Not Forgotten: Supertramp – Crime of the Century

There was a point prior to the release of Crime of the Century where Supertramp seemed to be the nearly men of progressive rock. Being bank rolled by a wealthy individual, keyboard player and vocalist Rick Davies set about recruiting his band. The first person joining him in the line up was Roger Hodgson, and it was with Hodgson that Davies would form a writing partnership that would form the backbone of Supertramp. Getting signed to A&M Records seemed to promise great things for Supertramp, however their first two albums met with commercial indifference, and they weren’t gaining much traction as a touring act either.

1973 was effectively make or break for Supertramp, as they had lost their multi-millionaire patronage, and the band now consisted of just Davies and Hodgson. Opting to continue under the Supertramp name, the duo started auditioning for bandmates, with their first new recruit being American drummer Bob Siebenberg, before finalising their line up by engaging the services of former The Alan Bown members, Dougie Thomson on bass, and Jon A Helliwell on woodwinds and acting as the on stage MC. This smart use of Helliwell’s likeable persona seemingly took the pressure off of the less engaging Hodgson and Davies on the live stage, and the band started to mesh together as a musical unit far better than previous line ups had. The first recorded material from this revised Supertramp line up was stand alone single “Land Ho”, a cheery slab of pop-prog with plenty of commercial appeal, which despite its lack of chart action must have quelled the fears of A&M, who up to this point must have had significant misgivings about the commercial validity of the band.

While “Land Ho”  made minimal commercial impact, it acted as a fine demonstration of what this revised Supertramp line up was capable of, but even then, Crime of the Century must have come as a surprise. While album-length explorations of  isolation and insanity were nothing new in 1974, indeed a little album called Dark Side of the Moon had made quite the splash by exploring these themes the previous year, on Crime of the Century Supertramp managed to achieve a fine balance of pop-rock and progressive rock, resulting in an accessible album of big ideas, singalong choruses, memorable tunes and musical drama.

Key to Crime of the Century’s appeal was the contrast in the material penned by Davies to that penned by Hodgson. Despite what the credits would have you believe, the two of them were now writing separately, with Davies’ bluesier material acting as ballast to the more fantastical and poppier material being penned by Hodgson. The fact that each acted as primary vocalist on what they wrote means that there’s a feeling of precise balance throughout Crime of the Century, as Hodgson’s lighter and more commercial material acted as a fine counterpoint to Davies’ more ‘serious’ work.

“School” is a fantastic opener, starting as a slow burn tune that builds up to a prime slab of pop-prog, not too light, and just heavy enough to indicate that this is a band for those who took their music seriously. Davies’ opening harmonica wail and Hodgson’s plaintive vocals signal that this is the work of a band reborn, and the song’s lyrics of questioning authority struck exactly the right chord. it builds up until suddenly the whole band fall in behind a simple repeated fender rhodes riff. “School” is Hodgson and Davies one true to co-write on Crime of the Century, and if it had been a dud, then chances are the relaunch of Supertramp would have spluttered and failed.

From there on in Crime of the Century follows the deceptively simple track sequence of a Davies song, then a Hodgson song, then repeat to the end. Almost immediately Davies throws a spanner in the works of the subsequent assumption that Hodgson wrote the band’s most accessible numbers, by presenting us with “Bloody Well Right”, with its big guitar riff and unforgettable chorus. To balance things out, Hodgson’s next song goes against type by being the lengthy “Hidden Your Shell”, which could be a rather insipid innocent-wide-eyed-boy-overwhelmed-by-the-world number, but instead manages to somehow come across as relatively deep and meaningful, and really rather heart-felt, which has not always the case as Hodgson’s music career has progressed down the decades.

Generally it is Davies who pens Supertramp’s weightier epics, as ably demonstrated by the excellent “Asylum” and “Ruby”, a pair of songs that have just enough commercial edge to them to ensure that they hit the rare to find sweet spot between lengthy and listenable. They are perfectly counter balanced by “Dreamer”, the Hodgson penned pop hit on the album, which ensured that they saw some singles chart action, and helped propel Crime of the Century up the album charts. Again, there’s a lightness to the song to make it sound like a pure pop song, but there’s enough musicality about it to convince you that there’s a reassuring depth to it.

The Hodgson penned “If Everyone Was Listening” might be the weakest point on the Crime of the Century, however if your weakest track is as good as this, then you really have nothing to worry about. Often forgotten and overlooked simply de to the fact that it is rarely included on compilations, and is the only song from Crime of the Century not included on the band’s enjoyable live offering Paris, “If Everyone Was Listening” is a brilliant fake-out would-be closing track. Its pretty melody and lyrics indicate that it’s a purpose written closing track for the album, and set you up for the fact that anything that comes after this can only be a disappointment.

Except it isn’t.

Crime of the Century’s final track is one of the most sublime and perfect album closers of all time, the Davies penned epic being a wonderfully realised blend of spotlighted piano, one of Davies more soulful and empathetic vocal performances, orchestrated high drama, a water gong from Siebenburg, whose superlative drumming has been without flaw throughout the whole album, and just about the most perfect instrumental coda in progressive rock. Perhaps it might not have had the impact if “If Everyone Was Listening” hadn’t set us up for a disappointment, but “Crime of the Century” is one of the few near-perfect album closers in popular music.

With its iconic album art, perfectly balanced eight tracks which are both cohesive, but also show range, Crime of the Century was a deserved commercial success. Supertramp could have continued to churn out facsimiles of its format for the rest of the decade and no one would have minded, but the band had bigger ambitions. A more muted follow up would be released before the band Supertramp decamped to America to launch themselves on the charts there, and what do you know, by the end of the decade, they’d nailed it with an album whose sales would eclipse those of Crime of the Century. However, while Breakfast in America remains Supertramp’s best seller, few fans of the band wouldn’t argue that Crime of the Century is by far and away their best album.

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