Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rafferty Rules Right Down The Line

Following the acrimonious split between Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, both former axles of Stealers Wheel (not to mention their record label) fired repeated shots at one another via their respective management and legal teams, effectively preventing either party from recording. By 1978 the lawsuits had stopped, and the dust had finally settled on the bitter legal dispute. Joe Egan went on to record two album for the European based Ariola label, ‘Out Of Nowhere’ (1979) and ‘MaP’ (1981), neither of which returned Egan to the charts. Though neither Egan, nor Rafferty, had been able to release any material during the ‘litigious years’, it was clear both had been hard at work penning a substantial reserve of songs, several of which were clearly lyrical vessels through which to expel a considerable reservoir of bitter memories accumulated via the demise and aftermath of Stealers Wheel.

But whilst Egan’s creative efforts faded into relative obscurity, Gerry Rafferty was about to strike pay dirt with the biggest commercial hit of his career, and no doubt gloss over some of the pain of recent years. Now signed to a new deal with United Artists, Rafferty entered the recording studio with co-producer Hugh Murphy (who had produced Rafferty’s debut ‘Can I Have My Money Back’ set in 1971), to lay down tracks for his comeback solo album. He emerged in January ‘78 with ‘City To City’, an album that would in many ways become the centre piece of Gerry Rafferty’s career, certainly in terms of the stupendous commercial returns it garnered. The title track had been floated as a single a few months previous, but it took the release of the pop-rock masterpiece ‘Baker Street’ to propel Gerry Rafferty’s career to stratospheric heights. The lyric echoed the experiences of a world weary traveller, and was offset by a simply brilliant musical composition, that swirled seductively around Rafferty’s silky smooth vocals, before rising through pulsating waves of heavily amplified electric guitars, to a searing saxophone crescendo from Raphael Ravenscroft. It embodied everything that was good about slickly produced 70s pop-rock, and over thirty years later, endures as a shining example of the style, remaining one of the most frequently played tracks on ‘classic hits’ radio. It’s also been covered several times over the years, including a rousing rendition by Foo Fighters. ‘Baker Street’ swiftly became a much sought after address for record buyers, who pushed the song to #3 in Britain, #2 in the U.S. and #1 here in Australia, during the first half of 1978. For those unfamiliar with his previous work with Stealers Wheel (and the Humblebums), the name Gerry Rafferty exploded overnight, but with ten years of hard graft behind him, the singer/songwriter was finally getting his much deserved commercial dues.

Rafferty was, understandably, somewhat of a reluctant ‘overnight sensation’, and largely shunned much of the intense media and public spotlight that had been suddenly thrust upon him with the success of ‘Baker Street’. Reclusive by nature anyway, Rafferty point blank refused to embark on a promotional tour of the U.S. in support of the ‘City To City’ album. No doubt sales of the album would have been propelled even further by a Rafferty tour, but regardless ‘City To City’ racked up sales in the millions, peaked at #6 in Britain, #3 in Australia, and went on to achieve platinum certification on its way to #1 in the U.S. I recall inheriting a cassette copy of ‘City To City’ in my early teen years, and by way of it discovered the brilliance of Gerry Rafferty, and the album was one of the first titles I ever purchased on CD (in late 1987). The album was wall to wall class, and seamlessly blended an, at times, eclectic mix of stylistic influences (folk, Celtic, blues, pop-rock), with Rafferty’s enticing lyrical vignettes, to create an inviting musical story book, that you couldn’t help but wish to revisit time and again. The follow up singles ‘Right Down The Line’ (US#12/ OZ#93), which is my personal pick, and ‘Home And Dry’ (US#28), consolidated Gerry Rafferty’s profile, city to city, town to town, house to house. It should be noted that Rafferty assembled a stellar line-up of studio players on ‘City To City’, including Andy Fairweather-Low, Barbara Dickson, Tommy Eyre, Henry Spinetti, and several former Stealers’ cohorts such as Gary Taylor and Rab Noakes.

After his decision to shun touring the U.S. in support of ‘City To City’ (to be honest he didn‘t tour much anywhere anymore), Rafferty instead focussed his energies on writing and preparing for the follow up album. In May ‘79, the album and accompanying title track single ‘Night Owl’ were both released, and both made an immediate impact on the British charts. The single ‘Night Owl’ flew to #5 on the U.K. charts (OZ#64), whilst its source album perched itself at #9 in Britain, #18 in Australia, and #29 Stateside. Once again, the brilliant album cover art was conceived and designed by John ‘Patrick’ Byrne, and once again Hugh Murphy was on hand for production duties. Rafferty offered up a deeply personal album, full of genuine emotional resonance, disguised within his typically understated approach, as illustrated on the second single ‘Days Gone Down (Still Got The Light In Your Eyes’ (US#17), and album tracks like ‘Family Tree’. Amidst some of the sombreness, Rafferty conjured up a glimmer of optimism on ‘Get It Right Next Time’, which once more got it right on the singles charts (US#21/UK#30/OZ#90) in late ‘79, rounding out a heady couple of years for Gerry Rafferty.

Rafferty was undoubtedly experiencing his most prolific period as a songwriter, and by early 1980 had completed work on his third album of solo material inside of two years, but like another Scottish singer/songwriter, Al Stewart (see Dec. post), who had also soared to new commercial heights in the late 70s, Rafferty was about to experience somewhat of a drop in altitude during the 80s. 1980’s ‘Snakes And Ladders’ album still managed to rack up respectable sales figures (UK#15/OZ#31/US#61), but the performance of its singles ‘Bring It All Home’ (UK#54) and ‘The Royal Mile’ (US#43/UK#67/OZ#52), highlighted that Rafferty’s career fortunes had stopped climbing ladders, and were now on a slippery decline. The album featured some interesting guest players, including Pete Wingfield (see future post), The Baron De Bon Bon, and Vixen Barking (the latter two more curiosities than names of note), and Rafferty revisited an old Stealers Wheel track on ‘Didn’t I’, something he would do more of in the 90s. There was no shortage of warm melodies and lyrical engagement from ‘Snakes And Ladders’, but there was also no ‘Baker Street’ to inspire the set to great heights. Shortly after the release of ‘Snakes And Ladders’, matters were made worse for Rafferty when his record label United Artists was sold off to EMI, as part of your typical corporate revamp. EMI showed little interest in backing Rafferty’s current work, let alone providing support for future projects, and Rafferty was soon looking for a new label stable (no doubt harbouring fresh cynicism about the corporate vagaries of the music business).

Gerry Rafferty found a new home at Liberty (distributed by EMI) for his 1982 album ‘Sleepwalking’ (UK#39/ OZ#80). I rate the album very highly, by comparison with Rafferty’s earlier work, and the opening track ‘Standing At The Gates’ is Rafferty at his defiant best. But regrettably all momentum had dissipated from proceedings in terms of commercial returns, and the album yielded just one minor hit with the title track (OZ#87). Rafferty was no doubt disillusioned by the tepid reception offered his latest work, and over the ensuing five years didn’t release any new material of his own, aside from contributing to the track ‘The Way It Always Starts’, from Mark Knopfler’s sublime 1983 soundtrack album ‘Local Hero’. Rafferty also sat at the production helm during The Proclaimers’ 1987 debut set ‘This Is The Story’, which yielded the UK#3 single ‘Letter To America’.

By 1988 Gerry Rafferty had signed with London Records and released the album ‘North And South’ shortly after (UK#43/OZ#49). The album was never going to soar to the heights that ‘City To City’ had done a decade earlier, by for Rafferty fans it was a welcome (and long overdue) offering from a truly refined performer. I recall seeing the promotional video for the album’s first single ‘Shipyard Town’, and didn’t hesitate to trek on down to the record bar to purchase the vinyl 45 (soon after purchasing the album on CD). ‘Shipyard Town’ is shown in the record books to have peaked at #69 in Australia, but I’m certain it rated higher, at least on ‘Rages’ weekly top 50. At any rate, the song was a Celtic inspired folk-rock gem, as was ‘Tired Of Talking’, but Rafferty was still equally astute at slower tempo fare, with the sweet lament ‘Hearts Run Dry’ another standout. Rafferty once more assembled an impressive roster of support players, among them Mo Foster, Alan Clark (who Rafferty had worked with on ‘Local Hero’), Jerry Donahue, and Rafferty’s younger brother Jim.

As the 90s dawned, it was evident that Gerry Rafferty recorded new material as he so desired, and with considerable royalties from earlier work offering fiscal comfort, no doubt he could afford to do so. In late ‘92, Rafferty released the critically well received album ‘On A Wing And A Prayer’ (UK#73), and two years later the album ‘Over My Head’ included several retreated Stealers Wheel tracks, such as ‘Right Or Wrong’ and ‘Over My Head’, signalling a thawing of Rafferty’s previously icy relationship with Joe Egan. Rafferty’s only offering of new material over the last decade has been ‘Another World’ (2000), which was originally only available via direct website order. In subsequent years Rafferty has virtually retired from the music scene, and following a hospital admission for liver problems in 2008, reports have surfaced that Rafferty has dropped off the radar completely.

UPDATE - Sadly, after a prolonged battle with liver disease, Gerry Rafferty passed away on January 4th, 2011. From city to city, from north to south, many will mourn the loss of another gifted singer/songwriter.

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