mon 22/07/2019

Gerry Rafferty: Right Down the Line, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Gerry Rafferty: Right Down the Line, BBC Four

Gerry Rafferty: Right Down the Line, BBC Four

Affectionate portrait of the troubled Scottish singer-songwriter

Gerry Rafferty: difficult to read what was behind the shades

“Baker Street” and “Stuck in the Middle With You” will live forever. Once heard, each is never forgotten. Both are perfect. Both were written and sung by Gerry Rafferty, the subject of Right Down the Line, an affectionate David Tennant-narrated tribute to this stubborn Scotsman, who died in January last year. The story was told with warmth and his songwriting celebrated, but evidence for Rafferty’s troubled nature was never far.

“Baker Street” flew into the charts in early 1978 as punk was supposed to be wiping the singer-songwriter off the face of the earth. Gerry Rafferty’s beard, the single’s lush production and his achingly intimate voice were at odds with what was supposed to be the agenda of the day. A smash, “Baker Street” transcended the fashions of any era. Rafferty had already charted with Stealers Wheel, but he was used to following his own path. Despite “Baker Street’s” LA-smooth sheen and its massive success there, he never played the States. Typical of the obstinate Rafferty.

On Top of the Pops, Rafferty looked uncomfortable and disengaged

As a kid, Rafferty was chubby, cute, and brought up in Paisley. His family were Catholic, his dad a coal miner. Harmonies were what grabbed him and, when he formed his first band in the beat-group era, their folk pop had shades of Simon and Garfunkel’s vocal interplay. After their 1966 single flopped, Rafferty formed the folk-leaning Humblebums with Billy Connolly. But it was his next band, Stealers Wheel, that would bring success.

“He was difficult from the get go”, said legendary producer and songwriter Mike Stoller. Along with Jerry Leiber, he’d been assigned to produce Stealers Wheel’s debut album in 1972. As the enemy, telling Rafferty what to do with his songs, Stoller was to be resisted at all costs. But the album contained “Stuck in the Middle With You”, the production giving the song a chance for a life of its own. Stealers Wheel had long-since imploded, but the song was given a new wind after being featured in the most memorable set piece in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Rafferty needed a partner, someone to bounce off and help his ideas along. It remained his show though. Of the Humblebums, Billy Connolly said “he's on all of my songs, I’m on none of his”. With Stealers Wheel, it was the phlegmatic Joe Egan that Rafferty teamed up with. The music business got in the way – the lyrics of “Stuck in the Middle With You” are Rafferty’s observations on a meeting with publishers and label people. In and out of the band, Rafferty returned briefly for a Top of the Pops run-through, where he looked uncomfortable and disengaged. After that, he was off again, leaving Egan to sing his parts. Once solo, Rafferty looked to producer Hugh Murphy as his accomplice and support.

Then there was the drinking – another means of support. Throughout Right Down the Line, friends, family and collaborators talked of it. Mike Stoller recalled the brown ale and whiskey, Connolly remembered the volume of Calvados consumed at lunch. In the studio, suffused with booze, Rafferty's eyes would narrow as he homed in on his chosen victim, tearing them to pieces.

Yet, as Right Down the Line made clear, however difficult Rafferty was, the loyalty remains. Linda Thompson was charmed by him. Connolly was moved by the memories. You’re reminded of the esteem bestowed on John Martyn, that other great drink-soaked singer-songwriter. Even though he appeared via an archive interview, the man behind the shades was difficult to read. Just as Rafferty never made eye contact with his audience, he remained frustratingly distant. As Billy Connolly put it, “he was a musician”. The man, however, remains out of reach.

Watch Stealers Wheel perform "Stuck in the Middle With You" on Top of the Pops


 

Comments

I watched this documentary and found it informative and poignant.Rafferty was indeed difficult and his own master.Billy Connolly stood out with his observant remarks...his concern for Rafferty's drinking came across. A good review...thank you.

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