulation in the high end and the low seemed more open, but as I continued to listen between the two it became clear that the new one was not only warmer, with more body but that it actually had more resolution in both the highs and lows and what on first blush seemed like warmth and comparative heaviness was actually the product of a more balanced tonality. Reading Micheals description made it clear that my earlier copy had a similar frequency emphasis, which only increased the highs and revealed the lows at the expense of the mids, which are actually revealed now as thin on my earlier copy. Though, I suppose, one could still argue that the early one SEEMS more energetic. Thanks you for this new reissue.
Next To You is the single I stumbled upon that led me to discover this album only a few years ago, a deeply engaging affirmation grounded in inner serenity. The steady slow beat just puts me there, into a state of prayer.
I'm always amazed by the hidden gems that can be found only by turning over old stones.

IR Shane's picture

That's spot on to the way we heard it in the mastering suite and then at home on the LPs. And really it gets to the aesthetic I've chosen for Intervention. The choice often in mastering is whether you aim to emulate the sound of an original LP, especially a revered one, or whether you serve what's actually there on the tapes. The risk we take is that listeners might find something different as irreverent and therefore "wrong."

Kevin Gray and I had the original mastering notes with the tapes we mastered from, and we could see exactly what was done on the original. In addition to pushing the mids and treble, the bass was also cut a lot to emphasize that push. That definitely gives a livelier or more energetic edge at first listen, but compared to the tape it just sounded harder and unbalanced. We were hearing so much texture and detail and yet the bass wasn't getting tubby or slowed down by leaving it in there. So it was clear that we were really letting the tape be what it is by not cutting so much of that rich bass sound they clearly wanted in the recording.

When you get to hear Ferguslie Park, I think your impressions will be similar but for different reasons. Tonally the RL original is very much a clear expression of what was on the tape, and it's very different from Stealers 1. But we could clearly hear that the original had rather severe dynamic compression/limiting (someone was clearly insisting RL cut them a "loud" radio hit!), and wow does the soundstage expand and the inner detail come out to play on our LP without that! Again, your first impression might be that original is more up front and energetic sounding and the IR more laid back, but as you listen more you're going hear so much more information that was buried in the tapes all these decades!

I'm very gratified that you listened so carefully and appreciate what we did with this record, your thoughts here could serve as our own mastering notes. Definitely more to come, thank you!

DaveB's picture

"No one knows what happened to Egan but based on these songs, can it have turned out fine?"

Joe did put out a nice album "Out Of Nowhere" (on Ariola) in '79. Naturally it sounded very close to Gerry Rafferty's records at the time.