Sunday, 26 February 2012

TV Review: Gerry Rafferty night on BBC4

Who could have predicted that when, a little over a year ago, Gerry Rafferty – singer-songwriter extraordinaire (and subject of my very first blog entry) – passed away that the BBC would devote an evening to commemorating his life and career? Certainly not me, and while I can’t help but wish that this kind of treatment had been afforded Rafferty in his lifetime, any belated attention his back-catalogue receives can only be a good thing.

The evening began with documentary Right Down the Line, which follows Rafferty’s life and career in a more or less linear fashion, and featured remembrances from a wide selection of friends, family and fans, not to mention Mike Stoller (of legendary writing/production team Leiber and Stoller, who had the misfortune of trying to tame Stealers Wheel in the studio – although the results they achieved speak for themselves).

This programme originally aired on BBC Scotland last summer, so the interviews were clearly recorded relatively quickly after his passing, which makes for quite a raw experience at times, as several interviewees are unable to continue talking at various points during the film. Certainly I recall watching this the first time with a perpetual blur in the eye, but this second viewing was somewhat easier, although the footage of the Rafferty clan singing Whatever’s Written in Your Heart at his funeral did me in again...

Early on in the programme the myth that Baker Street’s famous sax riff was written by the saxophone player himself (fans don’t even mention him by name anymore, which is a shame really - while the man may be a delusional and/or lying tit, he did contribute some amazing performances to each of Gerry’s three biggest-sellling albums) is well and truly debunked, as Rafferty’s original demo – clearly featuring that famous riff played on electric guitar -  is played (the full demo is now available on the expanded collector’s edition of City to City which emerged late last year) and sets the scene for a tale of a man many describe as a perfectionist, who would pay the closest attention to every conceivable detail in his music – and be completely disinterested in playing the ’industry game’ to promote it – seeing some of the promotional clips he was forced to endure in the early days of his career, it’s a policy that’s all too easy to understand!

Most of those interviewed have a great deal of interest to say and offer real insight into Rafferty’s reclusiveness and artistry (even if every single one of them have abiding memories of Gerald that involve excessive alcohol consumption – I suppose that is to be expected, after all). Certainly the likes of Joe Egan, John Byrne, Billy Connolly and Rab Noakes have a lot to offer to a programme of this nature – not only did they each work closely with Rafferty in the early (Humblebums/Stealers Wheel) days, they all to a man remained close friends with him right until the end. Indeed Rab appears (along with Rafferty’s daughter Martha) to have taken on the role of guardian of the Gerry Rafferty legacy, and has already demonstrated that it’s in more capable hands than ever before.

Contributions from Martha and Gerry’s older brother Jim offer a glimpse at the private side of the man, while the likes of Hugh Burns and Betsy Cook (mainstays of his studio band for many years) explain his working methods – all participants clearly have the utmost respect for the man and his music, even while acknowledging his darker side, such as Cook’s relating how he would pick random targets (i.e. people) to attack mercilessly for no apparent reason. And drink. A lot. Courtesy of a 2001 interview Gerry is present himself, and comes across as laidback and avuncular, but also as a man who always doubted some aspects of his own talent (though fortunately John Byrne is on hand to forcefully rebut Rafferty’s assertion that he didn’t really have a way with words).

The ‘fans and admirers’ contingent don’t really add much, by comparison, essentially appearing to talk about their favourites of Rafferty’s less commercially successful period, so we have Val McDermid relating the sublime North and South to her own life at the time, only for Tom Robinson to bleat on a bit about the follow-ups to N+S being a ‘return to form’ (in fact most of Robinson’s comments tended to annoy me more than anything, on reflection, but I’ll get over it!). 

Following the documentary was a compilation of highlights from the Gerry Rafferty Remembered concert at this year’s Celtic Connections festival. Led again by Rab Noakes and Martha, and backed by a band including Betsy Cook, Mel Collins and Hugh Burns (seemingly being played by Patrick Troughton!), a wide variety of guests performed selections from the Rafferty songbook.

This show also had its premiere on BBC Scotland, but in an hour-long slot, rather than the ninety minutes presented this time around. This extended version was a vast improvement, as the original seemed a little City to City-era-centric, whereas the longer programme had time to offer a greater number of selections from across his fascinating career. As a result a couple of tracks from Gerry’s Humblebums and Stealers Wheel days were featured, not to mention an excellent selection of material from his solo debut, the fabulous Can I Have My Money Back? Of course there wasn’t time for everything, so there was nothing to represent Rafferty’s last few albums (unless Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway counts).

Among the many highlights were Canadian Ron Sexsmith’s renditions of two Rafferty classics (Right Down the Line and Days Gone Down) which were hit singles in North America, but not the UK, Jack Bruce’s powerful vocal on Waiting for the Day, and the rousing finale of his two most famous songs – Baker Street and Stuck in the Middle With You, the latter of which featured one of the most crowded stages I’ve ever seen as all involved with the concert returned one final time. Perhaps the single most affecting performance though came with Family Tree which, like the funeral footage from the documentary, was performed by Martha and many of her cousins (and was one of several songs shown that demonstrated the immense talents of Rafferty’s nephew Mark), revealing once and for all that sometimes these things just run in the family.

Also of note were the stripped-down acoustic performances, such as Rab’s reading of Moonlight and Gold, James Vincent McMorrow’s take on My Singing Bird and especially Rab and Mark’s duet on Mary Skeffington – you could have heard a pin drop during any of these. Of course nobody present – as articulated on stage by Barbara Dickson – would not have preferred to be at an actual Gerry Rafferty concert, but there weren’t many of those even in his lifetime – and unlike some of those interviews for the documentary, enough time had passed for this to be a truly joyful celebration of the man and his music.

Despite the extended nature of the show, there are still performances that have yet to be aired, so hopefully these will be included on the planned CD and DVD release.

As one final added bonus the evening ended with an episode from the first series of Singer-Songwriters at the BBC which features Gerry’s appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. While it’s not the strongest instalment of this excellent retrospective series it’s well worth a look, especially for Gerry and Steve Forbert’s clips, and rounded out a fine tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest recording artists of all time.