Supertramp is a group that remains crouched within the magma of rock history. Their success was huge, with millionaire sales of records and massive concerts, even in the years when they did not ship so many albums. However, they are not considered for a place of honor at the encyclopedic level and the specialized press avoids attributing to them the transcendence of contemporaries such as Genesis, Yes, King Crimson or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Supertramp is the epitome of guilty pleasure, that which is enjoyed in privacy and embarrassing to express in public. All this seems to exude a certain injustice. The album Breakfast In America (1979) was his great success, a compendium of optimistic and precious songs that were created in an atmosphere of tension that turned into discord during his most triumphant tour. "That tour was harmful to our internal relationships as a band and also as people. At the end of the tour we only shared the two hours we were together on stage, "says Dougie Thomson, bassist of the group's classic lineup.
You just have to tune in today to one of the hundreds of classic rock stations so that half an hour does not pass without one of their songs playing. It can be Give A Little Bit, The Logical Song, School, Dreamer, It's Raining Again or a handful more. Abel Fuentes (Madrid, 53 years old) is one of the greatest experts on the British band. "I can't remember a day in my life that I didn't listen to them," he says. Fuentes has written a documented history of the group, Huellas de vagabundo (Uno Editorial), a prodigious 750-page volume in which he speaks to about 90 people. Everyone who has had anything to do with the group has an opinion in the book. "Many critics and musicians praised the three progressive albums they recorded in the mid-seventies (Crime of the Century (1974), Crisis? What Crisis? —1975— and Even in the Quietest Moments —1977—), but since Breakfast in America swept, those same ones accused them of becoming a pop band that only sought success. In addition to that, the fact that they moved their residence to the United States and that they were a discreet and almost anonymous group, away from the usual scandals in the rock stars of the time, also served so that in their country of origin, England, the media forgot about them completely. "
The British group in Paris, receiving the gold record for 'Breakfast In America', on November 28, 1979. Jean-Louis URLI (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Supertramp proposes a challenge that breaks with rock clichés. It is a group without an identifiable face, some guys who acted as anti-stars and moved away from the rogue profile that the rest distilled. We are talking about the seventies, when bandarras behaviors were established in the bands. "We weren't pop stars with bad habits and looking for publicity. The journalists who followed us were looking for scandals, but we always disappointed them. They could only write about our music," Bob Siebenberg, the group's drummer, says today. The history of the British is distinctive from the beginning, because if we are talking about them today it is thanks to the money contributed by a Dutch patron named Stanley August Miesegaes. This billionaire fell in love with the music of Rick Davies and financed the group during the worst moments, the beginnings. Sam, as he was called, turned off the tap in 1972 with two albums released (Supertramp, 1970, and Indelibly Stamped, 1971), the least relevant of the career of the British. The group hit rock bottom when Sam left. They had released two underselling albums and the money had gone with their patron. They were broke.
This well was paradoxically an incentive for talent to emerge. The driving forces in the band, Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, concentrated on songwriting and magic began to emerge. Crime Of The Century was the key album, for many the best. "It contained pieces that were both simple and sophisticated: a breath of fresh air against the symphonic baroque prevailing at the time. As for its production, it turned out to be so crystal clear that five decades later it is still often used to test all kinds of sound equipment," explains the group's biographer.
Cover of 'Breakfast in America' (1979).
Neither Davies nor Hodgson were eager to express their leadership in the concerts: they each acted at one end and let the funny John Helliwell, responsible for the sax sound so identical in the band's style, act as master of ceremonies. Inside, however, knives flew. "They were two absolutely different, antagonistic personalities," says Thomson, the bassist. Davies, pragmatic, realistic, cynical, working class and carnivore; Hodgson, spiritual, idealistic, romantic, bourgeoisand vegetarian. Although they signed together for an old Lennon/McCartney agreement, each composed separately: Davies' songs emerged from a rhythm & blues influence; Hodgson's were pop, commercial, distinguishable by a high-pitched tone of voice. Both sang and played the piano (Hodgson also played the guitar).
And a hurricane hit: Breakfast In America. No album sounded as much in the world in 1979 as this work, only matched by The Wall, by Pink Floyd, and Off The Wall, by Michael Jackson. Spain welcomed him eagerly: at school some teachers taught English with The Logical Song or Goodbye Stranger. Some critics, however, remarked, in the negative, the commercial nature of the album. "We had decided to record songs that were simple and could have commercial hook. The pop side had always been part of Supertramp, but perhaps it remained hidden by the comparisons that experts made between groups like Genesis and Pink Floyd and us. Sometimes we joked that if we needed to be commercial, it wouldn't be too difficult for us," explains Rick Davies in Tramp Tracks. All the optimism provided by his listening contrasted with the bad atmosphere that was experienced in the recording studio.
John A. Helliwell in October 1979, during the 'Breakfast in America' tour. Rob Verhorst (Redferns)
Davies opposed the inclusion of Hodgson's Lord Is It Mine, because of its "spiritual character". But he lost the battle. Hodgson had radicalized his way of life: he only spoke of the soul, of practicing yoga, of communes. The rest of the group was irritated by this attitude. "The causes of the breakdown of the classic Supertramp formation were Roger's spirituality and self-centeredness. He never appreciated the contributions of Bob, Dougie and mine," saxophonist John Helliwell tells this newspaper today. Davies wrote Casual Conversations as a critique of Hodgson. "He talks about Roger and I trying to communicate without success. We had a lot of disagreements." Hodgson responded with Child of Vision: "I wrote that song as a critique of the materialistic American way of life, but it was really aimed at Rick. We were completely different. It was becoming difficult to work together," Hodgson says in the book. The tour was an overwhelming success, but the cracks widened as the crowd left the stadiums.
While the group traveled by plane, Hodgson did so in a caravan with his partner. Even Rick forbade smoking weed in his presence, in clear attack on Hodgson. The latter tells in Traces of a Tramp that "something died in the group" when the Breakfast In America tour ended. "I had the impression that Supertramp was disintegrating. In those massive concerts I felt like a kind of actor doing the same performance night after night. We had become slaves to a large production," he adds.
They released a live album (the very successful Paris, in 1980), another in studio (... Famous Last Words..., in1982) and the ensuing tour, but Hodgson had already communicated his intention to leave the band. He did so in 1983. For many there Supertramp ended, although the band, led by Rick Davies, continued to perform and edit albums, not as appreciated as their works of the seventies. In that break there was a verbal pact: Hodgson gave up the name of the group without presenting a legal battle in exchange for Davies' Supertramp not performing their songs. That meant dispensing with the most commercial and beloved songs by the audience: School, Breakfast In America, The Logical Song or Give a Little Bit. Hodgson would play them solo and Supertramp would focus on Davies. The arrangement lasted a few years, until Davies got fed up with the public asking him at concerts for Hodgson's songs.
Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, at the Olympic Studios in London in the mid-seventies. Fin Costello (Redferns)
This is how Hodgson tells the feeling of listening to his songs one day when he attended a concert as an audience: "I was sunk. I got nauseous. Even my son Andrew, who was next to me, started crying. I couldn't comprehend how Rick used all those songs of mine when he had so many good songs." Over the last few decades the Supertramp of Davies and Roger Hodgson have been crossing paths separately and have sometimes played in the same city within days of each other. There have been up to three attempts to reform the classic band with the two of them back together, but at the last moment frictions have arisen and become frustrated. Abel Fuentes, author of the book, finds here some responsible: "The deplorable management carried out by the manager of Supertramp, which since 1983 is in charge of the wife of Rick Davies. At no time has he worried about keeping the name of the band alive and, while other mythical groups of the seventies have released all kinds of old recordings despite being inactive, in the case of Supertramp that material is conspicuous by its absence. "
In 2005 Dougie Thomson (drums), Bob Siebenberg (bass) and John Helliwell (sax) took Daviesto court to control the rights to exploit the group's catalogue from 1974 to 1983. They won it. After disputes in the courts and in a move that can only be described as bizarre, Davies called Siebenberg and Helliwell years later and they went on tour as Supertramp. Hodgson has continued on his own to release albums and tour. Asked by this newspaper if he thinks the classic Supertramps will ever come together again, Dougie Thomson replies: "I don't think so. The first 10 years were really great, but I think too many negative things happened afterwards that make it very difficult to go back. Better to keep the memories of the good times."
Today, the two leaders are retreating from large audiences. Roger Hodgson (Portsmouth, England, 73 years old) canceled his tour due to the pandemic in 2020 and has not returned to the stage. Rick Davies (Swindon, England, 78 years old) was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, recovered and performs in a bar on Long Island (New York), where he lives, two or three times a year. He plays old blues and some Supertramp songs. This time, he dispenses with those of his friend / enemy Hodgson, the one with whom he assembled a band whose songs have never stopped being heard.