This is my first article with this excellent band. One of their albums, “Breakfast in America”, is one of my top 10 favourite albums of all time. But they have much else to offer, so I would recommend that anyone interested in good pop/rock should check out this band.
Successful Pop Group acknowledge absolute ignorance!!
Supertramp “We dunno” bombshell rocks Rock World!!
Dogged Interrogation: Tony Stewart
Action Photography: Robert Ellis
The album “Crime of the Century” is Supertramp`s own sardonic, and at times downright derisive, brand of existentialism. Accordingly one would expect its two main creators to at least be a little contemptuous of life. One might even be unsurprised were they to launch into entertaining invective, not to speak of outright cynicism.
But Richard Davies and Roger Hodgson are not a bit like that. Davies is a stolid, laconic individual, prone to long bouts of silence, and obviously bemused by the current interest Supertramp are creating with their chart success. Hodgson, by comparison, is garrulous, bright and helpful in manner – though he, too, is pretty non-committal, especially when discussing the band`s music.
But if they decided to become a pair of comedians one suspects Davies would be the strong, silent type, and Hodgson his eager-to-please sidekick.
They`d be a Wow with a Routine.
As it is they have no routine at all and this particular interview was the proverbial blood-out-of-a-stone job. No matter.
On stage, though, the situation is somewhat different – as Supertramp`s successful opener to their current tour at Sheffield City Hall illustrated. There it`s perfectly fine to look a shade mean `n` moody, and of course there are the other visual (not to mention musical) distractions, notably chirpy saxophonist John Anthony Helliwell smacking his lips together so that they sink into his face like he`d forgotten to slip his dentures in.
Towards the back of the stage there`s the wasted-looking and slightly dour Scots bassist Dougie Thomson, who sways in time to the music like a cork floating gracefully on water. To his right, the short-haired, reserved American drummer, Bob C. Benberg.
Musically their act – based to a great extent on the “Crime” album – is excellent. Although they have an introverted image, they pace their set smoothly, running through a multitude of instrument changes, as they steadily gain momentum, eventually attaining a suitably climatic conclusion with the title track of the elpee. (Tell me more, Tone. – Ed.)
Supertramp are truly a remarkable band. (Thank you. – Ed.)
The story of Supertramp starts in the late 60s when Rick Davies was playing in a Munich club with a band who weren`t doing too well financially. But the only way to raise funds to come back to England was by selling the equipment.
This he wouldn`t do.
By chance a friend of his met a Dutchman called Sam, who lived in Switzerland, and this character was cajoled into financing Rick`s musical aspirations. With The Joint he returned to England – but, as he explains, “the band wasn`t very good.”
In fact, they woke up one morning in London to discover Dutch Sam wasn`t too impressed with them either, because he`d had the coach and equipment he`d bought driven over his Geneva house, Davies then had to fly over for discussions on the future of The Joint.
“It would,” he comments now, “have been a bit dishonest to say I wanted to save them. But I was torn between the other guys in the band who wanted to keep together. There was that weird conscience thing.”
Sam the Cheese however, didn`t want the band to continue. But he was prepared to finance another group with Rick as their leader. This band was named Supertramp.
The next member was Roger Hodgson. “I knew,” Rick comments, “what I wanted in the way of musicians, personality-wise, and what I wanted them to play.
“Also at that time, when I finally got back, there were a lot of things happening musically – like Jethro, King Crimson and Traffic. I was really into that, because before I was only listening to Americans really.”
It`s only over the last year or so though, that the band has come together as a strong, resolute unit. Before the present line- up there were several formats which were unsuccessful. The first album, called simply “Supertramp” and released in 1970, was recorded by a different group to the one which put out the second set, “Indelibly Stamped” (with the memorable sleeve design of a brace of tattooed tits poking out) a year later. “Crime of the Century” showcases yet another (the present) group.
The only links through the albums have been Rick and Roger, and frequently they have teetered on the edge of total disbandment. For instance, during their “Indelibly Stamped” period it was the drummer of the time, Kevin Currie, who held them together.
“Unless he`d come in,” Rick remarks, “we`d probably have folded again. We needed someone to…believe in what the band was doing. He really got us believing in ourselves again. He sort of served a purpose and went. I think he was a bit sick about it really.
“When he left,” Davies continues, “we talked about disbanding. Didn`t we?” he asks Hodgson, who nods affirmatively. “It was only then that we realised it was our music and our songs and nobody else was going to do it. So…”
“Really,” contradicts Roger, “it wasn`t that actually. The fact the band kept going was nothing to do with us. You have to have the business side to get the music through, and if it had been down to us it would never have happened.
“When we talked about splitting…and the drummer and sax player left, it was really Doug the bass player” (who`d joined by this time) “and our sound mixer guy who got their heads together and said, `Right. It`s time we started sorting things out`. That, and luck, has done it.
“Luck,” he expounds, “that after seeing 800 musicians at auditions Bob and John should suddenly come along, and be exactly the ones we wanted.”
Obviously, taking so long to find the right kind of musicians to work with has had some bearing on the fact that it has taken Supertramp aeons to make any commercial headway, or even to lay down an album with the quality of “Crime of the Century”. But then there was none of the positive economic pressures upon the group…until their wealthy Dutch patron, Sam, terminated his association with them just after the release of “Indelibly Stamped”. They were no longer wrapped in warm Swiss francs, and they had to face the reality of making a living solely on the music.
“The first two years were a complete dream,” comments Roger.
“I don`t think we really want to say too much about Sam,” adds Rick.
“It`s interesting though,” argues his writing partner. “Because it does make the whole band`s history very unique. When we started we had everything. All the equipment we wanted. We travelled about,” he smiles at the memory, “in a 42-seater coach with beds in the back. We didn`t have the physical discomforts that most bands do when they start off.
“Then when Sam left, we did experience physical discomfort. Like the money went down to nothing, and the equipment broke up.”
“We`d always had someone to lean on with money,” explains Rick, “and it took us a long time to accept that we had to make our own way.”
Did you rely on Sam too much?
“Yeah,” replies Rick, “there`s no way you can`t when you have somebody like that. It`s like when you have a big record…well, this is the first experience we`ve had of any big sales, but already signs of leaning on that are creeping in. It`s something you`ve got to be careful of.”
So because of the financial support due to the Flying Dutchman`s patronage they found their musical growth stunted. “A lot of musicians are really lazy,” says Davies. “And, speaking personally, you tend to grab any security that`s going because you know what the business is like.”
“You can get very complacent,” elaborates Hodgson, “if you know a wage is coming in. And the vibe in the band at that time wasn`t really a group feeling…”
They do point out their existence was not as secure as it may have appeared, due to the inconsistency of Sam, who was apparently forever changing his mind about the future of the group. Even so their career was jeopardized even more when the Dutchman left because of the substantial debt they owed to him. This, he good-naturedly wiped clean.
“But,” adds Rick, “I think there was always an underlying confidence in the material we`d done. We didn`t just freak out and say, `Oh we can`t go on.
“We just went on.”
And that brings us, albeit a few minor traumas, to their present position.
As I`ve already mentioned, neither gentleman is prone to making profound (or come to that, very interesting) statements about their album, and although Hodgson would prefer not to play to audiences at all, they both have an altruistic approach to performing and recording.
“You play music you enjoy,” comments Davies, “and hope people are going to enjoy that.”
That, in itself, is at loggerheads with the apparent content of the album – which seems to me to be perceptive view of society, nevertheless expressed in disdainful terms.
But all that remark prompts from Davies is, “Maybe. Yeah.”
“I tell you what,” offers Roger. “Reviewers have got this album much clearer than we have. We didn`t actually realise exactly what we`d done until we heard all the eight songs one after another.
“When I first heard it I was blown apart. I don`t know why…but it does have that effect on you.”
What is it all about though?
“Really I think that`s what it`s about,” Roger says, referring to my assessment of the set. “If it means that to you…”
“…That`s the crunch, isn`t it??” adds Rick. (Maybe. Yeah. – Ed.)
What does it mean to you?
Roger: “It means something completely different to me than it means to Rick.” (Go! Go!-Ed.)
Rick: “What it means to me is feeling right about everything that`s going down at that time you`re doing it. That`s all it means to me.” (This is really fantastic – Ed.)
Which means absolutely nothing to me, so again I ask him what he means. There`s long pause as he considers this question.
“That the lyrics are right for the song,” he eventually answers, “That the arrangements are right for the song. That the mood`s right.”
“What does the album as a whole mean to you?” Roger asks of Rick.
There`s a minute`s silence, finally broken by Roger.
“It is a difficult question,” he says. (You might say that, by now – Ed.)
Eventually it`s discovered “Crime” was not intended as a concept album; that the two musicians are too close to it to rationalize its content; that they are pleased with its commercial success – “because it enables us to carry on”. That both musicians are exceedingly bloody vague.
“It`s dangerous to be un-vague,” comments Rick. “It`s the only way to be. Who could you quote, a musician, someone you respected, who wasn`t vague?”
I name a musician. But Rick only comments, “That approach doesn`t appeal to me.”
“I think we could tell you what each song is about,” Roger says helpfully. “As a concept, which wasn`t particularly planned, I think the reason it`s taken off is half the music and half the sign of the times, really. `Crime of the Century` really does go with what`s happening in the world today.”
Surely by saying that you are admitting you have a view as to what “Crime” is about?
“Well I do, but Rick doesn`t. I think the way the world`s going is everyone`s responsibility. That`s what the last track, which Rick wrote, says.”
Other questions probing their philosophy are sadly unfruitful, and are greeted by blank expressions. So it only remains to ask just how they feel after so many periods of despondency.
Are they now optimistic?
“I don`t know,” responds Rick. (I should have been ready for that, but I wasn`t.) “I`m really convinced,” he continues, “somebody`s going to get ill and screw the whole thing up.”
So you`re the eternal pessimist?
“Yeah. I go to sleep thinking about fuses and things. It does tend to get to you after a while, and it becomes very hard to relax.”
There`s another long pause as we all ponder on this statement.
Each of us reluctant to commit ourselves further.
I politely wait to see if another bombshell will be dropped.
The atmosphere is, dare I say, electric with anticipation.
“It`s a great band,” Roger comments, almost to himself. “It`s got a load of potential. How much of that potential is allowed to get out only time will tell.”
I don`t know about that either.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Elliot Cahn (Sha Na Na), John Cale, Nick Drake, Eric Clapton, Sly Stone, Bo Diddley, Lemmy (Hawkwind), Chick Corea.
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