Intervention Records launched in 2015 with a simple mission statement: “To provide archive-quality LPs of music we love,” with the goal that “each record we do must be the single definitive, final version of that album, the one real music lovers will seek out.” Happily, the label’s early releases have all more than lived up to those lofty goals! The first two albums from Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan’s Stealers Wheel might not have been the most expected titles for vinyl reissue in 2016, but Intervention has made a strong case for Stealers Wheel and Ferguslie Park with sonically rich presentations of both A&M LPs (which, coincidentally, add up to a full two-thirds of the band’s small discography).
The self-titled debut album from the Scottish folk-rockers of Stealers Wheel – including lead guitarist Paul Pilnick, bassist Tony Williams and drummer Rod Coombes – boasts some legendary behind-the-scenes names. It was produced by veterans Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and beautifully recorded by Geoff Emerick and John Mills at The Beatles’ Apple Studio. All songs were written or co-written by the lead vocalists, Rafferty and Egan, whose voices blended harmoniously as both singers and writers.
Doubtless Leiber and Stoller saw the potential in Egan and Rafferty’s melodic rock; Stealers Wheel is stylistically diverse but rooted in, and unified by, the hook-laden tunes. Its most famous track, “Stuck in the Middle,” branded the group a one-hit wonder. The Dylan-evoking (or parodying?) pop song, inspired by the writers’ experience with record biz brass at a restaurant table, became a Top 10 hit in both the United States and United Kingdom. Although “Stuck in the Middle” had never really left the airwaves, thanks to oldies radio, it gained memorable new life in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs.
But the familiar “Stuck in the Middle” is far from the only worthy track. A Beatle-esque quality permeates the opening “Late Again” (with a languid saxophone solo that anticipates Rafferty’s famous solo hit “Baker Street”) as well as Egan’s ballads “Another Meaning” and “Gets So Lonely.” (Perhaps the ambiance of Apple Studio rubbed off on the band!) “Lonely” has a delicate, fragile air as Egan accompanies himself on gentle keyboard. But Stealers Wheel isn’t all mellow balladry, either; lead guitarist Paul Pilnick turns up his axe for Egan’s “I Get By” and “José.”
Rafferty conjures a hypnotic groove on the searching, impressionistic “Outside Looking In” which seems to fade out just as the jam is kicking into high gear. His “Johnny’s Song,” which opens Side Two, is more uptempo but similarly restless and reflective. But the co-written “Next to Me” may be the most beguiling track on Stealers Wheel, delivering soft percussion, dreamy harmonies and a mellow vibe for another lyrical exploration of one’s identity. Brass and strings accent the rhythmic yet romantic closing song “You Put Something Better Inside Me,” which even inspired a couple of cover versions.
Intervention’s reissue has been mastered by Kevin Gray from a ½” 30 ips “safety copy” of the original stereo master, and pressed at RTI. The label has sonically rehabilitated this lost treasure, producing a vinyl reissue that sounds better than the original vinyl or subsequent CD iterations. The stereo separation and depth are more readily savored, with the new LP having a full, natural sound that brings out the lost detail in the band arrangements.
Following the release of Stealers Wheel, the band went through a major upheaval that saw Rafferty’s departure and eventual return, as well as the defection of all of the other members save Egan. So for follow-up Ferguslie Park, the back cover bore the statement that “Stealers Wheel is Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan…Their songs, their voices, their Guitars, Pianos, Mandolins and Kazoos – and featuring their Organs.” Tongue-in-cheek or no, Ferguslie did feature a more expansive sound. Ten additional musicians, plus co-producer Stoller on electric harpsichord, were credited, as well as string arranger Richard Hewson. (The busy Stoller handled the horn arrangements himself, and Mrs. Stoller – a.k.a. accomplished musician Corky Hale – played harp!) One might have suspected that the success of “Stuck in the Middle” would have inspired Rafferty and Egan to create more of the same; instead, they devised an ambitious concept album dealing with their trials and tribulations in the band.
Like its predecessor, Ferguslie took in pop, rock, and folk influences while blue-eyed soul and R&B played an even greater role. The lean, driving rock of “Good Businessman” (“I can make you rich, I can make you a name/Promise you the world, if you play my game”) – with its rollicking saxophone parts – establishes the album’s biting edge which is further delineated on the ironically jaunty cautionary tale “Star.” Over a bouncy melody played with kazoos, piano, clip-clop percussion and more, Egan’s song blithely ponders “Tell me, what will you do/When you find yourself back on the shelf?” (“Star” became a moderate hit, going Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic.)
The lean rocker “Wheelin'” might have been written about Stealers Wheel itself, painting an unhappy portrait of a band when “everything was going wrong,” perhaps tired at the cycle of “Wheelin’, dealing, stealing, wheelin’…” (Even the saxophone sounds ironic here!) But the wheeling/dealing doesn’t stop, with the fragile “Waltz (You Know It Makes Sense)” sung from the perspective of another shifty character promising the world (“We can make all your wildest dreams come true/There is nothing that we couldn’t do for you…”) Rafferty’s urgent “What More Could You Want” captures the excitement of performing while staying true to the album’s darker undercurrents; his affecting “Over My Head” draws the first side of the album to a close on a contented note.
Side Two seems to cast its lyrical net a little wider; Rafferty and Egan’s “Blind Faith” uses boogie-woogie piano and bop-shoo-wop backing vocals for its resigned look back on a time when “blind faith was all we had.” The Egan-penned “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Mind” has a mid-tempo Badfinger feel, and like Rafferty’s “Steamboat Row,” paints a portrait of a working class fellow (“It’s a dead-end job and the money’s low/And the time goes by so slow…”) ready to move on. “Steamboat Row” evocatively describes the narrator’s hard-drinking miner father in sympathetically tender terms.
The artists’ ambivalence about the business comes through even in these personal songs. Ferguslie Park juxtaposes Egan’s affirming “Back on My Feet Again” with Rafferty’s world-weary, despairing “Who Cares,” before concluding with the stomping, muscular rock of “Everything’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” Everything certainly didn’t work out fine for Stealers Wheel; one more album arrived on A&M (1975’s Right or Wrong, produced by Mentor Williams of “Drift Away” fame) and Egan and Rafferty broke up amid legal entanglements.
Ferguslie Park has been mastered by Kevin Gray from a half-inch 30 ips safety copy of the original 15 ips stereo album master, and pressed at RTI. Once again, the deluxe treatment has paid off for Intervention. The vinyl reissue has a finer sense of space and the soundstage, illuminating the bold colors of the instrumentation with a clarity missing from previous pressings. The top-notch sonics here aren’t likely to be bettered.
The attention extends to the visual presentation which replicates original artwork on sturdy Stoughton jackets including the single-pocket gatefold for Ferguslie Park. Original labels are also replicated; Stealers Wheel has a beautiful period A&M label while Ferguslie has its own unique design. (No new liner notes or bonus tracks are included in these original-album presentations.) Intervention’s mission is to sonically rehabilitate lost albums with top-notch vinyl treatment; Exhibits A and B of the label’s success might well be these two pristinely-remastered and pressed LPs. Both audiophiles and casual vinyl fans alike would be happy to be stuck in the middle with these two pristine albums.