Anyone within range of an FM radio in the 1970’s has heard a lot from the band Supertramp. The group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history. Last year they released the stunning video Live in Paris ’79 – one of the best-filmed concerts from any rock band of the era, coming to the market 34 years after the event.
Supertramp’s radio-friendly sound was a mix of progressive and pop – incorporating elements of rock, blues, jazz, and lots of honky-tonk piano, they balanced light and dark compositions to an exquisite blend. Joined by the accomplished John Helliwell on winds, Dougie Thomson on bass and steady drummer Bob Seibenberg, their core work from Crime of the Century (1974) to Famous Last Words (1982) brought the band increasing success.
Rick and Roger added different skills to the group – Rick a tougher edge – more cynical lyrics backed by a mean honky-tonk piano or roadhouse blues as tight as Elton John. Roger more frequently displayed a gentle, spiritual personality, imploring listeners to open their minds and hearts. His vocals and accompaniment on 12 string acoustic and electric guitars as well as keyboards are stellar. The two composers, when they collaborated, when trading off ideas, alternating vocals – at times even speaking to each other within a song, created a sum that was bigger than the parts, even when they seemed to be coming from different walks of life. Witness lyrics from the bluesy ballad “Just a Normal Day,” from their under-appreciated masterpiece Crisis? What Crisis? (1975):
Rick: Well, I just feel, that every minute’s wasted,
My life is unreal….
Roger: …I don’t know what to say;
It just seems a normal day
By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) they were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Roger’s “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Roger on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Rick on grand piano. Among other tracks, Rick wrote one of his prettiest ballads, “Casual Conversations” sporting the lyrics:
There’s no communication left between us
But is it me or you who’s to blame?
Though the details are debated, it’s clear that Rick and Roger’s union was fracturing before and during this period. Nonetheless, they mounted a huge international tour to support Breakfast in America – breaking attendance records at the time – and they released their first live album Paris (1980) taken from the shows at the Pavilion de Paris, 1979.
Thirty four years after the show, a film of the third night in Paris has been released on video – a digitally restored, brightly lit, 16mm 4 camera shot film with crisp audio that captures nearly the complete set. Here it’s possible to see split screen shots of Rick at the piano with Roger at guitar or keys along with close up shots of all the band members in their prime. The DVD should be a revelation for any fan that missed these tours, and a fond reminder for anyone lucky enough to have attended. Highlights include the opener “School” as the audience cheer to the first sound of Rick’s harmonica. The companion piece “Bloody Well Right” establishes their rocking credentials, while “Even in the Quietest Moments” calms the spirit. The centerpiece for this viewer is the one-two punch of Rick’s brilliant vocal and piano work on “Another Man’s Woman” which then leads into Roger’s “Child of Vision.” In the latter, the two play their dual keyboards in harmonic perfection.
After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. Since that time, Rick has written and recorded a handful of albums with the band, but it’s impossible not to despair at Roger’s absence. Roger has done a bit of solo work, and recently at long last began playing songs he wrote for the group in concert. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but the newly minted concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.