A Buyers Guide to Supertramp 1974-1980

Even with the relatively charitable effects of nostalgia, there aren’t many bands less cool than Supertramp. They were briefly kings of FM rock, at a time that Album Orientated Rock shifted huge amounts in America and it is for Breakfast in America and the singles from that album that they are best remembered.

Personally I’ve always had a fondness for Supertramp, as they managed to blend fashionable progressive rock and more radio-friendly material in a manner that only the likes of Electric Light Orchestra, Queen and 10cc managed. Fronted by a contrasting pair of songwriters and vocalists, Supertramp released some of the most sophisticated rock music of the late 70s.

Throughout their career, Supertramp were led by keyboard player and vocalist Richard Davies and throughout their most successful years, Davies shared songwriting and band-leading duties with guitar player and fellow vocalist Roger Hodgson. From the band’s beginning in the late 60s, Supertramp were a rather ordinary prog-rock band, releasing two albums that only sold modestly, a self-titled debut, and 1971’s Indelibly Stamped, an anonymous sounding album with frankly bad-taste artwork.

With their backs against the wall Davies and Hodgson recruited a new band, drummer Bob Siebenberg, bass player Dougie Thompson and horn player, Master of Ceremonies and live keyboard player John Anthony Helliwell and recorded a new single, “Land Ho”, which failed to chart, but gave notice of a move to a more accessible and slicker sound. Their next album would be crucial.

In a last ditch attempt to gain some kind of commercial foothold, this new and improved Supertramp headed to Trident Studios with David Bowie’s old engineer Ken Scott and hoped for the best. The results were better than anyone could have reasonably predicted.

Some have said that Crime Of The Century could be considered a pop-orientated version of The Dark Side of the Moon and that’s actually not too far off the mark as it tackles subjects like madness, depression and finding your place in the world. The album as a whole really does come across as progressive rock at its most commercial, with its solid riffs, lashings of Fender Rhodes, John Anthony Helliwell’s saxophone and backing vocals and a solid rhythm section. Hodgson’s ‘Who am I, Where am I going?’ style songs are delivered in his little-boy lost vocal and contrast well with Davies’ more earthy blues-influenced numbers. Every track on Crime Of The Century is necessary to create the right dynamic of the album and from the opening harmonica wail of “School” to the definitive prog outro of the title track, it’s untroubled by a weak spot. Even longer numbers like “Hide In Your Shell”, “Asylum” and “Rudy” are worth the amount of time spent on them as they counterpoint the pop of “Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right”.

If Supertramp had never recorded another note of music, their reputation would still be safe with Crime Of The Century. Sure it’s not the most fashionable music to listen to these days, but fashions have a habit of changing and with it’s pop nous, rock riffs and jazzy flourishes, Crime Of The Century is one of those albums that I keep coming back to on a regular basis regardless of what else I am listening to at the time.

After the unexpected success of Crime of the Century, Supertramp were poised for great things, with their blend of pop and melodic prog. Quite why they never consolidated this success is puzzling, but whatever happened their follow up LP was solid and enjoyable, but didn’t quite match its predecessor. There’s no reason for this subtle change in fortune as the line up of the band line-up didn’t alter and they were once again working with producer Ken Scott, though admittedly the success of Crime Of The Century probably provided some fiscal security.

Crisis? What Crisis? starts with a pleasant stroll down the street, complete with whistling and passing traffic sounds and eventually this melts into melodic opener “Easy Does It”, it then gets more upbeat with “Sister Moonshine” and the band start to stretch their legs a little further. By “Ain’t Nobody But Me” and “A Soapbox Opera” the band are in full swing and Crisis? What Crisis? has revealed itself to be an album to enjoy rather than excite. While it can be argued that the band had lost some of its pop sheen, it still works, though the humour woven clumsily through the backing vocals of “Ain’t Nobody But Me” and the superfluous jazz piano at the end of “Another Man’s Woman” do drag it down somewhat. On the upside the album does rock a little more readily and John Anthony Helliwell’s sax playing provides many highlights of the album.

As pop-prog went, Crisis? What Crisis? is actually a good album, it just lacks the ‘Wow’ factor of the band’s previous outing. What it did prove was that Crime Of the Century was no one-off fluke and that Supertramp had an element of staying power. While many of the prog giants of previous years either stumbled or went into hibernation, Supertramp were well placed to take advantage and establish themselves on the world stage.

Even In The Quietest Moments was the album where Supertramp started to concentrate on the American market instead of Europe and thus sealed the deal on their later success as a more AOR orientated group. As a result Even In The Quietest Moments is their last album as a progressive pop group and despite it being oddly uneven, it contains a handful of their strongest moments.

First up is the song that broke them in America. “Give A Little Bit” is one of the few Supertramp songs propelled by Roger Hodgson’s guitar playing rather than Rick Davies’ keyboards, which gives it an overall more ‘pop’ feel to it. In retrospect it was the moment that Supertramp became AOR royalty and it’s success in the USA meant that they had become a genuinely international band.

The title track is a solid song which recalls the softer material from Crisis? What Crisis? and is another opportunity for Hodgson to shine. Davies’ moment in the sun comes with the splendid “From Now On”, one of his best songs with a tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the career-best Crime of the Century. Sadly almost all the other songs dotted around these prog-pop masterclasses are of a significantly inferior quality, which probably goes some way to explaining why this was the last of Supertramps ‘big five’ that I purchased on CD.

Of course no review of Even In The Quietest Moments is complete until you’ve tackled Supertramp’s great epic folly, the magnificently ridiculous “Fools Overture”, which is simultaneously one of the most ambitious and silly songs that the band ever cut in the recording studio. It has a warmth and sense of humour about it that was probably unintentional, but it makes it one of the few Prog mini-symphonies worth the ten minutes plus you invest every time you listen to it. Overblown and pompous it may be, but it’s the only song that you’ll ever hear Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies trading vocals with Winston Churchill.

Even In The Quietest Moments was a significant turning point for Supertramp and regardless of the uneven songs, it’s one of their most significant albums.

By the time of Breakfast In America Supertramp had all but abandoned their prog-rock trappings and had settled into comfy AOR pop territory, with crisp production values, icy synthesisers and a Fender Rhodes sound seemingly purpose made for sounding good from even the cheapest stereo.

Have no doubt about it, Breakfast In America is Supertramp’s pop album and it sold by the lorry load on the back of four slick pop hits that are far better than anyone remembers them. From the forced rhyme of “The Logical Song”, the proggy throw-back of “Goodbye Stranger”, the pure radio pop of the title track and the classy “Take The Long Way Home”. Sure they had lost much of the band’s early organic quality, but they had gained a stranglehold on American radio and it made them all very rich men indeed.

Many long-term fans got sniffy at the band allegedly ‘selling out’ in the name of mainstream airplay, but that’s ignoring that with Even in the Quietest Moments the band had come to a natural end of their exploration of pop-prog and if they had continued in the same style, they would have been swept aside by the tidal wave of punk. Supertramp did what they had to do survive, recorded an album purpose-made for the more sympathetic American market and scored the biggest hit of their career.

Of course it’s not all plain sailing as there’s a mild disco influence throughout and there’s lots of backing vocals that sound a little too much like the Bee Gees for my tastes. Only on the more sensitive and reflective “Lord Is It Mine” does the perfect glassy production show a ripple in its smooth surface and it results in one of the album’s most enjoyable numbers.

While it is by no means perfect, Breakfast In America is a classic of the soft-rock and AOR genres and while it has influenced almost nobody since, it still sounds great coming out of even the cheapest stereo.

Live double album Paris actually works best as a live greatest hits package, with all the bands big songs included in the set list with the exception of “Give A Little Bit”, which is a real shame as with that number included this live album would have meant that the set list would have been definitive. While Supertramp don’t stray very far from the studio originals (there’s a time and a place for spontaneity!), the live recording means that the songs benefit from a much more organic and natural sound which is in sharp contrast to the crisp, clear and often sterile sound of their studio equivalents. The material that benefits most is from Breakfast in America, which always sounded just a little bit too cold in its original form. The same songs, just sounding a little bit different, which is exactly what Supertramp fans want from a live album.

With John Anthony Helliwell acting as MC on stage, it leaves Roger Hodgson to do his little-boy-lost vocals without having to damage the facade too much by communicating with the audience between numbers and Richard Davies is left to sound gruff and bluesy. The band member that really shines on this recording is drummer Bob Siebenburg, who after years of being kept reasonably contained in the studio is allowed to really wallop his drums on this album. The photos in the gatefold shows that bass player Dougie Thompson still looks like a slightly bewildered spaniel though.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Supertramp, Paris is actually a much safer bet than any of the compilations on the market, as it avoids the material from the disappointing post-Breakfast In America albums. Supertramp are one of those love them / hate them bands, but if you enjoy Paris you can buy their albums from the late 70s in confidence.

After the release of Paris, Supertramp took time out to rest on their laurels. Their next album, the prophetically titled Famous Last Words, would be an unimpressive facsimile of Breakfast in America, which boasted only one song of note, the hit single “It’s Raining Again”. It would be Hodgson’s last album with the band.

Over the last thirty years there have been a series of Hodgson-free Supertramp albums, which have been solid but unspectacular. Hodgson briefly rejoined them to promote a compilation in the later 80s, however this proved to be a one off and relationship between him and the rest of the band seems to have dissolved entirely.

It’s difficult to assess the legacy of Supertramp, as few bands have been obviously influenced by them. In recent years they have been sampled by a number of DJs and dance acts, but that’s certainly not had much of an impact on their standing with critics.

I may be in the minority, but I for one am happy to hold up my hand and profess my appreciation of Supertramp. Over seven years they released four studio and one live album, a body of work which stands up today far better than you’d expect.

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