“Stuck In The Middle With You” — Stealers Wheel

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Photo by David Heslop on Unsplash

There aren’t many blood-soaked movies about hit men with iconic folk-influenced songs on their soundtrack, but Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs” is one of them.

Tarantino was looking for a jolt to cinema-goers’ senses and something to serve as a counterpoint to a particularly notorious scene in “Reservoir Dogs”. His choice of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” would turn out to be a masterstroke, reviving a wonderful song from 20 years earlier and raising it to iconic status in the process.

Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan wrote “Stuck In The Middle With You” and originally recorded it with their band Stealers Wheel in 1972.

Stealers Wheel would prove to be an interlude in Gerry Rafferty’s career, albeit a critically and commercially successful one. He was a leading light on the 1960s folk music circuit as one half of The Humblebums (the other half of The Humblebums later finding much greater fame as a comedian than he ever found as a banjo player — the legendary Scottish comic Billy Connolly).

And of course, Gerry Rafferty will be forever associated with his solo work in the late 1970s when his album “City to City”, and especially the single “Baker Street”, stormed to the top of the charts around the world.

But Gerry Rafferty’s time with Stealers Wheel, a band he formed with his old school pal Joe Egan after the Humblebums came to an end, resulted in some great songs too, not least “Stuck In The Middle With You”, which caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye 20 years later.

The success of “Stuck In The Middle With You” came as something of a surprise to Gerry Rafferty who had originally written it as a mickey-take on a record industry shindig he and Joe Egan had attended. He quickly grew tired of ego-fuelled record producers and and equally egotistical record company executives trying their best to out-do one another.

Gerry Rafferty might not have enjoyed the evening much, but it gave him the material for the well-known refrain from “Stuck In The Middle With You” which…with a little bit of help from Quentin Tarantino…has since worked its way into popular culture…

Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

Gerry Rafferty always had a sanguine view of the record industry, despite the fact that the record industry, which could see the commercial potential of his catchy, radio-friendly songs, was very keen on him. He became disillusioned with the long line of people waiting to take their percentage on the back of, as he saw it, his hard work, and not respecting his creative choices as much as he felt they should.

There’s no doubt Gerry Rafferty was, in large measure, responsible for his own success. Although Stealers Wheel was a joint project with Joe Egan, his success later in the 1970s was entirely his own work. He was a man of prodigious talent.

But equally, it wasn’t all down to him. Joe Egan, both as a songwriter in his own right and as a co-writer with Gerry Rafferty, was a significant talent too and certainly no passenger in Stealers Wheel.

And A&M Records, who signed Stealers Wheel, drafted in superstar songwriting and production team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce “Stuck In The Middle With You”, along with the rest of Stealers Wheel’s first album.

Leiber and Stoller had made their name with Elvis Presley, who recorded their songs “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole”. But they also wrote monster hits like “Yakety Yak” for The Coasters, “There Goes My Baby” for The Drifters and “Stand By Me” for Ben E. King.

So Leiber and Stoller knew their way around a recording studio and they certainly knew how to make a hit record.

But Gerry Rafferty bristled under their direction and there were plenty of fallings-out before Stealers Wheel’s first album saw the light of day. At the time Gerry Rafferty was drinking heavily, something which dogged him all his life, which almost certainly didn’t help the relationship with Leiber and Stoller and the wider record industry.

Gerry Rafferty’s strained relationship with the music business is very clear…

Well, I don’t know why I came here tonight
I’ve got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs

Gerry Rafferty had a life-long problem with alcoholism, which eventually killed him in 2011 at the comparatively early age of 63. So, by the time he got to the music industry event that evening, he was almost certainly three sheets to the wind already. Wondering how he was going to get down the stairs at the end of the evening was probably a legitimate concern on his part.

But he had enough about him to pen a positively scathing review of the conversations taking place around Joe Egan and himself that evening in “Stuck In The Middle With You”…

When you started off with nothing
And you’re proud that you’re a self-made man
And your friends they all come crawling
Slap you on the back and say

I don’t know whether the record company executives who would later promote “Stuck In The Middle With You” realised they were the butt of the joke, but as it’s an industry which seems to forgive almost everything as long as you have a big enough hit record, I suppose they made their peace with it in in the end.

Stealers Wheel would take “Stuck In The Middle With You” to Number Eight in the UK and Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973. Their self-titled debut album from which it came also made the Top 10 in the UK and US album charts.

By the time the “Stealers Wheel” album came out, Gerry Rafferty had already left the band, tired of the record company world and desperate to plough his own furrow. Most of the band who had played on the album in the recording studio left around the same time as well, leaving just Joe Egan as the one consistent element of Stealers Wheel throughout the band’s most successful period.

However, the…to him…unexpected success of “Stuck In The Middle With You” tempted Gerry Rafferty back into the fold and he and Joe Egan stuck it out for a few more years together as a duo, with a rotating ensemble of backing musicians.

Although Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan recorded some other fine songs together, none came close to matching the commercial success of “Stuck In The Middle With You” and Stealers Wheel was finally wound up in a wave of contractual disputes with their record company in the mid-1970s.

Gerry Rafferty would be back, bigger than ever, in the industry he had such a strong love-hate relationship with when the lawyers had finished picking over the carcass of Stealers Wheel’s recording contract.

With his 1978 album “City To City”, and in particular the lead single from that album, “Baker Street”, Gerry Rafferty would become a huge international star and make the people he parodied in “Stuck In The Middle With You” even wealthier than he had in his Stealers Wheel days.

In the end, the record industry he had so many misgivings about did very nicely out of Gerry Rafferty. Unfortunately, the alcoholism which had been an issue throughout his life took over and drove him to the end.

Gerry Rafferty passed away in January 2011, but he left a tremendous musical legacy for us to enjoy.

Here he is with Joe Egan and the rest of Stealers Wheel with “Stuck In The Middle With You”…(Joe Egan is to Gerry Rafferty’s immediate right in the video…)

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/3Vby4nGmtbDo7HDJamOWkT

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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