A recent expansion of my music collection, of the Filling in the Corners variety, involved adding two albums by Supertramp. And one by a founding member of that U.K. prog/pop/rock band.
I got turned on to Supertramp in the mid-1970s, probably because of something I heard on Radio Free Madison, perhaps off 1974’s “Crime of the Century.” The first of their albums I owned was “Even in the Quietist Moments,” released in 1977. I picked up “Crime” early on after switching from vinyl to CD purchases.
The group’s combination of interesting music and challenging lyrics, at least as exemplified by those two albums, intrigued me. The themes of alienation and social dysfunction recur and are well-examined in “Crime,” in songs like “Asylum,” “If Everyone Was Listening,” “Rudy” and “School.”
Then there’s the wonderful juxtaposition in “Dreamer”: “Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer/Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no! … Dreamer, you stupid little dreamer/So now you put your head in your hands, oh no!”
And the group’s songwriters refused to take the easy way out in the title song. Who are the men of “lust, greed, and glory” responsible for the “Crime of the Century”? “Rip off the masks and let's see/But that's not right — oh no, what's the story?/There's you and there's me.”
But the song that interested me the most was “Hide in Your Shell.” The ideas and images come thick and fast for nearly seven minutes, with little in the way of chorus or refrain; mostly, the only things repeated are the offer “If I can help you,” given to someone likely to “Grab on to what you can scramble for.”
One of the most interesting things about the song, though, also related to the title number from “Even in the Quietist Moments.” As in “Hide in Your Shell,” the title is the first line of the song — but is never repeated again.
That may not be hugely significant, but in nearly 60 years of listening to The Music, I don’t remember one song by a group, much less two, being so structured. More often, some repetitive phrase — “If I can help you,” perhaps? — becomes the name of the song.
As much as I like that technique, and although the lyrics of “Even in the Quietist Moments” hint that more depths will be plumbed, “Even” is much more simplistic and repetitive than “Hide,” albeit still enjoyable. And there is plenty to like elsewhere in the album, though — and not just “Give a Little Bit,” which was a Top 20 single in the U.S.
“Lover Boy” takes a nice shot at disco-era male obsessions, “Babaji” was inspired by founding member Roger Hodgson’s reading a book about a Hindu holy man’s spiritual journey, and “Downstream” and “From Now On” are just lovely, piano-dominated tunes.
The album ends with the 10 and a half-minute “Fool’s Overture,” which I always thought was an epic homage to World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but Hodgson insisted had no particular meaning. However, the song includes an audio clip of a Churchill quote, and several lines have WWII allusions.
“While everybody's sleeping, the boats put out to sea” could refer to the Dunkirk rescue or D-Day; “the islands sinking, let’s take to the sky” could relate to the aerial defenders of the Battle of Britain. And “Called the man a fool, stripped him of his pride/Everyone was laughing up until the day he died” sounds a lot like what happened in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Churchill and his party were unceremoniously voted out of power.
Hodgson and co-founder Rick Davies shared songwriting credit on most of the group’s early songs, but it is clear that that was a marriage of convenience, and that the majority of the songs were written by one or the other. Which is not unusual — John Lennon and Paul McCartney had a similar arrangement. But as in that partnership, the songs bear (and bare) the unmistakable fingerprints of their creators.
And, in my opinion — and in those of many music critics, with whom as a class I usually don’t agree — Hodgson’s creations had more depth, and breadth, than Davies’. The former, it was later revealed, actually wrote “Hide, “Dreamer” (the band’s first hit) and most of the rest of the group’s more thought-provoking songs.
Hodgson, though, also was the principal songwriter on most of the numbers — particularly the big hits — on the band’s next, and most popular LP. “Breakfast in America” was hugely successful, in part because of the big-selling singles like “Take the Long Way Home” and “The Logical Song.”
For me, however, “Breakfast” was a detour away from what I liked about Supertramp. That digression was not unlike the Phil Collins’-era Genesis: quality, well-crafted pop, but a step down from what the band had done previously.
So I lost interest in Supertramp, for the most part, except for occasionally listening to those two LPs, until the afore-mentioned digital album-buying spree. The items I downloaded were 1975’s “Crisis? What Crisis?” and “Famous Last Words,” from 1982.
The former was an album rushed out to capitalize on the popularity of “Crime,” and recorded between two tours scheduled to take advantage of that popularity. Most of the songs were leftovers from previous recording sessions, and the album’s quality suffered accordingly.
“Famous” is more promising, although I haven’t had the opportunity to listen and familiarize myself with the songs. The other related album I bought was “In the Eye of the Storm,” the first of Hodgson’s solo albums released, in 1984 (an earlier recording was never released).
“In the Eye” came out shortly after Hodgson left the group, to spend more time with his young children and to attend to his spiritual life. (Hodgson had made his recording debut, pre-Supertramp, with a group called Argosy, which included amongst its member one Reginald Dwight — who achieved a bit of success under the stage name Elton John.)
This inspiration for buying “In the Eye” was the striking music video of the first cut on the LP, “Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy),” which caught my attention at the time of the album’s release. That number is every bit as epic, dense and thought-provoking as Hodgson’s best work with Supertramp.
The rest of the album, though, is of uneven quality and much less interesting. It confirms my musical theory of WIGSIP (the Whole Is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts); the great musical groups have a chemistry that creates art that its members on their own usually can’t emulate. Supertramp has continued without Hodgson, but I’m not sure I’m going to bet on its work without him being as good as with.