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45 at 45: Rewinding our way down to Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street 

“Well, another crazy dayYou’ll drink the night awayAnd forget about everything”

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Don’t let it be said that everyone has been reconditioned into thinking everything Eighties was absolutely fabulous. Someone I dated briefly when I lived in Melbourne told me they considered the 1980s their least favourite decade for music, chiefly because “everything seems to have a sax solo on it.”

I could see their point. At the start of the decade, the saxophone was suddenly and unexpectedly omnipresent. From TV commercials to jingles and singles, its smooth, sultry tones seemed to be found everywhere, and by the mid-’80s it had become the most popular instrument for young, aspiring musicians to pick and learn, sending sales through the roof. In Britain, this was referred to this as The Baker Street Phenomenon – linking the massive surge of popularity for the of the brassy woodwind to Gerry Rafferty’s instantly recognisable 1978 enormo-hit, Baker Street. 

Certainly, in the 45 years since its release, we can see how the song’s iconic saxophone hook has carried on an almost independent life of its own. Indeed, every time I’ve passed through London Underground station of the same name, the ubiquitous sax line unfurls inside my head and I find myself humming “Winding your way down to Baker Street…” at any given opportunity.

The song is inexplicably lodged inside me, and it only takes a little trigger to set it off, a map reference, an overheard phrase, and those melancholy lyrics come flooding back: 

“Another year and then you’ll be happy… but you’re crying, you’re crying now.”

Of course, the impact of Baker Street was not limited only to its most famous element. It stands as a timeless classic that captured the imagination, written and performed by Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, former frontman of folk duo Stealers Wheel. Horn riff prominent, the first few seconds of this Steve Marcus tenor sax’d tune from ten years earlier may give you multiplying chills. 

Having remained friendly with the band’s session guitarist Iain Campbell, 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 legal troubles swirling around the break-up of the erstwhile combo, it wasn’t long before the informal jams inspired a new song.

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”.

Presciently ahead of its time in some ways, the stunning soft-rock opus arrived like a breath of curved air, not only becoming a chart-topping single in America but also singlehandedly writing the sonic instruction manual for a new breed of music that would come to be known as “yacht rock” — as expanded on by the likes of Eighties stalwarts Toto and Daryl Hall & John Oates, and even brown-eyed soul stars such as Sade and Diana Ross at their most sophisticatedly corporate.

From its lush production frills to its 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. Recorded at Oxfordshire’s Chipping Norton Studios, and co-produced by Gerry Rafferty and Hugh Murphy, Baker Street was laid to tape during sessions for the singer’s second album, City To City, in late 1977. 

Tasked with bringing the song to life were bassist Gary Taylor, string arranger Graham Preskett and session players Tommy Eyre on keyboards, Henry Spinetti on drums, Glen Lafleur on percussion, rhythm guitarist Nigel Jenkins, and lead axeman Hugh Burns, who contributes a majestic, blistering guitar solo.

The show’s real star, however, was alto sax player Raphael “Raf” Ravenscroft, a sessioneer who quickly gained legendary status for lending his talents to one of the greatest horn hooks ever recorded, every bit as prominent as the later riff on George Michael’s equally ubiquitous Careless Whisper. 

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 the less than princely sum of £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 the single became a success, as well as being hired by the likes of Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye and Daft Punk.

Reflecting on the song in 2011, Ravenscroft did harbour some niggling regrets about how his performance turned out, though. “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. Though it was a chart-topper on the US Cash Box chart (and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100), in Rafferty’s homeland Baker Street rose to No. 3 in March 1978 and as the month mutated into April it found itself prevented from climbing further by the double whammy of a pair of 45s by the new wave of female-fronted acts, Denis by Blondie, and sitting pretty at the top, the debut single called Wuthering Heights by one Kate Bush. 

Since its release, Baker Street has been recognised by the BMI for achieving more than five million performances worldwide. There was a further Top Five hit with 1979’s Night Owl, and after years or radio silence — punctuated briefly by his production go The Proclaimers’ Letter From America, Rafferty died in 2011 after a long battle with alcoholism. Yet as posthumous collections such as Rest In Blue have proven, there is much more to the Gerry Rafferty discography than Baker Street alone. 

But it’s impossible to ignore its importance as one of the most memorable songs of the Seventies, and its impact on generations of listeners can still be felt today.

Just don’t mention Bob Holness.

Steve Pafford

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