Gerry Rafferty's signature hit was inspired by his friendship with a session guitarist named Iain Campbell. Campbell, who'd played with Stealer's Wheel, was the guy “with that look on his face” who never did settle down, give up the booze or the one-night-stands - the real-life “rolling stone.”
In the summer of 1977, Rafferty was visiting Campbell, who lived in a mews house just off Baker Street, in London. “We stayed up, playing guitars until the sun came up,” Rafferty said. “I had to get the train to Glasgow from Euston, and as I walked down there with my guitar case in my hand, it was such a beautiful morning, such a positive feeling.”
Rafferty started to write the song on the train ride north, completing it over the next few days in his cottage on Loch Lomond. While several lines were direct references to Campbell, there were also personal reflections. “As a whole, the song's about the loneliness and alienation of being a stranger in a big city when I wanted to be home with my wife and child,” he said.
The '70s was the golden era of song intros - those immediate musical hooks that grabbed you before the vocal entered. Think The Who's Baba O'Riley, Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear The Reaper, Heart's Crazy On You. Baker Street ups the ante with two intros, stretching over a full minute. First, it floats in on those impressionistic chords laced with volume pedal guitars, then gives way to the blaring saxophone line.
That melody, played by the excellently named Raphael Ravenscroft, warrants its own mini-history. When Rafferty demoed the song, he played the part on electric guitar. But then he reconsidered. “I decided the song needed a lonely, big-city sound to it,” he said. Of the sax man he hired for the job, Rafferty said, “With a name like that, I reckoned he had to be good – and he was.”
Co-producer Hugh Murphy remembered things differently. “I tried the line on a guitar and that didn't work, and tried it with voices and that didn't work. Then one day I was listening to a Joni Mitchell record and there was a sax playing and it really sounded great, so I thought, 'Sax, of course – a street sound.'”
Ravenscroft added a third spin. “In fact, most of what I played was an old blues riff. If you're asking me: 'Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?' Then no, he didn't.”
A demo of the song that appeared on the 2011 reissue of City To City confirms that the line was indeed originally played on guitar.
Ravenscroft grew so tired of being asked about his famous sax part (and by extension, about his £27 pay cheque for it) that he told BBC News Magazine that it had actually been played by TV game show host Bob Holness of Blockbusters fame. An alternate version says music writer Stuart Maconie invented that spoof fact about Holness for the “Would You Believe It?” column of the NME. Either way, it gave birth to a much-loved, oft-repeated urban legend.
The song, which reached #3 in the UK and #2 in the US (the single edit chopped two minutes off the 6:06 length), has endured on classic rock radio, in pop culture appearances ranging from The Simpsons to Grand Theft Auto V, and in cover versions by Waylon Jennings, Foo Fighters and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Rafferty, who died of liver failure in 2011, once said of his best-known tune, “I suppose it's become one of those songs like Whiter Shade Of Pale or something that people always remember. I'm duly flattered. I'm pleased I was able to produce something like that, something so successful, because it was a good piece of work.”