Album of the Week, October 11: City to City by Gerry Rafferty

RaffertyCityGerry Rafferty was born and raised in the Scottish town of Paisley. He learned Irish and Scottish folk songs from his mother and developed a passion for Dylan and the Beatles. After leaving school he worked a variety of odd jobs, always intent on finding his way into a career in music. He and school chum Joe Egan performed together in a couple of bands, then Rafferty made his first big move. He joined Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey in the folk-pop group the Humblebums. Harvey soon departed, and the remaining duo recorded two solid albums of Connolly’s bluesy folk and Rafferty’s folk-tinged pop. When they split, the singer recorded his first solo album, the lovely Can I Have My Money Back? Producer Hugh Murphy and cover painter John “Patrick” Byrne would remain fixtures for much of Rafferty’s career. Joe Egan co-wrote a couple of songs on the disc, and the pair decided to form a new band. Stealers Wheel had some initial success, but internal tensions and label problems cased the group to fracture. Legal issues arising from that breakup kept Rafferty from releasing any music for over three years. He made the most of that time.

Title City to City
Act Gerry Rafferty
Label United Artists Release Date January 20, 1978
Producer Hugh Murphy
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #6
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. The Ark
  2. Baker Street [#2]
  3. Right Down the Line [#12]
  4. City to City
  5. Stealin’ Time
  6. Mattie’s Rag
  7. Whatever’s Written In Your Heart
  8. Home and Dry [#28]
  9. Island
  10. Waiting For the Day

Rafferty spent long hours shuttling between Glasgow and London while he worked to resolve his legal problems. Those journeys — and the time it caused him to spend away from his family — provided inspiration for a wonderful set of songs. He kept in contact with friends in the music industry, so when he was finally able to return to the studio, he and producer Murphy assembled a crack band for the project. Rafferty took his diverse musical interests and filtered them all through the folk-pop lens he had refined in his early work, creating a cohesive sound that was instantly recognizable. The result was a pop masterpiece that propelled him to a level of fame he never expected.

Things open with a direct nod to Rafferty’s folk roots. The Ark opens with a nice fiddle-and-whistle tune before the drums kick in, propelling a beautiful song of journeying. Using the ancient story as a metaphor for new beginnings — with some dark times around them — Rafferty presents a compelling start to the album. A steady beat with quietly surging guitars provides the waves on which his vocals sail, welcoming the listener to a wonderful adventure.

Baker Street is a direct reflection of his divided life, relating the dark times he spent in London. It’s an epic song, told smartly in second person to make the very personal story resonate on a universal level. Arguably the finest moment in a sterling career, it also became Rafferty’s biggest hit, trapped behind Andy Gibb for six weeks at #2. Rafferty got his own back, however, when City to City hit #1 on the album chart, dislodging the monster soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

The second single is up next, the enchanting Right Down the Line, a touching tribute to his wife and the strength he drew from her during his travelling time. It’s a smart, beautiful song, showing off another side of Rafferty’s pop expertise. The title track is a classic train song, featuring a wonderful harmonica line and a rail-conjuring rhythm section. Noting the tedium of travel — and the small pleasures of the journey — Rafferty promises to return home as quickly as he can. City to City allows the narrative to run both directions, and avoiding explicit destination names allows the story to apply to anyone out on the road. Side one wraps up with the bluesy ballad Stealin’ Time a reflection on the practical losses of separation. Maintaining a strong undercurrent of hope, Rafferty makes the most of another look at relationships and distance.

The joyous Mattie’s Rag is dedicated to the singer’s daughter, a promise that the times they are going through will become fond memories in later years when he’s her “grand old man of rock”. It’s a delightful romp and provides a smart burst of sunshine in the night-time travelogue. Another standout track — both on this disc and in Rafferty’s career — is the second epic, Whatever’s Written In Your Heart. With a simple vocal-and-keyboard delivery, he celebrates the place where intentions and actions come together. In the end, the human feelings that connect us matter more than the moments we go through. It’s a moving masterpiece.

Home and Dry is another clever single, a culmination of the themes of the album. It celebrates the singer’s eventual return home and the love of his family, holding just enough tension to acknowledge everything it took to get to this point. Island opens with a tropical sax riff, allowing the reunited couple to indulge in some private time away from the world and its distractions. Rafferty provides a marvelous coda to the journey with Waiting For the Day, a song of hope delayed, propelled by determination.

Gerry Rafferty frequently observed that the central theme of his music was alienation. There’s truth to that, but when it works best he provides a lens of hope and humanity that gives the alienation context. With a compelling central image, City to City uses travel and separation to represent alienation. The carefully crafted tracks — smart but never slick, cohesive without sounding all the same — give human voice and heart to those feelings. The result is a pop masterpiece that holds up decades after its initial release, when so many of its contemporaries have faded into the disco dusk.

FURTHER LISTENING: Gerry Rafferty died in 2011, only 63. His constant tension with the industry that provided and interfered with his career resulted in a relatively small output considering the 40 years he recorded. Anyone interested in the whole arc of his career should consider the three-disc set Collected. It includes well-chosen selections from most of his albums, including his work with Stealers Wheel and the Humblebums. The 1998 EMI collection Baker Street is a nice overview of his solo hits with some well-chosen album cuts thrown in.

Both Night Owl and Snakes and Ladders were commercial successes, launched from the power of City to City. For my money, they suffer from follow-up syndrome, with some nice moments but not nearly as much spark. Any of the compilation albums captures the best of this pair. Fans interested in Rafferty’s finest should check out these three gems:

  • Can I Have My Money Back? (1971) is a strong debut, blending the more acoustic elements of the Humblebums with the solid 70s pop of Stealers Wheel.
  • Sleepwalking (1982) is a strong set of songs, arguably the most consistent album Rafferty recorded other than his masterpiece. Fans often reject it for its use of synths and drum machines. Rafferty actually made the most of the contemporary tools, staying true to his core sound. This is a personal favorite.
  • North and South (1988) is Rafferty’s return to music after another extended break. Working in a home studio, he set the stage for his later career, more intimate songs that still resonate with his fine musical energy.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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