The sax solo as we know it today would not exist without Gerry Rafferty. His 1978 soft-rock classic “Baker Street” has to be the Ulysses of rock & roll saxophone, giving the entire chorus over to Raphael Ravenscroft’s sax solo, creating one of the Seventies’ most enduringly creepy sounds.
If you were a kid at the time, that doleful honk seemed to follow you around everywhere, summing up the rock generation’s decade-long hangover into eight notes. You can credit (or blame) “Baker Street” for ushering in the Eighties sax orgy: the good (“Waiting on a Friend,” “Urgent,” “Rio,” “Who Can It Be Now?”), the bad (“You Belong To The City”) and the unexplainable (Rob Lowe in “St. Elmo’s Fire”).
Rafferty, who died yesterday at 63, was a bearded, bespectacled Scot who neither looked nor sounded like a pop star. He was already past 30 when he sang “Baker Street,” a weary music-biz vet whose first band, Stealers Wheel, had gotten chewed up and spat out fast. (“Stuck in the Middle With You” remains their all-time classic; “Everyone’s Agreed That Everything Will Turn Out Fine” is their lost gem.)
Like so many pop hits of that era, “Baker Street” has a woozy alcoholic-stepmom flavor to it, an overripe sense of too many instruments overdubbed on top of each other in a blowsy attempt to recapture the lost spark of youth. (Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles,” John Stewart’s “Gold,” Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu” — they’re all coming from the same dark place.)
There’s sax, flute, electric piano, bongos, wind chimes and a totally out-of-nowhere metal guitar solo, yet all the instrumental excess just adds to the torpor of the song, the sense of exhaustion. Rafferty sings about being broke and bummed out in London, dropping in on an old hippie friend who keeps planning to get clean and settle down. As he sings, “He’s got a dream about buying some land, / He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands.” But Rafferty knows the guy will never straighten up, and neither will he. And the sax solo assures you that you never will either.
Gerry Rafferty had other hits over the next couple of years: “Right Down The Line” (best use of “woman” in any soft-rock chorus, ever), “Home and Dry” (one of the surprisingly few soft-rock hits about getting wasted on an airplane), “Days Gone Down” (his marital epic), “Get It Right Next Time” (his new wave move). But “Baker Street” has remained one of the world’s favorite statements of ur-Seventies melancholy, a song that sums up how you feel when you’re light in your head and dead on your feet.