Stealers Wheel’s Clowns And Jokers

The story behind “Stuck In The Middle With You,” the much-loved and only major hit by Scottish melodic rock troupe Stealers Wheel, is a classic case of an improbable success. Not least since the man who co-wrote it had already left the band by the time it became a surprise hit in 1973, only to be persuaded to return. It was also a song that found a whole new audience nearly 20 years later thanks to film director Quentin Tarantino.

The track’s singalong chorus belied an excoriating critique of the music business and its “clowns and jokers” by its writers, Gerry Rafferty and bandmate Joe Egan. Earlier, with future superstar comedian Billy Connolly, Rafferty had been a member of Scottish troubadours the Humblebums and released his first LP in his own name, the excellent Can I Have My Money Back, in 1971; later, of course, he became a reluctant star and a chart-topping solo artist.

“Stuck In The Middle With You” was on Stealers Wheel’s first, self-titled album for A&M, which was overseen by the great American producer-writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The gifted but volatile group had already endured line-up changes even before signing with the revered label, and soon after the LP’s release in October 1972, Rafferty had also had enough of the band and the business, retreating to his family in Scotland.

But by then, a certain momentum was building. In November, Stealers Wheel performed (without Rafferty) on the famed British TV series The Old Grey Whistle Test.They also found some healthy acceptance of the album in America, where it entered the Billboard survey in February 1973, climbing to a No.50 peak.

Then something even more unexpected happened. Despite Rafferty’s departure, A&M released “Stuck In The Middle With You” as a single in America, and it took off. In retrospect, it sounds an obvious hit, but in the chart scene of the day, an acoustic-based track with a distinct flavor of what we now call Americana was an unlikely Top 10 entry. But that’s what it became, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in a triumph of negotiation, Rafferty was persuaded to rejoin.

The song hit the Hot 100 for March 3 and climbed rapidly, peaking at No.6 in May; by then, the U.K. company knew they had to follow suit, and after a No.35 bow there, it went on to spend three weeks in the Top 10, peaking at No.8. Curiosity in Stealers Wheel didn’t extend to the LP in Britain, where it remained uncharted, as did its splendid follow-ups Ferguslie Park and Right or Wrong, by which time the band’s fading name was in the hands of just Rafferty and Egan.

They split for good thereafter, Rafferty obliged to overcome management and label issues before signing to United Artists and resuming his solo career with City To City. Fueled by the omnipresent smash “Baker Street,” it went to No.1 in America, turned platinum, and made Rafferty a household name. But it was a level of visibility he struggled to cope with.

After further chart entries with Night Owl, which went gold in the U.S., and then Snakes and Ladders, he retreated to a more manageable lower profile, albeit fighting demons that led to Gerry’s death from liver failure in 2011. Egan, for his part, released a greatly undervalued album of his own, Out Of Nowhere, in 1979, on Ariola. Both as solo talents and as the songwriters behind Stealers Wheel, their importance in British rock-pop history is undeniable.

Tarantino’s use of “Stuck In The Middle” in his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs brought the song a new generation of admirers. Rafferty’s daughter Martha told this writer in 2021: “A lot of people don’t realise that Gerry Rafferty wrote and sang that song. But it’s grown arms and legs in America, it gets used in everything. We get more sync requests for that track now than for ‘Baker Street.’’’

That interview took place around the release of Rest In Blue, a posthumous and well-received set of unreleased Rafferty that she oversaw, with performances by some of his former collaborators. It included a new, even more rootsy version of “Stuck In The Middle.” “It was a song he’d wanted to re-record,” said Martha. “I found a really nice vocal of it and built the track back up around that. It’s really nice to hear him singing that song with a mature voice, not with the kind of Dylanesque thing going on. Singing it seriously.”

Listen to the best of Stealers Wheel on Apple Music and Spotify.

Related Posts