When Art Rockers Perfected Radio Pop

Supertramp’s Breakfast in America turns 40

Supertramp Breakfast in America, A&M 1979

Four decades ago a bunch of beardy Brits who looked more like adjunct English professors than rock stars, and made the Bee Gees sound like P-Funk, had the biggest album on the planet. On Breakfast in America, Supertramp sanded down the quirkiest edges of their art rock sensibilities and pumped up the pure pop instincts that had always been lurking in the background. They were rewarded with blockbuster success.

Supertramp released five albums before Breakfast in America, charting a course midway between prog and pop, with singer/songwriters Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies doing their best to imagine what a ’70s Beatles would sound like. They’d only just gotten their first taste of U.S. success with the fifth record, 1977’s Even in the Quietest Moments, which yielded Top 40 hit “Give a Little Bit” and earned Gold status. But even that record got a bit baroque at points.

By the time the band started cutting Breakfast the following year, they were ready to put the artiness aside for a moment and have some fun. Long before “Give a Little Bit,” in fact even before starting Supertramp, Hodgson had shown himself capable of writing immaculately crafted pop hooks. In 1969 he released the single “Mr. Boyd” under the faux band name Argosy. The 45, which featured piano by young session cat Elton John, went nowhere, but it’s as infectious a piece of orchestral Brit pop as you’ll hear. Those pop chops occasionally surfaced on Supertramp’s early albums, but Hodgson gave them free rein for Breakfast, and Davies followed suit.

 

 

“The Logical Song” was most people’s introduction to the album, not to mention many listeners’ first taste of Supertramp. Powered by the straight-eighths electric piano that was the band’s signature, Hodgson unspools the ultimate iconoclast’s anthem, railing against the world’s insistence upon caging the imagination with rigid rationality. But between Hodgson’s hide-the-helium vocals, John Helliwell’s sharp-shooting sax solo, and a loosey-goosey outro where the two trade bursts of unhinged giddiness, the track maintains a lightness that helped lift it into the Top 10.

That sense of humor came even more to the fore on the album’s title track, which became the record’s second single. Hodgson has said that he actually wrote the song about a decade earlier, before he’d ever even been to America. That makes perfect sense as you hear him describe a wryly idealized vision of the U.S., atop a loping beat and oompah horns, punctuated by a refrain of nonsense syllables. It all adds up to a rather quirky musical cocktail that didn’t fare too well on the charts but nevertheless became ubiquitous on rock radio, and remains a classic-rock staple to this day.

 

 

Davies got his licks in with the album’s next single, “Goodbye Stranger,” a kiss-off song that feels more American than any of Hodgson’s contributions — it’s easy to imagine it on a contemporaneous LP by Boz Scaggs or Toto. From the nursery rhyme cadence of the chorus to Hodgson’s lyrical wah-wah guitar solo, it’s hard to imagine this not being a hit on ’70s American radio. And indeed the tune duly made its way to No. 15.

 

 

In contrast to its predecessors, the album’s fourth single, “Take the Long Way Home,” is downright dramatic. With the pounding piano and keening harmonica of the song’s scene-setting intro, we could be preparing to venture into Bruce Springsteen territory. And in fact, Hodgson’s account of a man straining against the bonds of domesticity and midlife crisis wouldn’t have sounded at all anomalous on, say, The River, except for when the post-Beatles vocal harmonies start ascending into the stratosphere towards the end. For their troubles, Supertramp earned their second Top 10 hit.

 

 

Of course, Breakfast in America is about more than just the chartbusters. “Gone Hollywood” is an outsider’s view of L.A. that only a bunch of Brits could deliver. “Oh Darling” is the album’s only real love song, with Davies making the most of the gruffly soulful side of his singing. “Lord Is It Mine” is a world-weary piano ballad with Hodgson’s tearstained tenor packing just the right amount of pathos. And the richly atmospheric, seven and-a-half-minute album-closer, “Child of Vision,” is the closest cousin to Supertramp’s art-rock epics of yore.

Ironically, the band was beginning to come apart just as it was reaching its peak. Hodgson and Davies had always had a bit of an oil-and-water dynamic, and their personal and artistic differences were becoming increasingly exacerbated. Hodgson subsequently stated that he felt Davies started giving up on the band around this time, ceding the spotlight to his bandmate.

The partnership only lasted for one more album, 1982’s Famous Last Words, before Hodgson flew the coop and the bloody-minded Davies soldiered on without him in a who-are-we-kidding version of Supertramp for several years. But the band closed out the ’70s on top of the world, awash in Grammys, hit singles, Platinum certifications, and adulation. And in that rarest of circumstances for any pop smash, Breakfast in America‘s artistic achievements actually equaled its marketplace might.

 

 

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