Supertramp: Crime of the Century (1974)

The English band Supertramp released three classic album: Crime of the Century, Even in the Quietest Moments and Breakfast in America.  It was on Crime of the Century that the group emerged from their somewhat generic folk/rock style to progressive-rock brilliance.  This album is pure classic.

FM radio embraced the songs “Dreamer” (Billboard #15), “Bloody Well Right” (Billboard #35) and “School”, which are still staples of classic radio.   Surprisingly, it took this album several years to sell enough copies to reach Gold status.  It took five years, and several changes in membership, for the band to become the solid group of musicians and develop the style they display on this album.  The difference between their first album in 1969 and Crime of the Century  is like Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and the New York Yankees.  The obvious difference is the growth in songwriting by main writers Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson. When I saw this group in 1979, their set still consisted of an ample selection of Crime of the Century.

In 1973, new members Dougie Thomson (bass), Bob Siebenberg (drums and percussion) and John Helliwell (saxophone, other woodwinds, occasional keyboards, backing vocals) joined the band.  Along with Davies (keyboards, lead vocals) and Hodgson (guitar, keyboards, lead vocals), this is the classic lineup.  Ken Scott began as their producer on Crime of the Century, and then handed over the production chores to the band and Pete Henderson for next several albums.  Scott (Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Jeff Beck) helped to define their sound and set the template for the sound mix of their recordings. Beginning with Crime of the Century, their records had a warmth and depth, that allowed space between their instruments, especially with the stacking of tracks on each song.  Ken Scott helped them get to the big leagues.

As skilled as they were musically, their real influence was in their socially-focused and historically significant lyrics.  Davies and Hodgson wrote from their English perspective, of youthful alienation and institutions that were out of touch with building successful future contributors to society.  As Genesis, Pink Floyd and other bands wrote, the sun was setting on the English empire and there were large cracks in traditional English culture.  Through those cracks, youth were climbing through and saw something different ahead.  Take a look at some of their lyrics below.  Roger Waters wasn’t the only one writing deeply reflective and mature songs.

Rolling Stone ranked this album as number 27 on the list of the 50 great progressive rock albums of all time. Breakfast in America  (1979) is their supreme achievement, a megaton commercial success, but it’s always left me a little cold and impersonal.  I’ve already blogged about Even in the Quietest Moments (search for it on my blog), it’s a tremendous effort, mature and delicately crafted.  Crime of the Century was a surprise, such a huge leap forward, and it still sounds terrific, 46 years later. Commercial success spoils the artist and it would with Supertramp too, later on.  With Crime of the Century, Supertramp had both guns blazing and performed without a net.  Sample a few songs below, you won’t be sorry.

You’ll notice only eight songs, but most are five minutes or longer, typical for Supertramp, and progressive-rock bands.  Richard Hewson (James Taylor, Dianna Ross, Art Garfunkel)

Side one

“School”   Hodgson and Davies   5:35  This song would easily been written by Pink Floyd.  Really a suite of connected ideas, it is one of their most creative musical compositions. This is not a three minute verse, verse, chorus, verse and chorus song. There is something seriously brilliant going on here.

I can see you in the morning when you go to school
Don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule
Teacher tells you stop your play and get on with your work
And be like Johnnie-too-good, well don’t you know he never shirks
He’s coming along
After school is over you’re playing in the park
Don’t be out too late, don’t let it get too dark
They tell you not to hang around and learn what life’s about
And grow up just like them, won’t you let it work it out
And you’re full of doubt Don’t do this and don’t do that
What are they trying to do?
Make a good boy of you

“Bloody Well Right”  Davies   4:32  A jazzy electric piano intro, before the the rest of the band join in, and some great electric guitar work emerges.  Again, there’s a similar style to Pink Floyd.  These British boys were onto something.

So you think your schooling’s phony
I guess it’s hard not to agree
You say it all depends on money
And who is in your family tree
Write your problems down in detail
Take them to a higher place
You’ve had your cry, no, I should say wail
In the meantime hush your face
Right (quite right) you’re bloody well right

“Hide in Your Shell”    Hodgson    6:49  Beautiful lyrics, listen carefully.  A gentle song that stretches out musically and supports, but doesn’t crowd the lyrics.

Hide in your shell
‘Cause the world is out to bleed you for a ride
What will you gain making your life a little longer?
Heaven or Hell
Was the journey cold that gave you eyes of steel?
Shelter behind painting your mind and playing joker
Too frightening to listen to a stranger
Too beautiful to put your pride in danger
You’re waiting for someone to understand you
But you’ve got demons in your closet
And you’re screaming out to stop it
Saying life’s begun to cheat you
Friends are out to beat you
Grab on to what you scramble for
Don’t let the tears linger on inside now
‘Cause it’s sure time you gained control
If I can help you, if I can help you
If I can help you, just let me know

“Asylum”  Davies and Hodgson   6:45  This song is quite a musical adventure, it tells an expansive story in various musical forms and images.

Jimmy Cream was keen, his brain wal always winnin’
I can’t keep tabs on mine, it’s really quite a joke
I see him down the road, I ask if he’d be willing
To lend me 15p – I’m dying for a smoke
Don’t arrange to have me sent to no asylum
I’m just as sane as anyone
It’s a just a game I play for fun – for fun.
I told em – look! – I said I’m not the way you’re thinkin,
Just when I’m down, I’ll be a clown, I’ll play the fool.
Please don’t arrange to have me set to no asylum
I’m just sane as anyone.
It’s just a game I play for fun – for fun.

Side two

“Dreamer”    Hodgson and Davies    3:31  The most popular song from the album.  A pop delight.  An infectious, bouncy piano riff starts the song and powers it through a fanciful journey.

“Rudy”   Davies and Hodgson    7:17  Maybe the most underrated song on the album.  Another beautiful piano intro sets the song in motion, this gentle ballad will become a powerful instrumentally fueled anthem before it is finished.  Supertramp sings of alienation, in a far different manner than punk rock would in just a couple of years.

Rudy’s on a train to nowhere, halfway down the line
He don’t wanna get there, but he needs time
He ain’t sophisticated, nor well-educated
After all the hours he wasted, still he needs time.
He needs time – he needs time for livin’,
He needs time – for someone just to see him.
He ain’t had no lovin’
For no reason or rhyme
And the whole world’s above him.
Well it’s not as though he’s fat-
No there’s more to this than that-
See he tries to play it cool-
Wouldn’t be nobodys fool.
Rudy thought that all good things comes to those that wait
But recently he could see that it may come but too late (too late, too late).
All through your life, all through the years
Nobody loved, nobody cared.
So dim the light, dark are your fears
Try as I might, I can’t hold back the tears
How can you live without love, it’s not fair?
Someone said give but I just didn’t dare (didn’t dare, didn’t dare).
What good advice are you waiting to hear?
Hearing’s alright for them that’s all there, hearing’s alright

“If Everyone Was Listening”    Hodgson   4:04  A melancholy tinged song about what we miss, when it might be right in front of us.  A beautiful musical score with soft horns and strings to accompany the piano.

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
How long ago, how long
If only we had listened then.
If we’d known just how right we were going to be.
For we dreamed a lot And we schemed a lot
And we tried to sing of love before the stage fell apart.

“Crime of the Century”   Davies    5:36  A song packed with emotion, dripping in every note. A terribly underrated song, bold, grand, sad, and churning.  You feel like something is ending and it’s burning in your gut, as the piano riff is joined by soaring strings and a wailing saxophone, as it all drifts over the trees to disappear into the distance.  Musically, it does not get any better than this.

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