Winding 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
This city desert makes you feel so cold
It's got so many people, but it's got no soul
And it's taken you so long
To find out you were wrong
When you thought it held everything…
The Original: A beautifully constructed and polished mix of smooth-jazzy psychedelic Pop from the glory days of Mighty FM radio, punctuated by one of the most distinctive choruses in 20th century music, a saxophone riff that screams Urban Angst.
The Cover: Replace the sax (and everything else) with electric guitars cranked up to 11 and slamming percussion, arranged in the “loud-quiet-loud” pattern of the ‘90s Seattle Rock sound Dave Grohl helped make famous with Nirvana.
Living in the Big City is fun. There’s lots of things to do interesting people to see and meet. But anyone who’s lived in an urban setting long enough will eventually have at least one moment of existential crisis. Maybe it’s around 4:00AM on the way home from the bar after a long week of working too hard. Maybe it’s after a particularly bad breakup with someone you assumed would be around for a while. “What does it all mean?” the soul demands. “Why am I wasting my life in this damn place?”
No other Pop song captures this kind of mood better than Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 single, currently on permanent rotation on ‘70s oldies stations everywhere. The song captures the melancholy of city life with a narrative directed squarely at the upwardly mobile middle class striver who dreams of ruling in business and the night life, but finds both lacking. “Just one more year and then you’ll be happy…but you’re crying now.”
And yet, there’s hope at the end. Even though things are blue now, the song is careful to point out that when you wake up it’s a new morning. Depression need not be a permanent state, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wallow in it for a little while, especially with that saxophone in the background.
Foo Fighters released their remake of this song in 1998, 20 years after the original. While their version isn’t as iconic as Rafferty’s, it also doesn’t do wrong by what went before. Grohl and company’s rendition is all crashing thuds and scorched-earth guitar licks, but by keeping close to the original’s tempo and chord changes it doesn’t lose the inner poetry from Rafferty’s arrangement. And the song’s sentiment was just as applicable to ‘90s Dot-Com workers who were just a few years away from massive layoffs as it was to urban professionals working at whatever it was urban professionals did in the late ‘70s.
The Foo Fghter’s track reminded me of another song from around the same time that also addressed how life sometimes sucks, the Rembrandts’ “I’ll be There for You,” the theme song to the ‘90s mega-sitcom Friends, a show based on a vision of urban living as a non-stop parade of quirky characters hanging out in overly-spacious apartments. Musically, that song is a McDonalds Happy Meal, while “Baker Street” is a steak with a shot of bourbon on the side. But the plight of the distressed city-dweller is always a good topic for Pop music, when done right.