Listen to this track by Scottish folk-rock proponent and former Stealers Wheel frontman Gerry Rafferty. It’s “Baker Street”, a huge international hit and probably his most recognized song as taken from his second solo album, 1978’s City To City.
The song and the album off of which it came was something of a comeback for Rafferty, who had been hampered from releasing any new work until the legal barbed wire he was wrapped up in with the dissolution of Stealers Wheel was concluded. In order to see to resolving this, he found himself making frequent trips by train between his home in Glasgow and his lawyer’s offices in London; city to city indeed, then. While in London, he stayed at a friend’s flat on the titular Baker Street. As such, this song captures the atmosphere and sets of feelings associated with a tempestuous period for Rafferty, ending well enough to allow him to record his next record, with this song being the biggest of three singles taken from it.
The song is probably best known for its distinct saxophone riff, one that launched a thousand sax parts well into the 1980s. But it’s the song underneath the riff that’s always stood out for me, and certainly a vivid portrait of an artist who walked a razor’s edge between pursuing a creative life, and having to face the pressures of the music industry.
Gerry Rafferty began his professional career as a musician on Scottish folk and folk-rock scenes. Rafferty’s early seventies band Stealers Wheel produced the hit “Stuck In The Middle With You”, which enjoyed a resurgance in the early nineties when it appeared in Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and re-introduced on classic rock radio as a result. But it would be his solo career that would position him as a staple on late-seventies AM radio, and on soft rock stations for decades after his initial success.
Rafferty poured all of his considerable songwriting and arranging powers into this song, with a variety of contrasting textures including what sounds like controlled guitar feedback in the intro and strong lead parts through out, not to mention dreamy electric piano, lush strings, earthy congas, and not one but two sax lines (the big alto part and the more subtle soprano part) that made it a feast for the ears. There is a distinct noirish atmosphere in this song, evoking dark streets and late-night conversations. Working with producer Hugh Murphy, this song seemed to be looking to out-Macca Paul McCartney, albeit in a reflective and more sombre mood.
A good deal of its success is down to Rafferty’s songwriting, and the quality of his Dylanesque vocal delivery that completely sells it. It feels like a novel inside of a four-minute radio single, full of light and dark, hope and despair, and just a hint of existential angst without being too precious about it. A good deal of the interest for me is the dynamic that has Rafferty talking in the third person about the man who’s got a dream about buying some land with plans to give up the booze and the one-night stands. This makes it appear that the song’s narrator is commenting on the state of affairs of this man who’s never going to stop moving, ’cause he’s a rolling stone. In the light of this song’s massive success all over the world as a staple radio single, which actually continues today (in late 2010, BMI reported that it had surpassed five million plays worldwide …), that Rafferty was probably talking about his own feelings about getting off of the treadmill of his own life and starting something new is very telling of what he thought of the business he was in.
By all accounts, Rafferty was not made for the spotlight, even if his talents certainly were. He was a songwriter, a singer, and a musician. He wasn’t a star, and was unwilling to do the things that are necessary to become one. In this way, he was always caught between city to city, between his drive to create and the demands that the outside world placed on his creations, and on himself. It was this central tension that fueled how poignant and powerful this song is, caught in a city with a lot of people, but in his view, with no soul of its own, also being the seat of the music industry in Britain. Being stuck in the middle (as it were) of two opposing sets of forces like these, it’s easy to feel lost. For all of this song’s popularity, it’s always struck me as bittersweet in this regard. Even if this song ends in a “new morning”, it’s still always struck me primarily as a song about of having made it through a very long night.
Gerry Rafferty had an enduring career just outside of the spotlight, as he preferred it. He died in 2011.
You can learn more about Rafferty and his work at gerryrafferty.com.