Clowns to the left of me...jokers to the right...It must be Stealers Wheel! Earlier this year, Intervention Records released exquisite vinyl reissues of the first two albums from the Scottish folk-rock band. Now, the label has revisited the group's 1972 self-titled debut album (originally released on A&M Records) in the hybrid SACD format, playable on all CD players.
Stealers Wheel - featuring 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 new reissue features Kevin Gray's remastering. Gray cut the LP lacquers from a ½" 30 ips "safety copy" of the original stereo master, and simultaneously archived from the tape to 192/24 digital high resolution. As Intervention describes on its website, "These files are essentially high-res archives of IR's LP mastering with identical board settings and EQ with wide open dynamic range and zero compression applied." The files were converted by Gray to DSD; Gus Skinas then prepared the master for this release. The CD layer of this hybrid SACD represents a down-conversion from the DSD files. While SACD playback is the ultimate way to hear this lost treasure, those equipped only with a CD player shouldn't feel left out; the superior remastering still represents the best way to hear this album on compact disc. As on the LP reissue, the stereo separation and depth are more readily savored, with the new remaster having a full, natural sound that brings out the lost detail in the band arrangements.
Intervention's hybrid SACD has the same hallmarks of quality as the label's vinyl reissues. Stoughton has printed the sturdy, glossy mini-LP jacket in tip-on style, and the disc itself - protected in a clear plastic sleeve within the jacket - bears a replica A&M label. Stealers Wheel is available now from Intervention Records at the links below!
Stealers Wheel, Stealers Wheel (A&M SP-4377, 1972 - reissued Intervention Records IR-SCD1, 2016) (Amazon U.S.)
Hybrid SACD (Playable on all CD players)
- Late Again
- Stuck in the Middle with You
- Another Morning
- I Get By
- Outside Looking In
- Johnny's Song
- Next to Me
- Gets So Lonely
- You Put Something Better Inside Me (1973 Mix)