Melody Maker (May 12, 1979)
The Man Who Was Down To Earth

Election night, and Gerry Rafferty hasn’t voted. Moved to Turnbridge Wells from Scotland recently, and hasn’t been registered in the new constituency. Shame.

We head towards the pub to discuss it further and shambing along the road in an untidy heap he comes clean. "Actually, I’ve never voted". Oh? Some sort of dignified protest, perhaps? "Well, more blind apathy actually. Wait, I tell a lie. Voted for Jimmy Reid in Clydeside about five years ago. Not because he was a Communist, but, well where’s this pub?"

"Gerry Rafferty" (his first press release informed us when he joined Billy Connolly in the Humblebums in 1969) "was born in Glasgow in 1947, and is quiet, withdrawn, and extremely introverted. He gained his musical experience the hard way by working as the anonymous bass player with countless obscure and unsuccessful beat groups in the dance halls and clubs of the North. The product of a pop generation.

In an ungenerous moment, long after their unharmonious split, Connolly preferred to think of him as a member making great play of the fact that he’d left Glasgow for Kent (he has since moved back, and back again). Gerry demolishes a pint of IPA with terrifying vigour and declares himself ready to be interviewed. The prospect doesn’t thrill him, but he seems neither zomboid or introverted. Wary, but not hostile.

"City to City", Rafferty’s immaculate album of last year, has to date sold over four-and-a-half million copies. The single responsible for putting it there, "Baker Street" – in typical Rafferty fashion, a fairly desolate song wrapped in misleadingly elegant trimmings – took him to the top of the singles chart on both sides of the Atlantic, and received every award in the book.

His success was one of the revelations of last year. It came after three years of silence following the split of Stealers Wheel, and flew directly in the face of last year’s rock fashions. The success of "City to City" became a symbol in the reaffirmation of a certain perspective a truly classy record could still make it, however unfashionable the style of music, however out-of-vogue the artist. You could still create massive sellers without being disco, punk, or Paul McCartney.

But if he became a symbol, it was a faceless one. Rafferty rarely does interviews, isn’t keen on having his picture taken, loathes the machinery behind the rock industry, and comprehensively tucks himself away from the public gaze behind a slightly ungainly world-weary appearance and an abhorrence of image and pretence.

Then again, he’s not quite the archetypical anti-star either. He’s the son of an Irish Catholic coal-miner, is 32 years old, hasn’t been to a concert for three years (Neil Young in Glasgow), supports Celtic (from afar) and would quite like to make piles of money, thank you.

He enthuses – almost in disbelief, even now – over the runaway success of "City to City". It was, he says, not entirely convincingly, "just a bunch of songs". Good songs – after all, he’d had three years to write them – but not for a second did he anticipate even a fraction of what they were to achieve.

"I didn’t want to expect anything. I would have been quite happy if the album had sold a respectable figure, like 500,000 worldwide. I thought I’d have been doing pretty well. You just write the best songs you can, and do your best, and see what happens. I thought the songs were good, but I didn’t expect this.

"It’s great – I’ve earned stacks of cash from it, and it means that from here on I can do exactly as I please, though that wasn’t the idea when I set out to make the record. Not with the new album.

"But it isn’t a hobby. It’s not like taking up golf. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was seven years of age, and I’ll always be doing it. And I’m happy it’s made stacks of money, though that brings its own problems."

Our voices are suddenly drowned by Concorde taking off immediately behind us. Actually, that’s a lie: it’s Amii Stewart erupting into "Knock on Wood" on the juke box, and Rafferty’s face, which in any case carries a perpetual air of concern, dissolves into grimaces. Amii is followed by Racey and we adjourn to the more formal peace of UA’s offices. The managing director has locked away his Glenfiddich, but we chance upon a bottle of Bell’s and relax again.

The new album is called "Night Owl". Are you one, Gerry? "Aren’t you? Isn’t everybody?" he growls. He would like you all to buy it, but doesn’t attempt a partly political broadcast on the matter. "It’d be great if it went to the top of the charts in America. It’d be smashing. But I don’t think about it, I really don’t. I won’t lose any sleep if it doesn’t make number one in Singapore."

How about if it flops entirely?

"I’m a really good sleeper y’know? When I get to bed I get down to it. I get on with the job. I never worried about it before, and all the records I’ve ever done before have been flops. Stealers Wheel was a flop. ‘Can I Have My Money Back?’ was a flop. The Humblebums were a flop. So I won’t worry about that. My life doesn’t stand or fall by the amount of people who buy my records."

It’s an attitude which, he believes, has kept him free of the pressures that might reasonably have been exerted in the effort to live up to the excellence of "City to City", even there’s no track that obviously matches "Baker Street" as a classic single. He allows himself a rare glint of pride over "Baker Street", talking about a "touch of magic" he experienced when recording it.

"It was my choice as the first single, though the record company thought differently – they chose "City to City" because it had a catchy chorus. But I did feel good about ‘Baker Street’, right from the start. It’s not so much a good song as a good record. It isn’t a song I could sit and sing at home. I’d probably sing ‘Curragh of Kildare’ or ‘The Ark’ or something like that at home, but it was a good record and I got across what I wanted to get across. Some songs you have to dress up and ‘Baker Street’ was one of those".

The Raphael Ravenscroft sax break seemed quite a critical ingredient.

"Yeah. When I started writing the song, that particular line that Raphael plays was the line I started with. I used to sing it to myself. I tried to fit words to it, but in the end I kept is an instrumental phrase, and then I wrote the song around it. We tried it with various instruments, and as soon as Raphael played it on the saxophone, I knew … ‘Ah, there’s a bit of magic here.’"

Billy Connolly came to see Rafferty when he played Glasgow on the tour – his first live performance in four years – which followed the rise of "City to City". They’d already spoken on the phone, and the longstanding rift between them was apparently healed. It nevertheless seems incredible that such diverse artists, and superficially contrasting personalities, could ever have been integrated at all, especially with the satisfying overall balance that the Humblebums achieved.

For both of them, Rafferty says, the alliance was a means to an end, and each knew it. But he does betray some irritation over being portrayed as the straight man to Connolly’s antics, the "introvert" counterbalancing the extrovert.

"Billy was making his way and I was making my way, and we recognised something in each other which sparked something. We realised we could help each other along the way."

Were you really such contrasting characters?

"Oh, that was a load of shit, really. Everyone wants to pigeonhole you, but the thing is, anyone who’s on the same stage as Billy will look like an introvert. It didn’t worry me too much, because even then I was quite self-contained. It was my idea to split to form Stealers Wheel, and I think Billy was probably a bit scared because it meant him going back to the folk clubs and he was forced out on his own. And I don’t think he forgave me for that.

"When we shared a stage together I was playing a straight man to his funny man, but I was prepared to do that because whatever natural strengths you have you should allow that to hold sway with an audience. And he could do that, and he’d create a platform for me.

"But at the same time I hated it. Because the kind of audiences we played to were, y’know, folk clubs in front of guys with Aran sweaters and a-few-pints-chaps-and-we’re-all-chums-together. Ha-ha-ha, rugby songs, and all that shit. Billy always seemed quite comfortable with that kind of setting, but I despised it. I hated it. So I was biding my time, really, waiting to form a band, and then Stealers Wheel happened."

A moroseness sets in as the conversation edges towards Stealers Wheel. His head drops forward and he drifts into a historical monologue. It’s ground that’s been covered before, and he’s clearly unhappy about going over it again.

He barely rates "Stuck in the Middle With You", written in half an hour as a reaction to the business pantomimes being staged for the band; but forged the "strongest musical bond I’ve ever had" with his partner throughout the band’s turbulent life, Joe Egan.

The dissolution was finally forced on them after recording their third album, when their management company went bust. And that was when Rafferty disappeared to Scotland for three years.

"It was," he says wearily, "a question of sitting through the legal wrangles over who’s suing who, for what, and us trying to get the publishing back, and …" A shrug and a nervous smile. "Neither Joe ……

"But I was quite happy. I was still writing songs; I was still getting on with the job. People assume that if you’re not in the public eye, your life is in a kind of limbo, which is nonsense. It was frustrating in some ways, but it was also good to have some time out. And I wrote a stack of songs."

Among them were all the tracks on "City to City", plus "Take the Money and Run", an acid reaction to Stealers Wheels’ troubles, which has been included on "Night Owl". The rest of the album has been written since and he – naturally – denies any possibility that the acclaim accorded "City to City" has softened him up.

"When I write songs, I’m not conscious of anything like that. The songs on ‘City to City’ were the best I could do at the time, and it’s the same with the new one. I’ve not been particularly conscious of having something to live up to, like when I was writing before ‘City to City’, I wasn’t consciously aware of the punk thing. I mean, I was aware of these new young bands coming up, but you don’t think about that when you sit down and write a song."

Gerry Rafferty will undertake another British tour at the end of August. In one sense it’s another part of the limited compromise he’s willing to undertake, accepting it philosophically as part of the "job".

"I’m not a performer, in that way. I have mixed feelings about this thing where three or four months of the year you have this whole entourage on tour. I’ve never enjoyed that. So as much as possible, I’ll try and maintain some sense of perspective on what I want to do.

"That sounds incredibly boring, but I’m not a performer in the way Billy is – that kind of guy lives it 24 hours a day and he never drops the act. You go into a pub and he’s holding court. Fuck that. It does nothing for me. I don’t know where I’ll end up. I just play it by ear, I suppose."