Supertramp Crime Of The Century (1974), Crisis? What Crisis? (1975), Even In The Quietest Moments (1977), Breakfast In America (1979)
When it comes to today’s generation of pop groups, it’s the letter B that gets all the glory when it comes to naming influences. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds tend to get the most credit for inspiring musicians to pick up an instrument and start emulating; from there, there’s Big Star, the Bee Gees, and Badfinger.
These are pretty obvious (and valid) picks, all of them.
There are, however, some influences who’ve quite a bit of influence as well, even though they don’t tend to get mentioned in the same breath on quite as regular a basis.
You’ve got your Queen, who produced quite a bit more than just “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions”, and “Another One Bites the Dust”. You’ve got your 10CC, who said “I’m Not in Love”, then waxed lyrical on “The Things We Do for Love”. And, of course, you can never forget ELO, mostly because Jeff Lynne won’t let you.
But you’ve also got your Supertramp.
Album-oriented radio, as it’s done to countless other artists, has diminished the impact of Supertramp over the years, though, leaving the casual listener with the impression that the band had a few good tracks, but, ultimately, not much else. Most folks who didn’t come of age during the ‘70s probably couldn’t even tell you the name of a single Supertramp album, though they might ask, “Does The Very Best of Supertramp count?”
But if actually you lived through the ‘70s, then not only would the phrase Breakfast in America erupt through your lips, but you could probably identify its album cover from half a block away.
A&M Records has taken to re-issuing the band’s seminal work in re-mastered form, and, when you’re talking about Supertramp, “seminal” begins with their third album.
I’m not sure how this piece of trivia got past me for lo these many years, but until researching the band’s history for this review, I was unaware that Supertramp actually got its start courtesy of a young Dutch millionaire named Stanley August Miesegaes. Miesegaes, it seems, was friends with Rick Davies, and, though it sounds suspiciously like an apocryphal anecdote, the story goes that, in 1969, the poor little rich boy offered Davies the opportunity to form a band and put the cost on his tab.
After an ad in Melody Maker, Supertramp was born. And, then, after two not-very-successful albums (a self-titled debut, followed by Indelibly Stamped, neither of which warranted re-mastering in A&M’s eyes), Miesegaes withdrew his financial support, leaving Supertramp without much in the way of money or fans. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.
But then 1974 rolled around, and the band released the aforementioned third album, Crime of the Century. And unlike its predecessors, Crime of the Century had far less in the way of prog-rock noodlings, instead showing the band evolving toward more of a pop sound. Indeed, this was the album that produced “Bloody Well Right” and “Dreamer”; it also contains the lesser-known album track “If Everyone Was Listening” a song which, though it didn’t make the cut for the band’s first best-of, scored inclusion on Volume 2.
Next up was Crisis? What Crisis? , which showed the band finding their way closer and closer to the middle ground between prog and pop, though it doesn’t possess any song that screams “hit single”. Certainly, the album possesses a stellar pair of openers in the form of “Easy Does It” and “Sister Moonshine”. “Ain’t Nobody But Me” may not be any great shakes, but “A Soapbox Opera” more than makes up for it. Meanwhile, Jellyfish missed an opportunity by not covering “Poor Boy”. (In fact, when you come right down to it, when you look at their song arrangements after listening to these re-issues, it becomes clear that Jellyfish were probably just as inspired by Supertramp as they were by Queen, or anyone else for that matter.)
Even In The Quietest Moments followed much the same format as its predecessor, although it did remedy one error right up front, providing the band with an unforgettable hit single in the form of “Give A Little Bit” as the album’s opener. The instrument that graces the album cover is no coincidence because the material is almost entirely piano-based. Although some of the songs are a bit long (the album only has seven songs, and four of them are over 7 minutes in length), each track is a pop symphony unto itself. “Fool’s Overture”, the album’s closer, is positively epic in scale (10+ minutes), with a keyboard bit somewhere around the 3-minute mark that may or may not have been cribbed by the Buggles for their song “Living in the Plastic Age”.
Still, as strong as Even in the Quietest Moments may have been, it was its follow-up that was the band’s defining moment. Of course, it was also the watershed album in the band’s career, because, y’know, how can you top Breakfast In America?
The answer, inevitably, is that you can’t.
And Supertramp didn’t.
When they finally got around to releasing the follow-up studio album, Famous Last Words, the best song they could muster as a single was “It’s Raining Again”. No, it’s not a bad song, but when you compare it to Breakfast in America‘s “The Logical Song”, “Goodbye Stranger”, and “Take the Long Way Home”, it’s certainly not up to those standards.
Neither history nor the majority of Supertramp’s fans would deny that Breakfast in America is the strongest album in the band’s discography. From “Gone Hollywood” all the way through the grand finale, “Child of Vision”, this is an unabashedly melodic record. Almost entirely free of pretense and limited in pomposity, it’s just good old-fashioned pop music. It might not be a generation-defining album like Frampton Comes Alive, but very few individuals escaped the ‘70s without having the melodies from at least one or two of this album’s tracks stuck in the back of their mind for the rest of their lives.
It’s pretty easy to rank these four re-issues. Start with Breakfast in America and work your way back. And ignore anyone who says you only need a best-of collection. Once you’ve actually heard it, you’ll find that, unlike the albums that came before and after it, Breakfast in America is absolutely indispensable.
Still, it’s a shame about the name, don’t you think? I mean, honestly: Supertramp? Even now, that’s got to rank as one of the 10 worst band names ever.
The previous album made the band a little bigger; this album, however, made them rather small again. It is indeed a little weaker, sounding like all these notorious ‘weak’ follow-ups to classic albums; adding nothing to the by now firmly established Supertramp style, it still has its share of nice songs, but much too often the guys are just coasting and toasting, stuck in their jazzy grooves and not really understanding where to head next.
The album’s title comes out as thoroughly deceptive, then – the band obviously has a crisis, no matter how they attempt to conceal it. That said, the amazing ‘mediocre consistency’ (or ‘consistent mediocrity’) of Supertramp shows through even here, and I have no problem at all listening to the poor piece o’ plastic (that was a metaphor, of course – I can’t find a poetic way to describe a bunch of MP3 files yet). I do have problems trying to memorize it, though.
Of course, if only the album could live up to its opener – the delicious McCartnyesque acoustic popper ‘Easy Does It’, bouncy and cozy and catchy beyond words, I would be significantly happier and better disposed. But that’s actually the catchiest moment on the album, although both Hodgson and Rick Davies have some more moments of relative triumph as well.
The former contributes the near-hysterical, jerky acoustic rocker ‘Sister Moonshine’ that’s a gas to try to sing along to (you’ll end up looking like a paranoid idiot in most cases) and the moving ballad ‘Two Of Us’ that goes much deeper than the Beatles song of the same name, even if it certainly loses in the instant memorability department. Hodgson really shines on the song – his voice may be whiny, but at least he modulates it on the spur of the moment and never ends up sounding like a robot (like somebody else I know).
On the other hand, Rick Davies goes for a rougher sound on the bombastic ‘Ain’t Nobody But Me’, partially based on the same moderate, relaxated jazzy pattern as ‘Forever’ off Indelibly Stamped, but incorporating more different sections.
The way the song goes from the mean-sounding verses to the optimistic, ‘thoughtful’ refrain makes it really stand out. And finally, I’m a sucker for ‘Just A Normal Day’; while the number hardly has any distinct traces of melody, the very idea of a ‘philosophic dialogue’ between Davies and Hodgson, with Davies representing the ‘seeker’ side of the individual and Hodgson representing the ‘melancholic scepticist’ side, is carried out brilliantly. Could you imagine a ‘philosophic dialogue’ between, say, John Lennon and Paul McCartney? The closest thing I can recall is ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’… (!!!!).
Everything else strikes me as being sordidly underwritten, although it’s really hard to tell – with a band like this, the overall impression can often depend on the most tiniest of hooks hidden deep in the background. Hodgson’s piano melodies on ‘Soapbox Opera’ and ‘Lady’ are thin and don’t do anything that stuff like ‘Hide In Your Shell’ or ‘Dreamer’ hasn’t respectively done better on the previous album. And Davies writes convoluted, but pretty dull and pointless sagas like ‘Another Man’s Woman’.
I won’t stoop to condemning the arguable silliness of the band chanting ‘if you know what the meaning is, if you know what the meaning is’ for what seems like ages on ‘The Meaning’, because I don’t see the potential offensiveness here, but I gotta say, if this was considered ‘cool’ by the guys at the time, they must have really been at a loss.
Strange enough, ‘losses’ like these always resulted in the band’s falling out of the picture for a while – their following album wouldn’t come out until nearly three years later. Oh well, in any case these ‘fallings out’ are a more honest thing than just putting out more and more crap and gradually transforming oneself into a muzak writing machine. Thumbs up for creativity.
Before starting the Supertramp reviews, I figured Crisis? What Crisis? would get a 10/15, which is a grade I reserve for albums that are good but have a number of flaws. The reason for that is this is the only classic Supertramp album from their 1974-1979 Golden Age that I rarely listen to. Another reason: This is a marked step down from their previous album, Crime of the Century, even though it’s done in the exact same style. And nobody likes inferior sequels.
It turns out there is a pretty good reason Crisis? What Crisis? succumbed to inferior-sequel-itis: After this group finally came out with an album that sold, their record company–being a record company–wanted a follow-up to come out as quickly as possible. The only way they could comply was to use leftover songs. Nevertheless, as I was listening to this album extensively to prepare this review, I found out that I was actually enjoying these songs quite a bit. Sure, it’s main problem is that these songs don’t quite hit me like the peak songs of Crime of the Century–nothing that quite matches the staying power of “Hide in Your Shell,” “Bloody Well Right,” or “School.” However, if you liked the other songs of that album, then you ought to like these songs almost equally as much.
It starts with “Easy Does It” a lighthearted, two-minute pop song that reminds me of solo-Paul McCartney. The melody is cute and likeable. What else do you expect from it? That’s followed up with “Sister Moonshine,” which is such a strong tune that I think it ought to be included on Supertramp’s Greatest Hits compilations. I guess the only thing holding it back was something technical: It wasn’t a hit. However, it contains so many melodic/instrumental turns that catch my ear and make the song into a delight.
“Ain’t Nobody But Me” is darker and characterized by a heavy, sultry piano, wobbly guitar and watery Hammond organ. The chorus it breaks into is more soaring and thoughtful, and you know, it’s choruses like those that made me turn into a Supertramp fan in the first place. It might not be as memorable as one of their hits, but it has soul. “Soapbox Opera” is a theatrical ballad that comes off as a bit unfocused and not nearly as BIG as I think it could have been, but I like its thick atmosphere, and there are also plenty of interesting vocal hooks interspersed throughout.
“Lady” isn’t a Styx cover, so you can safely remove your fingers from your ears as it starts up. It’s a pretty bright and punchy pop-rock number with solid pop hooks and *sigh* more of those rapid-pace electric keyboards. That is, I don’t particularly mind that style–on principle–but that’s another example of them shoving it at you. “Another Man’s Woman” definitely has its moments, but so much of its six-minute running length is little more than space-out fodder. Albeit entertaining space-out fodder.
“Just a Normal Day” is a ballad that starts off awfully slow, but a saxophone comes in during the final third and lifts my spirits quite a bit. Really, I think this is proof that all ballads need a good saxophone solo. Some even meatier saxophone plays during “The Meaning,” which is a rather dark epic featuring plenty of loud, soaring vocals weaving its way through a theatrical melody. The concluding song is “Two of Us” (not to be confused with The Beatles song!) which is a very slow-moving ballad with a strumming acoustic guitar and a thick church-like, organ in the background. It’s sort of an underwhelming conclusion; however, that oboe solo toward the end is beautiful.
In the end, this album was a step down for the group. However, it’s not as large of a step down as some people (including actual members of the group) claim it is. While this does lack a definitive hit single, the quality of these songs/arrangements continue to be high. From now on, I’m going to think of this as nothing less than a fitting companion piece to Crime of the Century.