News of Gerry Rafferty‘s death at the age of 63 will inevitably focus attention on his two best-known songs, Stealers Wheel’s 1973 folk-pop hit ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, and ‘Baker Street’, released under his own name in 1978.
He’s not someone, in all honesty, who’s ever featured much in the pages of NME, but we thought we’d take the opportunity to pay tribute to a somewhat misunderstood and under-appreciated singer-songwriter: a member of rock’s awkward squad whose fatal flaw – apart from his alcoholism – was his habit of sabotaging his own career. Here’s why Rafferty will be missed.
1. Well he wrote ‘Baker Street’, obviously
It’s often thought of a Dad-rock, drive-time kind of song, but people who think that obviously haven’t heard the lyrics. ‘Baker Street”s smooth sax exterior conceals a riptide of bitterness. Written while Rafferty was trying to extricate himself from his Stealers Wheel record contract, it’s entirely autobiographical, capturing the rage of a hard-drinking working class Scot trudging the streets of London, desperate for a break (“This city desert makes you feel so cold”).
Then of course there’s that famous saxophone hook, performed by Raphael Ravenscroft, and originally conceived as a guitar line until Rafferty cannily realised only sax would do. So in that sense Foo Fighters’ amped-up cover – ostensibly an affectionate reinvention – was faithful to an embryonic version of the song.
2. His lyrics were darker than you might think
The power of that ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs is supposedly the ironic contrast between the brutality of the torture and the apparent breeziness of the song. But listen more closely and you’ll realise the song’s pretty vicious itself, sung from the point of view of someone who pretty much despises everyone (“Clowns to the left of me…”), has no idea where he’s going in life, and has a bad case of The Fear, presumably booze-induced (“And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs”).
3. He refused to play the game
Even after the huge success of ‘Baker Street’ (its parent album ‘City To City’ sold 5.5 million copies) Rafferty refused to tour, or even recruit a manager. That continued the pattern – success followed by years of chaos and inertia – set by ‘Stuck In The Middle’, after which Stealers Wheel split up without ever scoring another hit.
“I was going through a very strange period in my life then,” Rafferty told Rolling Stone in 1978. “I’d been living a dream for six or eight years and suddenly I woke up. I was a pretty scary kind of feeling. Perhaps I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”
The downward spiral began then, and never really stopped. Rafferty’s alcoholism was extreme, and by 2009 he was pretty much a recluse, though there were various ignominious reports of him being carried off airplanes and trashing hotel rooms so badly the contents had to be incinerated.
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The again, there was never any likelihood of Gerry Rafferty enjoying a smooth descent into monied retirement. “The music industry is something I loathe and detest,” he once said. “A gigantic factory, pumping out shit like there’s no tomorrow.”
He’ll be remembered as one of those musicians who are just too contary, too spiky, too self-destructive to fit the role of ‘successful rock star’.