Wednesday, January 05, 2011

 

Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty, who died yesterday, had been one of my favourite singer-songwriters ever since I rather belatedly got into music in my mid-to-late teens. Of four artists I was particularly devoted to, I eventually managed to see two play live – so it was eerie this morning to be woken by the Today Programme's 6.30 headlines with one of them, Tom Robinson, quoted in a tribute to the other, Gerry Rafferty, as "an inspiration to a generation". You probably know him from Baker Street (the one with the saxophone solo) and Stuck in the Middle (the one without the ear).

It wasn't either of his best-known songs that first sparked my interest in Gerry, oddly enough; friends of mine at school had their own band, and their covers of Gerry's early band Stealers' Wheel got my attention. I think it was probably the slow build-up of different instruments coming in to set off the driving rock and roll of Blind Faith that first made me want to track down the original, and that fixed my taste for Gerry's multi-layered big sound, rock tempered by folk but with a uniquely rich harmony of many instruments and voices. It helped, too, that several of Gerry's album covers were by John "Patrick" Byrne, whose Tutti Frutti I'd loved, and that the utterly bizarre caricatures for the three Stealers Wheel LPs in particular looked so fabulous.
"The voice, redolent of both Lennon's and McCartney's, yet unmistakably his own; the music, a shimmering delta of sound; the songs, romantic yet pushily sardonic – all came to fruition thanks to Gerry's gift of perfect pitch and an obdurate determination to stick to his guns."
From Gerry Rafferty's obituary by his former personal manager Michael Gray, in today's Guardian.

North and South

Although Gerry Rafferty's commercial and critical success – such as it was – came in the 1970s, I may still love his three 1980s albums the most… Which is a bit of a drawback if you want to look them up, as they're obviously the ones it's most difficult to get hold of (except intermittently on download). 1988's North and South, if you can find it, is for me the best of all his work. Released just as I was getting into him, it was the first of his LPs I bought, and has perhaps the most distinctive sound: several songs have extended intros before his voice comes in, with most set in a swirl of many different instruments, including the pipes that, with world-weary lyrics of being caught between life down in Kent, working in the big city, and his longing to return to Scotland, make this his most Scottish album since his early folk days in the Humblebums with Billy Connolly (yes, that one). The title song might just be my favourite of all his tracks, when I'm feeling idiosyncratic and don't want to pick Baker Street; the single Shipyard Town (which sank without trace, with me probably being one of just two people in Stockport to buy it) has a hugely infectious thump driving happier memories than his usual tone of regret; the urgent, rolling guitar of A Dangerous Age used to be on my walkman every time I was on a motorway journey; Hearts Run Dry is appropriately heartbreaking; and Moonlight and Gold is simply gorgeous. So look out for that one, if it happens to be on iTunes, or if you spot a CD that isn't going for silly money on eBay.

I have to admit I've listened to Gerry a good deal less in the last decade than in the dozen years before that: in part because I tend to watch DVDs more than I listen to music; in part because I'm more likely to listen to music that Richard likes to, so my consumption of rock and roll or punk has fallen away; but largely, particularly in Gerry's case, because I had all his work on vinyl, but no longer have a record player, and had transferred it all to cassette for ease of listening, but it's several years since our last cassette player gave up the ghost. With so much of his output near-impossible to find on CD, that rather cut down the listening opportunities, though I remember being delighted when one of the first of Doctor Who Confidential's clips montages way back in 2005 was set to the gorgeous hypnotic swirl of Get It Right Next Time.

Stealers' Wheel

I'd actually been listening to Gerry rather more often in the last couple of years, aided by at last finding CD reissues of the three Stealers' Wheel albums, the early '70s band with Joe Egan (who turns up intermittently on later Rafferty solo releases) which recorded the massive Stuck in the Middle but never quite took off, with an exciting mix of commercial failure, pretty much every member of the band leaving, coming back or being added by the record company, and eventual legal warfare that I'm sure you can read about on the internet if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Although the eponymous first album Stealers' Wheel is their best-known and includes Stuck in the Middle and the altogether lovely You Put Something Better Inside of Me, its rather sparse production means I much prefer the other two (one of the tracks, Johnny's Song, doesn't do a lot for me here, but becomes fantastic when reworked on Gerry's 1980 solo album). No, the Paisley-titled 'difficult second album' Ferguslie Park is much better, with the caressing regret of Waltz (You Know It Makes Sense) and the thumpingly good rock and roll of Blind Faith and (Everyone's Agreed That) Everything Will Turn Out Fine, while I'm probably the only person in the world whose favourite of the three is the less difficult than near-impossible third album, which wasn't so much released as escaped after several years in lawyers' custody and long after the band had expired, Right Or Wrong. They may all have hated it, but it's the closest to the lush solo sound that came a few years later. I love the title track; the catchy Catholic cynicism of Benediction was right in line with my religious upbringing; even funky chicken Wishbone grabbed me.

Baker Street and the Rest

If you have a Gerry Rafferty album, it's probably 1978's City to City, which was deservedly a massive success along with its lead single, Baker Street, which mixes melancholic reflections on a singer's street life in London with an uncharacteristic but appealing closing paean of hope and sunrise, an arching guitar solo and, of course, one of the most blissful saxophone solos ever recorded (by Raphael Ravenscroft or, if you prefer your urban legends, Bob Holness. Look, he wasn't a saxophonist – he was James Bond). If you have a copy of the B-side, incidentally, Big Change in the Weather, I don't think that's ever been released on CD, so it's a very long time since I've heard it… Almost the whole album's superb, though – rock Home and Dry and romantic Right Down the Line are both fabulous and reasonably well-known; soaring, reflective Whatever's Written in Your Heart is rather lovely, and Waiting for the Day has another effortless rock bounce to it.

Although his music continued to be great, nothing Gerry Rafferty did after City to City had the same success – perhaps because soft rock was out of fashion, perhaps because of his famous distaste for fame and the music business (a theme that recurs through his work much more even than most singer-songwriters), perhaps because, in a business more about sex appeal than art, he was never much of a looker. His next four albums plotted a sharp downwards sales line – the follow-up, Night Owl, was the least interesting ('like City to City, only less so') but the only one that was a fair-sized hit. I've never really gone much for the title track – a hit single, yet hardly ever played since, and which might as well have been called, 'God, I Hate Touring' – though the swirling Get It Right Next Time is sublime near-perfect pop, Days Gone Down makes longing almost heroic, then Take the Money and Run and The Tourist… Are catchy tunes that hate the music business.

I'd much rather listen to Snakes and Ladders, not that I can at the moment because I'm not paying £60 for the CD on eBay, which was the point where his sales fell off a cliff and, predictably, a particular favourite of mine. All right, so it's not quite as good as the rock sublimity of City to City, but the feel's a great mix of laid-back and sardonic, with a sure musical sensibility. I've already mentioned his compelling bluesy retake on Johnny's Song, while the lush sound and cynically political lyrics of The Garden Of England (complete with sampled Willie Whitelaw, I seem to remember) is one of the most Raffertyish of all his songs. The infectious folk-rock of The Royal Mile (Sweet Darlin') was one I once had on many cassette compilations (and always cheering to walk with Café Le Cabotin, which I'd play next to a Paul McCartney song about a café which, obviously, I can't quite remember and also don't have on CD, though I probably could if I got round to it).

The next album, after which he stopped recording until his masterpiece (yeah, I know, only for me) North and South, was his shortest and his most uncharacteristic. Sleepwalking is starkly synthesiser-based (aside from the more complex shuffle of the title track) and has a fairly anonymous photographic landscape cover, giving the whole a feel of alienation, in severe contrast to the intimacy of most of his albums; while I love synth-pop, it's not something he seems entirely comfortable with, and yet some of the melodies are among his most lovely – The Right Moment, in particular… Wise As A Serpent, another standout track, is hypnotic but cold. And, yes, this is another one it's very difficult to find – but with a haunting desire to hear the guitar and bass opus of Standing at the Gates again, I have to admit I've just shelled out £30 on eBay for it. It had better play…

Like City to City, if considerably less celebrated, you can find On a Wing and a Prayer fairly easily and cheaply; it's rather good, with a big sound this time offered by very distinctive backing vocals – it was at this time that I saw him being terrific on stage in Hackney, and boy, there were a lot of singers, with the biggest voice offered by a very big chap indeed – and some of his most lingering melodies of loss. I'm sure someone once called this 'the divorce album', and it certainly runs through every emotional reaction, from wanting to hang on (the hauntingly regretful single I Could Be Wrong), to remembering the good times (Love and Affection), to the album's most electric and lively if not its most pleasant track, a cover of Allen Toussaint's Get Out Of My Life Woman. The track that most stays in my head, though, is the opening song Time's Caught Up on You, with a breathtaking a cappella introduction (and rather than divorce, this one's about… Oh, see if you can guess).

There weren't that many Gerry Rafferty releases after that one in 1992, save a legion of each-one-very-slightly-different-from-the-last compilations, and what new material there was didn't really live up to his previous work, despite occasional sparks. Over My Head in 1995 was OK, but the first of his albums where – aside from the atypically brisk single The Girl's Got No Confidence, and several songs re-recorded from his early '70s oeuvre – I was hard-pressed to get any of the tunes to sink in, while the last decade's Another World… Wasn't nearly as good as that. I found it a bit of a religious dirge, and aside from Land of the Chosen Few, such memorable tunes as there were tended to be borrowed from his earlier work or, again, simple re-recordings. His final album, Life Goes On from 2009, was a partial return to form, though very little of it was strictly new, with covers, re-recordings, different takes and only the odd new song. The material, though, appropriately stretches from reworkings of his early '70s songs through to his favourites from On a Wing and a Prayer, so it's not a bad elegy for him, and I'm particularly glad it's got a re-recording (if not quite as piquant as the original) of Shipyard Town B-side Heart's Desire, an otherwise difficult-to-find song that's as Rafferty as they came – a lovely melody, and very wry lyrics.
"And now you've got everything you ever wanted,
But money can't buy you a satisfied mind.
What can you do when a dream comes true
And you can't go any higher?
That's the price you pay for your heart's desire."
His having returned to them so much in his later years, I'll finish by rounding full circle to some of Gerry Rafferty's earliest recordings. Only having them on LP, it's been a long time since I've listened to Gerry and Billy's folky Humblebums albums, which were all right, or his first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back, which is better if not outstanding and shows a lot of his talent being honed (despite rather primitive production, with much more life than the late-period CDs that recapture some of the same songs) and even in the title track of this very early work displays his hatred of the music business – it's worth a listen, though, particularly for the melodic longing of Mary Skeffington (apparently inspired by his mother), Long Way Round (clearly a prototype of his later big numbers, as is the Humblebums' I Can't Stop Now), and Sign on the Dotted Line, the effusive catchiness of which is at odds with, unsurprisingly, its critique of the music industry (and it's also one of the tracks he did with Joe Egan, soon to be the other half of Stealers' Wheel. Which is where I more or less began, above).

Gerry Rafferty never seemed to enjoy fame very much, but I loved his songs, and very few singer-songwriters have ever matched the sustained quality of his work from the early '70s through to the early '90s, in fair sales and foul. And amid that, there are a handful of songs so outstanding and so lucky as to have caught the public ear (and Quentin Tarantino's) that he'll be widely remembered. And I'll miss him.

The lovely Stephen Glenn has also written about Gerry this morning.


The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy

More happily, it was thirty years ago today that the first episode of the TV series The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy was broadcast on BBC2 – for me, the definitive version of the much-written, often-made story. Douglas Adams had honed his scripts to perfection; it's one of the most visually imaginative TV series ever made; and Paddy Kingsland's music is so utterly gorgeous that hearing it to the sunrise can still make me tear up (OK, so it was only pop and rock that I took a while to get into; I always loved TV scores).

I think I'll go out and get myself a new towel. Though Marks and Spencer's in Salisbury is probably a bit of a trek.

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Comments:
Lovely piece.
The McCartney tune you mention is probably Cafe On The Left Bank from London Town by Wings - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAPvgry0-Xk
 
Thank you very much, Andrew! You are spot-on, as always. While I'm knackered and not terribly coherent, but sad and determined to write something (even if it was just a big list, really). Nice to hear that tune again, too.
 
The lovely me managed to convey the tragic loss of two music greats in far less words than you took for one. Am I really that surprised?
 
If you are, you'll be the only one on Earth ;)

Look, it was indecently brief compared to today's Doctor Who review...
 
I've just watched a rather lovely Gerry Rafferty extended interview and – as he doesn't like appearing on the telly much – retrospective with friends like Billy Connolly and Barbara Dickson from the STV series Artery in 2001, which STV have put up on their player. It's definitely worth watching, and (assuming it won't be there long) if anyone has the technical nous to record it for me, I'd very much appreciate it.
 
Alex, that was a great piece on Gerry. I have everything he has ever recorded from The Humblebums through to all the solo stuff in MP3 format and will happily send you anything you are looking for. Email me at alanrafferty@btinternet.com and let me know what you would like.

I also have a concert from 1993 that he recorded in Hamburg.

Best wishes - Alan
 
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