Stealers Wheel - The A&M Years album review
More spokes to this Wheel than just that Reservoir Dogs moment
In an era that produced a wealth of British country folk rockers, such as Gallagher & Lyle, McGuiness Flint and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, the Scottish duo of Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan more than held their own. Blessed with great songwriting flair, stacks of durable melodies and a neat ability to skewer pretention without acting smug, the two old schoolmates hit the big time thanks to Stuck In The Middle With You (mind your ears), which was a Top 10 hit single in the UK and USA in 1973. A gloriously deadpan account of a tedious record company party at which they both arrived overly refreshed, Stuck In The Middle proved to be their defining moment, but its clever Bob Dylan pastiche was never quite replicated.
Stealers Wheel made three albums for A&M Records. Their self-titled debut, overseen by the legendary pair of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, was one of those 1972 marvels, early-summer songs that could be heard everywhere from pavement cafes to seafront penny arcades. The hit single aside, their laconic style was in full effect on the dreamy Outside Looking In, one of those displaced moments that has universal appeal in the right hands. Three live bonus tracks come from a 1971 Radio 1 In Concert, and include the memorably fresh-air Steamboat Row.
The Brill Building veterans kept Egan and Rafferty honest again on Ferguslie Park (1974), but cracks were widening between the two hard-headed Scots from the tough area of Paisley that lent the album its title. They got weird on your ass on this one. Good Businessman is deliciously sour in fusing a dash of Everly Brothers, a shot of Paperback Writer and an off-kilter Yakety Yak sax part that almost derails the mood but ends up concentrating the vitriol. The more commercial Star was a minor hit, and stands up well now thanks to a nod to John Lennon and those trademark harmonies flavoured by odd instrumentation – who uses a kazoo these days?
Third album Right Or Wrong (1975), with country legend Mentor Williams at the console, was released in a period of disillusionment. Stealers Wheel’s idiosyncratic vein of sophisticated folk bar rock was out of fashion, and Rafferty was on his way to Baker Street. You can hear that their hearts aren’t quite in it; Don’t Get Me Wrong is an open break-up song, and Go As You Please lapses into jaundice.