In The Presence of Angels: Gerry Rafferty & City to City

Yeah…night and day…night and day…

Our Classic Scottish Album podcast this week is City to City by Gerry Rafferty. Listen at this link and please subscribe and share if you enjoy the show.

City to City is an album that was recorded in rural Oxfordshire by an artist already established as a hit-making major-label solo performer and former member of Stealers Wheel, steeped in classic British and American pop music with a bona fide international audience. Yet the music in its grooves retains a deep and lasting connection to Scotland and the artist’s hometown of Paisley. Its Scottish-ness can be found variously in the album’s lush melodicism; the epic storytelling of Baker Street; the urge to leave and roam encapsulated in The Ark; and the direct hit to the gut of Whatever’s Written In Your Heart. The latter is a major contender in my book for the greatest contemporary song ever written and recorded by a Scottish artist. Emotionally guarded, unsentimental, the song’s narrator casually admits his own failings in the negotiation of a relationship – ‘we talked all night and left it all unsaid’, ‘you’ve got your secrets, yeah, and I’ve got mine’ – while clinging to the certainty that the secret language of the heart will prevail. And, just in case we all get too comfortable with that, juxtaposing his conviction with a frank assessment of the reality of the drudge of life, night and day, night and day. Does that sound Scottish at all? Rafferty also instinctively plays McCartney to the Lennon on his other shoulder, softening the blunt reckoning of his lyric with a beautifully simple, expressive and gospel-tinged melody delivered in its recorded setting with an almost detached spirituality.

If the traveller arriving at Paisley Gilmour Street railway station doesn’t instinctively sense the music of Gerry Rafferty in the bricks and dust of the place they will nevertheless soon be greeted by an image of the man himself in the beautiful, playful mural by Caroline Gormley and Sandy Guy painted as part of the Paisley bid for UK City of Culture 2021. Alongside images of actor Fulton McKay, the Hillman Imp car and other Paisley icons, the cover of City to City is represented as originally created by Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne, featuring the musician beamed in on a glowing west coast sky: Byrne casts Rafferty as celestial angel releasing magic and mystery by bending the strings of a blue electric guitar (a giant version can be found on a gable end at Brown’s Lane). Only slightly more prosaically the Paisley 2021 bid itself was a valiant attempt to cast some of the same magic and mystery in helping the town re-impose itself on the cultural map through a meditation on its own achievements, assets, history, people and stories. I was lucky enough to work on the outskirts of the bid and, as the competition climax approached, a request came in to provide some music to be performed as the great and good of the town gathered at the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley to cast themselves in supplication (without overtly casting themselves in supplication) before the UK City of Culture 2021 judges and plead (without overtly pleading) for their favour. My friend and colleague, the musician Becci Wallace, brought together a small group of students to perform her marvellous a’capella arrangements of Paisley songs, including Paolo Nutini’s One Day and The Tannahill Weavers’ Rich Man’s Silver. Most thrilling was her take on Whatever’s Written In Your Heart. I won’t readily forget stopping by rehearsals and hearing that band of young women, far removed from the time, environment and people from which the song first emerged, singing together and bringing new understanding to its dark and light heart.

Imagine a scene: the brand new two-story glass fronted atrium of a modern University. The UK City of Culture 2021 judges will be at UWS soon. The great and good of Paisley are arriving too, in dribs and drabs, passing a small group of young singers then heading up the stairs for their meeting with the judges. As our singers kick off Whatever’s Written In Your Heart a dapper old gentleman walks past briskly and smiles politely at them as he heads for the stairs. Around the third or fourth step he stops, though, and turns to face the singers and stands transfixed by them as they wind their way through the song to its final invocation ‘night and day, night and day’. He applauds warmly, beaming through grey whiskers, and goes on his way. The dapper old gentleman? The artist John Byrne of Paisley who first heard that song over 40 years beforehand as he prepared to work on the artwork for City to City for his friend the late Gerry Rafferty.

That chapter of Paisley 2021 ended a few weeks later in a bizarre episode of BBC’s One Show where the UK Culture Minister John Glen raced from a broken down train to blurt out the winning city – Coventry – just as the final credits of the show ran. It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see an analogy in the confidence, the neck, the chutzpah of a small town like Paisley battling it out for UK City of Culture with huge cities like Coventry and running them close, with the ambition of the music made by Gerry Rafferty for City to City. It is a music that reaches for universal themes, big narratives, that searches for the truth of the heart but is always rooted in the bricks and dust of home, and the reality that sees night follow day.

David Scott

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2 comments

  1. By coincidence I’ve been playing this CD in the car over the past week – it having been sitting on a shelf forgotten for 20 years. Worse still, I have the original in vinyl and can’t even remember playing it – it’s so long ago! It must be one of the last vinyl records I bought. Only came across your blog tonight and as I read through I was struck by how much weight you put on the track “Whatever’s Written in Your Heart”. Yesterday I was driving along playing it over and over thinking to myself it was one of the best tracks I’d ever heard. What was striking about the track was its more stripped back sound; quite different to his tendency to throw the kitchen sink at a song.

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