Who hasn’t dragged their tired soul home after long days of pounding the pavement in pursuit of some dream; when everything has been tried, everyone talked to, everything possible done, your very best, most complete shots taken… yet still there are no takers? Such moments can be incredibly discouraging and depressing. They can also be cathartic.
Nancy Wilson, discussing the emotions stirred by Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, 2018
The greatest riff in pop music history might not be Keith Richards’s guitar part from Satisfaction, and might not even be a guitar part at all, whichever your nominee might be. There’s a good argument that it’s actually the instantly captivating, infinitely memorable, and manifestly immortal saxophone line performed on Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 mega-hit Baker Street by little-known (and wonderfully named) session player Raphael Ravenscroft, who claimed to have composed it himself (early demos prove him wrong on that score), said he was paid for his efforts with a union scale 27 pound cheque that bounced (dubious), and always insisted rather sourly in public that it was almost unlistenable, telling one interviewer I’m irritated because it’s out of tune. Yeah, it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best. According to most knowledgable sources it’s neither terribly inventive nor especially difficult for any competent saxophonist to play, and evidence suggests that anyway Rafferty might have nicked it, from an earlier 1968 Jazz/Rock fusion recording called Half a Heart, performed in 1968 by virtual unknown Steve Marcus. The theft allegation is made plausible by the eerie similarity between the two, yet rendered equally implausible by the near certainty that UK resident Rafferty could never have heard the obscure American record, which moved maybe 1,000 copies in its own market, wasn’t sold at all in Great Britain, received absolutely no airplay anywhere, and wasn’t noticed by anybody until well after Baker Street emerged. Have a listen:
Songwriting credit for Half a Heart is widely attributed to vibraphonist and sometime composer Gary Burton, who’s gone back and forth on whether the resemblance between the two riffs could be pure coincidence, sometimes saying yes, because the older record was so obscure, sometimes thinking no, because they’re so similar, while also wondering why anybody’s asking him about it, seeing as he certainly wasn’t the composer. He’d remember something like that, right? So a bit of a mystery endures, and remains a lively topic of discussion on the internet among those (mostly pedants like me!) who like to discuss such things. You can read all about it here in this article in the Atlantic:
Whatever. Maybe it’s simple, technically unimpressive, and even plagiarized – there’s still something about it, isn’t there? I’ve never known anybody who doesn’t respond to it. Whatever the context, Baker Street cuts right through the background noise. People always want you to turn it up.
I’ve always found it odd that what strikes me as a rather moody, dark, and bluesy number, one boasting some scorching guitar work to boot, is universally classified as a “soft rock classic”, or, as they refer to the genre these days, “yacht rock”. Really? It doesn’t sound all that soft and yacht-worthy to me, not musically, and certainly not lyrically either, being, as it is, an account of a stumbling drunk’s depressed late night ramble down London’s legendary street, feeling beaten, directionless, and uncomfortably self-aware:
Winding your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well, another crazy day
You’ll drink the night away
And forget about ev’rything
This city desert makes you feel so cold
It’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul
And it’s taken you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything
You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you’re tryin’, you’re tryin’ now
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now
I don’t know about you, but I’m not up for lumping that in with Margaritaville and the Pina Colada Song, neither of which would in any case be getting much play on my yacht, even if I owned the sort of vessel a more benevolent Cosmos would have long since gifted a deservingly agreeable fellow like me.
Baker Street is purely autobiographical. Rafferty, always notoriously dismayed by the cutthroat aspects of the music business, was embroiled at the time in legal battles over contractual recording obligations (a hangover from his stint as frontman of the group Stealer’s Wheel, whose hit Stuck in the Middle With You was one of the musical highlights of a generally lacklustre 1973), feeling angry, depressed, and drinking heavily. The song recounts the aftermath of one of his many visits to London to meet with the bloody lawyers, and his subsequent visit to an old buddy’s flat, where he could take a little break for a while, have a few laughs, and try to focus on something else. This is from the website Songfacts:
The song was the Scottish singer’s first release after the resolution of legal problems surrounding the acrimonious breakup of his band Stealers Wheel in 1975. In the intervening three years, Rafferty had been unable to release any material due to disputes about the band’s remaining contractual recording obligations, and his friend’s Baker Street flat was a convenient place to stay as he tried to extricate himself from his Stealers Wheel contracts. Rafferty explained to Martin Chilton at the Daily Telegraph: “Everybody was suing each other, so I spent a lot of time on the overnight train from Glasgow to London for meetings with lawyers. I knew a guy who lived in a little flat off Baker Street. We’d sit and chat or play guitar there through the night.”
The legal problems were eventually resolved, but the drinking and depression remained, and I’m sorry to report that Rafferty died relatively young in 2011, aged only 63 (which no longer sounds anywhere near as ancient as I’d like), his liver and kidneys both shot from decades of boozing. He’d long since given up on making music or capitalizing on his earlier successes, and didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass, having even, at one point, turned down a chance to tour with Paul McCartney. He didn’t die a pauper, if that’s any comfort; right to the end, Baker Street was earning him a nice pension of about 80,000 pounds a year (approx. $US 125,000), and must still be raking in the royalties for somebody, one hopes his ex-wife Carla, who finally couldn’t live with him any longer, as his demons overtook him and his behaviour turned disturbing and erratic, but by all accounts never stopped caring. “There was no hope”, she said later. “I would never have left him if there’d been a glimmer of a chance of him recovering”. Listen to Baker Street, and you can hear it all coming.
Yacht rock, my big squishy backside.