A very long, but quite interesting article and interview from the early stages of this band`s career. This one should be read by anyone with a interest in this band. The great Makowski leads the way.
The year of the `Tramp
Pete Makowski traces the success of Supertramp
TWO YEARS and two months, that’s how long Supertramp have been together believe it or not. Two years and two sensational albums —’Crime Of The Century’ and ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ — Supertramp have carved their name in a market that’s literally crying out for quality. That’s what the ‘Tramp are; a quality band who, with bands like 10cc, set themselves high standards that they continually maintain.
Supertramp are: Rick Davies (keyboards/vocals), Roger Hodgson (guitar/keyboards/vocals), Dougie Thompson (bass), John Helliwell (saxophone, various instruments) and Bob C. Benberg (drums). But Supertramp have been around for quite a while in various forms, this line-up is the culmination of years of ‘paying dues’, I caught the band towards the end of their tour, where they reflected on their past exploits which led them to join together on their musical venture.
“The actors and jesters are here The stage is in darkness and clear. For raising the curtain. And no one’s quite certain whose play it is.”
THE STORY really begins with Rick Davies who debuted his professional career with The Lonely Ones, a band from Folkestone formerly led by Noel Redding. “We worked in England for about six months playing soul stuff.” he explained, “then we went to Europe for supposedly two weeks but we got stuck there … didn’t come back for a year and a half!”
The band eventually found themselves stranded in Munich. “We were gigging at night and making film music during the day. It was good experience but Germans make the worst films in the world. We were just a cheap way for them to get music on their films. We worked for a guy called David Lluellyn, who was an unbelievable character we met over there. He used to get us all these film jobs.
“The band were broke when Dave mentioned the fact that he knew this guy in Switzerland who was a millionaire. We thought ‘sure pull the other one’, but then again it was worth a try. We were all destitute at the PN Club living on soup. We’d play at the weekends and that would give us enough money to last us through till Thursday then we had to pilfer until Saturday.
“It was on a Saturday that Dave went to see this guy and then he just didn’t get in contact for about three months and we thought ‘that’s it, he’s gone’. Then we got a telephone call from Dave saying that the guy would be interested in seeing us. We couldn’t believe it! We were all walking around in a dream thinking ‘this is it’.”
AND THEN THERE WAS SAM
THE MAN Dave was referring to was none other than Sam, the Dutch millionaire, to whom ‘Crime Of The Century’ is dedicated. Sam was the man responsible ‘for making it all possible’.
Rick: “He had these ideas for us to get classical themes and turn them into pop music. Of course we all went charging down to his house and when we got there we spent the first two weeks playing ping-pong. We had an attempt at getting this thing together. It was completely bizarre, this buy’s music and the pop idea on top of it. We eventually came over and signed to Robert Stigwood and ended up playing the Rasputin Club every week, that was about it.”
UNTIL ONE DAY…
RICK: “ONE morning Sam phoned me up at nine o’clock in the morning and told me to have a look out of the window and I said ‘There’s nothing out there, except an old coach and he said: ‘it’s your’s boys’, so we got in and Andy (our singer) drove it around Finchley while we played football in the back. It’s only when we started playing the Marquee that it got to be a problem. We had to park in Oxford Street and you’d see a huge chain of people on Wardour Street carrying equipment, anyway that was taken away from us when something wasn’t pleasing Sam. I went over to see what was grieving him.”
It transpired that Sam didn’t feel that the group were living up to his expectations. “I knew the band wasn’t that good, but everyone was heartbroken when we had to split, we were so close.” It seemed that the Dutch millionaire recognised a spark of songwriting talent developing in Davies and persuaded him to stay under his wing.
“For we dreamed a lot
And we schemed a lot.”
“I went over to Sam’s to try and write my own music, so I could get enough confidence to start something off my own back and I stayed there just writing. Of course all sorts of crazy ideas popped up from Sam, like ‘Rick Around The World In Eighty Tunes’ whereby we’d hire a few Landrovers and go round the world.
“We’d sit in an Afghanistan village and be influenced by the music and then go onto somewhere else. It sounded fantastic but it wasn’t real at all. So I went back to London and I began auditioning for what was to become the first Supertramp.”
“If we’d known just how right we were going to be.”
ENTER ROGER HODGSON – FRESH FACED YOUTH FROM STOWE SCHOOL
HODGSON’S PALE, gaunt, almost hawklike features seen either sitting behind keyboards or swaying behind a guitar, squeezing every ounce of emotion into each verse he sings, are a complete contrast to the cool, full, faced Davies, who only occasionally breaks his stern deadpan features with a single grimace or offstage a burst of raucous laughter. This makes up the black and white of the Supertramp writing team.
While Hodgson walks on stage wearing kaftan and jeans, you’ll see Davies on the other side sporting a suit and shirt, looking like a latter day Irving Berlin. Both equally intense, both equally talented, both equally different. It’s hardly surprising that one of Hodgson’s mainmen is Stevie Winwood — they’re both vagabonds of the wind, eternal music makers, living in their own time, their own reality.
“When I joined Rick I had signed a contract with another guy the very same day,” admitted a quiet spoken Hodgson. In fact he had been contracted by DJM to record a single under the name of Argosy.
“The single had Elton John on piano, Nigel Olsson on drums and Caleb Quaye on guitar… it also flopped … Tony Blackburn liked it.”
When Hodgson first joined ‘Tramp, his main instrument was bass. “That’s my favourite instrument funnily enough, I love the bass more than any other instrument.”
Davies got Richard Palmer (who had previously written some lyrics for King Crimson) on guitar and Bob Millar on drums, completing the line-up of Supertramp Mk 1. Purpose?
Rick explains: “There was a huge change happening at the time I was away in Europe. That change was like Traffic, Jethro Tull, Spooky Tooth sort of nice up and coming bands, which I wasn’t aware of until I went down to see Rory Gallagher and Taste at the Lyceum, only then did I reckon on the possibilities that something could happen, because I didn’t rate myself as a big pop star and I thought to get anywhere I was going to have to be like that. But with the new bands coming up, there was a new standard to live up to and that’s what we were aiming for.
“Roger, Richard and Bob were all aware of these groups, so having them in the band was sort of an education for me. It was great because Richard Palmer was going about Traffic and The Band, getting into their lyrics and I had never thought about their lyrics before.”
Supertramp, signed to A&M and released their debut album in 1970. It was described in the liner notes of their second album as having a ‘meloncholy mood’. The album vaguely indicates ‘Tramps intentions, without really making them clear. Not a totally memorable debut album, just interesting.
Rick: ”We were very green then. There was this thing about not having a producer. Bands weren’t using producers then, and we decided ‘yeah we’re not going to have a producer’. Paul McCartney’s not using a producer, why should we use one? (breaks into hysterical laughter) it was that sort of greenness.” “It worked on the first one”, argued Roger, “it had its own kind of magic.”
IT’S A LONG ROAD
RICK: “THAT first year, we must have played to an awful lot of people. We were doing Top Gear all the time, it was keeping us alive.”
Roger: “Our first album did sell ‘quite a lot.”
Rick: “Yeah it did. It almost took off in actual fact, because we did the Croydon Greyhound where we pulled in a lot of people just once, after that Bob left and then it just crashed.”
Roger: “In that first year we were put in a country house together, we didn’t mix socially and the vibes got really bad. We never made any friends because the vibes were so bad, people hated coming up to the house.”
TRY AGAIN … THE SECOND ALBUM — SUPERTRAMP Mk II
RICK: “WE did that ourselves as well. The second album consisted of a different band. By that time Richard Palmer and Bob Millar had left. We got a guy called Dave Winthrop on saxophone. Kevin Currie on drums and Frank Farrel on bass.”
The second album titled ‘Indelibly Stamped’ (a cover sporting a nude female body festooned with tatoos) was a much more meatier effort than its predecessor, developing theme upon theme in musical layers, a sound not too dissimilar to Traffic. The same feel.
Live gigs? Well that was a different story …
Rick: “It was all rock and roll really. We used to get people up on the bloody stage and it was just chaos, bopping away doing about three encores, but there was meat and potatoes behind it. No more or less people would come to the next gig.”
Then came the next departure. Farrel left to pursue his own career, finally meeting up with Leo Sayer, while the very Scottish Dougie Thompson entered the scene. Like the rest of the band, Thompson is a quiet unassuming character. On stage you can see him bouncing around, pumping throbbing basslines that have become such an essential part of Supertramps’ sound.
“I joined the Mk II Supertramp about six months before it broke up,” he announced, “immediately before that I was playing in some weird West End strip clubs. I’d played a bit in Alan Bown’s band. That was at a weird period of that band’s existence, when they parted company with Alan and we tried to get something happening, but we didn’t really get anything sorted out at all.
“So I was just looking around for a job to get some money, and then I saw this ad for Supertramp. Sometime before my brother, who’s one of our roadies now, had been to London and brought one of their albums back. So I had been aware of them. I decided to go along and see what was happening. At this point they had been going through some incredible audition scenes. I remember going to the Pied Bull in Islington and there were some terrible scenes. Rick was there with his crash helmet and sleeping bag. Dave Winthrop had given up hope and had gone to play pinball. Roger and Kevin were there trying to get some kind of audition sorted out, So I went in, played my two minutes and left.”
“ROGER PHONED me up a couple of days later, asking me to come down to his house, and it just kind of evolved from there. It really was a strange period for the band, with Dave Winthrop. Sometimes he just wouldn’t come to gigs, and then he’d turn up a couple of gigs later almost as if nothing had happened … very strange.”
Rick: ‘”We did one gig in Swansea when the drummer didn’t turn up. So me and Rog split the drumming duties between us, because we needed the bread, otherwise we’d starve. It didn’t go down too badly.”
Doog: “Towards the tail end of the Mk II band we did some gigs with Frankie Miller,”
Which leads us very neatly to the entry of Bob C. Benberg, from Los Angeles, who at that time was drumming with those infamous pub rock dudes – Bees Make Honey. “That was at the time Frankie had recorded an album with the Brinsleys, in fact that introduced us to him,” explained Bob. “Frankie used to hang around the Tally Ho and sometimes he’d jump onstage and join us for a couple of numbers. When it was time for him to go out and work, he took us along to back him up and we did about three gigs supporting Supertramp. One of them was at Streatham where I didn’t meet the band at all, I just recognised Doog because I had seen him playing With the Alan Bown Set at the Greyhound about three months before, and the only thing I remembered about the band apart from the saxophone player with a black sax was the bass player who moved around a bit.
“Then I remembered walking in one day and seeing this guy playing drums and thinking ‘hey he sounds pretty good’ and then 15 minutes later the drummer walked in.” The guy Bob saw was Rick who began his musical life as a drummer. “A few weeks later we were at Barbarella’s, Birmingham, supporting Supertramp. We did our set, then everybody split, except the piano player and me, we stuck around and watched Supertramp, and they were pretty good. They were the first band that I had seen that I thought were nifty, and I thought I could get on playing with them. After that I was putting it around that they were pretty good. The way I put it was they were the closest thing to Traffic I’d seen, they were really punchy…
“At that time we were doing some of the second album and a lot of ‘Crime Of The Century’,” added Rick, “completely different versions.”
Bob: “The next time I saw them was when we were playing a gig in Barnet and I saw their drummer beaming in on me. About two weeks later Roger came up to me in The Kensington and said they were going to be doing a new album in September and the drummer was splitting and what did I think about doing sessions for them.”
This was a whole different thing to the Bees.
Bob: “In the Bees I never rehearsed for one day. We never rehearsed at all. With Supertramp it was different, the complete opposite. I remember the first time we got together was at the Furniture Cave in Kings Road.”
Rick: “I’d never heard such a loud drummer in my life. I couldn’t hear anything except cymbals.”
“Yeah but they were pretty neat huh?”
Pretty neat indeed. Bob’s punchy, clipped drumwork, along with Doog’s bass makes up an invaluable and distinguished part of Supertramp’s sound. In a way they kind of weld Davies and Hodgson together into one accessible format. Now that the rhythm section had been sorted out there was one more thing to do.
ENTER JOHN ANTHONY HELLIWELL
WHEN DAVE Winthrop finally stopped coming to gigs the band sat around and discussed their next move. Suddenly Doog remembered his old playing partner in the Alan Bown Set (the one Bob Benberg, referred to as the man with the black sax). John Helliwell, the band’s musician and comedian rolled into one. Doog immediately phoned John to find that his reed blowing friend was away in Germany, still a lucrative home for out of work musicians. In fact John was playing air bases with “a 20 stone multi instrumentalist.”
Doog: “So we bumbled around for a couple of weeks without a replacement and then John came back. So I phoned him up and asked him to come down for a blow. By this time we were working in Manfred Mann’s old studios in the Old Kent Road. So John came down.”
Rick: “He had a blow, then he sat down and there was silence for about 20 seconds, and then he did his joke about the Irish man who got a pair of water skis for Christmas and spent the rest of the year looking for a lake with a slope. And everybody sat and I thought `who is this?’.”
John Helliwell is one of those natural comedians who has a static, relaxed, lunatic atmosphere that surrounds him both off and onstage. He’s also a bloody amazing musician. As Doog once described him: “The man who’ll play anything he can get his hands on.”
Helliwell can tackle almost any musical task and look completely relaxed. Supertramp’s music has a certain sense of dramatics about it. Helliwell conteracts it, stopping it from becoming anywhere near pretentious and his decorative illuminations bring it closer to becoming brilliant. He’s also an ace guy.
Take it away John: “I went home after playing with them (Supertramp) and the wife asked me what it was like, and I said `yeah pretty good but I think I’ll go back tomorrow’. Then I went the next day and came home and she said `well how do you feel about it now?’ I said ‘It’s alright but I’ll have to go again’ and it kept on going like that.
“At the same time I had to do a job during the day. So I enlisted with Manpower and the first job I got was as a petrol pump attendant. Then I got a job screwing nuts and bolts together at a factory in Maidenhead.” In fact most of the band had to get jobs to keep surviving.
Bob: “John recommended me to a friend of his who was playing in a band at The Park Towers Hotel in Knightsbridge and I played with them. I had loads of solo spots y’know we’d play about five sets a night, and I had about three solo spots in each set. If that wasn’t bad enough one night when we were playing our second set, d’y’know who rolled in? Carl Radle and Jim Gordon! They sat right in front of me! I was trying to play as good as I can …
I just shit myself.”
On asking Mr Helliwell for a brief resume of his musical career, his immediate reply was “have you got three more tapes on you?” Indicating that he’s a lad with a bit of experience behind him. I then asked for the shortened version of the John Helliwell story.
“I was with Alan Bown for about six years through all the ups and downs, and then after that when it split up I went and worked for a few strip clubs. No hang on! The first job I got before that was working in a dry cleaning factory during the day and the Celebrity club at night. Then when I sorted out my tax problem, I left the dry cleaning job and the Celebrity Club and went on to play the Twilight Rooms where Doog was working, and then I got my big break… I joined Jimmy Johnson and the Bandwagon! Then I joined up with Arthur Conley and later on with Jimmy Ruffin. Each one was a step up. Then I went to Germany and I came back in August to join this lot. They said they were making the album in September.”
Bob: “That’s what they told me.”
John: “Yeah that’s what they conned me into.”
Bob: “We still haven’t been paid for those sessions”
Doog: “None of us were ever asked to join the group, we came along, stayed and nobody told us to leave.”
SOMETIME DURING this period (late ’73) the band severed their ties with Sam, taking them from the lap of luxury and putting them straight into the cold, hard facts of rock and roll. Especially Rick, who before had limitless time to sort himself out, although he points out: “There was almost too much wasted time, you get to rely on that big money man, there’s no urgency, your life doesn’t depend on it. By the time we left him I thought `wow we could sink like a stone’!”
JOHN: “AFTER the rehearsal studios in the Old Kent Road, we used to rehearse under Kew Bridge. Then we got together with A&M Records who hired a cottage for us in Somerset, we managed to wangle a stay there. So we all went there with girlfriends, wives, kids and cats. We were there for about three months trying to get a producer together.”
One of the choices was Ian MacDonald: “He was just the wrong person, it was as simple as that,” was the conclusion the band came to after MacDonald visited them. Then came Ken Scott, already renowned for his works with Bowie and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to name a few. “We got him to re-mix our single which was called ‘Land Ho!’ and we dug what he was doing. So eventually we signed a contract for recording in february ’74. The birth of Supertramp Mk III!
RICK AND THE HOUSE
RICK: THAT was really bizarre when we had that house; the big house in Holland Villas. This big house, Joe Cocker was in there and there was only supposed to be four people to pay the rent, which was astronomical, so there was 12 of us in the end. There were people in the roof all over the place. I was living in the shower.
Rick: “You should have seen the scene when the landlady came round to collect the rent. I’ve never seen anything like it. She came round about 10 in the morning, and it was like panicsville. The alarm went off, I got up, walked straight out of the door with me pullover on, it was pouring with rain and I just walked round Shepherds Bush. I didn’t have money for breakfast or anything. I ended up bumming a quid off that guy at the Cabin. I expected everyone to be out in the street when I got back. I was surprised, everyone was still there. It was like a farce. People stark naked rushing from room to room as they were showing the landlady around, there were people hiding in the cupboards. They were going to check in the attic and of course there were tents in there!”
The setting for the rehearsal of `Crime’ was a much more peaceful cottage in the country.
Doog: “We had a room in the back with the gear in it and the mixer was set up in the kitchen.”
The band spent three months of solid rehearsals, and then laid down some backing tracks for Jerry Moss (the ‘M’ of A&M) to hear. “Fortunately he liked them,” quipped John, “he must have gone back to America and said let them get on with it.”
I asked John if ‘Crime’ was an expensive album to produce.
“Well with A&M helping us out because we couldn’t work, it worked out that we’d have to sell three quarters of a million copies to break even, so we’ll be getting there soon enough.”
Rick: “It’s nearly there already.”
John: “‘Crisis’ was cheaper, not that much.”
THE FIRST GIGS
THE FIRST time Supertramp played together in their current format was a gig in Jersey for a Lord’s party. A friend of a friend, of a friend, of a friend job. “I got so drunk I couldn’t play”, revealed Bob Benberg, “so I spent the whole of the break sobering up and by that time the rest of the band got so drunk they couldn’t play!”
The first time the band played `Crime Of The Century’ was at an A&M gathering in the Kings Road Theatre. “There were so many things happening backstage you just wouldn’t have believed it,” said John. Rick “We never worked with a full lighting crew so when they went out we couldn’t see a thing. And I remembered on one particular number I had to open a number in complete darkness, I couldn’t see anything so I couldn’t play, which meant the lights wouldn’t go on. We really bluffed through it and hoped for the best.”
Since those first gigs the band have toured Britain, Europe and the USA. It’s only been two years and two months but no one can accuse them of slacking, and they still enjoy playing ‘Crime Of The Century’.
Roger: “I’m enjoying it more this time than I did last time.”
Rick: “I think it’s taken almost this long to get completely on top of it without worrying about little knobs and switches, so in a way you can go out there and relax. There’s only a couple of numbers that worry me technically.
“Once you start getting on top of it, that’s when you have to be careful that you’re not going to become complacent. When you stop thinking ‘is it going to be alright?’ and start thinking ‘this is going to be a piece of piss’ — it’s only on the last gigs that I’ve thought this is nothing, I can do this easy, but you soon get brought down to earth about it all.”
I asked Rick how he felt about the press reaction, second time around.
“I expected a slightly harder time with the album,” he said referring to ‘Crisis?’, “opposite to what I initially thought, I expected it to be good for ‘Crime’ and not for this one. But the press are funny, there’s only a few people that you’ve got confidence in as far as what they think and sooner or later they blow it for you by saying something completely silly”.
`Crisis?’ features a lot of old material (never recorded before), indicating that the band have slowed down writing wise, which is hardly surprising when you consider how hard they’ve been working.
“There hasn’t been a great spate of writing,” agreed Rick, “certainly not from me, I think Rog has done a bit more.”
Doog: “It seems easier for Rog as he only needs a guitar, while Rick needs to be locked away somewhere with a piano.”
Rick:” “We need a break, where we can get fresh ideas.”
Doog: “We never stopped, and it will have been two years solid work by the time we do stop. The important thing is that the music stays good. If it needs stop- and thinking about then that’s what’s going to happen!”
Supertramp are here to stay.
Lyrics taken from ‘If Everyone Was Listening’ on ‘Crime Of The Century’ published by Delicate / Rondor Music.