Recently I wrote glowingly about one of my favorite bands, Supertramp and their recently recovered film of the Breakfast in America tour. Last year they released that 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. It’s about to be re-released along with a CD set of the complete unedited concert. This group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Both founders planned tours this year, an exciting development for fans of their work.
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. 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.
After a long absence from the stage, ending around 2005, Roger has been taking the songs he wrote for Supertramp out on the road, staging a continuing series of exceptional concerts, as a duo or with band, his voice and skills as a musician undiminished by time. It’s been more difficult to catch Davies, as travelling under the moniker of Supertramp has been a rarity, particularly in the states. In fact, this year Supertramp booked a series of concerts across Europe, 5 years since they were last seen live there. Unfortunately, just this week, the “Supertramp Forever” tour has been cancelled, citing health issues impacting Davies, who was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma and is fighting the disease. Davies issued this statement:
“I was really looking forward to returning to Europe and playing with the band again and I’m sorry to disappoint everyone who has overwhelmingly supported the upcoming tour. Unfortunately my current health issues have derailed me and right now I need to focus all of my energy on getting well.”
Sad news to be sure, and fans immediately took to the blogosphere to wish Rick well in his recovery. Without these shows we will also miss seeing the accomplished John Helliwell on winds and the rest of the remaining band. Most importantly, as the principal writers hew to their own songs in current shows, we will miss hearing many of Rick’s most enduring compositions, such as “Bloody Well Right”, “Asylum” and “Downstream” to name a few, along with his amazing skills as a pianist most impressively displayed on “Another Man’s Woman”.
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 every bit 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) Supertramp 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 a fractured affair. 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. This is the album and now accompanying video that will be re-released this year. The centerpiece of this concert 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, reminding all viewers that though the union was difficult, great art was created during their time together. After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. The only way to catch these artists since that time has been to see one of them separately. To see Rick Davies, fans will obviously have to wait until a recovery is complete, provided he returns to the stage thereafter. If Roger comes to town, or nearby, consider going out of your way a bit even if you must travel to a concert, as his shows are highly recommended. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but for now the newly minted Paris concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.