In his early years, Gerry Rafferty earned money by the formerly illegal practice of busking on the London Underground. Poetically, his biggest hit “Baker Street” was about busking at a tube station. After working with Billy Connolly (now better known as a comedian) in a band called the Humblebums, he recorded a first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back. In 1972 Rafferty and his old school friend Joe Egan formed Stealers Wheel, a group beset by legal wranglings but which did have a huge hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” (made famous for a new generation in the movie Reservoir Dogs) and the smaller top 40 hit “Star” ten months later. The duo disbanded in 1975.
In 1978, Rafferty cut a solo album, City to City, which included the song with which he remains most identified, “Baker Street”. The single reached No. 3 in the UK and No. 2 in the U.S. The album sold over 5.5 million copies, toppling the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in the U.S. on 8 July 1978, while “Baker Street” remains a mainstay of radio airplay. It was his first release following the legal battles surrounding the separation of the band Stealers Wheel. Rafferty was supposedly banned from the recording studio after the 1975 break up for a period of three years while the lawyers ironed out the disputes with the band’s recording contract remaining obligations.
Named after the famous London street of the same name, the song was included on Rafferty’s second solo album, City to City, which was Rafferty’s first release after the resolution of legal problems surrounding the formal break-up of his old 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.
Rafferty wrote the song during a period when he was trying to extricate himself from his Stealers Wheel contracts, and was regularly traveling between his family home near Glasgow and London, where he often stayed at a friend’s flat in Baker Street. As Rafferty put it, “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 resolution of his legal and financial frustrations accounted for the exhilaration of the song’s last verse: “When you wake up it’s a new morning/ The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/ You’re going, you’re going home.” Rafferty’s daughter Martha has said the book that inspired the song more than any other was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Rafferty was reading the book, which explores ideas of alienation and of creativity, born out of a longing to be connected, at this time of traveling between Glasgow and London.
Some interesting facts about this song:
Raphael Ravenscroft, who has died aged 60, received only £27 (or $43.35 in today’s exchange) for his great saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty’s song Baker Street – and the check bounced.
Baker Street, Gerry Rafferty’s masterpiece from the album City To City, sold more than four million copies worldwide and hung on to the number two spot in the US Billboard Chart for six weeks in 1978.
More than 30 years later, the song was still earning Rafferty, who died in January 2011, royalties of nearly £80,000 per year.
The distinctive saxophone riff was the subject in Britain of an urban myth created in the Eighties by writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie.
As a spoof contrived for the ‘Would You Believe It?’ column in The New Musical Express, Maconie claimed that the late Bob Holness – bespectacled presenter of TV gameshow Blockbusters – had played the saxophone solo on the recording.
The myth spread and Maconie said in 2011: “My personal and silly part in a sad story is that as an NME writer I invented the urban myth claiming that Bob played the sax solo on Gerry’s 1978 hit Baker Street. That’s not true. What is, is that Gerry’s enigmatic, wry songcraft and his way with a nagging melody made him a reluctant star in successive eras of Seventies pop.”
In fact, the solo was played by Scottish musician Raphael Ravenscroft, who was in the studio to record a brief soprano saxophone part and, when he heard that the guitarist would not be available to play the solo, suggested that Rafferty record it using the alto saxophone he had in his car. Ravenscroft died on Octopber 19, 2014 following a suspected heart attack.
Rafferty later said that he composed the saxophone melody but Ravenscroft – the author of The Complete Saxophone Player and a former tutor of music at York College – claimed he was presented with a song that contained “several gaps”.
Ravenscroft said: “In fact, most of what I played was an old blues riff. If you’re asking me: ‘Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?’ then no, he didn’t.”
Ravenscroft’s fee was, reportedly, a check for £27, which he said bounced anyway and was framed and hung on his solicitor’s wall. He received no further payment for his session-playing, adding: “If I had received pots of money, I wouldn’t have known what to do. It might have destroyed me.”
Former busker Rafferty said the legal problems following his acrimonious departure from Stealer’s Wheel helped him write Baker Street, which featured the lyrics:
He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land
He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he’ll settle down, there’s a quiet little town
And forget about everything
Rafferty said: “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 original album version is 6:01 minutes long. The single version released in America is 4:08 minutes long with an accelerated tempo to suit commercial radio time needs.
In 1992, Undercover reached number 2 in the UK charts with a cover of the song. Cover versions have also been recorded by Foo Fighters, Waylon Jennings, Rick Springfield, The Shadows, Livingston Taylor, Maynard Ferguson, The London Symphony Orchestra and Ali Campbell.
The song was performed at the end of The Simpsons episode Lisa’s Sax, when Homer’s daughter receives a new saxophone.
Movie director Gus Van Sant used the song for a key scene in Good Will Hunting.
In 2011, Ravenscroft recorded a tribute for Rafferty’s funeral, called Forgiveness, which blended his saxophone with the voices of Grammy-nominated choir Tenebrae. He also said that year that hearing Baker Street still annoyed him. He said: “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune. Yeah, it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.”
Baker Street Gerry Rafferty
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 everything
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 trying, you’re trying now
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re crying, you’re crying now
Way down the street there’s a light in his place
He opens the door, he’s got that look on his face
And he asks you where you’ve been
You tell him who you’ve seen
And you talk about anything
He’s got this dream about buying some land
He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands
And then he’ll settle down
In some quiet little town
And forget about everything
But you know he’ll always keep moving
You know he’s never gonna stop moving
‘Cause he’s rolling, he’s the rolling stone
And 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
- Audio from the 1978 album, City to City: