Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gerry Rafferty -- "Baker Street" (1978)

Gerry Rafferty died today at the age of 63 years old after "a long illness."

While the name doesn't ring a bell with many people under the age of 40, I guarantee they've all heard his distinctive voice. I know my kids have. He sang lead on Steelers Wheel's 1972 hit "Stuck In The Middle With You," which of course later went down in cinema history in the famous ear-cutting scene in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 film "Reservoir Dogs."

It wasn't until 1978 that Rafferty achieved his biggest success, the City to City album, which contained several huge hits, but nothing compared to the impact of his "Baker Street" single.

The late 70s was a fruitful period for English singer/songwriters whose sophisticated tunes were carried away by equally imaginative hometown producers. In the hands of mega-producer/engineer Alan Parsons, folkie Al Stewart went through the roof with "Year Of The Cat," "On The Border" and "Time Passages," all elaborately orchestrated productions.

Rafferty followed the same blueprint with City to City, except with a slightly more Scottish flavor. Each song was at least five minutes long, little detailed stories of English lives, and you could best describe them as "sophisticated English folk pop." Producer Hugh Murphy supported each one with the best UK studio musicians, impeccable arrangements, and a warm, homey analog flavor.

"Baker Street" was the album signature song, with a killer saxophone hook that just echoed on and on. Trust me when I say that "Baker Street" was played on every radio station morning, noon, and night. This was another one of those songs where the lyrics were desolate while the melody was deceptively upbeat and happy.

Windin' your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day
You'll drink the night away
And forget about everything
This city desert makes you feel so cold.
It's got so many people but it's got no soul
And it's taking you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it had everything

You used to think that it was so easy
You used to say that it was so easy
But you're tryin'
You're tryin' now
Another year and then you'll be happy
Just one more year and then you'll be happy
But you're cryin'
You're cryin' now

Way down the street there's a lad in his place
He opens the door he's got that look on his face
And he asks you where you've been
You tell him who you've seen
And you talk about anything

He's got this dream about buyin' some land
He's gonna give up the booze and the one night stands
And then he'll settle down there's a quiet little town
And forget about everything

But you know he'll always keep movin'
You know he's never gonna stop movin
Cus he's rollin'
He's the rollin' stone

And when you wake up it's a new mornin'
The sun is shinin' it's a new morning
You're goin'
You're goin' home.

While "Baker Street" cleaned up, there were two other singles from the album, "Right Down The Line" and "Home And Dry" which hit the Top 40. I was a big fan of the first song, "The Ark," probably because it was atypically slow for an album opener, as well as the title "City to City" cut because nothing beats a good train song.

Rafferty never achieved anything close to this kind of success again and eventually faded from sight. He showed up on Mark Knopfler's beautiful soundtrack score to "Local Hero." For some reason, I remember reading an interview with him sometime in 2010 -- still as crusty as ever, railing against the recording industry -- but anxious to release more music.

Below are a few videos of Rafferty's hits from City to City -- "Baker Street" in its 4-minute form (originally 6 minutes on the album), "Right Down The Line" and "Home And Dry." Enjoy them -- Rafferty's best gleaming moments in music that he gave us.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Al Kooper -- "(Please Not) One More Time"

When you're the so-called "Zelig of rock and roll," you're entitled to do what you please.

Al Kooper can merit many pages of biography -- from the guy who played organ on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" to the man who discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Tubes, and perhaps you know he helped found Blood, Sweat & Tears? That's just the tip of the iceberg. Read his web site's bio and his "selected" discography.

Let's turn the dial back to 1977, and Kooper's seventh solo album, Act Like Nothing's Wrong, shows up at the college radio station as well as the school paper's music section. The cover catches my eye because let's face it -- it is damn weird with Kooper's head on a babe's body and the back cover is the reverse. And he is Al Kooper, he's got loads of credentials, and frankly, I didn't know what he sounded like as a solo artist.

Open up the record (on the late lamented United Artists label), and the inner sleeve reads: "Dedicated to my influences"followed by a long, long list of rock, pop, and soul artists. Never has a dedication worked so well on double duty describing what the album actually is.

Kooper has taken a collection of original and semi-obscure tunes and re-arranged them into the many recognizable styles of popular artists of the 70s. The whole album is a fun game of "spot the artist."

His own 60s hit, "This Diamond Ring," is reworked into a minor-key Little Feat funk workout. "Hollywood Vampire" is a paean to the dire L.A. landscape of Joe Walsh and The Eagles, notably the power chords of "Turn To Stone." And yes, that is Mr. Walsh guesting on slide guitar, in case you didn't make the connection.

For this post, I came really close to picking "She Don't Ever Lose Her Groove," a bobbing Al Green tribute where Kooper gets all soulful and hot and bothered, the Tower of Power horns doing a perfect mock-up of Willie Mitchell's old arrangements, and a killer fluid guitar solo at the end.

We went with the ridiculously catchy "(Please Not) One More Time," which can best be summed up like this: Steely Dan's "My Old School" meets The Beach Boys. Recorded with some of Nashville's finest musicians, Kooper meticulously gets every Fagen and Becker nuance right, with a hefty dose of Brian Wilson: up and down clavinet riff, ascending chord structure, mock horn riffs (including the dead-on break arrangement), and yes, lots and lots of layered Endless Summer-like vocals courtesy of the Ron Hicklin Singers.

And instead of tackling the good old days at Bard College, Kooper gets caught in the cross fire of a long-distance relationship between California and Atlanta, GA, along with some double-entendre rumors thrown in (not having the "energy to go down one more time?"). Hey, there can only be one Fagen and Becker.

Doesn't matter. Here is the very non-subtle "wear your influences on your sleeves" tune along with a video I created which is as much a tribute to Kooper as it is to the song itself.