Let’s Talk About Night Owl

40 years later, Gerry Rafferty’s 1979 LP has aged quite well, all things considered, yes?

Ad for Gerry Rafferty’s album, Night Owl

By the time Gerry Rafferty entered the cozy recording studio nestled in the Home County village of Chipping Norton to record his next record, he’d already left a sizeable chunk of his music industry story behind him.  

Rafferty’s first foray into the music industry was with The Humblebums, a curious Beatle-boogie-folk combo notable for also being actor/comedian Billy Connolly’s debut in showbiz. The music wasn’t altogether bad in its reverence for McCartney’s more whimsical tendencies and rootsy populism- but The Humblebums failed to make the big time nonetheless.

AUDIO: Gerry Rafferty’s first band, The Humblebums with “Shoeshine Boy”

After the Humblebums disbanded in 1971, Rafferty released his first solo album- the well-liked but poor-selling Can I Have My Money Back?

 

AUDIO: Gerry Rafferty’s I Want My Money Back

Rafferty then joined up with fellow Scotsman Joe Egan to form Stealer’s Wheel- eventually nabbing a hit with the Dylanesque, Tarantino-tainted “Stuck In The Middle With You.” Rafferty and Egan followed it up with “Star” to modest chart success, but that would be their last taste of the Billboard hot 100. 

 

Stealer’s Wheel broke up somewhat acrimoniously in 1975. But there was a problem–both Rafferty and Egan each were contractually barred from releasing any new music for three years- a lifetime when you’re a modestly successful pop artist trying to sustain a career trajectory. Yet when Rafferty finally returned in 1978, he finally hit pay dirt with the instantly-recognizable moody sax showcase “Baker Street,” a song which probably deserves screenwriting credits in half a dozen ’80s cop action flicks. Both the song and the album it was on, City to City, were gigantic hits, with the album knocking–of all things–the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack off the #1 spot.

 

VIDEO: Gerry Rafferty – “Baker Street”

Then came Night Owl in the summer of ’79. Recorded and released a full year after the mega-selling City To City, the album wasn’t quite the success that City was, but it still managed to go gold in both America and Britain, and platinum in Canada. Plus, looking back on its 40th birthday, it’s aged considerably better than City To City, many would say.

The album opens with “Days Gone Down,” a slightly sour days-passed lament that manages to channel latter-day Jackson Browne without being too slick about it- though the album- with its muted but crisp drum sound, fluid bass, and tight arrangements is indeed state-of-the-art for 1979. 

Gerry Rafferty Night Owl, United Artists 1979

“Days Gone Down”’s muted melancholy stumbles into the title track, a behind-the-beat groove with locking, harmonizing bass and guitar riffage recalling slightly Michael McDonald Doobies or Steely Dan over which Rafferty opines effectively on the lonesome grace of the sleepless and obsessive. The opening funk-lite of the intro threatens to undo the plaintive melodicism of the verse and melody, but Rafferty’s gravitas- probably his greatest, if most ineffable gift as a songwriter and performer- rescues it from being a throwaway on the order of your typical Eagles album cut.

In fact, it’s that selfsame gravitas that ballasts most of the album, and what makes Rafferty a compelling figure whose music still resonates, despite its sometimes near-bland AOR trappings. It also helps that Rafferty was hipper than your average album rock journeyman– a fact well-evidenced by his employing Fairport vet and by then legendary guitar picker Richard Thompson on Night Owl’s biggest hit, “Take The Money And Run”, crucially not to be mistaken with the earlier Steve Miller number with the memorable drum intro.

Strangely, Thompson’s contributions to the modal-minor key burner aren’t all that ostentatious or especially highlighted apart from some brief chorus or Leslie-rotator-soaked soloing, but the point gets across, and if the track itself sticks out as being maybe a little eager to be used in buddy-cop film, it doesn’t drag, and at worst it’s a bit of a “Baker Street” rewrite with a few moments of inventive guitar slinging. 

 

AUDIO: Gerry Rafferty – “Take The Money and Run”

The rest of the album doesn’t stray drastically from the sounds of these key tracks, save for a few moments, such as the Mellotron-laced intro to “Family Tree”, recalling earlier Rafferty incarnations until the snare kicks in, anyhow, but 40 years on, it proves itself a crucial entry into Rafferty’s catalog – one defined by the consistency of Rafferty’s hangdog persona, and fleeting moments of True Grace™ which suggest a scrubby genius often undone by a melancholy that wasn’t an act at all.

Rafferty himself said as much, during an interview taken not long before his death in 2009:

“There have been periods in my life where I have experienced depression. It has been through some of my darkest moments that I have written some of my best songs. For me, singing and writing is very therapeutic. It’s much more effective than taking Prozac!”

Gerry Rafferty died of liver failure in 2010 after a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. The last album he recorded, Life Goes On, was recorded and released in 2009.  

 

AUDIO: Gerry Rafferty – Night Owl (full album)

 

Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith is a musician and sometime writer who lives in Queens and lives with one cat. He's 6'2" and has hazel eyes.

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