Album Challenge: Rafferty Before The Hits

by Kevin Burton

   Before “Stuck In The Middle With You,” before “Baker Street,” probably before you ever heard of Gerry Rafferty, came the 1971 album “Can I Have My Money Back?”

   This is the first answer to the album challenge I received on Facebook. I explained it previously on Page 7 (Album Challenge: I’ll Do It “My Way”, June 26).  On some TuesdaysI’ll be writing about albums that influenced me early on in life.

   The music of Gerry Rafferty has been the largest influence on my music and musical aspirations. “Can I Have My Money Back?” hit that sweet spot for me. The harmony and honesty, the humor and variety of musical styles on the set served as an invitation and challenge to me to get writing.

   Rafferty’s partnership with Billy Connelly in the band The Humblebums had ended by 1971. But he was contractually obligated to do one more album for Transatlantic Records. Rafferty did a solo album to fulfill that obligation.

   The result was popular with the critics, but did not sell well. Billboard praised the album as “high-grade folk-rock,” Rafferty’s “finest work to date,” according to a Wikipedia entry.

   This set (and the Humblebums songs that preceded it) to me seemed accessible.  They are solidly professional, but not so overproduced that I felt I could never reach that level.

   With the rocker “New Street Blues” and the country/folk “Didn’t I?” leading off the album, Rafferty establishes multiple credentials right away.  So just two songs in, you’re prepared for anything.

   “His tunes are rich and memorable with an undeniable charm that will definitely see him into the album and very possibly singles charts soon,” Billboard predicted after the album was released.

  There were no chart hits from the record, but any A&R man worth his salt would have heard in those 13 tracks that the hits were right around the corner.  In fact, they were.

   “In terms of style the album is a stripped-down version of what would eventually take Rafferty to fame and fortune,” writes reviewer Steven Reid on “There isn’t a single missed step on the whole album.”

   Tight harmonies on the album were enhanced by the work of Joe Egan, a future band mate of Rafferty’s with Stealers Wheel. The great lyrics were a reminder that from Rafferty’s home town of Paisley in Scotland it is only 178 miles to Liverpool, England.

   “The Beatles influence is quite obvious,” writes Joseph Kyle on “Rafferty has McCartney’s knack for melody and Lennon’s sneering cynicism.” 

   Cynicism yes, but the sneering part does not come through in his music the way it did in Lennon’s.

   For example, on the title track, Rafferty speaks of frustrations and hypocrisy he has endured. But the song is distinctly sunny, dominated by fiddles.

   Make no mistake however, Rafferty is not someone I would have wanted to meet.  Contemporaries say Rafferty could be nasty and abusive, especially after drinking heavily.

   He was famously hostile to the music industry.  Rafferty, a very private man, was fundamentally unsuited to the pressures of celebrity.

   With success goes celebrity. Rafferty, shunned the latter even if it meant missing out on the former.  The music industry feeds on celebrity. Rafferty hated that.

   You can hear this hostility in “Sign on the Dotted Line” from this album and a number of songs on future sets.

   The album is soaked in alcohol. “Half A Chance” takes you lyrically and musically to a saloon. The sublime “One Drink Down” speaks to some of the same themes.

   In “Don’t Count Me Out,” it’s painful to hear Rafferty sing, “and if you tell me that I drink too much and that it’s going to be the death of me….” because drink was, in fact, the death of Rafferty.  He died of liver failure, age 63 in 2011. 

   The city of Paisley honored him with the dedication of Gerry Rafferty Drive in November of 2012.

   Rafferty is considered one of the most underrated singer songwriters of his era.  “Can I Have My Money Back?” is perhaps the most underrated album in his catalog.

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