THE GREAT CURVE 007
curated by Todd Berryman
Let me paint a picture for you. An 8-year-old boy, with thread that was forsaken by his mother, using it to make spiderwebs across his bedroom to allow his toys to play in other dimensions than “on the floor” and find high-wire heights that only Karl Wallenda might appreciate (to scale, anyway).
There were many albums that made an impact in 1978 for Your Humble Narrator, including Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, but probably this one more than others, for reasons which will become clear shortly…
You have to imagine the young Todd Berryman, annoying the crap out of his mother, with thread strung all over his bedroom, creating ziplines for his toys to traverse across, that spring of 1978. Songs from City to City were the accompaniment to those wonderful mind-plays, turning various Fisher-Price toys into Spider-Man, finding various nails to wrap thread around, creating stories upon stories upon stories.
A little more backstory: my dad had been deployed in South Korea, as an air-traffic controller for the Air Force. He was away from our family for almost a year, keeping the peace in his own way. I was living, with my mother, behind a small country store in southern Indiana, not far from my grandma’s house, so there was always family not far away. We were in an apartment behind Mr. Sullivan’s store, taken over from another owner a few years prior. I had to be quiet while playing during daylight, because we shared a few of our walls next to the store, and a small child caterwauling while playing would have disturbed the shoppers while they were looking at lunch meat and barbecue potato chips. At 7 at night, things opened up, but I wasn’t going to be officially “awake” for more than another hour or two anyway, so I learned to keep a sock in it for hours a day after school let out. Tricky, for a second-grader in a small country school, at the prime of his noise-making ability.
Dad returned home for a month in the winter, not long after the Christmas holiday in 1977, around my birthday in 1978. I went in for a tonsillectomy during that same time, and not long after, the blizzard of 1978 hit full force in Washington County.
There was one night when the power went out, and the apartment grew very, very cold. I was in bed, in my room, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a WHUPPA WHUPPA WHUPPA sound in the wee hours. Shivering, I pried myself out of my not-quite-warm-enough bed and ran to the window, throat aching, to see a helicopter landing in my grandpa’s field, right next to the old hickory tree, and seeing a dark figure emerging. It was Mr. Sullivan, landing in massive drifts of snow, to come to his store in the middle of the country to make sure that his regular customer base could get groceries during this time of great stress. (I heard later that he told his regular customers that they could pay later; in these days before bank-card purchases, he told everybody that they could pay him after everything had blown over, so they could get what they needed until all the heavy weather had passed by.)
A few months later, when all the snow had gone, and the weather had steered into our favor, I remember being outside, next to the creek by out apartment, riding my Green Machine (like a Big Wheel, but with a different steering mechanism), and being amazed by the greenness and newness of spring coming in for a landing. I can give you various scientific explanations for the why, on green and new, NOW, knowing that there was probably a little extra nitrogen in the soil and so on…but when you’re an 8-year-old, it’s pretty much magic, and that’s all, and that’s enough.
Spring of 1978 was when “Baker Street” came across my radar. It was out there, in the parking lot of the grocery after it was closed for the day, radio aimed out the bedroom window, doing 360s and power skids on that Green Machine, that the song first sunk in. I remember those freakishly warm days in early spring, when it would suddenly be in the mid 70s outside, when my mother would insist that I put on a jacket, and I’d think WHY?
A few weeks later, playing in that bedroom festooned with thread, “Right Down the Line” made itself known, with Rafferty’s Scottish tendency to roll off a word like “through” as some weird hybrid of “true” and “sroo” burning its melody into my life, making second grade glow a little brighter in that brilliant springtime. The funny thing with both songs was that, unlike almost everything else that was getting played on Top 40 in three hour rotations, I really could never get tired of them. (That applied to exactly two other album’s songs: Jackson Browne’s favorites from Running on Empty, “The Load Out/Stay” and the title track, and “With a Little Luck” and “I’ve Had Enough” from Wings’ London Town.) By comparison, the constant presence of disco was starting to overwhelm my young ears…I didn’t have anything against disco, it was a function that I’ve realized I’ve had to deal with ever since, which is the tendency for most chart-based pop formats to beat the living shit out of the tunes that get played. “Night Fever” and “How Deep Is Your Love” are fine songs, but they aren’t so pleasant when they come up eight times a day for months and months.
For some reason, that issue didn’t come up with Rafferty’s City to City songs. At the time, I couldn’t explain why. So, it was kind of perfect that it was City to City which ended up being the album that knocked the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack out of the number one position on the charts. Months later, the album still had legs, with “Home and Dry” getting radio play after Polk Township and Washington County and Indiana were months in the distance, and I was living in Colorado Springs…and the pleasures of the recent single were just as great as its predecessors.
As the decades rolled on and I’d returned to the Hoosier state, I still enjoyed the songs, although maybe not as actively as I had before. Bought the compact disc within a few months of getting my first CD player, and Mom, who was never that invested in the music before, heard me playing it during Christmas break in 1988, and became a fan pretty much overnight. A few years later, I found the vinyl for not too much in a used record store in Bloomington, and plunked down the cash to have it on hand. It was a pleasant album, but not one I really immersed in, compared to others. When I needed a little comfort thanks to being a little – I hesitate to call it “homesick” as much “era-sick” – the album would find its way onto the turntable.
It took a few years more to realize how many enchantments were still hiding in an album that I thought I knew right to its core. Specifically, it took getting to 2015, and hanging out with my friends Barry and Angela, on a night when the record player came out, and a couple of stiff drinks. With my defenses down from relaxation, the album’s many charms revealed themselves. And there were abundant ones, right from Side 1, Track 1.
SIDE ONE: GOODNIGHT TRAIN IS GONNA CARRY ME HOME
“The Ark” was the song that hooked Mom in, that fateful day near Christmas 1988. It was a fine way to open an album, and the love affair with it. I found it to be enchanting enough in my 20s to plug it into a song cycle, a set of lyrics with nebulous melodies and loose concept, the only tune I borrowed for the lineup of my fantasy original album, because it tied everything together so well. When, a few years removed from my attempt to be a lyricist, I heard it coming from a fine stereo with Barry and Angela, something REALLY connected, between the skillful arrangement, the little lead guitar asides in the verse (appearing for the first time on the right channel at 1:14, then at 1:18, 1:22 and 1:26, and so on, although low in the mix, there’s another lead line on the left that masks this somewhat…it will appear at roughly four-second intervals throughout the remaining verses on the song), and the multitracked vocals (primarily by Rafferty, with an assist by Barbara Dickson in the choruses). There’s also Graham Preskett’s fiddle and mandolin work propelling the track. I finally started to understand exactly what was going on in the song, and how elegantly assembled it really was. I should also note, for the detail oriented, that Rafferty does solo vocals on the first two verses, but doubletracks the last, which sets up some interesting stuff as we move through the side.
Take a listen, follow the map above, but notice the sheer wealth of care exercised throughout the arrangement.
THE FAMOUS BAKER STREET BREAKDOWN
…which I’ve promised for years, and am finally getting to do. 🙂
That wonderful night in early 2015, and landing in Track 2, “Baker Street” moved from a pleasant diversion into essential listening, a litmus test for ears of all kinds. Where I’d always understood the fundamentals of the song, between the subject matter (Gerry having to travel back and forth to London to extract himself from various contracts associated with Stealers Wheel, which is why it took three years – 1975 to 1978 – from the final Stealers Wheel album to City to City, the only equivalent comparison of being out of commission being the gap between Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough album Born to Run and the followup, Darkness on the Edge of Town) and the melodic thrust, I now began to grasp all the wonderful underlying textures and sheer drive of a song that I thought I knew so well. Tapping into years of harmonies honed in prior years, primarily with Stealers Wheel, Gerry Rafferty pulled together some gorgeous overdubs to do all the vocal work himself on this classic. Again, Rafferty is doing solo vocals in the verses, and adding his own dubs in the bridge sections (“you used to think that it was so easy” and “but you know he’ll always keep moving”). It’s worth noting here that one of the most interesting things about this song is that Rafferty doesn’t overdub on the choruses, because he can’t: rather unusually for any major charting pop single, there is no vocal chorus on this song. That function is taken by the sax solo; remember, the only time the title phrase of “Baker Street” is uttered is during the opening line.
At this point, forgive me the indulgence of deconstructing this song to give you a little extra insight into how much actual work is going on here. Please bear in mind that there are a lot of things going on at once, and doing a “time map” of this is a little tricky. Let’s start with Gary Taylor’s bassline, which starts out by marking the significant changes in the chords and pinning the rhythm down, but you’ll also notice that as the song progresses, the bass becomes more and more intricate, from simple time-marking to taking over some of the melodic function by the end of the song (around 5:22 is when it goes full-tilt; it should be noted here that Taylor was late of the band the Herd, the launching pad for Peter Frampton in the late 60s – in other words, he’s got a history in the business and didn’t come out of NOWHERE). There’s also the ambient electric guitar from the beginning of the song, and then…well, you have to mentally delete that incredibly memorable sax line, and focus on the backgrounds, because some of the most interesting stuff is going on there. Ends up that the piano is really the driving instrument along with the orchestral scoring, to the point that I would dearly love to produce a remix with those two parts at the fore (which probably says more about my hearing versus the subtlety that Rafferty and co-producer Hugh Murphy bring to the proceedings here). The strings do this wonderful dive at :24-:25 going into the song proper (repeated later at 4:46 to 4:47 with a touch more drama), and the piano is being played hard during those sax underpinnings, but mixed low enough that it’s not terribly obvious, the low chords setting up the bassline starting at :25 in the song, the higher ones pushing it further. And then there’s the groaning of the low strings in this section as well, a great piece of string writing being done by Graham Preskett, who evidently doesn’t play on this, but does arrange it, a great example of multiple talents being brought to one album; he may be the secret weapon in this track, because his work doesn’t get as much attention as it truly deserves.
At :59, the strings drop out, and the rest of the ensemble takes center stage. Tommy Eyre on piano and other keyboards is really the one pushing the song at this point, as the ambient remix idea I suggested above is predicated on his amazing piano during the verses, along with his synthesizer interjections (the first at 1:03, left side, and again at 1:15) and a celeste on the right side of the mix at roughly 1:33, 1:35, 1:37 and so on (this is the instrument that sounds like a music box, the same instrument that is heard on “Everyday” by Buddy Holly). But at the same time, you’ve got those almost reggae-sounding rhythm guitar chops by Nigel Jenkins going on starting at the 1:00 mark and just before beats 1 and 3 of the subsequent verse measures after that. And you’ve also got Rafferty’s double-tracking on the bridge vocals, also starting at 1:33…which is when Preskett’s strings start up again, leading into the sax chorus.
Yeah, we’re not even a third of the way through the song, and it’s already that lush. Now you know why I can hear it again and again and not be tired of hearing it. 🙂
At this point, I’m trusting that you can follow your own lead from the hints provided above for the rest of the song…including the era-appropriate wailing 70s guitar solo by Hugh Burns starting at 4:48. Take a listen, it’s ALL there.
IN WHICH THE YOUNG TODD DISCOVERS HE MIGHT LIKE COUNTRY AFTER ALL
Now we’ll move to then to the third song on Side 1, “Right Down the Line”…opening with a pedal steel line by Brian (nowadays credited as “B.J.”) Cole that is so well-executed and outside the country tradition that the ear doesn’t recognize it as an actual pedal steel. There’s also a “sliding” aspect to the percussion in the background; close listening reveals the fact that the song doesn’t hinge on a typical 4/4 progression where the bars go in divisions of 4 and 8, with the result that accent points in one section of the song don’t match in the repeat. The percussion accent that appears on the first beat may be held back a couple beats, after the first bridge section. Pretty clever, actually. Rafferty is again the only vocalist on this, even with multiple trackings of his vocal lines. Significantly, compared to the rest of the album so far, he’s double-tracked doing identical vocal lines out of the gate (:33) and upping the ante with the harmonies on the choruses, which finds him at least doing four vocals (the “I just wanna say…” line starting at 1:36).
After that, it’s the almost straightforward country/Celtic vibe of the title track, with Graham Preskett’s sassy fiddle throughout, but especially playing the song out heading to the end (4:16 to the song’s conclusion…gorgeous stuff). This is the first song on the album that has more vocalists, as opposed to Rafferty solo or with one guest, which gives the vocals a totally different texture, particularly song’s end. It’s a great effect, with the fiddle grinding away, slightly sour in sound against the sugar of the vocal ensemble (and I mean that sour/sugar should be read fairly literally; the fiddle sounds slightly detuned to my ear, although I could be wrong). One of the guests hiding out in the brush is Paul Jones on harmonica in the choruses; he’s the vocalist for the early Manfred Mann, circa “Quinn the Eskimo” in 1966.
Have to also note here, keeping the momentum going from the prior tracks in the album, Rafferty is not singing solo from song’s outset…he’s double-tracked from the beginning, with the other vocalists hurtling in at the first chorus.
PAGING JENNIFER WARNES: THAT STEEL GUITAR IS “THE RIGHT TIME OF THE NIGHT” ALL OVER
The side closes with a perfect ending track in “Stealin’ Time” – it’s definitely a mellower proceeding than what has come before, but not lacking in energy. In fact, in some ways, it’s one of the more intense songs on City to City. From the wah-wah effect on the opening electric piano to the return of the pedal steel (at :13, sounding like a slightly-updated version of the line on Jennifer Warnes’ “The Right Time of the Night”) to another huge collection of vocal overdubs as the song progresses (although he starts it solo, which he hasn’t done on this side since “Baker Street”…he’ll pick up on the doubled vocals at :53 in the first chorus), it’s perfect late 70s pop, which happens to be quite satisfying to the ear besides, the difference of an early sugar hit of a Werther’s, and the deep pleasure of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.
There’s so much good stuff on Side 2 as well, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises you may find on your own…I will say that there’s more sassy fiddlin’ on “Mattie’s Rag” and that “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart” is my mom’s favorite from the recording and that I love the synthesizer drone on “Home and Dry” and that “Island” is my swoony favorite on the side…but that’s enough. If you haven’t listened to this album full-length, you should probably start now, because you’re missing out on a lot.
“Baker Street” in its original demo form. It’s informative to note a couple of things: this is Gerry Rafferty in the mid-1970s laying out the basic structure of the song, which undercuts sax player Raphael Ravenscroft’s occasional claim that he came up with the solo, because the root progression is right here, in the demo. Also, marvel at the fact that Rafferty’s playing all the instruments in this demo, and yet he plays no instruments in the official studio take.
And then, the single version of “Baker Street” that went to radio and to 45rpm single sales racks. You’ll notice, in addition to the fact that’s it’s two minutes shorter than the album take, that it’s also slightly faster, because it was sped up for radio by about 2%. I get WHY the record label did it, but it still irks the crap out of me.
And the demo version of “Stealin’ Time” in less lush, but no less impressive form.