You don’t hear their songs much on the radio anymore — not even on classic rock stations — and they’ll probably never be elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, most Americans — if they recognize the name of the band at all — believe Supertramp broke up twenty years ago. This is, more or less, to be expected. Though they enjoyed overwhelming commercial success for a few years, they were never an influential band; almost as soon as they faded from the playlists, they receded from popular memory.
This isn’t entirely undeserved. Though often very good, they were rarely great, and they lost or abandoned much of what was unique or engaging about their music over time. Far worse bands, however, have been reclaimed by the warm and fuzzy hand of nostalgia, so this week, we’re going to be taking a fond look back at the collected works of Supertramp.
Even for a band with a name like Supertramp, the story behind the group is full of weird twists and turns, none weirder than the fact that they were originally assembled by a Dutch millionaire named Stanley, looking to cash in on that crazy rock music all the kids were listening to. Stanley knew a keyboard player and vocalist named Rick Davies, whom he offered to bankroll; Davies placed an ad in Melody Maker looking for musicians, and the rest was history.
Given the crass, slapdash way in which the band was formed, things turned out much better than they probably should have — though half of the band was replaced after the first album, Supertramp’s songwriting nucleus was established very quickly. In the lilting melodies and fragile, high-pitched vocals of guitarist and vocalist Roger Hodgson, Davies found the perfect foil for his British twelve-bar blues. Where one was staid and cynical, the other was optimistic and free-flowing; the result was a strangely compelling blend of back-porch New Age mysticism and pub rock. At either extreme, their music was every bit as corny and boring as you’d expect, but when they worked together, it was actually sort of magical.
Good things often take time to develop, of course, and the Davies/Hodgson partnership started off on clumsy footing. Supertramp is a completely undistinguished album, remarkable mainly because it’s still in print 35 years later. It isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing here to indicate much promise. For diehard fans, the main point of interest is Davies’ relative lack of presence on the album — though the songwriting credits are shared evenly, this is essentially a collection of fey hippie folk tunes, sung mainly by Hodgson, with little of Davies’ blues anchor to keep them from floating away.
Surely | Aubade and I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey
Indelibly Stamped (1971)
If Supertramp sounds like it’s mostly Hodgson, then Indelibly Stamped is Davies’ turn to shoulder the load. As a result, the songs are less ponderous and more compact than the band’s debut, but that’s about all. This is a pleasant, bluesy set, but nothing more than you might expect to hear at your neighborhood bar on a Friday night. Sales for Stamped were just as dismal as those for Supertramp; the band seemed destined for obscurity.
Your Poppa Don’t Mind | Forever
Crime of the Century (1974)
During the three-year period between Indelibly Stamped and Crime of the Century, Stanley decided that his investment was likely never going to pay off, and opted to pull his financial backing; undaunted, Davies and Hodgson again jettisoned everyone in the band whose last name was not Davies or Hodgson, and recruited what would become the definitive Supertramp lineup. With Dougie Thomson on bass, John Helliwell on saxophone and woodwinds, and Bob Siebenberg (a.k.a. Bob C. Benberg) on drums, Davies and Hodgson retrenched to create the first of several solidly written, impeccably produced albums. As a straight prog band, or a straight blues band, they’d found little success, but by merging the two, they finally hit their mark. The lyrical themes were often quintessentially English — such as on the pre-”Another Brick in the Wall” strike against British schools, “Bloody Well Right” — but the music was solidly grounded in American blues. Davies’ extensive use of a Wurlitzer electric piano became a hallmark of the band’s sound, and helped to root their jammier tunes. Given the Top 40 success of “Bloody Well Right” and “Dreamer,” Stanley must have had second thoughts about his decision to pull the plug.
Hide in Your Shell | Crime of the Century
Crisis? What Crisis? (1975)
Crisis was a commercial setback for the band, but this wasn’t for want of quality material; if anything, this is a better album than Crime (and it’s got one of the greatest album covers of the decade to boot). It’s less overtly commercial, certainly — there’s nothing as catchy as “Bloody Well Right” or “Dreamer” — but not impenetrably so. The band’s label, A&M, had bent over backwards trying to gain chart traction for Supertramp in America, giving away free tickets by the cartload during the stateside tour for Crime; when Crisis came and went without a whisper, the group’s fortunes must have appeared awfully dim.
Ain’t Nobody But Me | Poor Boy | Two Of Us
Even in the Quietest Moments… (1977)
As uncertain as its future seemed on the charts, Supertramp’s sustainability looked even bleaker behind the scenes. Hodgson, probably never the most traditionally grounded person to begin with, had begun to explore Eastern and New Age religions with greater conviction. As a lifestyle choice, Davies regarded this skeptically; as a musical direction, he greeted it with outright hostility. The tension ruptured their songwriting partnership. Though Supertramp albums continued to bear nothing but Davies/Hodgson songwriting credits, the songs in question were either leftovers from their early, prolific period, or solo compositions masquerading, Lennon/McCartney style, as collaborations. This division is fairly easy to trace on Quietest Moments — “Babaji,” for instance, is clearly a Hodgson song, while “Downstream” is almost certainly all Davies — and it would only deepen in the years to come. Had the album not spun off a hit, the breezy “Give A Little Bit,” the band may very well have called it quits; as it was, they stood poised for their greatest success.
Downstream | Even in the Quietest Moments
Breakfast in America (1979)
Nothing the band had ever seen or done could have prepared them for the massive success of Breakfast in America; though they’d had a hit here and there, this album was a late-’70s cultural landmark. A lot of this can be attributed to a continued tightening and refinement of their sound; from start to finish, Breakfast is largely bereft of overindulgence, false notes, or filler, and the production is absolutely spotless. Both Hodgson and Davies were feeling discouraged and alienated, and their cynicism struck a chord with a weary American public. Songs like Hodgson’s “The Logical Song” and Davies’ “Goodbye Stranger” took the bright, sunny promise of the ’60s and pissed all over it — Hodgson’s dismal portrait of adulthood crushing childhood dreams had never seemed so apt, and Davies’ bitter, selfish carefree dismissal of a former lover seemed to sum up perfectly the truth behind the sexual revolution. That both songs — in fact, much of the album — can be seen as stinging attacks between Davies and Hodgson only deepens their meaning.
As successful as Breakfast was, many of its best songs never made it on the radio. “Casual Conversations” is one of Davies’ finest moments, a three-minute sigh of resignation that could have been directed at anybody, but was most likely intended as a forlorn jab at Hodgson: “It doesn’t matter what I say,” he sings dismissively, “You never listen anyway.” And in “Gone Hollywood” and “Just Another Nervous Wreck,” Davies breathes new life into his old twelve-bar blues by tapping into a deep well of frustration, pessimism and rage. Though the foundation of their partnership was crumbling — indeed, was probably already beyond repair — the duo still seemed capable of pushing each other to new heights.
Gone Hollywood | Casual Conversations | Just Another Nervous Wreck
Nothing but a cash-in by A&M, hoping to strike while the iron was hot by filling in the gap between studio albums with this deeply unnecessary live album. Supertramp wasn’t above stretching its material in concert, so it isn’t as though these are all carbon copies of the studio versions, but their live performances were every bit as meticulous and polished as their recordings, so Paris winds up being little more than rehashed Supertramp with crowd noise added. The set’s high point is “You Started Laughing,” an old non-album track.
You Started Laughing (live) | Take the Long Way Home (live)
…famous last words… (1982)
Having written, recorded, and toured together for over a decade, Hodgson and Davies had arrived at the end of the road by the time recording commenced on …famous last words… — though they kept it together long enough to finish the album, Hodgson announced his departure from Supertramp on the eve of the subsequent tour. He fulfilled his obligations to the band, but it was clear to concertgoers — as well as pretty much anybody who bought the album — that the creative and personal tension that once served Davies and Hodgson so well had dissipated. The band was also exhausted; though understandably eager to capitalize on its hard-earned success, they’d been recording and performing non-stop for a solid ten years. This is a collection of mostly uninspired songs, saved only by a pair of bright pop gems from Hodgson, who no doubt wanted to make sure he left the deepest possible impression on the landscape before leaving to begin his solo career. “It’s Raining Again” is catchy, if lightweight, and “C’est le Bon” is Hodgson at his dewy-eyed best.
It’s Raining Again | C’est le Bon
Brother Where You Bound (1985)
Originally intended to be a Rick Davies solo album, until he chickened out and decided to continue on with the remaining members of Supertramp, Brother Where You Bound was an attempt to hearken back to the band’s progressive roots, centered around the sixteen-minute-plus title track. Though the album still clocked in at a reasonable 42 minutes, it was only six songs long — this was still the age of vinyl, and the band couldn’t add more without turning it into a prohibitively expensive double album — and fans who had grown used to getting ten songs for their money were put off. This would have been easily overcome, though, had the album been any good; prog-rock fans had few options in 1985, and likely would have purchased any entry in the genre that gave off the faintest whiff of quality. Unfortunately, Brother stinks like week-old shrimp. Progressive rock is, as a whole, almost completely awful — yet in certain instances, musicians with a particularly deep level of empathy for the material and trust for one another can eke out a few listenable moments. Supertramp had achieved this a number of times. But in 1985, “band” was in the process of becoming a four-letter word in the studio, and the tracking process was growing increasingly fragmented.
Davies bought into this completely on Brother; what’s worse, he added drum machines to the mix. Programmed beats are great if your music requires precision over passion, but prog rock needs air to breathe. Without interplay between the musicians, it’s nothing but mush. Brother’s title track is 16:30 of vaguely related songlets and sound effects, and represents one of the low points of the band’s career. Compounding the album’s problem further was the fact that, while Davies had never been an award-winning lyricist, here he retreated almost completely into threadbare love/above-style couplets. A&M promoted the album heavily — so many copies were printed that you can probably still find wrapped Brother Where You Bound cassettes in truck stops across the country — making its flop all the more resounding.
Cannonball | Ever Open Door
Free As A Bird (1987)
For Brother Where You Bound, Davies had opted to replace Hodgson with a rotating stable of guest guitarists, most notably Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour; thereafter, Hodgson’s role was filled by future Crowded House member Mark Hart, whose reedy, high-pitched vocals bore more than a passing resemblance to his predecessor’s. If fans wondered whether Hart’s addition to the mix was part of a cynical effort to get Supertramp back on the charts, then Free As A Bird left little doubt as to where Davies’ priorities were. Bird is the product of strictly bottom-line thinking, and an embarrassment to the band that Supertramp had been — as bad as Brother was, it still represented an effort to reach back to the group’s musical roots. As an artistic statement, Bird has nothing to say beyond “Please play our new songs on the radio.”
Live ‘88 (1988)
This document of the regrettable tour in support of Free As A Bird was released only in Europe — in fact, as far as I can tell, it may have been released only in Brazil — and is mostly the sound of a band running completely out of gas. Bird’s title track works surprisingly well, however.
Free As A Bird (live)
Some Things Never Change (1997)
On a number of occasions between 1988 and 1997, there were rumors of a Supertramp reunion; periodically, in fact, Davies and Hodgson got together to try and rekindle the old spark. They came closest in the period leading up to Some Things Never Change, but ultimately, it all fell apart again (this time, it was because Davies insisted on having his wife manage the group). Having already resolved to release a new Supertramp album, Davies simply forged ahead without Hodgson, bringing Mark Hart back into the fold instead. Change is the band’s best post-Hodgson album; admittedly, that isn’t saying a whole lot, but there are a handful of genuinely enjoyable moments here. Chief among them is “You Win, I Lose,” a song credited to Davies, but which Hodgson insists is the stolen product of their aborted reunion sessions; that sounds about right, given that it’s more musically interesting and lyrically sound than the vast majority of what Davies has been able to accomplish on his own. The album was greeted with tremendous fanfare in Europe, and the subsequent tour earned positive reviews; the band even toured the States for the first time in a decade. It certainly wasn’t the full-fledged comeback that fans had been hoping for, but as a half measure, it was satisfying in its own right.
C’est What? | You Win, I Lose
It Was the Best of Times (1999)
A double live album was almost certainly not what Supertramp fans were looking for after Some Things Never Change — especially one featuring Mark Hart singing Hodgson’s hits — but it was what they got. Davies, in a rare bit of candor, acknowledges the seeming irony of the album’s title in the liner notes, going on to assure the listener that for him, the band’s current lineup is the best. Be that as it may, Supertramp’s rigidly proficient live interpretations of its studio recordings render Times every bit as inessential as Paris or Live ‘88. The listener simply stands very little to gain from hearing these performances; they’re fine, sure, but few bands deserve a double live album, and this one definitely doesn’t need two of them.
Bloody Well Right (live) | Goodbye Stranger (live)
Slow Motion (2002)
Slow Motion was released only five years after Some Things Never Change — the blink of an eye in the world of Supertramp — so it wasn’t greeted with quite the wave of pent-up nostalgia that the previous album had enjoyed. Also, it isn’t very good — for any fans who’d been holding out hope that Davies would eventually emerge as a creative or interesting songwriter in his own right, Motion was a clear sign of that hope’s futility. The album probably has more in common with Indelibly Stamped than anything else in the Supertramp catalog, and that isn’t a compliment. It’s a solid pack of uninspired blues ballads, with a little half-hearted prog mixed in (and by “prog” I mean that a couple of songs stretch past the five-minute mark, for no apparent reason). If it was a color, it would be gray, or maybe a particularly flat shade of brown.
Davies intimated that Motion could be the last Supertramp album, but one hopes that he and Hodgson will be able to get it together long enough for one last record and tour, if only to breathe a little life back into the legacy. They weren’t the Beatles, the Stones, or probably even close most days, but any band that can keep it more or less together for 30-plus years deserves to go out on a high note.
Slow Motion | Little by Little
Thus ends today’s strange Complete Idiot’s Guide detour. These songs will be up until next Tuesday, so get ‘em while they’re hot. Let me know what you think!