Music

Gerry Rafferty: The Songsmith of Alienation

Baker Street and Me

When you ask me who my favorite artist is, I normally respond with which of a thousand ones? However, we all those artists who not only are favorites but who we also feel speak to us. Then, there are those few, those very few, who speak for us.

It was early 1978, I was   a 12-year-old listening to the old Los Angeles AM pop radio station, KHJ, when I first heard Baker Street. It was a kick to the heart and the guts, it coalesced in my soul, and affected me like few other songs ever have. A few weeks later, Right on Down the Line, entered the soundtrack of my life, and I was permanently hooked. 

The idea that he speaks for my soul and not only to me was solidified with his 1979 album release “Night Owl” and the song Get it Right Next Time. As I grew older and wore out the grooves in his first two commercially successfully albums, which required replacing them both in vinyl and other formats, I came back to his music with a more nuanced ear. Whereas a teenager, those songs drew dreams of what I thought I wanted my adult life to be; as an adult, I realized that my life experience now informed his music and which in turn reflected it back upon me in composition.

Young Gerry

Rafferty was born in Paisley, a town located in the central lowlands of Scotland, not far from Glasgow on April 16, 1947. Rafferty’s family was working class and as a young boy, his mother taught him Scottish and Irish folksongs.  As his interest in music grew, artists such The Beatles and Bob Dylan influenced the direction of his own music making.

The mid-60s saw the singer working in a number of different jobs including at a butcher’s shop and later as a civil service clerk. The entire time, Rafferty knew that none of these positions were his destiny, and eventually he would go on to busk in London and then joined the short-lived reginal group, the Maverix, along with Joe Egan, with whom he would work again. The band released one single.

In 1969, Rafferty joined the Humblebums, a Scottish folk rock band as their singer and songwriter. Among his fellow bandmates was Billy Connolly, who would go on become a world renown standup comedian known for his quirky life observations. The Humblebums performed together until 1971, releasing several albums during this period.

The 70’s and Alienation

From 1971 through 1972, Rafferty was signed as a solo artist and released the album “Can I Have my Money Back?”  At about the same time that he was composing songs for his first solo album, the composer chanced upon the Colin Wilson book, “The Outsider.” The philosophical treatise examined creativity, artists, and alienation. Rafferty’s daughter later stated that this book had a profound impact on her father and gave him endless material for his music.

The LP received great critical approval but was a commercial failure. Rafferty moved on to join his friend and collaborator, Joe Egan, in forming Stealers Wheel. The band would go on to release three albums with the American songwriters and producers Leiber & Stoller. While the band found itself dealing with legal issues, it still managed to have a huge hit “Stuck in the Middle with You,” which in turn received both critical and massive commercial success. Twenty years later, the song would be prominent in the 1992 movie and its soundtrack, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Stealers Wheel also produced several other top 50 hits including, “Everyone’s Agreed That Everything Will Turn Out Fine,” and “Star.” Rafferty’s sense and exploration of his feelings of alienation could be seen in his songs “Outside Looking In” and “Who Cares.” Sadly, the duo disbanded in 1975.

His ongoing and increasing feelings of alienation were not only his, but many in society were feeling similarly as economics, social ills, and perceived depersonalization abounded throughout the 70’s.

Late Seventies Success

The Stealers Wheel breakup forced Rafferty to stop releasing music until his legal issues related to the breakup was settled three years later. 1978 saw his second solo album, “City to City” released. The album would go on to become one of his most successful releases and the song “Baker Street” would become his signature song. 

According to the record’s producer Hugh Murphy, he and Rafferty had to beg their record label, United Artists, to actually let “Baker Street” be released as a single. The label “… actually said it was too good for the public.” However, the Rafferty and Hughes premonitions were correct as the single reached #3 in the UK and #2 in the US (toppling the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack from its peak position in the US on 8 July 1978).  “City to City” sell over 5.5 million copies. “Baker Street” would go on to make the saxophone sexy again with its iconic sax performance. In a 2003 interview with the Scottish publication, The Sun, Rafferty noted that “Baker Street still makes me about £80,000 a year (About $110,000 in 2021 dollars) It’s been a huge earner for me. I must admit, I could live off that song alone.”

His next album, “Night Owl,” was another commercial and critical success. the title track hit the number 5 spot on the UK charts 1979. While his singles “Days Gone Down” peaked at the number 17 position in the US and the next single, “Get It Right Next Time,” broke into both the UK and US Top 40.

Later Career

The 80’s would see Rafferty release three more albums, using electronic instruments such as drum machines and synthesizers, in turn evolving his sound into a harder sound. His original complexly textured music of the 70’s was replaced and lost its acoustic feel. This combined with his dislike of performing live, led to these albums having less success than he had hoped.

The 90’s would go on to see him release two more albums and then “Another World” in 2000.  Rafferty found that the internet and music technology had advanced to a point where he could turn his back on the traditional music industry and record and produce his music in isolation at home and then sell his music directly to the consumers.

Final Years

In November 2009, Rafferty released “Life Goes On,” which would be his final album while he was alive. Rafferty loved to drink and slowly drifted into alcoholism. In 1990, Carla, his wife of 20 years, divorced him due to his drinking problems, although the two remained close throughout this life. In 1995, his brother passed away, and his friends and family believe he never fully recovered from that loss. 

In November 2010, Rafferty was admitted to the Royal Bournemouth Hospital for multiple organ failure and placed on life-support. He would later be removed from the machine and improved for a short time. Sadly, about two months later, on January 4, 2011, he passed away from liver failure at the home of his daughter.

January 2013 saw BBC Radio 2 rebroadcast “Bring It All Home – Gerry Rafferty Remembered.” The show saw a large number of his friends and fellow musicians contribute to it, including Rab Noakes, The Proclaimers, Barbara Dickson, Ron Sexsmith, Jack Bruce, Paul Brady, Emma Pollock, James Vincent McMorrow and Betsy Cook.

Baker Street and Me, Reprised

“Baker Street” remains my favorite song of all time. That young 13-year-old deep inside me, still finds the song, and his others comforting. They take me back to my pretty idyllic youth. Yet, even as a young teen, I believe that I sensed some of the loneliness and despair that Gerry saw through the lens of consciousness.

Time and age have given me perspective on both my early interpretations of his music and, particularly after the last year, my own perspective as an aging adult, slowly meandering into my alleged golden years.  My take on his music is now more textured. Both the light and the dark that I have given it, and I suspect that is what Gerry would want from his fans, provides me with an almost fuller grasp of my soul. Gerry, wherever you are, your music still speaks for my soul.

Mark Burton is the visionary founder and a Managing Director at Pop-Daze Entertainment. Prior to creating the Pop-Daze Universe, he was an attorney and a partner in a private equity firm. His love of legacy music led him to leave the world of finance and find his own niche in the music industry. He is ultimately responsible for every aspect of your experience and always loves hearing from “Dazers!” It should be noted that while he does play the drums, he’s not very good at it, yet! He can be reached at [email protected].