Soft Rock, Hard Place

A few weeks ago I was shooting the breeze with Paul Haig on the phone, and I happened to mentioned that I'd recently re-discovered a couple of late seventies albums by Gerry Rafferty. I fancied Paul might agree that Rafferty might now fall into the so-uncool-as-to-be-cool category, or at least show some solidarity with a fellow cult Scots songwriter. Besides, I already knew he shared my enthusiasm for the first three albums that Genesis made without Peter Gabriel. But it was not to be. Instead I faced a hurricane bombardment of ridicule and contempt, although this was as curious as it was withering. Curious because mid-way through Paul appeared to concede that Rafferty was due maximum respect as a songwriter and producer, which surely makes him essentially credible.

The two albums I've personally rehabilitated are City to City (1977) and Night Owl (1979), both released on United Artists in pretty dated looking sleeves by John Patrick Byrne, in which Rafferty is depicted as a guitar-toting Serious Musician with a beard and mirror shades. Everybody knows at least two songs by Gerry Rafferty - the sax-tastic 'Baker Street', a staple of evergreen rock radio which, being so over-familiar, now takes a fair effort of will to enjoy, and 'Stuck in the Middle With You', recorded in 1973 as 'Stealer's Wheel', and now something of a novelty song thanks to Pulp Fiction and a cover by Louise Nerding. Actually it's sort of a shame that Rafferty ever had these hits, as he pretty much disappeared from view after 1982, and that probably has something to do with not having to work again.

Both the albums I like were platinum sellers at the time, and I recently caught some naff old late night Radio 2 DJ like Bob Harris or Johnny Walker appraise 'Baker Street' as 'evoking perfectly that long, hot summer of 1977.' It probably does, but I wouldn't really know as I was only eleven at the time, and still stuck on Geoff Love and His Orchestra Play Big War Movie Themes (on Music For Pleasure, like most of the Love cannon). Both my sister and my mother (that's two people, by the way) were big on 'Baker Street' and City to City at the time, and played them to death. Indeed when we went on a trip to London during that long, hot summer of 1977 my sister actually wanted to visit Baker Street itself, hoping that some sort of magical, laid-back Rafferty vibe might somehow be in evidence. We didn't make the pilgrimage. If I was cool, or dishonest, I'd say that I had wanted to head for the King's Road to check out Seditionaries or Boy, but I knew nothing of punk except what I'd heard in the playground at school - that Debbie Harry stripped naked on the Old Grey Whistle Test, and that Sex Pistols record sleeves had nude women on them.

The truth is that my exposure to adult music that day was a matinee performance of a show called Laser Rock at the London Planetarium, which involved the astrodome, a lot of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind and Yes, and a very stiff neck. I fell asleep. I fell asleep at the theatre that night too. I can't remember if they played any Gerry Rafferty songs at Laser Rock. I'm guessing they probably didn't as Rafferty's oeuvre is well-turned, highly polished commercial songs, comparable to Dire Straits, Chris Rea or Sting. I wouldn't give any of them the time of night, incidently, but in my book Gerry Rafferty is cool. Why, I can't really articulate. Some of the stuff on City to City is almost too pub or bluesey for these ears, but tracks like 'Waiting for the Day', 'Right Down the Line' and - yes - 'Baker Street' are pretty hard to argue with, once you've dropped your post-punk guard and got the car up to ninety on the dual carriageway. Night Owl is even better, with an edge of healthy cynicism to 'The Tourist' and 'Take the Money and Run', while 'Get It Right Next Time' is the equal of any barbed groove by Steely Dan. Best of all I like 'Already Gone', but that's probably because I'm by nature a 'glass is half empty' kind of guy, and indecently sentimental.

You can buy both these five star albums for 1 each in any decent second hand shop. Nick Hornby would probably have laughed them out of Championship Vinyl, but why not give them a whirl. Get a parent to actually go in and buy them, if need be. It's a telling sign of the naffness of some major labels that you can't even buy Night Owl on CD at the moment, which is a pretty sad state of affairs bearing in mind that it was a major album on both sides of the Atlantic, and spawned two hit singles. After 1979 Gerry Rafferty went off the boil somewhat, and stopped mining such a rich seam of songs. In fact it's pretty hard to find his later albums anywhere. I suppose that's part of what I find interesting about the man, that he suddenly seemed to lose something - interest? label support? - after scaling such heights. I guess I also like being wilfully perverse. And at least Paul Haig hasn't (yet) withdrawn the Josef K back catalogue from the label in protest.

Mind you, I did once get fired from a project for tolerating soft rock. When I lived in Brussels way back when I got a little bit disorientated, and started buying Fleetwood Mac - Rumours, Tusk, Mirage, the double live album from 1980 with the fantastic long version of 'Sara' on it. From the last sentence you'll probably have gathered that I'm still prepared to defend this aberration, up to a point. And I am, even though I haven't played any Mac CDs for quite a long time now. Anyway, in 1990 Blaine Reininger (then still ex-Tuxedomoon) was preparing to record another album for Crepuscule, following a couple which had failed to shift in large numbers. It was loosely agreed that I would 'produce' (read edit) the new set, with a view to curbing Blaine's more indulgent tendencies and encouraging some sort of edge. I slipped Blaine tapes of Scott Walker and Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk, and turned up for the first couple of sessions in the studio. But my suggestions were ignored, a stand-off ensued, and I was dismissed from the project, on the basis that in an unguarded moment months earlier I had admitted to Blaine that I listened to 'goddam' Fleetwood Mac. The Reynolds Girls were in the charts at the time, so perhaps he took his cue from them.

We patched things up eventually, just like we did after I sacked him as best man from my wedding in Suffolk, after Blaine peed in the flower beds at the hotel and upset the bride's parents. But it was soft rock that lost me the gig. I could go on flashing my musical nether regions at you, I suppose. About the time I drove all the way to Dudley to see a tribute band called Nearly Dan, about how I own six Carpenters albums, and almost as many by Elton John. Or that I now have the Geoff Love set on CD. But I guess you all stopped reading several paragraphs ago, and I'm shouting at the ground. Did I mention that LTM is releasing two more wonderful Ludus CDs in September? Maybe you should remember me this way.

© James Nice 2002