The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ll publish those once a week for the next couple of months.

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Gerry Rafferty – “Baker Street”

PEAKED: #2 on June 24, 1978

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor and former music blogger Mathan Erhardt. (That’s how he asked to be identified.) Here’s what he wrote about his pick:

As far as my song, it was kind of hard to figure out what direction to go. At first I thought about Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” or Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” but felt it might be too cheesy. April Stevens’ “Teach Me Tiger” and Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” were also in the running.

But then I remembered two of my all-time favorite jams: Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” and Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles.” They’re both songs I can remember from my childhood that have really stuck with me. I ended up going with my gut, and “Baker Street” won out.

Yacht rock does not exist. That’s the first thing you need to know. “Yacht rock” is a half-condescending and half-appreciative term retroactively applied to a bunch of the soft rock hits from the late ’70s and early ’80s, the rich and pillowy white-soul cruise music that conjures a certain velvety rich-guy-with-a-beard sense of luxury. At the time, nobody called this stuff yacht rock. If they had, the people who made the music probably would’ve been pissed off. (Today, it’s a marketing hook, and most of them seem to be cool with it.)

But even if yacht rock did exist, then Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” would not be yacht rock. “Baker Street” is something else. The musicians who have come to exemplify the yacht-rock tag — Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross — made swaggering and contented and self-assured music. “Baker Street” isn’t that. “Baker Street” might sound smooth and rich and buttery, but it’s a dark-night-of-the-soul song, a song for feeling pissed off at a world that seems to have no use for you. I’m sure there are plenty of people who own yachts and dig “Baker Street,” but “Baker Street” is not for them.

The main reason why people think of “Baker Street” as yacht rock is its big, volcanic, slightly ridiculous saxophone riff. That sax is crazy. It basically serves as the song’s chorus — the monster hook that everyone remembers. The sax scans as smooth jazz, but it’s not actually smooth at all. It’s hungry, desperate, wild-eyed. It screams at the sky.

Gerry Rafferty did not, as far as I can tell, spend a lot of time on yachts. Rafferty came from Scottish coal-miner stock. His father, an Irish miner and truck driver, taught Rafferty Scottish and Irish folk songs and then died when Rafferty was 16. After high school, Rafferty worked a series of menial jobs, but he was always trying to break into the folk world. For a while, he busked in London. He played in a series of cover bands. He was in the Humblebums, a folk-rock group that also featured Billy Connolly, who would go on to become a famous Scottish stand-up comic and a star of both Boondock Saints movies. The Humblebums broke up in 1971, and Rafferty released a solo album that didn’t go anywhere. And then he got together with an old friend named Joe Egan to form a duo called Stealers Wheel.

Today, we remember Stealers Wheel for “Stuck In The Middle With You,” the jaunty, dazed folk-rock jam that soundtracked the ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs. (“Stuck In The Middle With You” peaked at #6; it’s an 8.) Rafferty and Egan wrote “Stuck In The Middle With You,” but Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the classic Brill Buiding songwriters who helped Elvis Presley break through in the ’50s, wrote and produced most of Stealers Wheel’s other songs. That wasn’t easy for Rafferty. Stealers Wheel never made another big hit after “Stuck In The Middle,” and the duo broke up in 1975. For years, though, Rafferty was stuck in legal hell, trying to get out of his contracts. For three years, he wasn’t legally allowed to release any solo music. “Baker Street” came out of that period.

When Rafferty wrote “Baker Street,” he was constantly taking the train from Glasgow to London to meet with his lawyers. Some nights, he’d go visit a friend who lived on Baker Street in London. They’d get shitfaced and play records together, and Rafferty would sleep over before jumping on the train back home. The “Baker Street” lyrics tell that story. Rafferty, fed up with his career and with the life that he’s got planned out, stares down his own alienation. He sings the whole song in the second person, to himself: “This city desert makes you feel so cold/ It’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul/ And it’s taking you so long to find out you were wrong, when you thought it held everything.”

On “Baker Street,” Rafferty’s friend seems just as lost as he is. That friend has vague plans to buy land out in the country, to give up on drinking and random sex. Rafferty is skeptical and fatalistic. But as the song comes to an end, a tiny bit of hope creeps into Rafferty’s voice: “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.” The idea of home begins to sound like redemption, even if it just means Rafferty will be back on Baker Street again before he knows it.

Rafferty finally got to record “Baker Street” with a group of London session musicians in 1977. The saxophonist who plays that molten-lava riff is a guy named Raphael Ravenscroft, and there’s long been debate over who’s responsible for it. Ravenscroft, who died in 2014, claimed that he came up with the idea to play an old blues riff in that break in the gaps of the song. (Ravenscroft also hated his work on the record; he said his sax was out of tune.) But Rafferty’s collaborators have pointed out that the song’s demo doesn’t have any saxophone. Instead, it’s got Rafferty playing that riff on guitar. In any case, Ravenscroft kept playing on Rafferty records for years afterwards, so the resentment presumably didn’t run that deep.

There’s another funny subplot to the story of the “Baker Street” sax riff. In 1968, the American saxophonist Steve Marcus released a jazz record called Tomorrow Never Knows. Marcus’ album track “Half A Heart” opens with a riff that sounds a whole hell of a lot like that “Baker Street” riff. The Marcus record was little-heard, and so it’s hard to say whether Rafferty just came up with the same riff coincidentally or whether someone was, intentionally or otherwise, ripping someone else off.

But that’s the kind of thing that songwriters and lawyers and internet obsessives can fight over. The important thing is that “Baker Street” fucking slaps. Rafferty sounds calm, almost sheepish, and the music ripples and undulates all around him. It all seems like an uneasy fit — the lush keyboards, the chattering congas, the operatic drama of that saxophone. It could’ve descended into kitsch so easily. Instead, it hangs together, everything flowing into everything else. The saxophone and the vaguely David Gilmour-ish guitar solo — from Hugh Burns, the same session guitarist who would later play on Wham! Featuring George Michael’s vaguely kindred sax anthem “Careless Whisper” — tie “Baker Street” to a particular moment in pop-music history. But the yearning and ennui are forever. Late in the song, when Rafferty gets to that line about going home, it’s a genuinely moving moment.

As a six-minute song without a big vocal or a clear singalong hook, “Baker Street” made for an unlikely pop success. But “Baker Street” was a smash, and it allegedly took some serious chart chicanery to keep it out of the #1 spot. “Baker Street” stalled out at #2 right as Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” was in the midst of its seven-week run at #1. For six of those weeks, “Baker Street” was at #2. According to legend, the chart tabulators at Billboard had actually figured out that “Baker Street” had finally ascended to the #1 spot in one of those weeks, and they’d called the new chart into the producers at Casey Kasem’s radio show America’s Top 40. But because of a last-minute correction, Kasem had to re-record the end of that week’s show, putting “Shadow Dancing” back on top.

According to rumor, Bill Wardlow, Billboard chart director, made the call to keep “Shadow Dancing” at #1. Wardlow had supposedly gone to dinner with Andy Gibb’s managers, and he’d mentioned that “Baker Street” had knocked “Shadow Dancing” out of the #1 spot. Gibb had been scheduled to perform at a Billboard-sponsored show in New York, and his label threatened to pull him from the bill if Billboard didn’t keep “Shadow Dancing” on top, so that’s why “Baker Street” never got to #1. This is all pure speculation and hearsay, but it’s a good story. Record labels have been doing everything in their power to game the Billboard charts ever since those charts began, and it certainly seems possible that “Baker Street” could’ve been a casualty of all that. (“Baker Street” did get to #1 on the chart put together by Cash Box, Billboard’s competitor.)

Rafferty never made another top-10 hit after “Baker Street,” though the follow-up single “Right Down The Line” made it as high as #12, and the City To City album hit #1 and went platinum. But Rafferty was uncomfortable with stardom and resentful of the music business, and he didn’t much like playing live. He kept making records, but they sold less and less. After 1980, none of Rafferty’s singles made the Hot 100 at all. Rafferty went on to work with people like Richard Thompson and the Proclaimers, and he was self-releasing his music online as early as 2000.

Throughout his life, Rafferty had problems with alcoholism and depression — two things that seem pretty obvious once you give “Baker Street” a good listen. He died of liver failure in 2011, when he was 63. There are no longer clowns to the left of him or jokers to the right. He’s gone home.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the solid country version of “Baker Street” that Waylon Jennings released in 1987:

(Waylon Jennings’ highest-charting single, 1980’s “Theme From The Dukes Of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys),” peaked at #21.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The British dance group Undercover released a version of “Baker Street” that was a hit all around Europe in 1992. In the UK, where Rafferty’s original had peaked at #3, this new “Baker Street” made it to #2. Baker reportedly hated the Undercover version, but I think it’s pretty good. Here’s the video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Baker Street” soundtracking the basketball-court brawl from 1997’s Good Will Hunting:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the surprisingly emotionally intense scene from a 1997 Simpsons episode where Lisa plays “Baker Street” on her new saxophone:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Baker Street” cover that the Foo Fighters released as a B-side in 1997:

(Foo Fighters’ highest-charting single is 2005’s “Best Of You,” which peaked at #18.)

Thank you, Mathan!