The Meaning Behind “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and How It Reflects the Artist’s Career at the Time

Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” may be best known for a performance that’s not his. It’s hard to think of the 1978 single without getting the Raphael Ravenscroft sax solo stuck in your head. Yet “Baker Street” could have been a hit even without the famous solo. Part of what makes it so compelling is Rafferty’s autobiographical story about realizing that his life in London was not what he had hoped it would be.

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If we take the story of “Baker Street” on its surface level, it’s a gripping, emotional tale. Rafferty’s understated delivery only adds to its melancholy. Yet there is much more to the song than just the story of a disillusioned man. It’s a snapshot of where Rafferty was in this particular moment of his life and career—one that left him in a frustrating state of limbo.

Stuck in Neutral After Stealers Wheel

Before he wrote and recorded the songs for his City to City album, Rafferty had one hit to his credit. He co-wrote the Stealers Wheel song ”Stuck in the Middle with You” with bandmate Joe Egan. Though the 1972 song was a huge success—reaching the Top 10 in six countries, including the U.S. and UK—Stealers Wheel would be unable to replicate it on subsequent releases. They disbanded in 1975, but legal disputes kept Rafferty from releasing any new material for three years.

During this limbo period, Rafferty split his time between his native Scotland and London. In an interview with The Telegraph, Rafferty said his trips to London were for the purpose of meeting with lawyers. When in London, he would stay with a friend who lived on Baker Street. The conversations with his friend would make their way into the story of “Baker Street.”

Numbing Out in the “City Desert”

But before Rafferty gets to singing about his friend, he addresses his own feelings of alienation and disillusionment in the first verse. In the song’s opening lines, you quickly get the sense that Rafferty is burnt out and looking to numb out.

Windin’ your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head and dead on your feet
Well another crazy day, you’ll drink the night away
And forget about everything

Then Rafferty moves on to the reasons for wanting to numb himself. He not only feels lonely in London, but he feels even worse for thinking he should have figured out he was lonely sooner.

This city desert makes you feel so cold
It’s got so many people, but it’s got no soul
And it’s taking you so long to find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything

When Rafferty sings “it’s taking you so long to find out you were wrong,” he means it took him years to figure it out. We know that, because he says so in the pre-chorus that follows.

Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re cryin’, you’re cryin’ now

At Least Rafferty Is Better Off than His Friend

In the second verse, Rafferty sketches a portrait of his friend, who has been on his own treadmill of misery. The source of his unhappiness is a cycle of drinking and one-night stands that leaves him dissatisfied. Rafferty tells us that his friend has “this dream of about buyin’ some land.” However, he suspects that his friend’s dream will never come true, because “he’s the rollin’ stone.”

Rafferty may include the friend in the story, because he serves as a foil. Whereas the friend is destined to repeat the same cycle over and over, Rafferty sees hope for positive change in his own life.

And when you wake up, it’s a new mornin’
The sun is shinin’, it’s a new mornin’
And you’re goin’, you’re goin’ home

This could be interpreted literally as being about Rafferty returning to Scotland, where he can find some happiness. Or he could be alluding to the settlement of his legal disputes, which will allow him to get on with his recording career.

The Impact of “Baker Street”

“Baker Street” didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100 until nearly three months after it was released in February 1978. It spent six weeks at No. 2, blocked from the top spot each of those weeks by Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.” Some believe that “Baker Street” had actually qualified to replace “Shadow Dancing” at No. 1 for at least one of those weeks, but Gibb’s management pressured Billboard into keeping their client’s hit in the top spot. (The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” finally did what “Baker Street” couldn’t—regardless of the reason—unseating “Shadow Dancing” after a seven-week run at No. 1.) 

“Baker Street” has continued to be immensely popular in recent decades. Spotify users have streamed it over 214 million times.

Rafferty was able to topple the Gibb dynasty on the album chart when City to City reached the top of the Billboard 200. Though it only spent one week at No. 1, it ended the 24-week reign of the Bee Gees-dominated Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Slash has said that his solo at the end of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was influenced by the solo from “Baker Street,” though he didn’t specify whether it was Hugh Burns’ guitar solo or Ravenscroft’s sax solo. A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers wrote that “Baker Street” provided the initial musical inspiration for his 2012 solo album, Shut Down the Streets.

Several prominent artists have covered “Baker Street,” including Foo Fighters, Ann Wilson, Waylon Jennings, David Lee Roth, and Shawn Colvin (with David Crosby). The 1992 cover by Undercover was a Top 10 hit in 11 European countries.

“Baker Street” doesn’t fit neatly into the pop culture narrative of the late ’70s, which typically focuses on disco and punk. Despite not being squarely in the middle of that era’s zeitgeist, it was enormously popular. “Baker Street” is a prime example of the power of great songwriting. A superbly crafted song can become an enduring hit, even if it’s out of step with the times in which it was created.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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