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Baker Street: How Gerry Rafferty Cooked Up A Soft-Rock Masterpiece
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In Depth

Baker Street: How Gerry Rafferty Cooked Up A Soft-Rock Masterpiece

With one of the most iconic saxophone hooks in rock history, Gerry Rafferty’s hit 1978 song, Baker Street, has been beloved for decades.

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A bittersweet soft-rock opus that captured the hearts of millions with its instantly recognisable saxophone hook, the 1978 single Baker Street, by Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, is one of the most influential songs ever recoded. Well ahead of its time in so many ways, it arrived like a breath of fresh air to sweep the airwaves, not only becoming a chart-topping hit but also singlehandedly writing the sonic instruction manual for a new breed of 80s music that would come to be known as “yacht rock”.

From its lush production frills to its melancholic lyrics and bittersweet melody, Baker Street still stands tall as a poignant meditation on despondency and inertia, striking a chord with listeners who embraced it as an emotionally-charged classic-rock staple. Here, then, is the story of how Gerry Rafferty wrote Baker Street, and why it remains a timeless classic that continues to captivate audiences around the world.

Listen to the best of Gerry Rafferty here.

The backstory: “Everybody was suing each other, so I spent a lot of time meeting with lawyers”

Having teamed up with comedian Billy Connolly in the folk duo The Humblebums, and releasing a solo debut album, Can I Have My Money Back?, back in 1971, Rafferty had enjoyed a storied musical career for much of the early 70s. However, the real turning point was when he co-founded the folk-rock group Stealer’s Wheel with fellow musician and school friend Joe Egan, leading to some acclaimed live appearances on the BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Rafferty’s big breakthrough came when he co-wrote the song Stuck In The Middle With You, which would later be immortalised in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 movie, Reservoir Dogs. Released in April 1973, Stuck In The Middle With You peaked at No.6 on the US Hot 100, not only proving that Rafferty was capable of writing songs for mass audience appeal, but also demonstrating that he was never far from the cusp of greatness. By 1975, however, Stealer’s Wheel had broken up, prompting Rafferty to re-embark on a solo career. But he would find that it wasn’t quite that easy.

“Everybody was suing each other,” the songwriter later said, reflecting on the demise of Stealer’s Wheel, “so I spent a lot of time on the overnight train from Glasgow to London for meetings with lawyers.” Despite building up a backlog of solo material throughout this period, Rafferty was prohibited from releasing any new songs while these legal disputes were still ongoing, leading to three years of radio silence, stifling Rafferty’s creativity as he waited for all the loose ends to be tied up. A disillusioned Rafferty received a harsh wake-up call about the pitfalls of the music industry that he never let himself forget.

Having remained friendly with session guitarist Iain Campbell during this time, Rafferty made a habit of the musician at his flat on Baker Street whenever he found himself in London. “We stayed up, playing guitars until the sun came up,” Rafferty said. “I had to get the train to Glasgow from Euston, and as I walked down there with my guitar case in my hand, it was such a beautiful morning, such a positive feeling.” Giving himself a brief respite from all the legal troubles, it wasn’t long before the informal jams inspired a new song.

The recording: “Quite frankly, I loved his songs”

Recorded at Chipping Norton Studios, in Oxfordshire, and co-produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy, Baker Street was laid to tape during sessions for the Scottish songwriter’s second album, City To City, in late 1977. Tasked with bringing the song to life were lead guitarist Hugh Burns, rhythm guitarist Nigel Jenkins, bassist Gary Taylor, string arranger Graham Preskett and session players Tommy Eyre on keyboards, Henry Spinetti on drums, and Glen Lafleur on percussion.

The saxophone riff: “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune”

The show’s real star, however, was alto sax player Raphael “Raf” Ravenscroft, a session musician who quickly gained legendary status for lending his talents to one of the greatest saxophone hooks ever recorded. Remarkably, the then 23-year-old saxophonist almost turned down the opportunity to play on Baker Street. “I had to get from London to Chipping Norton and I was too young to drive, so I just couldn’t get there,” Ravenscroft said in an interview with BBC’s The One Show. “The logistics of it for the very small session fee at the time was gonna cost me money.”

Ravenscroft was paid just £27.50 for the session, but his gamble paid off: he soon found himself earning as much as £80,000 a year in royalties when Baker Street became a success. Reflecting on the song in 2011, however, Ravenscroft did harbour some niggling regrets about how his performance turned out. “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune,” he confessed. “Yeah, it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.” Nevertheless, the passion and emotion behind the saxophonist’s playing on is what counted most, instantly resonating with millions across the globe.

Lead guitarist Jake Burns also remembers the experience of recording Baker Street extremely fondly. Having just played a London gig with Jack Bruce of Cream, Burns was invited by Gerry Rafferty to play the song’s majestic seagull-like guitar solo, adding an enchanting slide guitar lick to Ravenscroft’s beguiling sax hook. “I went to the studio after I played the gig and I think one of the first songs we played was Baker Street, and I said, ‘This is fantastic. This is a great song,’” Burns recalled. “Quite frankly, I loved his songs. I regard it as a great good fortune that I was able to meet and contribute something to Gerry’s music.”

The lyrics: “Perhaps I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown”

Given all the hoops Rafferty had to jump through due to legal proceedings, there’s a palpable sense of existential angst and a yearning for escapism lurking beneath the surface of Baker Street. Dissatisfied with being left in limbo and dispirited by his experiences of touring with Stealer’s Wheel, Rafferty found inspiration in the 1956 philosophy book The Outsider, by Colin Wilson. Often considered part of the “Angry Young Men” literary canon, it’s a book that explores the inner psyche of a social misfit and sees the author attempt to make sense of not fitting in with the world around him.

“I was going through a very strange period in my life right then,” Rafferty said in a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Reflecting upon how he was now a husband and a father, the songwriter was wrestling with an inner struggle and felt at odds with the music industry. With ongoing legal battles threatening to sap his creative spirit, Rafferty would often turn to booze to anaesthetise himself from the stress – a tendency toward alcoholism that would blight him for the rest of his life. “Perhaps I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown – that’s how it felt, anyway,” Rafferty noted. “I just had to get away, away from groups, managers, record companies, the whole thing.”

Baker Street’s lyrics reflect Rafferty’s mindset at this tumultuous point in his career. Positively aching with melancholy, the song’s wearisome words spell out his bouts of depression and his longing for escape, describing the nights he had spent playing guitar in Iain Campbell’s flat, feeling “light in your head and dead on your feet” and admitting he’ll “drink the night away, and forget about everything”. A homebody at heart, and missing his beloved Scotland, Rafferty expresses his dislike for how city life “makes you feel so cold” and how there’s “so many people, but it’s got no soul”.

Essentially, Baker Street sees Rafferty musing on burnout and self-exhaustion. “You know he’ll always keep moving,” Rafferty sings, as if trying to eke as much petrol as he can from a tank running on empty. There is, however, a glimmer of optimism (“He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land/He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands”), and he imagines a time when he can greet a new dawn with hope and a sense of belonging (“When you wake up, it’s a new morning/The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/And you’re going, you’re going home”). Unflinchingly direct and vulnerable, it was clear the lyrics to Baker Street found Rafferty searching for solace that only a melody could capture.

The release: “He was scared by the momentum he was generating”

Released as a single on 3 February 1978, Baker Street became nothing short of an international phenomenon, peaking at No.2 in the US – where it was narrowly kept off the top spot by Andy Gibb’s Shadow Dancing – and No.3 In the UK. In a year when punk music was de rigueur and disco still had some legs, it seemed unthinkable that Baker Street, a six-minute soft-rock epic seeped in saxophonic splendour and melancholic melodies – could ever become a hit, but it defied even Rafferty’s own humble expectations by going on to be certified gold not just once, but twice.

After racking up more than one million sales in North America alone, Baker Street would go on to win Rafferty an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically And Lyrically in 1978. A deeply introverted personality, the songwriter felt uneasy about being suddenly thrust into the spotlight, particularly given his reservations about the vagaries of the music business. Accepting a Best Single award for Baker Street at the 1978 British Rock And Pop Awards, Rafferty appeared proud but somewhat guarded, simply saying the words “absolutely wonderful” before awkwardly shuffling off stage.

While some may have expected the success of Baker Street to spur Rafferty onto greater feats of commercial ambition – perhaps to rival the likes of Elton John and Billy Joel – his discomfort won out, as the songwriter opted to scrap plans for a US tour in favour of retreating from the limelight. “He was planning a tour of America but was scared by the momentum he was generating and the kind of people his success attracted,” Gerry’s daughter, Martha, later explained.

Rafferty himself admitted as much to Rolling Stone, and he balked at the suggestion that he might be a one-hit wonder. “To be a ‘star’ in inverted commas – that is probably the last thing I want,” Rafferty said. “What I want is just to develop in terms of my songs.” Feeling more at home in the recording studio than under the media spotlight, Rafferty would carry on releasing more spellbinding material, but Baker Street remains his most-recognised work, a watershed moment that saw Rafferty come into full bloom as one of the finest songwriters of his generation.

The legacy: “It became the song which defined him, but he was much more than that”

Baker Street had a seismic influence that went beyond Rafferty’s career and on to affect the music industry as a whole. Not only did the song reportedly lead to a spike in saxophone sales, but it also set the blueprint for a style of rock music that would eventually be dubbed “yacht rock”. Characterised by sleek, pristine production, with catchy melodies, jazz-influenced grooves and a sultry air of luxury woodwind flourishes, Baker Street set the template for a pioneering blend of sounds that would come to dominate the 80s.

The changing musical landscape benefitted Raphael Ravenscroft hugely. Once a jobbing session hand who took home £27.50 for his worn on Baker Street, the saxophonist spent much of the 80s commanding £5,000 per session, going on to perform on tracks such as Maneater by Daryl Hall and John Oates, Rio by Duran Duran and Careless Whisper by George Michael. “It changed me from being a second-division player to being a top first-division player,” Ravenscroft said in a BBC interview.

As for the songwriter himself, Baker Street remains one of the best Gerry Rafferty songs, but the tender Scotsman still held fast to his conviction that fame was not something he wished to pursue. Nor did he waste any time desiring it. “Once you enter into the world of celebrity you can no longer be an observer in life,” Rafferty later said, “and I’ve always valued that highly.” That said, Rafferty did keep up the momentum with yet another UK Top 5 single, Night Owl, in 1979. But, as with most seminal masterpieces, Baker Street would understandably become his signature song.

“Baker Street was always a bit of a cross to bear,” Martha Rafferty said in an interview with Daily Record. “It became the song which defined him – the big rock anthem. But that was not what he was striving for. It was unfortunate he got labelled as a one-hit, 70s soft-rock artist when he was a lot more than that.”

Since its release, Baker Street has been recognised by the BMI for achieving more than five million performances worldwide, and Gerry Rafferty is today rightly regarded as one of best Scottish songwriters of all time. However, as posthumous collections such as Rest In Blue have proven, there is much more to Rafferty’s discography than Baker Street alone. But it’s impossible to ignore its importance as one of the best 70s songs, and its impact on generations of listeners can still be felt today.

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