Monday, February 16, 2009

Stuck In The Middle With Stealers Wheel

I’m an unabashed devotee of maverick writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s work, with his 1992 cult classic gangster film ‘Reservoir Dogs’, an ever present title on my list of all time favourite flicks. Aside from the non-linear narrative structure, kick-ass dialogue, crazy characters, and addictive visual style of Tarantino’s work, one of the facets that appeals most to me, is his astute deployment of classic popular music tracks at key moments throughout his films. Throughout ‘Reservoir Dogs’, the viewer is accompanied by the omniscient ‘K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The 70s’, a nostalgic radio program boasting the laconic drawl of comedian Steven Wright, which plays tracks that the central characters strongly identify with, from their youth. As the film’s plot unfolds, and we discover just how brutal (and dysfunctional) these 30 and 40-something gangsters are, Tarantino utilises popular songs from the early to mid 70s to, not so much to augment, but offset the chaotic on-screen action.

For anyone who has seen the film ‘Reservoir Dogs’, you’ll be familiar with the infamous ‘ear slicing’ scene, but for those of you not in the know, and not inclined to hear about such things, be assured I’ll spare you the gory details during my brief appraisal of proceedings. To establish some narrative context, a makeshift gang of thieves have completely botched a jewellery heist, and the survivors wind up at a pre-arranged meeting point inside a warehouse. There are some underlying twists and turns unfolding beneath the surface, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that the gangster character of Mr. Blonde is completely psychotic. Blonde is left in charge of a local law enforcement officer, who he just happened to take hostage during the aftermath of the robbery. It’s pretty clear from Blonde’s demeanour, that Officer Nash is facing a spot of bother. In the ensuing sequence, Tarantino uses music for a dual purpose, and the 1973 Stealers Wheel hit ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ is the vehicle employed. Firstly, there is a perverse irony that here we have a ruthless, sadistic gangster casually dancing and singing along to a 70s pop-rock song, with knife in hand, eyeing off his next victim. But the most effective aspect to the song’s use, is to function as an aural dampener to the violent visual impact of the scene. We, the viewers, don’t actually witness the said ‘ear slicing’ act, but instead, off-camera we hear the victims screams, diluted and smoothed over by ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, further accentuating the absolute absurdity of the situation, as Blonde displays a nonchalant, dismissive attitude toward his own cruel actions.

It’s without doubt one of the most disturbing, yet compelling juxtapositions of sound and vision, constructed in film, and for anyone familiar with the film ‘Reservoir Dogs’, just as with the song ‘Little Green Bag’ by George Baker Selection (which accompanies the opening credits), ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, by Stealers Wheel, has never quite sounded the same since. Though Stealers Wheel may now be best known via that song’s infamous association with cinema, the band achieved a good deal more during their tenure together, and key member Gerry Rafferty, went on to pen/record some of the classiest pop-rock albums of the era.

At the core of Stealers Wheel were Scots Gerry Rafferty (vocals/guitar) and Joe Egan (vocals/keyboards), around which swirled a chronically unstable line-up of support players. After a period street busking, Rafferty’s first group of note were a local beat outfit called Fifth Column, and it was during his tenure with that band that he began to accumulate a collection of his own songs. In 1969 he took the punt of approaching a Scottish folk duo called the Humblebums, to get some feedback on his work. The Glasgow based Humblebums comprised Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey, and had been rumbling and humbling along since 1965. They’d just released their debut album ‘First Collection Of Merry Melodies’, when Rafferty approached them after one of their sell out gigs. Connolly and Harvey must have liked what Rafferty had to offer the group, and soon after invited him on board. But within a few months original member Tam Harvey departed the Humblebums, when it was made clear that Rafferty’s songs were going to dominate the group’s play list moving forward. Connolly and Rafferty carried on, and recorded two more albums together, ‘The New Humblebums’ (1969), and ‘Open Up The Door’ (1970). But Connolly’s comic bent, though originally a good foil for Rafferty’s straight up musical craft, began to encroach markedly into Rafferty’s musical space. Over time it became increasingly difficult for the Humblebums to strike a balance between the two, that would satisfy both Connolly and Rafferty’s creative inclinations. By 1971 Rafferty and Connolly made the decision to go their separate ways, with Billy Connolly of course going on to a stellar career as a stand up comedian, actor and writer.

Following the dissolution of the Humblebums, Gerry Rafferty turned his focus to recording an album of his songs, with the emphasis being solely on music. Rafferty had still maintained ties with the Humblebums’ label Transatlantic Records, and also retained the services of several session musicians who had played on the final Humblebums’ album. In 1971 Rafferty released his debut solo set, ‘Can I Have My Money Back’, which though it didn’t crack the charts, did offer up a minor hit single in Australia, with the title track (#70). What the album did reveal was a gifted songwriter, capable of delivering finely crafted folk edged rock, with biting lyrics, in the true Dylan-esque tradition. The album’s title was inspired by Rafferty’s already growing cynicism toward the corporate side of the music business, a theme that he would explore (and have cause to explore) on later work. Rafferty also enlisted the help of an old school buddy by the name of Joe Egan, who contributed some vocals and co-wrote a track, and the pair soon identified that they had an in studio chemistry that should be developed further.

Rafferty and Egan formed the group Stealers Wheel during 1972, initially with guitarist Rab Noakes, bassist Ian Campbell, and drummer Roger Brown, rounding out the line-up. The band signed a recording deal with A&M soon after, but before entering the studio, Stealers Wheel lost the first of what would be several spokes over the course of their turbulent history. Noakes, Campbell and Brown all parted company with the band, with Rafferty and Egan having to rush assemble the new line-up of guitarist Paul Pilnick (ex-Big Three), bassist Tony Williams, and drummer Rod Coombes (ex-Juicy Luicy). The reconfigured Stealers Wheel entered the recording studio soon after, with the veteran production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller overseeing work on the group’s eponymous debut album. Rafferty and Egan shared song writing and vocal duties across the album’s ten tracks, with the duo’s folky vocal harmonies proving to be a standout feature, prompting comparisons to the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but with more emphasis on infectious pop melodies. Whilst the album didn’t shift quite the number of units its class and polish deserved (US#50/ OZ#44), the aforementioned song ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ provided a global top ten smash for Stealers Wheel (US#6/UK#8/OZ#16) during the first half of 1973. The Rafferty/Egan penned track offered up some cleverly crafted, and bitingly caustic lyrics, aimed squarely once again at those interfering, and controlling men in suits (presumably they constitute the “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”). Unfortunately the other singles lifted from the self titled Stealers Wheel debut set, ‘Late Again’ and ‘You Put Something Better Inside Of Me’, didn’t manage to build on the profile created by ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.

The chaos within the Stealers Wheel ranks continued in the weeks immediately following the release of their first album, with Gerry Rafferty having already jumped ship, replaced by ex-Spooky Tooth vocalist Luther Grosvenor for touring purposes. When that didn’t work out, Egan disbanded Stealers Wheel altogether for a brief period during the first half of ‘73. Rafferty was eventually persuaded to return to the fold, but in the interim Pilnick, Williams, and Coombes had all moved on to other projects (well they had to keep paying the bills - Coombes played with the Strawbs). Following such an intense period of disruption, Rafferty and Egan then made the decision to carry forward under the Stealers Wheel banner, but essentially as a core duo, augmented by additional players, in studio and on tour, as required - not unlike Walter Becker and Donald Fagen did with Steely Dan, or Iva Davies with Icehouse. The Stealers Wheel nucleus of Rafferty and Egan entered the recording studio during mid ‘73, with a backing band comprising of Gary Taylor (bass), Joe Jammer (guitar), Chris Mercer (saxophone), Andrew Steele (drums), and Chris Neill (harmonica), and a large role call of extras in support. The single ‘(Everyone’s Agreed) That Everything Will Turn Out Fine’ inched into the UK (#33) and US (#49) top fifties (OZ#90), but the pressure was increasing on Rafferty and Egan to match the success of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.

Stealers Wheel’s sophomore album ‘Ferguslie Park’ (US#181) was released in November ‘73, and though a consummately crafted collection of melodic folk-rock, its sales were disappointing at best, despite also spawning the band’s only other top thirty hit ‘Star’ (US#29/UK#25/OZ#67), penned by Joe Egan, in early ‘74. The commercial disappointment of the ‘Ferguslie Park’ album, when combined with the ongoing line-up issues for Stealers Wheel, led to an increasing friction between Rafferty and Egan. The production team of Leiber and Stoller parted ways with the band also, and for most of 1974 Stealers Wheel was less a cohesive musical unit, and more a euphemism for musical discord. But the duo were under contract to A&M for a third album, and so, right or wrong, a third album there must be. Rafferty and Egan offered up ten more songs, this time recorded with producer Mentor Williams, and with a handful of previous Stealers Wheel subordinates in support, along with new players Bernie Holland (guitar) and Dave Wintour (bass). Given the fractious environment in which it was recorded, the album ‘Right Or Wrong’, eventually released in early ‘75, turned out to be a surprisingly solid effort. But neither album, nor singles ‘Right Or Wrong’ and ‘Found My Way To You’, found their way into the charts, and by the time the album hit the stores, Stealers Wheel had already come to a permanent stop. The embittered split between Rafferty and Egan was set to effectively stall both men’s music careers for almost three years.

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