Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
At the start of the eighties, the saxophone was suddenly and unexpectedly omnipresent. From TV commercials to rock singles, its smooth, sultry tones seemed to be found everywhere. By mid-decade, it was the most popular instrument for young, aspiring musicians to pick and learn, sending saxophone sales through the roof. Richard Ingham and John Helliwell refer to this as “The Baker Street Phenomenon” – linking the massive surge of popularity for the instrument to Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit single “Baker Street”. Certainly, in the over forty years since its release, we can see how the song’s saxophone riff has carried on an almost independent life of its own. However, the impact of “Baker Street” was not limited only to its most famous element. It stands as one of the greatest hits of its time, and propelled the Scottish singer-songwriter into international stardom — a world in which he never could become comfortable.
“Baker Street” was the lead single from Rafferty’s 1978 solo album City to City – his first release since the breakup of his band Stealers Wheel in 1975 and his first solo release in 6 years. The song shot to the top of the charts, peaking at the number two spot in the US, and remained there for several weeks. Despite this phenomenal success, Rafferty cancelled his plans for a US Tour. His daughter, Martha, attributed this to his deeply introverted personality and wariness of the music industry: “He was planning a tour of America but was scared by the momentum he was generating and the kind of people his success attracted” she told Daily Record in 2011.
Gerry Rafferty grew up in the town of Paisley in Scotland, 10 minutes outside of Glasgow. His first introduction to music was through the music of the Catholic Mass, as well as the Scottish and Irish folk songs that his mother would sing to him as a child. As a teenager he discovered skiffle, American folk music and rock and roll – listening to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers and the Band. He told Zig Zag in 1975:
“Like everyone else I started listening to radio, that’s where I first picked up on pop music. The first thing I remember hearing that struck me with any kind of strength was ‘Rock Island Line’ by Lonnie Donegan. Our family had just bought their first record player, it was one of these old radiograms and the funny thing is my mother’s still got this thing and the speakers are superb. But the first record we bought was an old 78 and it was ‘Rock Island Line’ by Lonnie Donegan. Then my elder brother – Jim, who’s six years older than I am – started buying all the early Elvis records, so as a kid I heard music through records and listening to the radio and stuff. But as a family the three brothers and all of us at Christmas time and New Year time used to sing together and harmonise.”
In 1969, Rafferty met future-comedian Billy Connolly and joined his Scottish-folk group, The Humblebums. They released two albums together, The New Humblebums, and Open Up the Door. In 1971, the Humblebums split up, and Rafferty signed with Transatlantic to release his first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back?
The following year, Rafferty reconnected with childhood schoolmate Joe Egan to form Stealers Wheel. The pair had previously played in bands together as teenagers, as Rafferty told Zigzag:
“I played with local bands and when I was about seventeen or eighteen that’s when I first met Joe [Egan]. He was playing in a band called the Censors at the time and he was the lead singer. They were a band from Paisley who just played at weekends and they needed a rhythm guitarist and vocalist so I filled that position, and something sparked off between Joe and myself immediately because we’d both been keen on the Everly Bros. and we could sing quite well together. […] He was the first guy that really sparked anything off and it was really close and it’s still close. So we played in this band the Censors at weekends for a year or so and then we played in a band called the Mavericks for another two years.”
For Stealers Wheel, Rafferty and Egan recorded three albums together, working with the legendary songwriters and producers Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller. Despite the immense talent between everyone involved, the working relationships between the two generations of musicians was strained. Yet, the band found great success with their single “Stuck in the Middle With You”. The track hit number 8 on the UK Singles Chart and number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1975, however, Rafferty and Stealers Wheel struggled through a messy breakup, which provided the inspiration for the song “Baker Street”
The legal fallout of the band’s breakup was especially hard on Rafferty. He told 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 song lyrics depict Rafferty’s disillusionment with the music industry and the fast-paced lifestyle that seems to come with it. Even though they come from a very specific experience, the lyrics have a particularly powerful way of connecting with wide audiences.
Rafferty’s haunting melody captures a very relatable sense of burnout and frustration that extend far beyond the specific circumstances in the context of which they were written. This is further heightened by Rafferty’s co-producer on the album, Hugh Murphy, who took particular attention to Rafferty’s vocals on the track. Murphy explained: “The voice is the most important thing…It’s all a bunch of chords and people making noise and, when you put the voice on, all of a sudden it comes into focus.”
While Rafferty’s perfectly articulated vocal part plays an important role in the song’s success, the song’s wailing saxophone riff is the track’s most iconic element. The saxophone part on the record is performed by Raphael Ravenscroft – whose expressive and emotional playing made the 8-bar riff one of the most famous saxophone lines in music history.
There has been some controversy surrounding the riff’s authorship, as Ravenscroft claimed to have created the saxophone solo’s melody, filling in the empty “gaps” of Rafferty’s song. However that claim was refuted in 2011 when a demo recording of the song – recorded prior to Ravenscroft joining the sessions – was released. In the demo, the saxophone melody is clearly present and fully-formed, only it is performed by Rafferty on guitar.
“Baker Street” and the City to City album was recorded at Chipping Norton Recording studio in Oxfordshire, England. The studio was built out of a former school house and recorded several well-known bands and artists including, Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce, Duran Duran, Judas Priest, and Rafferty’s close friend, Barbara Dickson. Radiohead’s hit track “Creep” was also recorded at Chipping Norton.
In 1977 – the same year that Rafferty came in to record City to City – the studio upgraded its facilities, bringing in American acoustician John Storyk to redesign the space. It housed a MCI JH-100 24-track recorder, and a 30 x 24 Trident A-Range mixer. Hugh Murphy co-produced the album with Rafferty, and Declan O’Doherty was the engineer.
City to City was released on January 20, 1978, and “Baker Street” followed as a single two weeks later on February 3. The song peaked in the number two spot, holding its place for six weeks (stuck behind Andrew Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing”). It spent four weeks in the number one spot in Canada, and also topped the charts in Australia and South Africa. In the UK, the song peaked at number three.
While the song brought Rafferty international fame and attention, Rafferty pulled away from the spotlight, cancelling his American tour and making few public appearances. Rafferty told Rolling Stone after the tour’s cancellation: “To be a ‘star’ in inverted commas — -that is probably the last thing I want. What I want is just to develop in terms of my songs”
While he rejected fame and attention, Rafferty continued to make music – on his own terms. After “Baker Street” and City to City, he went on to release seven more solo albums and continued work on an eclectic array of projects.
In 2011, Rafferty passed away from liver failure after a long battle with alcoholism. Despite shying away from the spotlight for most of his career, the flood of tributes and honours after his death revealed the profound impact his work had on generations of musicians who came after him. The lasting influence of “Baker Street” only further highlights Rafferty’s immense talent as a songwriter, and his remarkable ability to take his own experiences and shape them in a way which captured the hearts of listeners around the world.