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Supertramp

Embracing arty prog-rock and contemporary soft-rock, SUPERTRAMP doubled their sales potential when one genre seemed to be superseded/overlapped by the other. Not an immediate hit with the British public until their classic “Crime Of The Century” peaked in the mid-70s, the ever-changeable outfit combined grace and a cheeky charm when they went global from thereon after; 1979’s “Breakfast In America” also going er… “multi-platinum in America” and the rest of the world.
Formerly the main attraction of late-60s act, The Joint, the talented Richard/Rick Davies was given a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to form a fresh combo through the management/sponsorship of Dutch millionaire, Stanley “Sam” Miesegaes. As brainchild, vocalist and piano player, jazz/blues fan Davies placed a want ad in the Melody Maker, resulting in the hiring of Roger Hodgson (bass/vocals), Richard Palmer (guitars) and Keith Baker (percussion). Dispersing with the name Daddy (to avoid confusion with DADDY LONGLEGS), and taking their moniker from an early 20th century, William Henry Davies book, The Autobiography Of A Super-Tramp, the quartet balanced their time between rehearsals at a country retreat in West Hythe, Kent, and several “teething” gigs over at the P.N. Club in Munich, Germany. Robert/Bob Millar had now joined the band when Baker bailed.
Signing to A&M Records, the eponymous SUPERTRAMP (1970) {*5} album, was largely ignored by the public, although reviews at the time were somewhat mixed. Shuffling between lead vocal duties, although Hodgson and main lyricist Palmer took on the bulk of the work from co-author Davies, it was said to have been recorded during night hours – and it showed. The fact that it kicked off with a short-stint reprise version of the closing piece, `Surely’, was ill-advised, but there was promise in tracks such as `It’s A Long Road’, the GENESIS-esque `Words Unspoken’ and `Nothing To Show’; in a footnote, the ‘Tramp proved that not every act could pull off a prog-length 12-minute suite, as the self-indulgent `Try Again’ reflected.
The record’s poor sales and benign critical reception engendered a series of personnel reshuffles; adding Dave Winthrop (flute/sax) almost immediately. Unhappy with a lesser role within the group, Palmer departed after their performance at that year’s Isle of Wight Festival, while Millar vacated his place after suffering from nervous exhaustion. Davies and Hodgson remained at the core of SUPERTRAMP (the latter singer switching to guitar), while fresh rehearsals yielded the addition of Frank Farrell (bass) and Kevin Currie (drums/percussion).
The resulting sophomore/“suffer-more” album, INDELIBLY STAMPED (1971) {*4}, was more notable for the tasteless cover shot (depicting heavily-tattooed bosoms) than any of the music contained within its grooves. On reflection, the folky/pastoral record had its moments, the boogie-addled `Your Poppa Don’t Mind’ and the delicate slow-starter, `Remember’, surely two tracks that had possible hit single potential “indelibly stamped” all over them. Members of the group ultimately drifted apart, and when Miesegaes pulled out of the financial side the following October, it looked all but over for SUPERTRAMP.
When Davies and Hodgson reconvened from time to time, the pair were increasingly waylaid by other divergent activities; main singer Hodgson was increasingly inclined toward taking L.S.D. to enhance his songwriting skills, while his estranged older songwriting buddy, Davies, chose to play it by the book. Like LENNON-McCARTNEY before them, the pair offered up individual compositions that bore out their partnership brand, while the Mk.III SUPERTRAMP (re-formed in August ’73), boasted a cosmopolitan aspect to the band; Yorkshire-born John Anthony Helliwell (sax/clarinet), Glaswegian Dougie Thomson (bass) – both from the ALAN BOWN SET, and Californian Bob C. Benberg (drums/percussion) – from BEES MAKE HONEY – seasoned campaigners ready and willing to take on the task.
Their musical chemistry finally clicked and with 1974’s CRIME OF THE CENTURY {*10}, SUPERTRAMP were propelled to major league prog-rock/pop status. Complex, insidious and intelligently crafted, the record married conceptually depressing lyrical fare to infectiously melodic hook-lines with surprising results. The album itself cracked the Top 5 (Top 40 in America), while `Dreamer’ became their breakthrough Top 20 hit single. Described as a prog-ish variant to 10CC, STEELY DAN or PINK FLOYD, their storyteller rock-like aplomb of `School’, `Bloody Well Right’, `Hide In Your Shell’, `Asylum’, `Rudy’, `If Everyone Was Listening’ and the atmospheric curtain call title track, were among the best tracks of the year.
Almost rushed-out to cash-in on their newfound success, CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS? (1975) {*6}, flopped in its wake, as earnest singles `Lady’ and `Sister Moonshine’ were unfairly dismissed by a fickle public. Okay, their move toward FM-friendly status proved counter-productive, but the grace and simplicity of other fan faves: `Ain’t Nobody But Me’, `Poor Boy’ and the charming `Just A Normal Day’, were slowly contagious.
EVEN IN THE QUIETEST MOMENTS… (1977) {*6} again utilised the same musicians and carried on in much the same vein, solidifying their growing cult fanbase (especially in the US) and even spawning a transatlantic hit single in the acoustic-based `Give A Little Bit’. Reaching out to post-GABRIEL-styled GENESIS fans in their hook-line and catchy subdued textures, SUPERTRAMP aspired to produce prog-rock fervour by way of extended pieces such as the title track, `From Now On’ and the 10-minute closer, `Fool’s Overture’.
Increasingly catering to the American AOR market, SUPERTRAMP finally broke through big style with the multi-million selling (US No.1), BREAKFAST IN AMERICA (1979) {*8} and its attendant hits. A living, breathing example of all that punk set out to destroy, this perhaps remains one of the album’s charms; while the vocals may have erred towards limp posturing and the lyrics towards irrelevance, there was no denying the record’s lasting pop appeal, especially the pompous yet evocative title track, and not forgetting `The Logical Song’, `Goodbye Stranger’ and `Take The Long Way Home’.
Like all big arena-rock acts, SUPERTRAMP pencilled between the dots for the rather sprawling and unnecessary double live-in-concert set, PARIS (1980) {*5}. Recorded toward the end of ’79 at the city’s Pavillion de Paris, there was no lack of star tracks aboard, but with several stemming from their recent “Breakfast” period, the record was a momentum rather than obligatory listening.
“…FAMOUS LAST WORDS…” (1982) {*6} was SUPERTRAMP’s next studio venture, carrying on in much the same inoffensive vein without the saving grace of its predecessor’s charm. Yes, the glossy 80s were upon us and the yuppies were thankful of corporate-styled rock, in anticipation that the MTV-addled moguls might come on board. `It’s Raining Again’ and `My Kind Of Lady’ had the soft-rock appeal to emerge as hit singles (the latter US-only), while the quintet’s breezy and sunny ambles alienated a contingent of their old prog fanbase.
ROGER HODGSON left soon afterwards (subsequently recording two mid-80s solo albums: “In The Eye Of The Storm” and “Hai Hai”), leaving Davies’ SUPERTRAMP to complete a further two studio sets, BROTHER WHERE YOU BOUND (1985) {*6} – featuring final Top 20 entry, `Cannonball’ – and FREE AS A BIRD (1987) {*3}, amid increasing disinterest.
Although they finally folded after a LIVE ‘88 {*4} concert effort (`I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’ better left to blues operators), SUPERTRAMP re-formed several years later; recording a jazz-inflicted album for Chrysalis Records, entitled SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE (1997) {*4}. Unfortunately for SUPERTRAMP (Davies, Bob C. Benberg, John Helliwell, Mark Hart, Cliff Hugo, Tom Walsh, et al), the music scene had changed irrevocably, and the record barely scraped a Top 75 placing.
To their credit, the HODGSON-less troupe tramped on into the new millennium with SLOW MOTION (2002) {*4}, for the most part failing to capture the exotic, indefinable allure of their best mid-70s work, but nevertheless crafting a passable set of songs destined to placate fans who were still listening. Jesse Siebenberg (son of stalwart Bob) took the berth of Walsh, but the classicist SUPERTRAMP were a pale shadow of their former selves; two 8-minute pieces `Tenth Avenue’ and `Dead Man’s Blues’ filling time rather than essential grooves.
© MC Strong 1994-2006 / rev-up MCS Jul2013

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