“Star” by Stealers Wheel is the musical equivalent of one of those “how it started…how it turned out” memes. Except in reverse.
The story starts brightly enough…
So they made you a star
Unfortunately it goes downhill from there pretty quickly.
Nowadays Stealers Wheel are best known for their song “Stuck In The Middle With You” which, after 20 years in relative obscurity, got an unexpected revival as the musical backdrop to a particularly memorable scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 blockbuster movie “Reservoir Dogs”.
And “Stuck In The Middle With You” is a great song, no question. I just think “Star” is even better.
“Stuck In The Middle With You” was the launch single from Stealers Wheel’s 1972 debut album. “Star” was from their 1973 album “Ferguslie Park”…in case you’re wondering, the album title is a reference to a district in Paisley, a town in the West of Scotland, where Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty, the two school friends who set up Stealers Wheel, both grew up.
By the end of the 1970s, Gerry Rafferty would become a global superstar on the back of his 1978 solo album “City To City”, and especially its launch track “Baker Street”. It’s probably fair to say Joe Egan took a somewhat quieter path after Stealers Wheel, eventually moving out the music industry altogether.
However Joe Egan was a considerable talent in his own right. Because of Gerry Rafferty’s later global success many people thought he was the prime mover behind Stealers Wheel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty wrote pretty much the same number of songs on Stealers Wheel’s first two albums, for example, and co-wrote the rest together.
Joe Egan was a great songwriter in his own right — “Stuck In The Middle With You” was a Joe Egan/Gerry Rafferty joint effort but “Star” was Joe Egan all by himself. He also sung lead vocals on that track.
Interestingly, if you run the clock forward a little, the vocal style of Gerry Rafferty on the “City To City” album owes a lot more to Joe Egan’s vocal work on “Star” than it owes to Gerry Rafferty’s own lead vocal on “Stuck In The Middle With You”.
But as it’s the lyrics we’re interested in around here, let’s get back to those…
“Star” is a wonderful song of light and shade, contrasting the feelings of someone who has finally achieved the stardom they’d always craved with the inevitable transience of life in the public eye…
So they made you a star, now your head’s in a cloud
And you’re walking down the street, with your feet off the ground
They read in the press all about your success
They believe every word they’ve been told
After all you’ve been through, tell me, what will you do
When you find yourself out in the cold?
Stealers Wheel had an interesting relationship with the music industry, and fought regularly with their record company and the producers of their first three albums…the legendary American songwriting and production team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The fact that drink was flowing rather too freely at all the recording sessions reportedly didn’t help.
Despite that, Stealers Wheel…with Leiber and Stoller…produced some fine work together.
“Star”, for example, boasts the wonderful poignancy of Joe Egan’s lyrics, alongside a delightful melody. Gerry Rafferty’s voice complements Joe Egan’s perfectly. And the song features a number of unexpected elements for a record made in the midst of the glam rock era — including a mournful harmonica, a kazoo, some woodblocks and an upright piano sounding like something you used to find pushed against a back wall in those clubs which host promising acts on the way up and former superstars on the way down.
Joe Egan’s lyrics apart, the piano is my favourite element in “Star”. Anyone who ever played the small venues where nobody cares recognises that sound. Today, of course, people just bring along a keyboard and plug in a power cable so those old, half-forgotten, infrequently-tuned upright pianos are not as much a feature of the music scene as they used to be.
But back in 1973, when Stealers Wheel were recording their “Ferguslie Park” album, everyone knew a club like that with a piano which like that. It was a brilliant creative choice to include that piano in “Star” as a motif for the artist who had made it to the top of the pile and only had one way to go from here…back down through the same clubs they came up playing.
Once you’ve played Madison Square Garden and the Royal Albert Hall, it’s a bit of a come-down to go back to those smaller venues again, but it’s a path most artists tread sooner or later.
They’ve still got mortgages to pay and kids to feed, so they grit their teeth and get on with it. But for them, the showbiz magic has lost its lustre and coming to terms with what seems like failure…in relative terms, at least…is never easy.
When you appear on the stage, there’s a standing ovation
You really live out your performance, you’re the biggest sensation
You breeze through the door and when you take the floor
You expect to have it all to yourself
After all you’re been through, tell me what will you do
When you find yourself back on the shelf?
Beyond the music industry, “Star” serves as a potent reminder of the fragility of success, inside or outside the music industry, whether that’s in terms of your career, your relationships or your health.
The difference between being on top of the world and slumping back down the ranking again isn’t much…a “tricky second album” the fans didn’t quite get behind, an ill-judged decision to part company with a manager or producer in the heat of the moment, inspiration deserting you when you really needed to write another chart-topping hit.
So it is in our personal lives…a moment of misjudgement, a boss with an inexplicable vendetta, an unwise risk taken in the heat of the moment, and our lives can come crashing down overnight no matter how much good work we’ve put in up to that point. It’s disconcertingly easy to go from being on top of the world to being the sort of person people walk past in the street without a second glance.
“Star” reminds us that those moments in life when everything seems to be going perfectly, just the way we had always dreamed, is a uniquely fortunate, rare, and sadly transient situation to find ourselves in.
Very few people stay at the top for ever. Even if we don’t do anything deliberately ourselves, people change, fashions change, tastes change. Going from “top of the tree” to “yesterday’s man” can take place in the blink of an eye.
It’s also a journey that can be uniquely self-destructive.
The key is not to take all the credit for reaching the top personally — however talented you may be, plenty of other people have smoothed the path for you, supported you before it was fashionable to do so, and given you a chance when you needed one.
Thank them, appreciate them and acknowledge them for as long as people continue to hang on your every word. Because they’re the people who believe in you and will support you when your star doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it used to.
If your journey to the top is all about you, no-one will be there for you when things turn against you.
If your journey to the top is all about teamwork and mutual respect, you’ll have that for ever, even when your time in the spotlight is over.
That’s why “Star” is such a prefect song. Catchy tune, nice harmonies and piano solo aside, it’s a three-minute reminder of one of the most difficult experiences any human can go through…whether that’s being a worldwide recording star or someone who’s just broken up with the love of their life.
Inside or outside the music industry, even while you’re riding high, if you can give an honest answer to this question…
After all you’ve been through, tell me what will you do
When you find yourself back on the shelf?
…then you’re likely to be happier, whatever the future brings, than someone who can’t tell where their ego ends and reality begins.
Here’s Stealers Wheel with what, for me, is their best song…“Star”…
(PS: As I write this we’re approaching the 10th anniversary of the great Gerry Rafferty’s passing. On 4th January 2011, he left us for the big recording studio in the sky where I hope he’s still making music to delight everyone around him. RIP Gerry.)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7Htjqx40jNYmjhVAhbSGd4