Nice headline, right? Like cracking open an ancient crypt. If you’re still reading, consider yourself either A) Gen-X or B) our delightful target demographic.
But we know who we are. For my generation, rock and roll was everything. Our early 1980s high school boasted fiercely competitive rock cliques for contemporary artists like Rush, AC/DC, Van Halen, Bruce Springsteen, and Ozzy Osbourne. There was even a fervent Journey contingent if you can believe it. We talked tough daily, taking no prisoners while extolling our favorite hard-rock bands of the era. Musical peer pressure was constant and absolute. The tiniest slip-up in taste meant disrespect, ridicule, or outright excommunication.
Then – after hours of hard-boiled, adolescent posing – this future columnist would rush home, shut my bedroom door… and listen to Supertramp‘s Breakfast in America over and over and over.
During their late 1970s heyday, Supertramp created a run of progressive-tinged pop albums so intricately woven and irresistibly catchy as to redefine what AOR radio could sound like. Masterminded by two formidably complementary songwriters (Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies), they achieved a depth and sophistication typically reserved for niche art-rock acts allergic to popular airplay. Yet the band still gets short shrift four decades later, despite a fervent if unexpected fan base – including this household, whose ornery Taylor-obsessed teens grew up belting “Goodbye Stranger” in the car.
Here, we count down ten personal Supertramp favorites aimed at novices and aficionados alike. Some were chart hits, some not. It wasn’t intentional, but the songwriting split wound up a perfect Five-for-Five between Hodgson and Davies. This endeavor is self-indulgent, wholly subjective, and can become quite intimate at times. So, if you’re already a Supertramp fanatic, start arguing. If not, get busy discovering.
10. “Asylum” Live (Crime of the Century, 1974; Paris, 1980)
After two competent but lackluster albums, Supertramp hit their progressive-pop stride with 1974’s Crime of the Century, commencing an eight-year run of near-excellence. “Asylum’s” studio version basks in the shade behind such cross-Atlantic Crime hits like “School”, “Bloody Well Right”, and “Dreamer”. But this passionate live performance, taken from 1979’s famed Paris concerts, is a comparative revelation. Whimsical, intelligent, and mythic in its own fashion, “Asylum” showcases Davies on stage at his cathartic and creative best – with the enthusiastic support of Hodgson’s guitar and vocals, prior to their famed falling-out three years later. For any music maven, the entire Live in Paris Bluray video package is a historical document well worth tracking down.
9. “C’est le Bon” (…Famous Last Words…, 1982)
Ever since its release, 1982’s…Famous Last Words… has been relentlessly denigrated as a faux Supertramp album. Hodgson and Davies could barely stand each other by this point, separately recording their individual compositions with zero collaboration – like two solo album sides hastily sewn together. (Listen closely, and you’ll catch them layering their own falsetto harmonies, not vocally backing each other as before.) But like a doomed lover buoyed by fond remembrance, this reviewer nurses an unabashed soft spot for Words. “C’est le Bon” translates to “It’s the right one”. It’s also excruciatingly soft, one of Hodgson’s most haunting and delicate pieces, and a tender tribute to his musical aptitude as a child. Fun playground trivia: In Davies’ absence, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart contributed background vocals. Nice Rolodex you got there, Rog!
8. “Just Another Nervous Wreck” (Breakfast in America, 1979)
Grandpa storytime. In the vinyl heyday of 45-RPM singles, the A-side would contain the big hit, with the B-side weighted down by the worst song on the album. This swindle was intended to maximize potential sales for future hits. (Famous exception: the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” b/w “Strawberry Fields Forever”, from 1967.) Davies’ “Just Another Nervous Wreck” was the flipside to Supertramp’s biggest U.S. chart hit, “The Logical Song”, released in March 1979. Enterprising fans who happened to flip the single discovered one of the band’s drollest and most penetrating hymns to failure, paranoid shut-ins, and the vagaries of life. Biting lines like “I can’t afford the pen to sign her checks” presage a Bizarro reflection of Neil Hannon’s eccentric work with the Divine Comedy, minus the amusing wealth and privilege. Belying its pessimistic lyrics, “Wreck” also comes across as marvelously decisive and emphatic – precisely what you wouldn’t expect from a throwaway B-side.
7. “Sister Moonshine” (Crisis? What Crisis?, 1975)
After five decades, 1975’s Crisis? What Crisis? stands out as the biggest ‘surprise’ of Supertramp’s championship run – the surprise being how nicely it has aged despite its dearth of singles or U.S. chart success. The record’s disarming warmth is showcased on Hodgson’s irresistible “Sister Moonshine”, a pre-” Give a Little Bit” acoustic romp featuring all his trademark elegiac touches: jouncy guitars, soaring harmonies, and nostalgic lyrics lifted straight from cherished childhood memories. Even on this relatively early outing, nobody could match Hodgson’s ear for mystic enchantment when he set his mind to it. And yes, that’s him playing ‘flageolet’ on the fade-out, which Wikipedia informs us is “a member of the family of duct flutes that includes recorders and tin whistles.” Who knew?
6. “Bonnie” (…Famous Last Words…, 1982)
Some weird and embarrassing background on this one. Sometime in early 1989, yours truly ventured into a Wendy’s restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, for a quick lunch. (Don’t ask.) Wolfing down a cheeseburger, we were flabbergasted to hear Rick Davies’ dreamy “Bonnie” wafting down from the restaurant speakers out of absolutely freakin’ nowhere. The song is self-plagiarizing, basically a reworking of Breakfast in America’s “Oh Darling” from three years earlier. Yet “Bonnie” is also the superior track, with a bridge boasting the most gorgeous contiguous piano melody Supertramp ever produced. We’re ashamed to admit as much, but this reviewer was reduced to abject tears right there in public, shielding our faces from fellow diners. Subjective, you say? A nostalgic reaction to misplaced youth, applicable to this writer and nobody else? Perhaps. But to this day, “Bonnie” still hits us like a goddamn freight train.
5. “Dreamer” Live (Crime of the Century, 1974; Paris, 1980)
Of all the smash-hit live U.S. singles in rock history – from Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” at Budokan to John Denver’s #1 “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, to George Michael’s cover of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” – “Dreamer” only reached #15, but still boasts the most dazzling beehive vocals of the bunch. Granted, the studio recording more than holds its own. But this live cut from 1980’s Paris concert album frankly sizzles with joie de vivre as Hodgson and Davies blissfully mind-meld onstage, even if Supertramp’s days were already numbered. This reviewer was privileged to catch Hodgson perform in 2012, and the classic hits were great to hear live. But it was his pitch-perfect rendition of “Dreamer” that brought the house down.
4. “Take the Long Way Home” (Breakfast in America, 1979)
Back in the day, a high school friend once claimed that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” featured the greatest warm-up intro of any song ever made. Not sure we’d go quite that far, but it’s darn close. This universal ode to smelling the roses gloriously strips its gears at the climax, mixing conflicting messages with biting glee. As the song famously laments, “Look through the years, and see what you could have been… If you had had more time.” But then, during a 2010 interview with Acoustic Storm magazine, Hodgson claimed that “home is in the heart”. Well, which is it – success or home and hearth? Here’s hoping we never figure out the answer.
3. “Even in the Quietest Moments” (Even in the Quietest Moments, 1977)
Our lone entry from this excellent self-titled album. This epic track’s ineffable, pastoral beauty knocked us over from the very first listen, way back in the oily 1970s. Dark, impassioned, and possessed of mysterious depths probably better left hidden, “Even In the Quietest Moments” plays like a desperate human gambit for Divine mercy, with Hodgson pleading against the shared metaphorical inevitability of death, love, and loss. If “Bonnie’s” bridge is magical, then “Moment’s” is transcendent: a gossamer, melancholy refuge with a mailed fist inside. As Davies described the song in 1986’s “The Supertramp Book”, “there’s hundreds of sounds coming in and going out, a whole collage thing,” including John Helliwell’s lonely, meandering clarinet intro. From any vantage point, the magnificent “Even In the Quietest Moments” is an out-and-out masterpiece.
2. “Goodbye Stranger” (Breakfast in America, 1979)
“Logical Song” was catchy, gimmicky, and the ‘logical’ Top Ten hit of 1979’s Breakfast in America. But partisanship aside, the electric-piano smorgasbord of “Goodbye Stranger” still deserves acclaim from any standpoint. Is it a road song, a love song, or the ultimate sarcastic kissoff? Probably all three, as it effortlessly coasts from street-minstrel wisdom to that famed call-and-response falsetto chorus, eventually closing out with what some consider one of rock’s finest solos. We moping and irrational Super-Fans gave up hope for a rapprochement long ago. But if, by the Lord’s grace, a Supertramp reunion ever did happen, Hodgson could start by admitting that Davies’ “Goodbye Stranger” might be the best song they ever did.
1. “Gone Hollywood” (Breakfast In America, 1979)
Now, the payoff – as both our list and any remaining credibility go completely off the rails. Admittedly, “Gone Hollywood” wouldn’t rate inclusion on any Supertramp ‘best-of’ playlist. It’s also one of two cuts from Breakfast in America we’ve never once heard on radio, television, or in film. (“Casual Conversations” is the other.) But given five decades, thousands of listens, and infinite life disappointments, this opening track off Breakfast has gnawed its way into our subconscious and anchored itself. “Gone Hollywood” may be Supertramp’s most satisfying and viscerally entertaining song – an ageless tale of artistic effort, cold rejection, and ultimate redemption that speaks to anyone who ever picked up a pen or paintbrush. John Helliwell’s most domineering sax performance conducts another chilling bridge, then escorts us out on a blazing-comet coda. “Now the words sound familiar as they slam the door / You’re not what we’re looking for!” Been there too many times to count. How about you?