It was with a heavy heart that I found out Gerry Rafferty lost his battle. Only a month or so ago, it seemed he was at death’s door, and then he started making improvements. It was not to be. While he has not had a lot of music in the U.S. for awhile, he will be missed.
Below is a re-post of a column I wrote then, and while it may not be a proper overview of his career, it does reflect how I and so many others felt about his music, and his first solo-breakout, City To City.
Imagine what it would be like to experience Gerry Rafferty’s City To City for the first time, back in 1978. While Rafferty’s voice is distinctive enough, I don’t imagine people hearing tracks like “Right Down The Line” or “Baker Street” and immediately flashing upon the revelation, “That’s the guy from Stealers Wheel!” How many people even knew the song “Stuck In The Middle With You” was by Stealers Wheel in the first place?
Where his voice on that previous hit single took on a slack-jawed, Dylanesque drawl, these latter tracks find him singing dead-on, with purpose, utilizing a vocal harmony so direct and razor-sharp, you could cut sheet rock with it. City To City, Rafferty’s second solo album, is a strange combination of pop, rock and folk with unique instrumentation popping up where least expected. That blend made it a unique entity on the charts – smooth and not threatening enough to rattle older listeners, yet insightful and memorable enough to grab younger ones. I was nine years old in 1978 and even now there is something undefinable about the album, even if Side Two can’t match the spell that is cast by Side One. To call it magical seems like a cop-out, but it’s hard to describe it otherwise.
The Ark – First-time purchasers of the album probably scratched their heads when the needle dropped on the first track. While Rafferty is Scottish by birth, and the big hits of the record are straight-on pop, the first musical strains are particularly Celtic in nature. The song itself is a sort of declaration, still flirting with the residue of positivity from Sixties, yet deeply tied into a more spiritual aesthetic. “See the dark night has come down on us, the world is living in its dream – But now we know that we can wake up from this sleep, and set out on the journey, find a ship to take us on the way.”
The song itself is at heart a blues ballad, but that fiddle-and-mandolin work in the background, provided by Graham Preskett, raises the song to a degree of folky intimacy not usually found in such tracks. Rafferty’s harmonies in the chorus, paired with Barbara Dickson, have such edge and weight that it is easy just to fall into them and get lost. There is no one-upsmanship here. It is the perfect integration of several voices in precise, locked tone and unison, illustrating the camaraderie of those on this musical ark “where all strangers are known.”
Baker Street – Few songs are accurately tagged with the description of being huge. Popular, sure. Temporarily omnipresent? Very likely, especially in the one-hit-wonderland of our modern pop landscape, but “Baker Street” is so huge, even if you don’t know Gerry Rafferty, even if you don’t know this song is called “Baker Street” (since it is only mentioned once), you know the song.
Lyrically, it’s about shattered illusions, missed connections and a sense of self-betrayal. “He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land, he’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night-stands, and then he’ll settle down in some quiet little town and forget about everything.” Of course, that’s not true. You know it, he knows it, and weighs heavily on his soul just how unable he is to break from this life he’s led.
Musically, it’s all over the place. There’s a slight, bossa nova-like rhythm paired with bursts of strings, married to guitar divebombs and a soulful saxophone. Normally I can’t stand the sax. It’s often used as a signifier of sleazy, slimy wankery, delivered by fake jazzbos striking poses more than moving the song forward. This track gets heaped with derision on that order, but I don’t see it myself. We tend to associate the falsehoods of the dark, mysterious city life with the wail of the saxophone. It’s filthy alleyways via brass romanticism which is exactly what the song is about: “This city desert makes you feel so cold, it’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul.” To fault the track for the soullessness of the sax is to ignore the point of it entirely.
At the end, there is a guitar solo that is so hot, even Guitar Magazine had to admit it, even if the adult-contemporary tone of the song relegated it to their guilty pleasure file. It’s not that there’s a lot of tangled fretwork happening, but that a raw emotion is being bent, twisted and coerced out of the instrument, an antidote to the hollow sheen of the sax. This is a song that really stands as a composition – each element supports another and the whole is rock solid for it. In a word, it’s huge.
Right Down The Line – There is something so simple and effortless about this song, it declares itself as a perfect love song. There are no outrageous claims to move mountains or steal stars from the sky, no boasting, no exaggeration to be found. It is, to the core, exactly what someone wants to hear from the person they love, and often never get.
The track is pure pop and, with a stripped back arrangement, could have survived comfortably in the 1950’s. Some songs are inextricably chained to their eras, but this one probably will work many, many decades from now. Sometimes, the simple sentiments are enough.
City To City -With it’s ramshackle countrified pace and musical accents designed to carry the “train” theme in the lyrics, “City To City” was the antidote to so many sad sack southern tunes to be choked out in the late ’70s. Once again, chorus harmonies rule the roost, but a jubilant harmonica and well-placed fiddle runs vie for pole position.
It is best to hear this song with headphones on because, even though it is a light, fun track, there is a lot happening in the production end. It’s hard to handle so much activity and not wind up with a sonically cluttered, muddled mess. How Rafferty and co-producer Hugh Murphy managed to strike that balance is hard to wrap one’s head around, but God knows, if someone puts up a course on how they pulled it off, I’m taking that class.
Stealin’ Time – My first impression was to figure out if this song was a musical allusion to Stealers Wheel, but no. You would be wise to put the conspiracy theories past you too, otherwise you’ll miss what’s going on here.
First of all, I’ll admit the lyrics are repetitive. Where “Baker Street” was mentioned only once in that song, this one name-checks the title a bazillion times, give or take a couple bazils. This really isn’t about what’s being sung though, as the lyrics mostly focus on separating one’s self from the manic times to simply focus on the next step – big step, little step, it doesn’t matter. All that is important is the space to make this happen, and the quiet time to think it through.
The video with this song has been disabled for embedding, but you can check it out here.
Mattie’s Rag – This song kicks off Side Two with a fade in, less a kick in the door than a “welcome back,” which in fact is the crux of the song. The folky style makes it easy to gloss over the lyrics, regarding the return home of an itinerant musician and meeting his child there. The singer plans to stay this time; at least that’s the indication in lyrics such as “When you grow up, we’ll sit and talk of how things used to be / I’ll be a grand old man of rock with all these memories.” The question for the listener is whether this is the same person we met on “Baker Street,” the character who slips in and out of lives, always with the best intentions but always besieged by the need to hit that next gig. This duality of homesickness versus wanderlust is, if there is one, the core theme of City To City.
Whatever’s Written In Your Heart – Is this the end of the line? Sometimes there are things one needs to hear from their partner, and sometimes pushing to hear them means pushing one step too far. When Rafferty sings, “You’ve got your secrets, yeah and I’ve got mine / We’ve played this game now for a long, long time / You don’t lean on anyone, you never had no place to run,” it indicates he’s searching for an intimacy he’s already resigned himself to never find.
Of course, a lot of that is communicated by implication. You hear the voice of unity and discord in the chorus as that cluster of harmonized voices chant, “Yeah, night and day, and day.” Sure, they’re all singing together. Sure, they’re saying that it’s what’s in the heart, not on the lips, that matters. But then, why do they sound so sad?
Home And Dry – The prodigal returns once again. The song is notable less for what it is than how it sounds, with a string section and some prominent synths, there is a glancing recollection of United Artists labelmates Electric Light Orchestra, but only glancing. This song was the second single off the album, between “Baker Street” and “Right Down The Line,” and fared a none-too-shabby #28 on the top 40 list.
Island – The song on the album that screams ‘The Seventies’ most is the soft pop of “Island.” Lyrically, it’s inconsequential, as there has been scads of tunes about getting together with the one you love on your getaway of choice. Steve Miller brought you a crate of papaya and left it by your door. Some years later, Rupert Holmes would invite you to escape with a pina colada and a rain-drenched rendezvous. Frankly, I’m surprised this track didn’t get put up as a single for all the reasons I just offered. Perhaps “Baker Street” and “Right Down The Line” left a particular impression this track negates?
Waiting For The Day – If the audience is on the way out, leave them rock ‘n rolling. This track, representing just a hint of boogie-woogie, a hip-shaking hi-hat and a willing guitar, is meant to accomplish two things – close out the album with some positive energy and give a nod to the opening track, “The Ark.” The correlation comes in the bridge when the dance rhythm subsides, the lyrics read, “Water of life, pour your light down on me / Take me out of this darkness, sweet star of the sea / Water so sweet, you can open my eyes / You can bring down the rain on this desert so dry.”
I don’t really believe this occurred through any concerted construction, that the opening and closing tracks make a point of tying the nautical with the spiritual; it’s simply a particular bent in Rafferty’s songwriting, just as his songs of arrivals, departures, and their effects on relationships play a key role. As someone jumping headlong into a pop music career, these would be subjects immediately springing to mind, so it’s only natural that such songs would find their way onto this album.
Rafferty would not reach the same high levels of notoriety again in the United States, even though the follow-up Night Owl featured the track “Days Gone Down,” which managed to get to #17. Rafferty would travel and perform live less and less through the years, and his recorded output would become spotty as well. A lot of this has to do with why the momentum of City To City couldn’t be sustained over the years, but if the lyrics can be allowed to comment on his life and choices, he certainly made a clear enough argument for his decisions.
“…And then he’ll settle down in some quiet little town and forget about everything.” Perhaps.