Stealers Wheel

TrackAlbum
Another MeaningStealers Wheel
Outside Looking InStealers Wheel
Next To MeStealers Wheel
StarFerguslie Park
Over My HeadFerguslie Park
Steamboat RowFerguslie Park
Waltz (You Know It Makes Sense)Ferguslie Park
Found My Way To YouRight Or Wrong
This MorningRight Or Wrong
Home From HomeRight Or Wrong

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Contributor: Colin Duncan

I love the music of Stealers Wheel. They produced three albums: Stealers Wheel (1972), Ferguslie Park (1973), Right Or Wrong (1975). It was a time in my life when I spent many hours listening to music and watching bands. Stealers Wheel are Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, two guys from Paisley, who wrote the songs, and sang and played on them. Gerry said of their singing, “Joe and I struck up the most amazing relationship. There really was something special between us. The blend of our voices was astonishing.” And it was. In addition, Gerry played guitar and Joe played keyboards on Stealers Wheel’s magical songs.

At the beginning of their careers, Gerry and Joe played in Paisley bands, The Sensors and The Mavericks, playing in local halls. In 1966, they were members of the band The Fifth Column. The group released the single, Benjamin Day/There’s Nobody Here, but it was not a commercial success.

Gerry had a big break when he joined Billy Connolly’s band, The Humblebums. He had gone to watch them play in a local orange hall, ironic in that they were both from an Irish Catholic background. Gerry invited Billy to a party at his flat later that night and Gerry played some of his songs to Billy, who thought they were great. After a discussion with fellow Humblebum, Tam Harvey, Gerry was invited to join the band. Gerry referring to this development in his career said, “This was a great move for me. I was developing my songwriting and at the time the folk scene was thriving. It gave me the chance to get my songs heard by people who were willing to sit and listen. The Humblebums split because of the different roads Billy and Gerry were following – comedy and music respectively. Gerry then recorded a solo album on which Joe performed, the acclaimed Can I Have My Money Back? before the forming of Stealers Wheel.

The first two Stealers Wheel albums were produced by the legendary Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It was not a happy experience. There was friction between musicians and producers over the type of music that they wanted to produce. Gerry and Joe continually warned Leiber and Stoller that they did not want a ‘commercial’ sound. Gerry had a strong belief in what his music should sound like and he also had a distrust of the music industry scene. He also felt that there was pressure by their management company to do things that they didn’t want to do. However, I think you have to give some credit to the producers because both albums are brilliant. Perhaps the friction contributed to the brilliance of the albums. Gerry’s distrust of management led to him leaving the band, but returning after a conversation with Joe.

To quote Gerry, “There was a huge amount of pressure on us to do things we didn’t particularly want to do. I had qualms about our management company. They wanted us to tour the USA – I didn’t, so I left the band. Eventually though, Joe and I had a talk and I came back to Stealers Wheel.”

There were different supporting musicians on each of the albums and all deserve credit because the musicianship is great. For the first album, Stealers Wheel, a band was formed with Rod Coombes on drums, Paul Pilnick on guitar and Tony Williams on bass. Williams was replaced by DeLisle Harper on bass. Shortly after Gerry’s return, it was decided to dismiss the band and continue as a duo. When recording Ferguslie Park and Right Or Wrong the band used session musicians.

The year after the release of the last album, I moved to Paisley and became familiar with many of the places in the story of Stealers Wheel. I know well the places they used to play, the sites of the schools they attended, where they lived and the pubs they drank in. Their roots were important to Joe and Gerry. The Ferguslie Park album was named after a Paisley housing scheme, which had a poor reputation in the 70s. In the words of Gerry, “We called the album Ferguslie Park to get as far away as possible from all the bullshit of the music industry in London. It reminded us of our roots. We were clinging ferociously to our roots. Our identity and our songs were formed in this town.”

The album sleeves were produced by John Byrne, an iconic Scottish artist and writer, who I thought looked the epitome of cool, driving about Paisley. In a time of many great album covers, John Byrne took the design of the album sleeve to another level.

Tensions and legal wrangles led to the band folding after the third album, Right Or Wrong, produced by Mentor Williams. Gerry and Joe became involved in a dispute with their management company who wanted them to become more productive, form a band and tour. At the same time they were arguing with each other on whether to remain as a duo or form a band and tour, and what musicians to use on the third album. This led to the two of them disappearing for a while and, by the time Right Or Wrong was released, Stealers Wheel had ceased to exist.

Stealers Wheel produced Stuck In The Middle, one of the great songs of the twentieth century. I left this from my list because it is so well known and critically acclaimed. The song was inspired by a real occasion when the record company were conducting business across Rafferty and Egan at a restaurant table. The song is used, notoriously, in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs. Great singing – Gerry taking the lead supported by Joe, great lyrics, great melody, great guitar playing, great quiet bass line, great percussion and great clapping. The song has had more than four million airplays worldwide. But Stealers Wheel are more than just about producing that wonderful song.

Here then is my Toppermost of the Toppermost. I think these songs are excellent, but as with all Toppermost lists many fine songs have been omitted. On all the following songs, I think the singing, the musicianship and the arrangements are outstanding.

Another Meaning is a dreamy, soul-searching song written by Joe Egan, appealing to young people about the purpose of life. It hooked me at the time of release and the song has stayed with me. Joe leads the singing on the song, but the song is a good illustration of how good the two singers were when singing together. The song begins with Joe’s voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar. A high pitched piano taps out a rhythm for much of the song with the bass interweaving beautifully around the piano. The bass leads the accompaniment to the voice at one point and the song ends with a voice quietly humming a riff.

Outside Looking In, a Gerry Rafferty song, is about personal and professional alienation, a recurring theme in many of his songs. After becoming part of the music industry, the writer finds he’s disillusioned with what he finds, but this sense of alienation seems to pervade all aspects of his life. Gerry leads the singing, but this song illustrates the high standard of musicianship of the band members with the guitar playing of Paul Pilnick and the drumming of Rod Coombes making important contributions to the song but never taking over, and underpinned by Tony Williams’ selfless bass playing.

Next To Me by Joe and Gerry has a great introduction to the song with a guitar, bass and a haunting keyboard accompanied by brushes on a drum which play a constant rhythm. The dreamy keyboard swirls and leads you into the song and then reappears throughout. Joe is on lead vocals and the lyrics refer to becoming different people every day and relate to trying to find yourself. Different blends of the two voices punctuate the song, including dreamy harmonising, which adds to the haunting effect of the keyboard. A fantastic song for illustrating what the two voices together could create.

Star, written by Joe Egan, was a top thirty hit in the UK and US in 1974. This cynical song questions the worth of pop fame. It is a magnificent track with acoustic guitars; Joe and Gerry’s voices singing beautifully together and a beat that makes you want to dance. A woodblock, backing kazoos and a harmonica punctuate the song, and a loud, driving piano takes the lead for a few bars in the middle of the song. The perfect pop song.

Over My Head is a love song where a couple spend the night talking then step outside to watch the sun rise before one of them leaves. The song refers to the changing sky and is about trying to hold on to a time which makes life meaningful. The introduction hooks us with a piano backed by a hammond organ and guitar, then a beautiful bass line, a hit of a drum then Gerry’s vocals. The vocals are believable – an important feature of Gerry’s singing – and are accompanied by a slow, constant beat. Gary Taylor’s thoughtful, relevant bass playing adds to the song. The line “Don’t let it go, don’t let it slip away” is repeated three times at the end interspersed by a tearful sounding guitar, an absolutely brilliant end to this inventive composition.

Steamboat Row is a folk song by Gerry Rafferty relating to his father. When Gerry was a child, and his dad had had a few pints, he would reminisce about when he lived in a row of miners’ cottages. There were three rows of such cottages in a village named Inkerman, after the battle, on the outskirts of Paisley. The cottages, originally built to house iron stone miners, were demolished in the 1940s. Mining of iron stone had long disappeared by the time Gerry’s father started work so it may be that he had to travel the fifteen miles to the Ayrshire coalfields to mine coal. The song becomes sad when we learn of the effect that the drinking is having on his dad’s health and how he and Gerry should revisit Steamboat Row. The song has universal appeal in that it celebrates the life of person, while recognising that his life has been affected by the sadness of drinking. A really poignant song.

Waltz (You Know It Makes Sense) is a slow Joe Egan song with great bass playing and percussion work including cowbells, triangles, cymbals and chimes. Joe’s voice leads the song, is clear and relates to not sitting on the fence, but becoming involved in making a better life for everyone. Its strength is that it’s a waltz, very different to a pop song of the time, uses instruments innovatively and is unique sounding.

Found My Way To You is about a boy meeting a girl leading to his life having meaning. What boy or girl couldn’t identify with that? A piano introduces the track and continues with drums to drive the track. Gerry and Joe’s voices come in together as one, and continue like this apart from an echo in the chorus. A saxophone solo punctuates the track, while maintaining the driving beat, and a backcloth of strings is used brilliantly. It all fits together effortlessly giving us a memorable song full of invention.

This Morning has only six lines. It is hauntingly beautiful and used to stay with me for hours after everytime I played it. The song is slow, with an introduction of humming voices, an acoustic guitar, percussion and a keyboard playing single notes in a pattern. A deep sounding lead guitar riff comes in, just before the verses begin. The music and words, related to the coming of morning, are repeated during the song, and the production is brilliant without any instruments dominating the track.

Home From Home is about a person living in a different place from the one he loves. Gerry is singing lead on the song. It’s a good example of how Gerry and Joe strived for perfection – a piano begins the song, then beautiful bass playing counters the piano, the percussion comes in. Certain instruments come to the fore at certain times, all played beautifully with no instrument becoming too dominant. At one point, a scraper percussion instrument is played quietly in the background; you hardly hear it, but it really enhances the music. As the song nears the end, the singer’s unhappiness becomes more intense, the song becoming louder with certain lines repeated.

After the demise of Stealers Wheel, Gerry went on to become world famous (see Toppermost #433), whereas Joe released another two albums, Out Of Nowhere (1979) and Map (1981), then left the music industry. Although we know of Gerry’s brilliance, it must not be thought that Joe Egan was the lesser contributor to the band. This Toppermost list is equal in its selection of songs by Joe, Gerry and both musicians working together. This is not because of my striving for a sense of fairness, but because Joe’s contribution to the band is equal to Gerry’s.

This is the saddest of the Toppermost lists I have compiled because one of our best songwriters has passed away, while the other has not been heard of in over thirty tears. The three albums, after having been unavailable for some time, have been remastered and reissued. Buy them, you’ll love them.

 

Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011)

 

Stealers Wheel discography

Gerry Rafferty toppermost #433

Stealers Wheel biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #465

4 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Aug 13, 2015

    I need to explore further. I bought the first album and Star. I played the album a lot at the time, but with so much music, you forget about good stuff sometimes. It’s coming back off the shelf today. Jerry Leiber says they were seen as “an English (sic) version of Crosby, Stills & Nash” (exactly the wrong comment to make about a Scottish group) when they produced the first album, and says he loved their “open-minded, open-hearted approach to music.” They suffered I think because Stuck In The Middle With You was such a huge hit that it dwarfed everything else they did in public perception. Whenever or wherever it’s played, people are thrilled to hear it. Ralph McTell had a similar issue with Streets of London in the same era. Gerry Rafferty then went and did much the same with Baker Street writ large over everything else … Night Owl was also a big hit, but is not remembered in the same way. Those three go together for me.

  2. Calvin Rydbom
    Aug 14, 2015

    I have all three of the first albums on vinyl, pleasant listening.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Aug 17, 2015

    Glad you took your album off your shelf, Peter and pleased you are still playing your three albums on vinyl after all these years, Calvin. Great stuff.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Apr 27, 2016

    After never being available for many years, Joe Egan’s ‘Out of Nowhere’ is now available on CD for the first time – a great album. Well worth buying.

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