IT’S a cold day in the Colinton area of south-west Edinburgh when I arrive at the home of artist and playwright John Byrne, a longtime friend of the late Gerry Rafferty, widely regarded as Scotland’s greatest pop songwriter.
The Paisley Buddies enjoyed a career-spanning association with Byrne providing artwork for many solo and band-related record sleeves, as well as the odd co-write. Byrne’s artwork features again on Rafferty’s 14th solo release Rest In Blue, posthumously compiled by his daughter Martha.
Some demos date back as far as 1970 while other cuts were intended for an album of traditional songs. Many tracks could sit comfortably on Rafferty’s best-known albums because of the care and concern for her father’s legacy, which has been assisted by a string of musicians and friends.
We sit down in front of the fire and the room is filled with the pleasant aroma of burning coal and Pasha, a Turkish brand of rolled-up cigarette. Bryne and Rafferty’s story begins at the Stoddard carpet factory in Paisley which inspired The Slab Boys play.
“Gerald’s brother Jim was working there. I had this three-string banjo that I’d bought for ten shillings and I hid it behind a dust coat in the design room. One day, Jim came in and said: ‘Can I borrow that banjo; my wee brother is learning songs from Radio Luxembourg on a Sunday night’. Gerald would only have been around the age of ten.”
Byrne remembers the youngest of the family singing with his brothers in three-part harmonies. It was soon clear to Byrne that the youngest “was a born singer-songwriter. He was a genius.”
We enter a studio where Byrne pulls out The New Humblebums’ long-player featuring Billy Connolly and Rafferty. The sleeve was painted by Byrne. The record also contains a tribute to the artist in the form of the song Patrick. “I wasn’t surprised but I was honoured to have a song written about me, we were so close.”
Patrick stopped Barbara Dickson in her tracks the first time she heard Rafferty when visiting the Scotia Bar in 1969. “I heard the strains of this gorgeous noise and Gerry was playing the guitar quietly in a focused fashion, unlike anything else I had heard.”
It was also the year when the triumvirate of Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty and John Byrne would form a life-long friendship, the three of them sharing the nuances of a Scottish working-class Irish Catholic childhood. “Gerry was picked up by Billy, he encouraged him and took him under his wing”, says Dickson.
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“He invited him to appear at a concert in the City Halls [in Glasgow] that The Humblebums were playing.” Rab Noakes was also invited to play.
He said: “Gerry and I played separately, we all met at Billy’s dad’s house in Partick to go over the songs. The Humblebums were a duo (Tam Harvey and Connolly) at the time. Gerry at that point would not have been unaware of folk music but he had been working in pop groups. He became very fond of a lot of aspects as reflected on the record about to come out.”
Noakes recalls the relationship between Connolly, Rafferty and Byrne. “They spent a lot of time together and a lot rubbed off on the other. They shared humour and a singular, abstract way of looking at things. There was a personal and professional compatibly. Among the three of them, not one was mundane, they invented the world in which they dwelled.”
Barbara Dickson suggests the vibrant hostelries and folk gatherings around Edinburgh also provided formative experiences for Rafferty and Connolly.
“Sandy Bells [the pub] was a great meeting place. I remember them popping up at parties and at 47 Forrest Road which was a gathering place when the pubs shut.”
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It was around the same time Byrne witnessed second generation Scot and folk singer Ewan MacColl sing one of his most famous self-penned songs, Dirty Old Town. During the appearance in Glasgow, he would, “sing while swigging whisky from a suitcase”.
Rafferty’s take is included on the new collection and differs greatly from the version popularised by The Pogues in 1985.
“The arrangement is sparse like Ry Cooder on the Paris, Texas soundtrack,” explains Martha. Also featured is an intimate version of the Scots/Irish folk song Wild Mountain Thyme.
“The vocal was so outstanding,” she continues, “he loved traditional music and sang it so well. I wanted it to sound the way I remember him which was around the table singing with some of his friends or with family.”
The stirring vocals from Rest In Blue led Billy Connolly to say: “I’ve never heard Gerry sing so well. He never fails to amaze me.”
The stripped-back nature of these new arrangements is how Barbara Dickson remembers Rafferty in Edinburgh. “Gerry tended to over-arrange things, later on his best music is unadorned. Whatever’s Written In Your Heart says exactly what you want it to say with one voice and one instrument. This record is the same as it was leaning against a skirting board somewhere in Edinburgh listening to him sitting in a chair with the guitar.”
A reworked version of the Stealer’s Wheel hit co-written with Joe Egan, Stuck In The Middle With You, from their 1972 debut album is also included. When the hit single found a new lease of life in 1992 after its inclusion on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs it no doubt brought it back into its songwriter’s mind. Rafferty was said not to be a fan of the film or its violent torture scene.
“He tended to go back and visit his old songs on later albums” explains Martha. “We worked on another arrangement and brought in musicians that he worked with over the years. It’s nice to hear it as a mature man singing as opposed to the Dylanesque version.”
At the end of the cut, Rafferty breaks out into laughter, for the many musicians that worked with him, hearing both his spoken and singing voice again has been an emotional encounter. I Still Love You is a raw, heartfelt torch-song summoning the honesty and compassion of his work, while Sign Of The Times features Hugh Burns on guitar, who worked with Rafferty on his classic album City To City.
He said: “I was moved to hear his voice again, there’s a vulnerability there.”
Before recording Baker Street, Rafferty had not long turned 30 and was married with a daughter and living something of a nomadic life between Glasgow and London. The years leading up to the song had been turbulent with various contractual problems. Burns arrived at the studio around midnight after performing with fellow Scot Jack Bruce. Rafferty was working on the track and the pair got down to discussing the much mythologised opening riff.
“I said to him: ‘It sounds good but do you think the guitar is right?’ He smiled and said: ‘Funnily enough, I tried a sax’; the rest was history.”
The sax riff, played by the late Raphael Ravenscroft, would become one of the most recognisable in popular culture. Burns also played the track’s guitar solo and “seagull” string bends as well as the Duane Eddy style riff on Night Owl.
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Rafferty died at the age of 63 in 2011 after battling a drink problem and had spent time in hospital with liver failure.
John Byrne says: “Drinking powered some of his songs, it was beneficial. He might have drunk to excess but he was always in control of his work.”
Baker Street and Night Owl are partly drinking songs but as Noakes suggests they are almost Joycean in their exploration of life and the world.
He says: “We would meet at The Globe [in Baker Street] and put the world to rights. Baker Street is an outstanding example of a hit record not just because it’s an amazing sound but its lyrics and that sequence of scenarios resonate with people. Much of Gerry’s songwriting is about something very specific in a focused and small way but, as a writer, he was capable of imbuing more layers.”
Within those layers, there’s an exploration of an inner life and self-reflection – another nuance of Rafferty’s Scots/Irish Catholic character.
Dickson says: “He was a profoundly spiritual man. It was his search to make sense of things. There is a deep mystery in Catholicism and not just transubstantiation, you know ‘Once a Catholic’ and maybe in the case of Gerry there was a questioning…he allowed himself to dig deep.”
Rest In Blue is released on September 3