From time to time, it is interesting to look back on albums often regarded as classic, if just to divine what is so classic about them. Some albums have had far too much said about them already, such as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, and yet another analysis couldn’t possibly illuminate another dark corner. We’ve explored those rooms before.
There are other albums that are also classic, were huge hits in their day, are fondly remembered now but, more often than not, aren’t immediately recalled like the high-profiled benchmarks that instinctively spring to mind. In 1979, there could hardly be an album bigger than Supertramp’s Breakfast In America. Unusually pop, for Supertramp at least, the album had a string of hits including “Take The Long Way Home,” “Goodbye Stranger,” the jaunty title cut and, for the time, the inescapable “The Logical Song.”
On the surface, there is a pleasantness about the album, from the playful organ sounds, to the sax intrusions, to the vocals of Roger Hodgson, which could likely make last rites sound cheerful, and yet there is an undercurrent of unease and angst running through the entire recording. While the actual construction of the recording is a blatant swing to the upper bleachers of popularity, the subtext is another story altogether.
This is, in fact, an album that only truly makes sense in 1979, where the idealism of only a decade prior had to give way to a creeping paranoia that so many had gone down the wrong path; indeed there actually was no right path at all, and maybe Robert Frost’s poetic musings needed to be rejected for harder, more pragmatic philosophies. This was spurred by the times: the end of the flower power movement, the OPEC oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, staggering inflation at home and abroad and the first glimmer of how the worries and woe of America could affect the rest of the world. At one time, a band such as the UK-located Supertramp couldn’t lay claim to commenting on issues of the U.S. for fear of being intellectual interlopers. By 1979, they were us, we were them, and the seeds of what we now recognize as Flat-Earth Economics were starting to germinate. Perhaps they hadn’t the right to speak about these things around the time of Crisis, What Crisis? (1975), but now they were likely the only ones who could be objective in viewpoint.
Gone Hollywood – The opening salvo of the album starts with a frantic piano, not unlike a silent film comedy, the accompanist jacked up on coffee trying to keep pace with the Keystone Cops as they flailed about onscreen. Flailing is as good a term as any, as the narrator tells his tale about arriving in Tinseltown, only to be dejected, rejected, and disrespected by “so many creeps in Hollywood.”
In a moment of introspection, Rick Davies practically howls, “Ain’t nothing good in my life today, ain’t nothing good – it’s all gone away.” By the end of the song however, it would appear things have turned around. “It was a heartbreaking, now I drive in a big, fine car – it was a mind aching, yeah, I’m the talk of the Boulevard.” Ever the voice of optimism, Hodgson chimes in with words of encouragement and inspiration, but don’t forget the title of the track, “Gone Hollywood,” not “Hollywood Has Gone For Me.”
It appears our narrator has sold out.
The Logical Song – Had “Gone Hollywood” stood alone, the negative interpretation would be seen as only my cloudy view of the narrative. When chased down by “The Logical Song,” I think you’ll agree about my perspective. “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful.” That first ridiculously rosy line could merely be an acceptance of the naivete and carefree nature of childhood.
“But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical.” This too could be about how adulthood and education tends to beat the pacifist, touchy, feely tendencies out of a person. “Watch what you say, they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal.” At this point though, you get the inclination that this isn’t about growing up so much as it is about conforming, rejecting the peace and love attitudes, keeping up with the Joneses and, in case it hadn’t become clear yet, going Hollywood.
The close of the song, awash in saxophone and bouncy Fender Rhodes lines, is just nonsensical, randomly blurted words and guttural noise, as if the system had finally broken the last cultural rebel and left him a drooling desk jockey.
Goodbye Stranger – The rake’s progress. Love ’em and leave ’em. “Goodbye Stranger” is not so much about wallowing in it as living it in ignorance of the fact you’re wallowing in it, and let “it” be whatever you’d like to fill it with. “You can laugh at my behavior, that’ll never bother me. Say the devil is my savior, but I don’t pay no heed.”
The song stands alone on the album, as it is mostly a behavioral study and, in a sense, works in all sorts of contexts. From the aspect of the view of America in the late ’70s from outsiders, it seems to roll up disco dancing, coke snorting, Burt Reynolds manscaping, Sally Field shagging, B.J. and the baring it all for a good time ethics in a bouncy little pop tune, topped by an unrepentant backdoor man. “Goodbye Mary, goodbye Jane. Will we ever meet again? Feel no sorrow, feel no shame. Come tomorrow, feel no pain.”
Breakfast in America – Pure satire, with only the merest, glancing hint of affection, the title track is worlds apart from the longing looks of, for instance, The Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes” or “Muswell Hillbillies.” Instead, America is seen through a crowd of naked thighs, big boobs, cowboy hats and a vapid example from the Haves to the Have Nots. “Don’t you look at my girlfriend, ‘cuz she’s the only one I got. Not much of a girlfriend. I never seem to get a lot.”
It’s not merely hormonal. We also like to stuff our shorts with great big wads of green, and we really like it when you stare. “Could we have kippers for breakfast, Mummy dear, Mummy dear? They gotta have ’em in Texas, ‘cuz everyone’s a millionaire. I’m a winner, I’m a sinner. Do you want an autograph? I’m a loser; what a joker…”
The joke was often on us because, at times during the height of the album’s popularity, the song was presented by American media as a positive indicator, not as a shallow example being flushed through the plumbing of the world stage. With the line, “Not much of a girlfriend, I never seem to get a lot,” the song pins the juvenile tail on the ass as it were, but instead of picking up on the disrespect the narrator has for what he’s already got, U.S. radio and television likened it to an across-the-pond mash note, an intercontinental “California Girls” homage.
When you think you’re the center of the universe, you’re convinced everything revolves around you, even as everything constantly tells you they aren’t.
Oh Darling – This is a silly love song, pure and simple. It’s all about the pursuit of the girl, and in the vinyl era, it closes side one of the record on an upbeat note, which really was what record labels wanted back then. However, in the CD age, the song (most likely inadvertently) becomes a before-and-after snapshot like the combination of “Gone Hollywood” and “The Logical Song,” for only one song and one side over, we move from the pursuit to the dissolution.
Take the Long Way Home – There is a fantastic scene in the movie Citizen Kane where, sitting at one table, we see the decay of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage to his wife. It takes place in less than a minute, in a wordless montage at the same, solitary table, but says absolutely everything the narrative needs to say. So too, in the span of flipping over your LP on the turntable, have the searing loin-flames of young lust turned into the blue, frigid cubes of dissatisfaction, contempt and of failure. From failure, the desperation of escape foments.”Then your wife seems to think you’re part of the furniture – Oh, it’s peculiar; she used to be so nice.”
It’s not just the wife, however. It’s the rest of the family, the job, the world in general. They’ve all taken you for granted, mooted your sense of purpose, doused your passion, they’ve made you respectable, presentable, a vegetable, and you’ve had enough. “Does it feel like your life’s become a catastrophe? Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.”
Then you run. Going Hollywood has given you nothing but a hollow pit in your gut, so you clock out, jump in your car and aim it in the opposite direction. “So when the day comes to settle down, who’s to blame if you’re not around? You took the long way home.”
Lord Is It Mine – So you’ve just turned your back on everything, embracing the fear, you’ve driven as far as you could drive and arrive… nowhere. Maybe you run out of gas in the middle of the desert and wonder how a desert could ever be so cold. Maybe you end up at a dive truck stop. You can’t get into the men’s room because an amphetamine deal is going down in there. And you really didn’t want to leak in a trough anyway. Down at the end of the counter, Large Marge is giving you the hairy eyeball. Maybe it’s time to head back outside.
Steeling yourself for the eventual call to AAA for assistance, you sit in your car, stare through the sunroof at the night sky and wonder how the hell you got here. “I never cease to wonder at the cruelty of this land, but it seems a time of sadness is a time to understand.” Like so many, our questions seem legion, like the stars in the sky, there are just too damned many. And answers, well, most often two quarters and a satisfactory answer gets you fifty cents and feeling ignored.
“So give us an answer, won’t you? We know what we have to do. There must be a thousand voices trying to get through.”
Just Another Nervous Wreck – The subtitle for this song could be, Oh God, What Have I Done? Our narrator goes off the rails and recapitulates what has gone before. “I’m feeling so alone now, they cut the telephone, uh-huh, yeah my life is just a mess. I threw it all away now, I could have made a fortune. I lost the craving for success.” Hollywood is bankrupt, and now we know just how much.
But it gets better. Those wild years of carousing, followed by a stagnant marriage and subsequent panicked abandonment, tend to solidify the abandoned. “I used to think she was so nimble, I would have bought her as a symbol – now I can’t afford the pen to sign her checks.”
Then there’s rage, as the fight or flight trigger kicks in, and flight didn’t help before. “Don’t give a damn, fight while you can, kill – shoot ’em up, they’ll run amuck, shout, Judas!, loud, they’ll hear us!” Here is the end result of the modern conundrum posed in “The Logical Song,” where conformity and caving in have rewarded you with a big, hot bowl full of nothing. But in your aloneness, you’re not alone. Discontent is a lonely state of being, and ironic as well, since almost everyone is discontent. You’d think we’d recognize how much we have in common.
Casual Conversations – Acceptance is a stage of grieving. Once you’ve accepted all your burned bridges, including the one you were standing on, you should be able to move on. There’s no solace in small talk; that’s why it’s so small after all. It carries no importance, no weight, it’s just there to fill the room momentarily. It makes things feel less empty even though the chit-chat is equally empty. “And casual conversations, how they bore me. And they go on and on endlessly. No matter what I say, you ignore me anyway – I might as well talk in my sleep.”
Pain can be addictive, or so the old joke goes as the man keeps bashing his hand with the hammer. A friend, recognizing the man’s self-inflicted agony, asks, “If it hurts so much, why do you keep doing it?”
The reply, “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Eventually, the hammering has to stop. There’s only so much one can stand, especially if the only person that can end the insanity is one’s self. Our narrator has to accept where he’s at, what’s gone on, and the inevitable conclusion of burnt bridges – unless you’re really good at swimming, you’re gonna have to move on.
“And now it seems it’s all been said, if you must leave, then go ahead. Should feel sad, but I really believe that I’m glad.”
Child of Vision – Neither the band Supertramp, nor primary songwriters Rick Davies or Roger Hodgson, have ever explicitly outed Breakfast in America as a concept album. A lot of my interpretative conceits here are just that: mine. Others might gravitate to the sunnier aspects of each song and produce a wildly different outcome. One thing is for sure though. “Child of Vision” is directly aimed between American eyes. “You’re messing up the water, you’re rolling in the wine. You’re poisoning your body, you’re poisoning your mind. You gave me Coca-Cola. You said it tasted good. You watch the television and it tells you that you should.”
The cultural battlefield of the late 1970s was littered with the US shoving its products, its ideologies and morays down the throat of the rest of the world. Economically, we were the leader even though we were waging the Cold War with the U.S.S.R. and jockeying for position as the ultimate world power. Arguably, the McDonalds in Beijing, Sydney, Leicester Square and all points between weren’t as disturbing as the anything-for-a-buck mentality or the easy-way-out maneuvers. We weren’t listening to their concerns though. We didn’t care what the agitated students were saying about us so long as it was our designer jeans covering their butts.
And that arrogant mindset, that “we cover your butts” mentality, is lampooned on almost every track of Breakfast in America. While it was never fully disclosed as a thematic work, the album remains nonetheless the most thematic of the band’s efforts.
“I’ve heard it all before. You’re saying nothing new. I thought I saw a rainbow, but I guess it wasn’t true. You cannot make me listen, I cannot make you hear. You find your way to heaven, and I’ll meet you when you’re there.”
Breakfast In America (Remastered)
is available from Amazon.com.
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