“SUPERTRAMP: THE STORY SO FAR”
By ROBIN PLOTTS
Posted on “DISCOVERIES”
"I made a bet with Rick, when I had just heard the backing tracks. I bet him a hundred bucks that it would go top 15, I think. And that's a bet that I won. But you don't really know that it's going to have the impact that it had. We'd had records that made the top 25 or something. But you just go in and do the work and you have no idea what's gonna happen. We had no idea that it was going to turn into the success that it was." - Bob Siebenberg on Breakfast in America
If having your song in a Gap commericial is a measure of hipness, then Supertramp are hip. Official. The fact that the Gap chose "Give a little bit" as the theme for a recent ad campaign was a clear sign that, as unlikely as it might have seemed to some, there was something of a Supertramp revival in the works.
This summer, the German band Scooter scored a big hit with a chipmunk-voiced remake of one of Supertramp's biggest hits, "The logical song", remaking the tune for a new generation of clubbers. Before that, there was "Magnolia" soundtrack, in which "Goodbye stranger" and the original "The logical song", rubbed shoulders with Aimee Mann's stellar work.
Before that, No Doubt borrowed the intro vamp from "Breakfast in America" as the lead-in to their mega-hit "Don't speak". Then, in 2002, came a new album from Supertramp themselves, "Slow motion", released in March in Britain and Europe. Bringing it all full circle, A&M have just reissued the band's original albums as remastered CDs.
Pretty much everybody knows at least one Supertramp song – the above-mentioned titles or "Dreamer", "Take the long way home" or "Bloody well right"… But most folks know little or nothing about the group. So who are these guys anyway? Well…
Supertramp came together at the end of the 60s, when singer/keyboardist Rick Davies met singer/bassist Roger Hodgson. Hodgson had previously cut a single, "Mr. Boyd", with a studio group called Argosy, whose keyboard player was one Reg Dwight (AKA as if I need to say it, Elton John).
Backed by a Dutch millionaire, Davies and Hodgson formed the first Supertramp line-up, signed with A&M and released a self-titled album. That first record, released in 1970, featured Hodgson on lead vocals and, although patchy, has some gorgeous moments that hinted at what was to come. Sales were dismal and, by the time of 1970's "Indelibly stamped", only Davies and Hodgson remained from Supertramp Mark I.
"Indelibly stamped" was a definite move forward, with Davies taking the mike on some of his own songs, setting up the contrast between his down-to-earth bluesy style and the wistful, melodic, spiritual-seeker approach of Hodgson (who had recently switched from bass to guitar). Still, the formula wasn't quite right and the band pretty much disintegrated in the face of record company ambivalence and the withdrawal of support from their millionaire backer.
Somebody, probably newly recruited bassman Dougie Thomson, suggested they ought to give it just one more try. After all, they had plenty of talent, and a few decent not-yet-recorded tunes kicking around – "Dreamer" and "Rudy" amongst them. With Thomson and two other new members, reedman John Helliwell and drummer Bob C. Benberg, Supertramp reconvened. And that is where the real story begins.
Bob C. Benberg, who now goes by his real surname, Siebenberg, joined up in 1973. When Siebenberg joined, Supertramp's live shows were not the polished, sophisticated affairs they later became famous for. In those days, Siebenberg recalls, Supertramp gigs were fairly unsophisticated, before the “Crime of the century” stuff.
“We'd go along to colleges, clubs and pubs and play. And it was really just to get people boppin'. There was no show aspect to it. The shows largely consisted of tunes that you can dance to, kind of rocky ones. The shows were real primitive. We'd just show up and do our two sets and split."
In those transitional days between "Indelibly stamped" and "Crime of the century", the group's repertoire featured a number of songs that were never released. And one that went by a different name. "Cheatin' man" is actually "Another man's woman" notes Siebenberg.
"To this day, we still call it ‘Cheatin' man’. ‘Pony Express’ is a Rick Song – just kind of a straight-ahead rocker. ‘Mexico’ was almost recorded for this new album – it's a really cool song. It'll probably surface somewhere along the line. ‘Hey Laura’ was the first demo I ever played on with Rick and Roger. That's a little tune about Dougie's daughter, who had just been born."
The first release from the new, improved group was a single, pairing two songs that never made it onto an album, Hodgson's “Land Ho” and Davie’s “Summer Romance”.
"‘Land Ho’ was recorded at least six months before we did the Crime stuff", Siebenberg recalls. "That was before we had really met ‘Crime’ producer Ken Scott. And we had already recorded ‘Land Ho’ and mixed it. At first, Ken Scott wasn't interested in producing us. And the record company thought maybe a way to get the relationship going would be for him to go in and remix "Land Ho." So we went into the studio with Ken to remix and then we did a showcase for him, in some studio in London and actually played live for him. And that's what kind of tipped him over. He saw that we could all really play, and decided that he would get involved in the project."
When "Crime of the century" arrived, it was a huge breakthrough for Supertramp, both artistically and commercially. Although not a concept album the record was superbly constructed, a seamless suite of songs, sophisticated but packed with emotion. As far as progressive goes, "Crime of the century" was as good as it ever got. In a single disc, Davies, Hodgson and company packed in more compelling social commentary and saic more about alienation that Pink Floyd managed on the two records of “The Wall”. Supertramp made it look simple, but it wasn't easy as it seemed.
"There was a lot of trial and error and experimentation in the studio," says Siebenberg. "And what people forget is that this is really way before you had synthesisers where you could just dial up a new snare drum sound or dial up some weird sound. You had to really create all these sounds in the studio – with tape effects and slowing down the machine and putting your finger on the capstan – to do things. We had some pretty zany moments trying to get things done. We brought in a guy who played a saw! There's a high melody over the chorus at the end of ‘Hide in your shell’ which is a guy sitting in the studio playing a saw. You had to create these sounds. There was a lot of experimentation, and it took us quite a while to make that record. It took four or five months which, back then, was long time."
The next album, "Crisis? What Crisis?” was recorded in Los Angeles, and was a somewhat more laid-back affair. "I think you kind of respond to the atmosphere that you're working in a little bit," says Siebenberg. "A lot of those tracks were recorded in America, but most of the overdubs were done back in England."
After “Crisis”, Supertramp packed and relocated to America, forsaking dreary London for sunny Los Angeles. For the four Brits, it was a welcome change, but for the American drummer, it was a bit of a step back.
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles and had finally escaped and gone to London," says Siebenberg. "I was in London for about seven years. The English guys really liked the weather and the freedom of it. You couldn't blame them really. Roger, who's this spiritual guy, just got his head blown by the possibilities of California. Everybody liked the idea that, when you had a day off, it was guaranteed to be sunny. And it was partly because our record company was there. And we were pretty determined to make it in America. And we thought that if we planted ourselves in Los Angeles and became part of the culture a little bit, we could concentrate on being in America and touring."
The band took their time crafting the next album, 1977's "Even in the Quietest Moments", and were rewarded with a hit single, the 12-string-laden "Give a little bit" fronted by Hodgson at his pure-pop best.
Two more years followed before the band's real commercial breakthrough came, on 1979's "Breakfast in America", which included the chart smashes "The logical song", "Goodbye stranger" and "Take the long way home" in its line-up. It remains the favourite Supertramp album of many fans. It is certainly the most polished but, hits aside, lacks the consistency of "Crime of the century."
Although the group had no idea just how successful "Breakfast in America" would become, Siebenberg had an inkling. "I made a bet with Rick," he says, "when I had just heard the backing tracks I bet him a hundred bucks that it would go top 15, I think. And that's a bet that I won. But you don't really know that it's going to have the impact that it had. We'd had records that had made the top 25 and you have no idea that's gonna happen. We had no idea that it was going to turn into the success that it was."
Despite their newfound success, all was not well within Supertramp. Hodgson, the voice of many Supertramp hits, was disenchanted with the band and planning his escape. Sessions for the next record, "Famous last words"" were marred by growing tension between him and Davies.
"That was a difficult project to complete," Siebenberg recalls. "Rick and Roger were really growing apart, and there were wars over where we were going to make the record. Roger didn't want to come to Los Angeles and Rick didn't really want to go up into the mountains where Roger lived. Myself and John and Dougie, we didn't care. We just wanted to get on with it and make the record. We travelled back and forth and ended up doing most of it at Roger's place, just to keep the peace."
Hodgson did one last world tour with the band in 1983, documented on the DVD "The story so far". "We did the tour with Roger and that was kind of sad," says Siebenberg. "because he would announce that it was his last tour. And of course everybody was unhappy about that."
Over the next few years, Supertramp released two albums without Hodgson, "Brother where you bound" and "Free as a bird". "We were kind of determined to get back on our feet and feel as if we could do this quite well without having Roger in the band," Siebenberg says. Some of the material on the post-Hodgson albums actually dates back to the period when he was in the band.
The song "Brother where you bound" was supposed to have been on “Famous last words," says Siebenberg. "The albums were always kind of designed, where Rick and Roger would sit together and go through their stuff. And if there was a gap where one of them didn't have the appropriate tune for that slot, then they would write and try and come up with something that was appropriate. And we were right down to the nuts and bolts of it and Roger decided he was going to yank this one tune. He knew he was leaving and I think he wanted it for his solo album. So he yanked it and Rick yanked something and Roger yanked something else. And "Brother" and "Ever open door" went. A couple of things that ended up on the next Supertramp album should have been on "Famous last words." And there were several on Roger's first solo record that were supposed to have been on "Famous last words."
Hodgson unleashed his banked songs on his first solo album, "In the eye of the storm" which spawned the hit single "Had a dream." After a second LP, "Hai Hai" including a remake of "Land Ho", Hodgson dropped off the radar for a decade or so, returning recently with a live album and an all-new studio CD, "Open the door." The latter proves that, despite his reluctance to reteam with Supertramp, Hodgson still possesses the talents that pushed Supertramp up the charts in the 70s.
Supertramp have remained a going concern, the Davies-fronted group scored a hit several years back with "You win I lose" proof that, like Hodgson, Rick Davies could still deliver the goods. And there are no signs that an end is imminent for the Tramp. Although the new CD "Slow motion" is not being released to stores in the US, it can be purchased through the Supertramp website. And if any fans are leery about new Supertramp material, consider that at least one song on "Slow motion" dates back to the early 70s.
"One song on the new record, ‘Goldrush’, is a song that we used to play in the same set with ‘Pony Express’ reveals Siebenberg. "Every time we went in to do an album, we recorded it, but it never made it on."
I could ramble on about how Roger Hodgson is a criminally-underrated guitarist (have you listened to that solo at the end of "Goodbye stranger"?) or the fact that just because their live shows were uber-polished doesn't mean they were bloodless. But I won't. I'll just casually suggest sneaking into your local record store and acquiring a copy of "Crime of the century" or "Breakfast in America" or a greatest hits CD. If the hipster clerk shoots you a suspicious look just say it's "that band from the Gap commmercial, y'know? And from the "Magnolia" soundtrack? The one that the guy from No Doubt was into? Oh, man, get with it!"