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To each and everyone

January 5, 2011

I suppose everyone who loves music will claim that it has been the soundtrack to their lives, as The Divine Comedy memorably suggested in ‘Our Mutual Friend’. My generation, of course, maybe like every generation, claim that popular music has been much more than just a soundtrack for us. Our bands, for better or worse, are still going strong, forty years later, their songs still classic, their influences still in the charts.

However, above and beyond this, there are, for all music fans, epoch making moments associated with their love of rock – maybe the first concert, first album, first guitar. Moments where the relationship with music changed for ever, deepened, strengthened, became more integrated in some way.

For me it was on Saturday December 24th 1971.

I was student, at home for the Christmas holidays, spending money earned as a temporary Christmas postman. I went into Lonsdale Universal, a store on Chapel Street in Southport, Lancashire, and came out with the first solo album by Paisley born Gerry Rafferty: Can I have my money back?

At first sight, the album was arresting, with a painting by John Byrne, known as ‘Patrick’, another Paisley Buddy, later to become famous in his own right for Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys amongst others, as its cover art. However, when I got home and played the record. I was staggered. I’m not saying that it was a Damascus moment and that everything before that faded into insignificance, that’s not what I mean. I’d lived through the Beatles and the whole sixties thing, my tastes were more or less established, but ‘Money back’ was something else.

It is, of course, difficult to put into words; it is music we’re talking about. However, at the time, I heard someone describe the album like this: “It’s what the Beatles would have sounded like if they hadn’t gone all funny”. That’s a strange quote at this distance, but I believe it still resonates. The harmonies, the tunes, the lyrics – they all made sense, seemed half familiar, seemed just right. And the production was wonderful – not in the sense of being technically cutting edge, but because each track sounded perfectly as it was meant to be. Put simply, you couldn’t listen to it without wanting to write songs and sing them.

If I’m honest about my teenage self, there were some bands whom I had to struggle to like; it was an effort to stick with repeated plays, till I finally got it. I never managed it with Captain Beefheart or Zappa and was honest enough to admit this to my pals as we sat in darkened rooms ‘grooving to the sounds’. But with Rafferty, it was instantly accessible, and, as many reviewers still write on hearing the album for the first time, there isn’t a duff track or filler on either side.

However, I should backtrack by way of explanation.

Living in England from the age of 6 to 18, I had missed out on the Scottish rock scene. It’s perhaps difficult to understand in these downloading, internet, myspace, times how hard it was to access non-chart music in those days. For all the talk of Merseybeat, the scene was very much centred on London, so, living in Southport, there was no obvious way of being in tune with what was happening in Scotland. In mid decade, through the crackling and whistling of pirate Radio Scotland, and its magazine Showbeat 242, I had discerned the names of a few of the bigger groups: The Pathfinders, Studio Six, The Beatstalkers, The Poets and The Stoics, but anyone who had more of a cult following was unknown to me.

So when I returned to Scotland, to University in Edinburgh, I had a fair bit of catching up to do. I played guitar badly and had tried to write a few songs, and was into folky rocky Fairport/Steeleye kind of stuff. When I made some musical friends, I found out how little I knew of the Scottish scene. All of them, without exception, rated a group called The Humblebums. They raved about songs like Rick Rack, Patrick, Her Father didn’t like me anyway and Shoeshine Boy. I realised I’d have to find out about this band.

By the start of my second year at university I had ingested the Humblebums’ history, knew of their various inceptions, and had purchased their two seminal albums: The Humblebums, with an eyecatching, Patrick designed, cover and Open up the door, with its black and minimalist artwork. The songs were amazing, the tunes unforgettable, the production quirky and memorable.

However, by the time I became a fully paid up fan, the duo were no more, which was frustrating to say the least. At this remove, the miracle about a Billy Connolly/Gerry Rafferty combination is not that it was so brief but that it prospered at all and produced so much quality. However, at the time, I had no recognition of the fact that the two great talents were pulling in almost opposite directions; I was just disappointed that there were no more songs to be heard.

In the autumn of 71, three of us formed a group. We played folky pop, much of which we wrote ourselves, and were hugely influenced by The Humblebums. In doing so we were the same as a hundred Scottish bands of the time, inspired by Rafferty’s songs to have a go ourselves. The songs I wrote were, in retrospect, pale, very pale, imitations of Rafferty’s style and approach. Then came Christmas and the news of the Rafferty solo album.

I’ve seen it reported in this week’s obituaries as having been produced as a ‘contractual obligation’ to Transatlantic for one final LP. It may well have been, but anyone who knows the work will recognise it as far far more than that. Rather like Paul Brady’s ‘Hard Station’, recorded a decade later, ‘Can I have my money back?’ was a compilation of all the good stuff held back by previous career restraints. It was pure Rafferty, realised by himself and Hugh Murphy in its production, and containing a raft of unforgettable songs.

The excitement I felt about ‘new Rafferty songs’ before I bought the album was more than matched by the joy the playing of it brought me. Every song was a winner – from the insousiance of the opener ‘New Street Blues’ through the gentle reflection of ‘Mary Skeffington’, the bitter ‘Sign on the Dotted Line’, the anthemic ‘Long Way Round’ and the poignantly revelatory ‘One Drink Down’.

As a band, we couldn’t wait to try out the new songs and before long ‘To each and everyone’ joined the earlier ‘Steamboat Row’ as an ever present in our set list. From that day to this, ‘Money back’ has been my favourite album, surviving from vinyl through cd to download, and the Humblebums songs are played often: ‘Patrick’ being appropriate given my son’s name and ‘Blood and Glory’, about the US civil war, never failing to raise my heartbeat with its sheer exhuberance.

In our music, we spoke of ‘Rafferty’, as if he was a mate. When people compared my nasal singing style to his, I was delighted, and even when Stealer’s Wheel spluttered and disappeared, over the next four or five years, we still had the back catalogue.

Before the internet, rumours were vague and hard to access. In the silence that followed Stealers Wheel’s three albums, and the success of ‘Stuck in the Middle with you’, all we knew was that there had been ‘musical and business differences’, in the band and with the record company, and that Rafferty was gaining a reputation for being ‘difficult’. We knew nothing of recording embargos or legal tussles. We just kept on listening to what we had.

Then came the unexpected joy of a new Rafferty album in 78, entitled ‘City to City’. Again, it’s one of those freeze frame moments, as I see myself coming down the three steps from Bruce’s Record shop in Rose St Edinburgh, the new album encased in the iconic red ‘I found it at Bruce’s’ bag.

That, of course, contained ‘Baker Street’, and was the beginning of Rafferty’s worldwide fame, and perhaps the moment when he moved away from us to some extent. ‘Street’ is the classic pop song and deservedly forever attached to the singer’s fame and fortune, and I should be glad that its success led to my one and only chance to see my hero live. No doubt dragged kicking and screaming by the record company, he made a UK tour in the wake of the success of album and single, and I saw him at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Cue another unforgettable moment.

I was delighted to see him live, though, if I’m honest, I would have preferred to have seen him in the small club, Humblebum days. However, I loved the album and Baker Street was massive. When he played it, the effect was electric. I was in the balcony and, as the sax solo started, Raphael Ravenscroft moved centre stage. He was a big man with flowing curly dark hair, dressed all in black. He was wearing mirror sunglasses and they shone laser spots on him. The beams were reflected back on the audiences in narrow rays of blinding light. It was a thrilling, science fiction, moment, never forgotten.

Night Owl with ‘Get it right next time’ and Snakes and Ladders with the wonderful ‘Royal Mile’, and ‘Welcome to Hollywood’ showed he was writing as brilliantly as ever. However, despite the thrill of an original song on the soundtrack of that classic film, ‘Local Hero’ in 1982, he seemed to tire of it all. There were rumours that he’d drifted out of the business, and though albums did appear at intervals over the next twenty five years, there was something missing in their low key under publicised appearance.

Once in the company of Rab Noakes, a former Stealers Wheel member, I asked if the rumours about Rafferty being ‘difficult’ were true. It was an impertinent question, rightfully met with a stony glare that perhaps also reflected a similar personality. Who knows but Noakes could have gone the same way as Rafferty but for different choices. Thank God he didn’t, given his ongoing contributions, both as singer and as Robert Noakes, producer.

It was shock to read of Rafferty’s woes in 2008 – the first time the press had really taken notice of him in decades, but the songs were so strong that it didn’t seem remotely likely that anything could happen to him. This was the guy who had emphatically rejected the rock and roll lifestyle; he couldn’t die young, surely?

But this was the boy from Paisley, from Glenburn and Ferguslie Park. Many die young through drink there, and maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the branch. Maybe the manner of Rafferty’s death was the inevitable end for a man who always sought to stay true to himself and his roots. All I know is that the man and his music influenced my life and informed many of my musical choices. From that magical moment in December 71 when I walked out of the shop as a nineteen year old with his solo album in the green and blue Lonsdale bag, he was a huge hero, yet I never even heard or saw him being interviewed once. The songs did the trick.

I was shocked when Sandy Denny died, saddened at the loss of Lennon and Harrison, even upset by the death of my guilty sixties favourite, Gene Pitney, but Rafferty’s the first musician I ever shed a tear for.
To each and everyone of you
I say goodbye, indeed I do
If you should ask me why I go
I wouldn’t say ’cause you should know.

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