By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com
If you’ve ever worked up the brass to sit through the brilliant scene in Quentin Tarrantino’s Reservoir Dogs when Michael Madsen pulls a blade on a cop to cut the poor bastard’s ear off–but not before shuffling his best Texas Two-Step to the tune “Stuck in the Middle With You”–then you know Gerry Rafferty. Recorded with an outfit called Stealers Wheel that Rafferty put together with Joe Egan in 1972, the song was an only hit for a band that made more money for the lawyers they needed to get out of contract hell than its members made for themselves–an all-too common industry nightmare that would recur in Rafferty’s odd career, as EMI kicked him to the curb about five years later when they bought out the flagging Universal Artists in 1980. It’s little wonder the guy preferred music’s version of the witness protection program for the rest of the decade–what artist of any value DIDN’T vanish in the 80s?–and only resurfaced sporadically after that to record one critically adored but commercially disastrous album after another, each of which moved about 3 1/2 units (that may be a mildly optimistic estimate.)
Rafferty’s brilliant City to City album in 1978 featured his enduring masterpiece, “Baker Street,” about busking in the subway station. So enduring, actually, that The Foo Fighters got their hands on the song not too long ago–which is either a blessing or a reason for instantaneous self-immolation, depending on your taste. Chances are that the size of the royalty check Rafferty took to the bank was enough to keep his food down, even if the cover sucked. Decide for yourself here. (The brilliant Eagles of Death metal, for their part, served up a killer cover of Raffery’s “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Check it out.)
Rafferty adamantly refused to tour even in support of that hit–a single so successful that it booted the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the top of the charts at the height of disco’s infamy. Of all the immortal albums in rock ‘n roll history, City to City just HAD to be recorded in the late 70s, the most confused decade in the history of modern pop music. For an era that pumped out acts like Alice Cooper and The Clash alongside a seemingly endless barrage of disco trash and some of the most mawkishly produced pop music ever to soil the ears of man, calling it “confused” is an act of extreme courtesy. Yet this seems precisely the thing that designates City To City a masterpiece.
Despite the album’s love affair with the flowery, post-psychedelia production that turned pop music into a pageant of circus cast-offs by 1978, the strength of Rafferty’s songwriting stands firm. The album’s most amazing moments come at times when Rafferty seems to have sent his producer out on another take-out run for the band. Good clean tracks like the stirring “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” and the flawlessly composed “Right Down The Line” attest to the power Rafferty commands when left to his own devices. By contrast, the hysterical onslaught of bells, cymbals and synths that usher in “Baker Street” sound like the start of some 25-year-old Perillo Tours ad.
Yet the songs themselves endure: “Baker Street” soon clears the clutter and slides effortlessly into a gorgeous ballad with Raphael Ravenscroft’s unmistakable sax riff cutting a backbone through the song, rivaled only by Rafferty’s stinging guitar work in the song’s amplified crescendo. “The Ark,” a beautifully understated ballad brought to fruition by a genuinely moving vocal performance, is as successful an opening track as there has ever been. Only the title track and the album’s last two songs seem incapable of overcoming the desperate production that threatens to derail the album throughout but, thankfully, never succeeds. It is this tension between indulgence and tact that makes for one incredible listening experience. That Rafferty essentially abandoned his talents in apparent disgust with the industry soon after this is just as tragic as City To City is miraculous. But no more tragic than today’s news that at age 63, Gerry Rafferty left this world behind today after a battle with liver failure that landed him on life support in recent months. R.I.P., Gerry–here’s hoping that you’re busking once again now in that Baker Street in the sky.