Beyond Baker Street
Small nations are shaped by their larger counterparts, via
differences in geography, history and economic power. While globalisation and colonisation were forged by the domination of the
United Kingdom and the United States, innovations in sport, literature,
design, art and music spring from far beyond these nations.
Small nations not only punch above their cultural weight, but are
laboratories for social innovation. New Zealand's film and wine
industries, Finland's commitment to democratised broadband, Singapore's
digital economy and Tuvalu's online leveraging of their Top Level Domain
(.tv) are few examples. In the United Kingdom, the maintenance of strong
Welsh, Scottish and Irish nationalism questions the supposed unity of
the kingdom and the domination of England over the rest of the island.
Scotland's music industry is a quirky, uneven, but stunning industry.
Beyond the bagpipes, the contribution of this small nation to
international popular music is expansive. One of the underwritten
chapters in this musical history is provided by Gerry Rafferty. Born in
Paisley in 1947 and dying in 2011, he faced the challenges and
opportunities in coming from a small nation and building an
Gerry Rafferty was defiant, different and distinctive. He shunned
celebrity and - even at the height of his popularity - never toured the
United States. His career passed through three distinctive phases. He
teamed up with Billy Connolly - in a musical rather than comedic phase -
and formed the Humblebums. Then he created a band, Stealers Wheel.
Finally, he sustained a long solo career, with the height of his fame
emerging in the late 1970s.
Rafferty's career also captured the cruelty of popular music,
alongside its fickleness and randomness. Popular culture - and popular
music in particular - is special. The capacity of a musician to write
one astounding song is a gift to the listener.That is why I always find
"one hit wonder" disingenuous. So often, these "one hit wonders" have
produced a career of material that never quite reached the heights of
one startlingly original song.
Rafferty produced one song that cut deeply into rock history: "Baker
Street." He wrote of a real street in London, best known for housingthe
famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Rafferty transformed it into
a metaphor for life, love and despair. Within his lyrics, this London
street becomes a "city desert," lacking a soul.
Such stunning popular songs often feature three sonic revolutions
that draw listeners to them like a siren's call. "Baker Street" confirms
my rule. It commences with an edgy, dark and foreboding guitar. The
whine and echo summons the darkest tragedies of Sherlock Holmes'
Then at the point that the guitar fades, a soaring saxophone opens
the listener to a new sonic environment, of rupture, sleaze, dysfunction
and disjuncture. Finally, Rafferty's gentle and lilting voice - almost
deadpan in delivery - releases a lyrical history of urbanity, men, loss,
decline, disappointment and decay.
It is a lingering masterpiece: a pocket history of post-war
masculinity hooked into aharmonic cluster frompost-1960s popular music,
combining folk, jazz, blues and rock. "Baker Street" transforms urbanity
into a sonic quotation from daily life.
In a career, any of us are fortunate if we have a "Baker Street"
creative moment. It requires a corrosiveimmersion in a time and place.
Perhaps it was melancholy that most propelled Rafferty. He had a direct
link to the disappointments of life. Part of this consciousness was
national. Coming from Scotland means seeinga language, culture, history
and economy brushed aside for a larger - and seemingly more significant
- country. Those of us from formerly colonised nations understand the
cost of this displacement, cultural ignorance and arrogance.
Gerry Rafferty was no one hit wonder. Releasing nine original albums
and fuelling eight compilations, his body of work has been given a more
generous and expansive reception after his death. But no one could
compete with a "Baker Street." The idea that we expect
singer/songwriters to continue to produce one seismic sonic explosion
after another is too great a burden and has an effect on performers.Yes
John Lennon wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever" and then "Imagine." Yes
Paul McCartney wrote "Let it Be" and then "Band on the Run." But they
were former Beatles. They are not a template for all to follow.
Still, Gerry Rafferty wrote album upon album of remarkable, often
autobiographical tracks. His key album City to City featured another
major hit, "Right down the line." The follow up release Night Owl
delivered "Right next time." For most performers, these tracks would
have been career highlights. For Rafferty, these successes could never
match the heights of one revelatory song.
Rafferty died at the beginning of 2011 at the age of 63. He was
buried in Paisley and Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, attended
the service. This premature death was fuelled by alcoholism, with his
daughter confirming for theSunday Mail in 2011 that he had "tried all
the normal routes of abstaining or getting help but he wasn't able to do
it... I tried everything I could. It was extremely painful to see him
live out his life through alcoholism." She also believed that her
father's greatest song, "was always a bit of a cross to bear. It became
the song which defined him - the big rock anthem. But that was not what
he was striving for."
Martha Rafferty is right. It was a burden being Gerry Rafferty.
Another "Baker Street" could never be written. Yet his greatest success
emerged when he wrote about the shallowness of celebrity and the
brittleness of popular music. He critiqued popular music from within
popular music. From Scotland, a small nation, emerged a powerful and
potent soundtrack for urban living, proclaiming difference and defiance,
making a tune rather than following it.