Saturday, 8 June 2019

Supertramp




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The albums covered here are:-

Crime Of The Century (1974)
Crisis? What Crisis? (1975)
Even In The Quietest Moments (1977)
and Breakfast In America (1979)

Scroll down to read the reviews.

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CRIME OF THE CENTURY (1974)

1. School
2. Bloody Well Right
3. Hide In Your Shell
4. Asylum
5. Dreamer
6. Rudy
7. If Everyone Was Listening
8. Crime Of The Century                     

I hated this album at the time of release. A friend of mine tried to get me into it, but I just couldn’t. I found it all too Pink Floyd-ish, art-rock but not in a early Roxy Music fashion, more in a tongue-in-cheek, supposedly witty 10cc vein. Furthermore, the group were faceless (image-wise), bearded, hippy-looking nerds. Not for me at the time. Give me my Bowie, Roxy, Ian Hunter, Queen, Motown and Northern Soul.

Time, as is true so much with regard to my musical taste, has proved to be a great healer. I own this album now and have learned to appreciate its good points. There was still an inventive, mood-changing “prog-rock” feel to the instrumentation, ambience and vocal style of tracks like the opener, School. It was full of oblique lyrics and that slightly nasal Southern English, Roger Waters vocal delivery too. It was also overflowing with instrumental cleverness and an appealing richness of sound. Indeed, the latest remaster is superb in its full, bassy, warm sound quality. Check out the powerful intro to Bloody Well Right  The track opens with a Steely Dan-style wah-wah, funky-ish guitar before those old wry Pink Floyd-esque lyrics kick in. Even now, the track still irritates me, but has a great guitar sound and some sumptuous saxophone appears later on too.

Keyboards were a bit part of the Supertramp sound and they lead the next track, the slow-building Hide In Your Shell, which again starts in Pink Floyd fashion, before kicking in to a huge thumping chorus part with massive drums and swirling saxophone. Supertramp were a bunch of wry, witty cynics in both their lyrics and understated (practically non-existent) image. They didn't want to be "pop stars". They remained haughtily elitist and were followed largely by middle-class, intelligent students. A song like Hide In Your Shell just sort of exemplifies this. In parts, however, it is instrumentally intoxicating, particularly in the bongos, drums, saxophone and bass interplay near the end. Furthermore, despite their almost "anti-pop" stance, they had a real instinct for a poppy hook, ironically. This is something that would become more pronounced in their commercially successful Breakfast In America period.

  

Asylum actually begins plaintively, with influences of The Who's "rock opera" material. The song has a huge, rock ballad chorus with hints of Mott The Hoople's similar big production rock ballads. It also has a feel of Traffic's work from the early-mid seventies too. Then comes the hit single Dreamer. Even at the time, when I loathed Supertramp, I couldn't help but like this organ and drum-driven catchy, Manfred Mann's Earth Band influenced number. It is an adventurous, quirky and most appealing song. Rudy displays a clear Steely Dan influence. It suffers a little from the early quiet passages being too quiet and muffled, but when the full band part kicks in, the sound is monstrously powerful. This was often a problem with prog rock's regular changes of pace and tone within a single song. As with much of that type of material, parts of the song are fantastic and others less so, within a minute of each other. These indulgent, dreamy, slightly muffled passages detract from some of the songs, as if the band have drifted off into their own world for a while. It is for this reason that I can never truly appreciate the album fully. I enjoy the good points though.


If Everyone Was Listening displays the same characteristics. When it gets going it is majestic. At other points you want to scream "get on with it". Crime Of The Century has similarly thumping, infectious parts in between plaintive piano and undermixed, reedy vocals. Brilliant saxophone at the end, though. I guess I will always be frustrated with this album. Maybe it is my problem. I just don't get the vibes, man. For me, despite its good points (and there are many) it still sounds dreadfully pretentious, both lyrically and musically. Sorry. I am trying with it, and will continue to do so, however.

*** The "deluxe edition" has the album played live in full from 1975 at the Hammersmith Odeon. The sound quality on the recording is wonderful. In fact, the album played live sounds better than the studio version (for me).

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CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS? (1975)

1. Easy Does It
2. Sister Moonshine
3. Ain't Nobody But Me
4. A Soapbox Opera
5. Another Man's Woman
6. Lady
7. Poor Boy
8. Just A Normal Day
9. The Meaning
10. Two Of Us   

This album followed on from the surprisingly successful Crime Of The Century and was, by the group's own admittance, hastily conceived, written and recorded. It doesn't really show, to be honest, and this is a similarly quirky, adventurous, genre-defying offering as its predecessor had been. The Supertramp that many came to know from the Breakfast In America era, with its commercial appeal, had not arrived as yet. You get the impression that neither the group nor its fans considered commercial success as important. The group put out material that they wanted to, and if people liked it, all well and good. A lot of it has an experimental nature to it, and therein lies its appeal, it can also be its downfall at times, though, as there can be the occasional proggy indulgence.
                                     
Easy Does It is an extremely low-key, almost Oriental-sounding quiet number to open the album with, with some big, proggy, sharp acoustic guitar lines at times and that infectious Japanese bit floating around as well. It merges seamlessly into the prog/folk/rock of Sister Moonshine, which has some beautiful bass/acoustic guitar/drum interplay. It has some excellent guitar too. While I am not a huge fan of Supertramp's proggy tendencies, they are instrumentally very inventive and competent, coming up with several appealing parts within the same track. Check out the wah-wah guitar that suddenly appears on here and the flute near the end. The sound quality is impressive too - full, bassy and warm. It was also a track that had been played live by the band before its recording and appearance on this album.


Ain't Nobody But Me is a chunky, slightly John Lennon-esque number. It is a track full of jazzy verve and vitality, plus some big solid rock parts. Keith Helliwell's saxophone is superb as well, as it always was. There are soulful aspects and hints of early rock 'n' roll in there too. Supertramp really were an inventive group. A Soapbox Opera has a similar piano on it to Bloody Well Right as it pounds away. Unfortunately, it lapses into some slightly indulgent wistful patches before the muscular parts return. Another Man's Woman has some infectious, upbeat rock parts and Who-esque parts in places. Some of the guitar is excellent. It even has some quiet, funky bits in there in the middle, the piano solo is superb too - you really don't know what is coming from minute to minute on a Supertramp song. They were quite unique and utterly impossibly to pigeonhole.

Lady recycles the keyboard riff from Dreamer a bit too closely for comfort, but it is still a good track, as indeed Dreamer was. It has the same staccato but melodic appeal, with a big bassy drum sound and some punchy brass backing. Poor Boy sounds at the beginning as if it is maybe one of the tracks that was rushed on to the album, but as it progresses, it develops a fetching laid-back soulful, Andrew Gold-style sound. It is enhanced by a lovely clarinet solo. Another fine piece of soully rock is found in Just A Normal Day.

The Meaning tends to repeat "if you know what the meaning is" a bit, but it again has some sublime saxophone and a catchy melody. The Two Of Us is a plaintive, organ-driven ballad to end on, with some classically-influenced keyboards.

I always found Roger Hodgson's vocals a bit proggy in his diction and delivery, and, back in 1975, there was a lot of other music I preferred to this, I have to admit. That said, I always had a passing interest in Supertramp's ingenuity. There was a place for them, but certainly not at my top table.



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EVEN IN THE QUIETEST MOMENTS (1977)

1. Give A Little Bit
2. Lover Boy
3. Even In The Quietest Moments
4. Downstream
5. Babaji
6. From Now On
7. Fool's Overture   

Another album from the now completely enigmatic Supertramp. A faceless group with an almost impossible to categorise sound - was it prog, was it rock, jazz? Nobody really knew. What they had was clearly enough to attract a huge fan base, even at the height of punk, among those who preferred their music "adult". Although sneering, snarling punks and two minute guitar-driven fist pumpers seemed to be everywhere in 1977, the reality was considerably different. Many of the public loved Supertramp's inventive, often experimental and indulgent music. At the time I thoroughly despised them (the group and the fans). Time has seen me mellow and re-assess them, however.

This is a far more low-key album than its two predecessors, overall, Nothing of the likes of Dreamer, Bloody Well Right or Lady are to be found. There is more of a subdued feeling to it.

Give A Little Bit was the album's catchy, slightly anthemic and singalong hit single. Keith Helliwell, as was often the case, supplied an impressive saxophone backing.

 

Lover Boy is a solid, brooding rock ballad, powered along by piano, bass and drums. I wouldn't have given this sort of thing a few seconds of my time in 1977. Now, I listen to it and it's ok after all. In places. I am fully prepared to accept it. It is still not totally my thing, though. As I said in other reviews of their work, Roger Hodgson's voice has never convinced me and also every track has at least one piece of indulgence in it. There are times when Supertramp's output bears similarities with that of the Electric Light Orchestra, though, in its construction.

Even In the Quietest Moments is a very typically prog rock sort of thing - all crystal clear acoustic guitars, classical influences, high-pitched vocals, lyrics about goodness knows what really - oceans, whispers, nature, getting high, tears falling from the sky, the sun disappearing..... My God, I would have hated this stuff in 1977, it was a good job I never heard it back then. Hearing it now, though, it has appealing bits - a bit of didgeridoo and a solid bass, drum sound, some sumptuous saxophone. I realise now that there is always something good in every Supertramp song, somewhere. Nevertheless, for me, it is lacking in soul or proper rock credentials. It is hard to describe. It is all rather wishy-washy, sub-hippy, dreamy nonsense. Roger Hodgson admitted that most of his lyrics meant nothing, but then, so did many of David Bowie's.

Downstream is a pleasant enough, piano-led ballad. I have to admit that the piano bits are lovely. As I said, always something good, somewhere. The same applies to the delicious drum backing to the quirkily catchy Babaji.

From Now On is a nice track - laid-back, melodious and solidly reflective.  It features another killer bit of saxophone. The mass chorus at the end is not really necessary and feels a bit incongruous. It does stick in one's head, however. 

Fool's Overture is over eleven minutes long and it is five minutes of solid rock instrumental, interspersed, oddly by some clips of Winston Churchill's war speeches, before the vocals arrive. It is all very Roger Waters/Pink Floyd with its war echoes, although Hodgson admitted that the words had no particular meaning. At one point you get some Fool On The Hill sounds too. It is immaculately played, with many excellent bits in it and superb sound quality, but it is all a bit pretentious for me. Pink Floyd fans will love it (or maybe not, feeling it is too derivative). It fades out (falsely) with snatches of Blake's Jerusalem before one last muscular rock passage takes it powerfully to its end. Look, it is all very clever. I do admit that, and every now and again I will play it, but it doesn't really do it for me. I am sorry to have been a bit critical regarding this album, but I have to be honest about things that are not really my thing. Many people no doubt love the album, and I can see why, whatever I may personally think of it.



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BREAKFAST IN AMERICA (1979)

1. Gone Hollywood
2. The Logical Song
3. Goodbye Stranger
4. Breakfast In America
5. Oh Darling
6. Take The Long Way Home
7. Lord It Is Mine
8. Just Another Nervous Wreck
9. Casual Conversations
10. Child Of Vision                                          
After all those somewhat indulgent, proggy albums, Supertramp went full-on well-constructed clever pop with this one. It became their most successful album and was owned, I am sure, by many who may not necessarily have had any previous Supertramp albums in their collections. It seemed to be one of those albums that all sorts of people had, across the spectrum of musical tastes.

The old proggies didn't quite leave behind all their cheesecloth shirts, though - there is still a fair amount of that sort of thing on here. Back in 1979, there was certainly too much for my liking.

Gone Hollywood has some of those proggy bits, particularly in the vocal style, although the backing saxophone is very jazzy and atmospheric. It was a bit of a mish-mash of styles and sounds, however, and a million miles away from the conciseness of punk and new wave. The sound is great, though, and the drum, piano and guitar interplay is great, but eclectic music like this was anathema to me back then. I can appreciate it a bit more now.

  

The Logical Song was a huge hit and is a far more cohesive and structured song than many in their canon, but it still allows room for their oblique lyrics. The track has some more killer saxophone in it too. The group really hadn't done anything as well-conceived and poppy as this thus far in their career. Goodbye Stranger almost sounds like an early Billy Joel, piano-based rock track. Like something from Streetlife Serenade. Once again, it is nothing much like anything Supertramp had done before. The harmonious high-pitched vocal bit at the end gives it a catchy appeal.

Breakfast In America is impossibly infectious, but I always found it a little irritating as well, although the saxophone bits and the tuba(?) are great. Oh Darling is another very attractive track. Those old Supertramp innovations and inventiveness are still there, but there is far less rambling indulgence now.

Take The Long Way Home also became a very well-known song. It is a pretty perfect piece of grandiose pop/rock. Lord It Is Mine is a plaintive, piano-backed ballad that eventually breaks out into a big, grand chorus.

Just Another Nervous Wreck is an upbeat slice of brassy, thumping rock. The tone cools down a bit for the laid-back groove of Casual Conversations. More excellent saxophone features on this one. Keith Helliwell really was a master of his instrument.

All these tracks had been very different to each other. That was Supertramp's great strength - no two tracks were the same. Pretty much everything on any of their albums was different from everything else. Child Of Vision reminds of Billy Joel's All For Leyna in its introduction and also of Supertramp's own Dreamer. The piano solo bit half way through is outstanding.

This has been a very enjoyable and accessible album, not as obscure and wilfully experimental as some of the others. They were an odd group, Supertramp, I have said before how impossible to categorise they were. I am sure they liked it like that.



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