Looking back on the band’s classic eponymous debut
Okay, before we dive into Stealers Wheel’s eponymous 1972 debut album, let’s a get a few things out of the way.
You probably saw “Stealers Wheel” and thought, “yeah, one-hit wonder; whatever happened to those guys?”
Well, founding member Joe Egan recorded a couple of solo albums and left the music industry in the early 1980s, but bassist Tony Williams went on to play with Jethro Tull and drummer Rodney Coombes joined the Strawbs in 1973. And you might have heard of a guy named Gerry Rafferty; if not him, then definitely his 1978 monster megahit, “Baker Street.”
So, yeah, there was some talent in the band.
It all came together on “Stuck in the Middle with You” – well, musically at least. The video of the song is one of the oddest things you’ll ever see. Ah, but the tune itself: Co-written by Egan and Rafferty, it was actually the third single to be released, which in retrospect feels like something of an absurdity. The song sucks you in with its fade-in combination of funkier-than-expected bass and breezy rhythm guitar and seals the deal with Rafferty’s appealing voice and screw-the-music-industry lyrics. Played through car radios as loud as possible, there was little better in the early ‘70s.
VIDEO: Stealers Wheel scene in Reservoir Dogs
A half-century later, the song holds up extremely well and has become a solid part of the culture. It was famously used in the 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs, provided the soundtrack to a 2020 IBM Cloud television commercial, and has been the radio theme song for independent political commentator Michael Smerconish for years.
But look into the shadow of that giant hit and you’ll find nine other tunes on the album, which was produced by legendary songwriters and producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Collectively they made for some good listening – and hinted at a band that could have been.
“Late Again,” one of four Egan-Rafferty collaborations here and the album’s first single, opens the record with a mournful sound (and some sweet saxophone from an uncredited player) that accompanies the singer’s laments: “I know that I can show some respect, especially when I’m wrong” and “I wonder why I stay when everybody’s gone.” The lyric is deceptively simple, hinting at the singer’s tortured inner monologue the way an iceberg hints at what lies beneath the surface.
The album’s second single, “You Put Something Better Inside Me,” is another Egan-Rafferty tune. The lyric doesn’t do a whole lot beyond finding the singer looking out the window, staring at the wall, then being amazed by relationship changes that made him so much stronger. It’s kind of surprising that Lieber and Stoller didn’t tell the band to kick the pace up a few notches; these lyrics melded to a bouncier, more upbeat tune might have given them the hit they didn’t find till their third single.
“I Get By,” a guitar-driven Joe Egan tune, displays some more muscle. It sounds like it might have been an outtake from the Eagles’ Hotel California sessions, fitting in comfortably alongside “Victim of Love” and “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“Outside Looking In” is one of two Rafferty-penned tunes on the album, and it would undoubtedly be welcome listening for anyone who is a fan of his later solo work. “Johnny’s Song,” the other Rafferty composition here, has moments that remind me of the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle,” but I think it might have been better served by Egan’s voice, which has sharper edges, more along the lines of Ray Davies (just listen to him on the delightful “Another Meaning”).
Overall, Stealers Wheel was a solid and promising debut, holding its own against other 1972 band debuts like Foghat’s self-titled album and Dan Fogelberg’s Home Free. Rafferty and Egan may not have been another Lennon and McCartney, but they might have been another Henley and Frey, or at least another Furay and Messina.
But the band was a victim of poor management and internal turmoil. Rafferty and Egan were the only two members who returned for the Wheel’s second release, Ferguslie Park, in 1973. And right around the time the band’s third album, Right or Wrong, was released two years later, everyone had decided to go their separate ways.
It’s an all-too-common rock and roll story. Had it gone another way, Stealer’s Wheel could have been anything but a one-hit wonder.