Supertramp was many things over its too-brief period of hitmaking — wanna-be proggers, post-Beatle popsters, kinda-classical rockers, memory-defining radio monoliths. Sure, Roger Hodgson’s voice could occasionally become a sing-songy distraction. And they were sometimes, in particular early on, musically inscrutable. There remained, however, much to love over the course of the early-1970s to the early-1980s as Supertramp moved from the esoteric to the very top of the charts — something perhaps hastened by the core group’s relocation to the shiny sunscape of Los Angeles in 1977.
What Supertramp never was, at least back then: Forgottable. Which only makes their slide into relative obscurity in the age of the Rehydrated-Classic-Rock-Mega-Reunion-Tour-and-T-shirt Extravaganza all the more head-scratchingly curious. If it pleases the court of public opinion, your friends over at SomethingElseReviews.com are here to plea Supertramp’s case …
GOODBYE STRANGER (Breakfast in America, 1979): Unjustly overlooked co-leader Rick Davies starts out singing alongside the simplest of melodies on an old Wurlitzer electric piano before Hodgson eventually joins in with a crinkly falsetto. There’s some whistling. A little guitar. Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of a 360 in the parking lot of the old South Park Mall in Shreveport, Louisiana.
It’s a snowy night, and my folks are expecting me home. But there’s this song, which possibly includes a loving farewell to the days of smoking pot (“goodbye, Mary; goodbye, Jane”). Then, as now, I spend the whole time waiting, waiting, waiting, for an ending that sounds like jet fuel igniting. “Some they do, and some they don’t … and some you just can’t tell,” Davies adds, with no small amount of salaciousness, and I’m already twirling the volume knob. One more time around.
As Davies and Hodgson’s vocals intertwine, the track begins to build past these basic pop pretensions. “Will we ever,” Davies sings (again, about the weed? who cares, right? TURN IT UP!), “meet agaaaain …” Then, four and half minutes in, it happens: This whooshing cumulus of guitar and keyboard scurries upward, never lasting quite long enough. I’m in my first car, with this thing just blasting, worried only that the dumb-ass DJ might break in too early to talk about the weather.
Having executed, by purposely pulling the emergency brake in that Volkswagen, spin after crazy spin, it is now past time to get back. “Goodbye Stranger” is still building toward its conclusion, and I’m heading to my folks house when I see these low-slung concrete parking dividers. (“Got to goooo, hit the rooooad … “) They’re like newly dug little graves, across the expanse of that lot. Just my luck: I’ve been flying around all night without incident, only to find myself yanking the wheel at the last second and slamming sideways into something on the way out. As Davies and Co. finally fade, I’m sitting dead still, my back driver’s rim hopelessly bent, my car off. The disc jockey (sounding like the voice of God in this new silence) starts going about the wintry storm again, while I hurriedly devise a story for my father — something about a pothole, something which he never (of course) believed.
And I think I knew, even then, that I’d laugh every time I heard Davies sing “I believe in what you say; it’s the undisputed truth. But I have to have things my own way, to keep me in my youth.” And I mean laugh right out loud. — Nick DeRiso
SCHOOL (Crime Of The Century, 1974): Supertramp often attempted jazzy prog rock with mixed results, but they never nailed it as well as they did here. “School” is also a rebellion against authority song, put in a clever context of rules foisted on schoolchildren. But the big draw is the performance: Davies’ lonesome harmonica signals that this ain’t gonna be no uptempo song, and Hodgson’s familiar pleading vocal emerges with just his lightly strummed electric guitar.
There’s an ominous air that hangs over the song with the sound of kids playing after Hodgson sings the refrain “you’re coming along” one last time and the rest of the players strategically slams into your headphones the instant after a child scream. The super-tight mid tempo shuffle interlude makes way for another suspended moment until the extended solo is launched. A piano solo, that is, and the whole band behind it sounds so on the mark that this part wouldn’t been out of place on a quality jazz fusion record of that time. That in turns builds up to the climax where Davies and a chakka-chaklka guitar offer a menacing counterpoint to Hodgson. In the end, it’s Hodgson alone sneering “you’re coming along!,” leaving the listener exhausted in the way you’re exhausted just after being on a damned good amusement park thrill ride.
The fans and indeed band itself have long considered Crime of the Century their artistic high point, and this song is what I’ve long considered the artistic high point of Crime of the Century. It hits on all cylinders. — S. Victor Aaron
SISTER MOONSHINE (Crisis? What Crisis?, 1975): For some reason this album often finds itself overlooked in Supertramp’s back catalog. But it’s full of brilliant material. “Sister Moonshine” dances between a light whimsy and plaintive pleas for that whimsy.
As the second track on the album it catches the listener early. The song also shows off the chemistry that Davies and Hodgson shared when they were at their best. John Helliwell’s woodwind work is brilliant as always and the song is a light and pure delight from start to finish. — Perplexio, from DancingAboutArchitecture and The Review Revue
GIVE A LITTLE BIT (Even in the Quietest Moments …, 1977): This is an example of a song that lives at one particular place and time. It was the end of the summer of 1977 and I’d been involved in one of those summer romances that, well … you know the kind. While it’s going on you sort of can’t believe that it’s happening while another part of you is aware that it can’t go on forever.
One thing is for certain, the movies don’t get close to what this is like, particularly at the end. Yes, there are tear-filled goodbyes, but they’ve always seem kind of condescending to me — as if it’s really not possible for a person to really fall in love at that age.
Well, I did. And on that hot day in August as we drove around for what would be our last trip together, “Give A Little Bit” came on the radio. We’d been feeling kind of brittle the whole day and this song pushed us over the edge. There were more shudders, hot tears, and kisses than I had ever experienced before. A cynic can look back and say, “C’mon, you were just kids.” It’s true. We were. But the pain was very, very real. — Mark Saleski
CRAZY (…Famous Last Words…, 1982): One of the things that has long appealed to me about Supertramp has been their unconventional lyrics. While they’ve done a ballad here and there, most of their material has dealt with alienation, disillusionment, and general frustration — all emotional experiences that most people can draw from. Since “Hide In Your Shell” on Crime of the Century, Supertramp songs have been rife with questions of one’s sanity.
The aptly titled Famous Last Words album was no exception. Opening the album was the light but trademark Supertramp “Crazy.” Had Roger Hodgson stayed in the band beyond this album, I could see where this song could have become one of their live staples. “Crazy” is a fantastic bookend to the Hodgson/Davies musical “marriage.”
It’s sad that their partnership had to end, but I can’t think of any other songs on Famous Last Words that put the exclamation mark on that songwriting and musical partnership as exceptionally as “Crazy.” — Perplexio
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