The hypnotic sax hook, lyrical content, musical arrangement and the voice, it all engulfs me, striking a chord deep within my soul. This is music coming truly from the heart. It sweeps me away from my teenage existence into another world, a world so far away. And I’m hooked, big time. I hit the local record store and purchase the 7-inch single and, later, the 12-inch vinyl album the song is home to, City to City. It becomes one of my favorite albums and over the ensuing years provides the soundtrack to my life. Later on, it inspires my own songwriting and approach to making music.
Looking back now more than 40-plus years later, I view it as one of the quintessential albums of all time, on an equal footing as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
While Rafferty went on to write and record further exemplary music, which by no means proved less superior, the immense commercial success of City to City, and “Baker Street,” overshadowed everything else he did. It is the one album that will forever be attached to Rafferty’s legacy as his signature work, and also the one that firmly secured his place in music history.
I’ve worn out numerous copies over the years: vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and each time, purchasing a replacement. So much so, that I’ve even over time collected numerous pressings of the same album on vinyl from various countries around the world, spending much of my free hours while on tour seeking out second-hand record stores and thrift stores in a quest to find another pressing. Call it a passion or an obsession.
What is it about this album, and Rafferty in particular, that casts such an enormous pull over my life? Let’s start with the man himself. A gifted songwriter whose lyrics were infused with an emotional depth that sprang from the depths of his soul. Much of Rafferty’s writing was inspired by his enormous love for his family, evident on some of the songs on City to City, in particular “Mattie’s Rag,” which was written for his daughter Martha, and “Right Down the Line,” written for his wife at the time. A sense of family, connectedness and a longing for home were at the core of Rafferty’s songwriting spirit. His frequent travels to and experiences in London also provided much songwriting inspiration as was highlighted on “Baker Street,” while his Scottish roots were echoed in “The Ark.” These are all universal themes that everyone relates to, themes which form the basis of many other timeless classics.
Then there is the music, which from a musician’s point of view was superbly well-crafted. Every element came together at the precise moment, brick by brick, building its sonic framework to perfection, so that it could convey its aural message to the listener. The melodies soar, and are memorable. The songs get inside you, and never leave. It is popular music at its finest. Not the sort that is subject to the latest trend of the day, that later becomes a throwaway, relegated to the past. It is music that transcends its contemporary time frame and continues to sound fresh 43 years on, its message still resonating after all these years. This is the mark of a true musical genius.
And the album’s most famous song, the resplendent “Baker Street,” with its iconic signature sax motif, is a masterful textbook lesson in songwriting itself. The song’s emotionally charged lyrics underscore the alienation of city life while at the same, reflecting a desire and longing for home.
And the subtle use of “slash” chords — for the musically uninitiated, these are chords that imply a second related chord by the use of a bass note, for example A/D. In this case, A is the primary chord, while the D note in the bass gives the illusion of another chord D being heard whilst providing a moving bass line, especially when used by piano and guitar. And in “Baker Street” it perfectly suits the traveling aspect to the song’s lyrical matter: “Winding your way down on Baker Street.” It brings to the song and music a sophisticated edge and shows the depth and knowledge of Rafferty’s musicianship and songwriting genius. Add to that the searing guitar solo played by Hugh Burns; it’s held in high regard by many guitarists due to its strong melodic content and instantly recognizable.
Prior to making City to City, Rafferty spent several years amidst much legal wrangling and personal turmoil with his former record label in the aftermath of the demise of his band Stealers Wheel which had topped the charts with “Stuck in the Middle with You” in 1973. Yet, it was during this tumultuous three-year period that Rafferty would begin assembling the material that gave birth to City to City.
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