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‘City To City’: How Gerry Rafferty’s Masterpiece Album Won Him Artistic Freedom
Warner Music
In Depth

‘City To City’: How Gerry Rafferty’s Masterpiece Album Won Him Artistic Freedom

With its mellow soft-rock, Gerry Rafferty’s second album, ‘City To City’, catapulted the Scottish songwriter into the big leagues.

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After the dissolution of folk-rock group Stealers Wheel – for whom Gerry Rafferty had co-written the US Top 10 hit Stuck In The Middle With You with Joe Egan – the Scottish songwriter spent three long years in the wilderness due to the legal disagreements in the wake of the band’s break-up. “Everybody was suing each other,” Rafferty later reflected, “so I spent a lot of time on the overnight train from Glasgow to London for meetings with lawyers.” Prevented from releasing a new record while disputes were ongoing, he began to amass new material for what would become his second solo album, 1978’s City To City. Featuring many of the best Gerry Rafferty songs – including soft-rock classics such as Baker Street and Right Down The Line – the album emerged as a career-defining work that was destined to go down in history and make the Paisley-born songwriter a star, much to his chagrin…

Listen to ‘City To City’ here.

The recording: “It was just the right sound for the track. And the rest is history”

Recorded in 1977, Gerry Rafferty’s impeccable, sophisticated second solo album, City To City, saw him effortlessly combine all of his familiar strengths to create a work that ranges from smooth folk-rock grooves to calm and reflective balladry tinged with romance. Without a doubt, the album couldn’t have asked for better promotion in the shape of its majestic second single, Baker Street – a towering anthem with an awe-inspiring saxophone melody that proved enormously popular in the US, peaking at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1978.

Flying into the UK singles chart at No.3, Baker Street’s memorable sax hook had been brewing in Rafferty’s mind from its early demos, leading him to invite session player Raphael Ravenscroft to help transform it into one of the best 70s songs. “He turned up with this real-beat up saxophone,” Rafferty later told Folk Roots of Raphael’s involvement. “It was falling apart, with the keys falling off and gaffer tape everywhere, but because Raph plays really, really hard it was just the right sound for the track. And the rest is history.”

There was much magic to be found elsewhere on City To City. Having sought sanctuary in his Scottish homeland while his legal battles were being fought, Rafferty channelled his fondness for Celtic folk music in order to create the album’s sophisticated six-minute opener, The Ark. “The Celtic thing is the drone, you know,” Rafferty explained to Rolling Stone. “It’s fifths, the same as in country music, a lot of which comes from Scotland and Ireland, anyway.” A laidback and affecting ballad, The Ark glides along with biblical references (“We’ll sail out on the water/Yes, we’ll feel the seas roll”) to poetically express Rafferty’s longing for respite from the flood of legal troubles lapping at his door.

The emotions: “I was going through a very strange period in my life right then”

Aged 30 at the time of City To City’s release, Gerry Rafferty was a husband and father, so his songwriting took a distinctly romantic turn, resulting in some of the most accomplished love ballads he’d ever penned. “I was going through a very strange period in my life right then,” Rafferty said. “One day it was like I’d been living in a dream for six or eight years and suddenly I woke up. It was a pretty scary kind of feeling.”

Spurred on by his love for his wife, Carla, and daughter, Martha, Rafferty followed Baker Street with his next single, Right Down The Line, a ballad of steadfast devotion containing a deep and sincere message of thanks to his spouse (“You’ve been as constant as a Northern Star/The brightest light that shines”). Boasting some of guitarist Hugh Burns’ most heart-stirring riffs, Right Down The Line peaked at No.12 in the US in August 1978 and remains an immortal classic; in 2022, it even went viral on TikTok after being introduced to a new generation via the HBO drama Euphoria, starring Gen Z actress Zendaya.

Reflecting on bouts of homesickness Rafferty would experience while touring with Stealers Wheel, City To City’s title track is an upbeat folk-rocker awash with violins from fiddle player Graham Preskett. With lyrics that express Rafferty’s desire to escape life on the road, the song was originally released as City To City’s lead single, in September 1977. A songwriting gem, it polishes off the weariness of long-distance commuting into a sparkling chorus about bidding farewell and coming home.

The catharsis: “Before, I never was in control. Now I feel much more in control of myself”

With his legal worries now behind him, Rafferty was in a much better position to call the shots. “Before, I never was in control,” he later said. “Now I feel much more in control of myself, and certainly much more in control of the way I want my career to go along.” Aided by Tommy Eyre’s gentle electric piano, the relaxing ballad Stealin’ Time sees Rafferty reflect upon his newfound independence “‘I’ve been stealin’ time/But I don’t feel guilty, ’cause the time was mine”), while Mattie’s Rag is a leisurely traipse through a joyous music-hall groove with a touch of swing-jazz thrown in the mix.

Proving that Rafferty’s songwriting was rivalling the likes of his 70s contemporaries Elton John, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Al Stewart, the piano ballad Whatever’s Written In Your Heart is a glorious gospel-inspired work of profound honesty about romantic dissolution. Released as a single in June 1978, it still stands the test of time as one of Rafferty’s most moving and sentimental compositions.

Of all the songs on City To City, Whatever’s Written in Your Heart meant a great deal to Rafferty. A work of deeply-felt sincerity, it expressed the stoic realisation that true emotions are lived rather than spoken. Upon Rafferty’s death of liver failure at the age of 63, in January 2011, Whatever’s Written in Your Heart was chosen by his family to be sung at a post-funeral gathering. It’s easy to see why the song made for a fitting epitaph – it’s a perfect encapsulation of Rafferty’s innate emotional intelligence.

The escape: “To be a ‘star’ in inverted commas – that is probably the last thing I want”

The tiresome slog of being on the road as a gigging musician surfaces once again on Home And Dry, a stomping soft-rock tune which finds Rafferty yearning to hop on a plane and fly home to Scotland to his lover (“This silver bird takes me ’cross the sky/Just one more hour and I’ll be home and dry”). Released as a single in the US in November 1978, the went into the Billboard Top 30, ironically making Rafferty even more in demand stateside than ever.

Despite being clear about his reluctance to travel, it came as something of a shock to Rafferty’s management when the singer refused to embark on a US tour in support of City To City. From Rafferty’s perspective, however, he didn’t enjoy being away from his family; in fact, Rafferty had an uneasy relationship with fame, and had little patience with the vagaries of the music business. “To be a ‘star’ in inverted commas – that is probably the last thing I want,” he told Rolling Stone.

With a different kind of trek in mind, Island captures Rafferty’s laidback and carefree attitude, as he sings, to an uplifting chorus of “sha-la-la”s, of how he prefers to spend time with his lover. Rounding off City To City superbly, Waiting For The Day picks up the pace, bounding along to a pop-rock groove over which Rafferty once again expresses his wish to cherish each moment, before Hugh Burns caps off the mood with an incendiary guitar solo. The song cemented City To City as a triumph that – despite his aversion to the celebrity lifestyle – would make Gerry Rafferty a household name.

The release: “I remember thinking I’d be pleased if ‘City To City’ sold 50,000 copies…”

Surprisingly, Rafferty had modest expectations for City To City. “I knew I’d written a good bunch of songs,” he admitted. “I remember thinking I’d be pleased if City To City sold 50,000 copies.” As it happened, he was way off. Released on 20 January 1978, the album would go on to sell an astonishing 5.5 million copies worldwide, and quickly became an international phenomenon.

If Rafferty had opted to tour the record in the US he might even have become the most successful British songwriter since Elton John. However, the choice he made was the right one for him personally. “Bob Dylan once said that fame was a curse,” Rafferty later said. “I think that, from an early stage in my career, I was aware there were many, many pitfalls of so-called celebrity.”

While the ahead-of-its-time production on Baker Street, in particular, would go on to inspire a legion of 80s yacht-rockers, Rafferty embraced the role of the outsider artist, choosing instead to release music for his own pleasure alone. “Once you have entered into that [celebrity] world you can no longer be the observer in life,” he said. “And I have always valued that highly.” While City To City became his best-selling album, its success won Rafferty the artistic freedom and independence he sorely desired. In the end, that’s what matters most.

Buy ‘City To City’, ‘Night Owl’ and ‘Snakes And Ladders’ vinyl reissues at the Dig! store.

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