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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Stuck in the Middle with You," a story of clowns, jokers, and an industry

"Trying to make sense of it all" (read: this tune) led me down some pretty interesting paths.

Today's entry is a song a lot of you have probably heard before, but one very few of you likely actively remember.

Some songs are just like that — you hear them in public or in media a few times and their sound gets ingrained in your head, but it's not a song you ever really think about much. Case in point: today's track has been heard in movies ranging from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and in shows such as The Wonder Years and Supernatural.

Yeah, you've heard "Stuck in the Middle with You" before, and I bet fewer than 10 percent of you can give me the group's name. ...It's Stealers Wheel, who released the track on their self-titled 1972 debut.

The beauty of the extreme-back-burner headspace "Stuck in the Middle with You" occupies is that very few people have actually taken the time to investigate the song and the stories around it. Despite my expansive musical knowledge and curiosity, I counted myself among that group prior to today. Among other things, I ended up finding that I should've recognized the voice on the track, and that the song is more of a parody than anything else. A couple of musical rabbit holes later, here I am to talk all about that and more.

Let's open with my simplest new finding: the lead singer of Steelers Wheel was Gerry Rafferty. Not even six years after the release of "Stuck in the Middle with You," he'd have a global solo hit in the saxophone-featuring "Baker Street" — a track even more of you have heard. One can easily hear similarities between the two tracks in their guitar-backed verses and Rafferty's husky, yet somewhat light vocal tone. I'm quite surprised I hadn't made the connection before.

Then there's the parody part I mentioned earlier. I always noticed that the vocals on the track were somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan; the more conversational delivery and... less of a focus on intonation made the connection quite evident. I had never been able to nail down, though, why the vocals were presented in such a way. As it turns out, Gerry Rafferty wasn't a fan of the music industry into a which he had been fostered. His obituary from The Telegraph detailed his irritation and how it was manifested on "Stuck in the Middle with You." The song as a whole parodies Dylan's paranoid lyricism, and Rafferty's vocal performance leads the way. Per the aforementioned obituary, Rafferty and bandmate Joe Egan "ridiculed a music industry cocktail party" through the song, something I find readable through the lyrics. The verses give a sense of being off-balance and unsure of one's place, combining a riff on Dylan's paranoia with something bordering on intoxication. The third and fourth lines of the first verse capture both of these feelings simultaneously ("I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair / And I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs"), as do the third and fourth in the third verse ("Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor? / 'Cause I don't think that I can take anymore").

Instrumentally, the song is defined by a twelve-bar progression lifted straight from the blues, outlined by Rafferty's guitar work and Tony Williams' very active, walking-like bass line. Twelve-bar blues is a rarity in pop fare today, and has been since rockers' shift away from it in the early 1960s. Stealers Wheel's use of the pattern allows for frequent repetition of the song's refrain, which takes up the progression's last four bars: "Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right / Here I am, stuck in the middle with you." It's a refrain I love because it so elegantly and succinctly captures a wide range of frustration and emotion. In terms of the cocktail party narrative, it channels Rafferty's disillusion with the music industry and its underpinnings. The lines can also more generally be applied to all sorts of situations, and I've been known to employ it on occasion — here in Berkeley, Sproul Plaza with all its noteworthy characters is a particularly applicable location for the refrain's use.

Amid the song's more well-known sections, I feel like the chorus — or post-chorus? It's hard to say in a twelve-bar blues — gets the short end of the stick, when it really brings home the narrative. The section provides the background for further disillusionment with musical and monetary success. While it starts out by praising a character ("Well, you started out with nothing / And you're proud that you're a self-made man"), it quickly shifts toward a particularly nasty side effect of fame I'll call "nuclear panhandling." Basically, it's people you know begging you for money because they know you have it. As Stealers Wheel put it, once you reap the benefits of what you've sown as a self-made man, "your friends, they all come crawling / Slap you on the back and say, / 'Please, / Please.'" The proximity and relation of those who "come crawling" makes the requests extremely difficult to deny; in most respects, I feel that denying those requests is rational in order to avoid a pattern of unsubstantiated lending. The self-made man ought to be able to enjoy what he's made for himself.

"Stuck in the Middle with You" ultimately provides a sobering take on the realities of success. In eventually getting to that narrative, it parodies a man who very much benefited in that way despite his down-to-earth, everyman persona. To Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan's surprise, the song was a major success, hitting the top ten on both sides of the pond. I bet they were both delighted to financially benefit off an industry they despised — after all, it's always better for you to get your bag than for those above you to keep it.


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