|Gerry Rafferty - Can I Have My Money Back?|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 28 May 2002|
Silverline, aka 5.1 Entertainment, one of the top producers of DVD-Audio material, have their work cut out. In a deal with Sanctuary Records, they have undertaken to release around 10 DVD-Music discs (with both DVD-A and DVD-V areas) a month, up to a total of at least 140. One of the first is this offering from Gerry Rafferty.
Castle Music, a division of Sanctuary, has access to a lot of '70s-era British material, including recordings from the successful, though rather idiosyncratic, independent label Transatlantic, and that’s the source of these recordings from, as far as I can recall, around 1970. I was involved with Transatlantic myself a little later, which prompts me to note that Castle Music also has access to material by my friends in the band Gryphon, whose sound I engineered for some years (if the time ever comes to remix their albums for surround, I would love to help).
Scotland-born Gerry Rafferty is today best known for the enormous hit “Baker Street” from the 1977 United Artists album City To City, but the recordings on this album date from several years earlier. They actually represent, as far as I can tell, piecing things together, including the entire contents of one album and some or all of two others: there are no less than 25 tracks here, the first 13 representing the complete 1971 solo release, Can I Have My Money Back, in the original running order. The remaining 12, headed “The New Humblebums,” appear to originate from the Humblebums’ final two (I think) albums, The New Humblebums and Open The Door, both from 1970, specifically including numbers written by Rafferty.
The Humblebums was an outfit originally involving now-famous fellow Scottish entertainer Billy Connolly; the other writing partner in the group was Tam Harvey, whom Rafferty replaced.
I ran into Rafferty when I was a tape operator at Island Record’s Basing Street Studios, where I worked on the first Stealers Wheel album, Stuck In The Middle With You, and there is an interesting foretaste here of the Stealers Wheel partnership between Rafferty and Joe Egan in “Sign on the Dotted Line.” Like "Stuck In the Middle With You," "Sign …" is a song about the iniquities and legalities of the music biz, though not as dark as “Stuck.” Of course, Rafferty was seemingly forever embroiled in Stealers Wheel-related legal difficulties from the mid-'70s until the release of City To City.
Remixing these tracks must have been a major challenge. There are virtually no technical sleeve notes (an extensive onscreen article by Alan Robinson from a couple of years ago details the history of the Money Back album, but does not cover the rest), but from memory and guesswork, I think I hear the sound of John Wood at the controls in Sound Techniques studios. That being the case, I would be surprised if, at the time, any more than eight-track multitrack recorders were involved. One of the factors affecting the fullness of a surround remix is the number of tracks available on the multitrack masters. It’s not a hard and fast rule – I’ve heard wonderful stuff from four-track originals, for example – but in general, the more material there is to spread around the soundstage, the more enveloping the experience; the less there is, the more you have to rely on studio jiggery-pokery to spread the tracks around (or go for an expanded stereo with ambience at the rear, which is fine for orchestral or live material, but tends to leave a studio album sounding a bit underwhelming).
Rich Fowler mixed these tracks at 5.1’s West Los Angeles studio, and he has done a good job, especially considering the difficulties he likely encountered. By and large, Fowler has assisted the material with stereo effects, essentially adding short delays spread across the 360 degrees, which – apart from being sometimes all you can do – actually suits the material quite well, and here it is sensitively done. Rafferty’s vocal style also relies on double-tracking – recording exactly the same part twice – which helps the modern studio processing to integrate rather better here than might otherwise have been the case.
In fact, if you ever hear Rafferty’s voice on its own, as on some of the numbers here, you will discover the fact that he sounds quite a bit like an early solo Paul McCartney; some of the writing even heads in that direction.
As far as the Can I Have My Money Back part of this “two’fer” is concerned, the title track is probably the best known, but “Mary Skeffington” is also a beautiful piece of work, with its harmony vocals, harmonium and a beautiful arrangement overall. In fact, part of the pleasure of this record is knowing that you are listening to real instruments. The piano is real, miked up over the hammers with a good deal of compression; the harmonium is real; the Hammond is real, and so on.
There is an interesting roominess to the drum sounds on this album. I don’t know for sure but I believe I detect the hand(s) of Pentangle drummer Terry Cox on at least some of this material. The drums are mixed quite high, and so are the guitars and/or piano, which sometimes results in the vocals getting a bit lost in the more fully-arranged numbers, but how much of that was obligatory as a result of the actual contents of the multitracks, I couldn’t say without a lot more information. Then, in complete contrast, you get songs like “Where I Belong,” which are little, if anything, more than piano and vocal, and have the freshness of a demo – the kind of freshness that you can never regain when you go in to record the master. But here, Rafferty manages it, and Fowler brings it clearly and successfully through to a new medium.
In contrast to Connolly’s lighter pieces that characterized the earlier Humblebums recordings, Rafferty’s material for the band on this offering is much more introspective (and darker than the previous tracks on this compilation), commenting on love lost, love lost again, and other broken dreams. Some of these are hauntingly moving, such as “Rick Rack” (a tale of things one child is not allowed to be when he grows up) and “Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway” (a poignant account of the end of a relationship, told by reading its remains). In fact, these two songs are perhaps the strongest on the latter half of the DVD, though “Steamboat Row” and particularly “Shoe Shine Boy” are probably better known. The sound on the Humblebums’ material is similar-but-different, too, actually with a certain additional warmth for some unknown reason.
Faced with choices of what of Rafferty’s material to remix for surround, I would not have thought of this, but if nothing other than Transatlantic Records was the source of the recordings, there would be little choice except not doing it at all. As it turns out, the decision to revisit these songs is an inspired one. At the very least, listeners get to hear some earlier work from an inventive songwriter who was able to move from folk to out-and-out pop with a fair degree of ease, and that earlier work helps to put later blockbusters – and later commercial failures – into some kind of perspective.
But there is actually much more to this album than that. Many of the songs stand the test of time, in some cases almost as early Dylan has, and remind us of what a sensitive, evocative songwriter and performer Rafferty has been. There are several British singer/songwriters of this period whom we should remember, such as Tony Hazzard, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Although Rafferty is unlikely to fade into oblivion, the new life brought to a consummate artist’s catalog like this will help to safeguard the material for the future.