Thursday, October 25, 2018

Homecoming: Take The Long Way Home

Supertramp: Take The Long Way Home

What exactly was Supertramp, anyway? They started out as a prog band financed by a modern day Medici, Dutch millionaire Stanley August “Sam” Miesegaes, but only became successful when they lost their patron and, over the course of a few albums, gradually tempered their proggier influences with radio-friendly pop, only to lose a key member at the height of their long-sought popularity and drift into obscurity and irrelevance. In addition to the tension between longer, complex songs and catchy pop tunes, the band also had to deal with the fact that its two main songwriters, Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, had different personalities and different musical styles—one harder and jazzier and the other more folky and melodic—which ultimately led to the breakup. (If you are dying to know who wrote which Supertramp song, because most of the songs were credited to both Davies and Hodgson, look here.)

I became aware of Supertramp with their 1977 album, Even in the Quietest Moments… an album that, to my mind, is their most successful balancing of the various influences. It had a hit single, “Give a Little Bit,” but it also had an excellent ten and half minute song, “Fool’s Overture.”

My college radio career began during the early part of 1979, and in March of that year, Supertramp released Breakfast in America. It was, for the most part, a swing toward the pop side of their personality, and it was a huge hit—reaching number 1 on the Billboard pop album chart, and containing four hit singles, and a couple of other songs that might have been contenders. I remember playing it, but having the sense that Supertramp was really moving away from the kind of music that we were playing on the station in those days (and we still played a pretty good amount of prog rock). Although I think that we were less doctrinaire about shunning hits than many other college stations of the time, there definitely was the sense that Breakfast in America was maybe just too commercial. I did continue to play my favorites from Quietest Moments and took the opportunity to investigate their prior two albums, which had songs that I have to believe I heard on WNEW when I was in high school. For some reason, possibly bad reviews, I never spent any time with the band’s first two albums, which were unsuccessful full on prog records (which led to the loss of their benefactor). Although in preparing to write this, I discovered that the guitarist and lyricist on Supertramp’s self-titled debut album was Richard Palmer, who, as Richard Palmer-James later wrote the lyrics for three of King Crimson’s best albums—Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, so maybe I’ll go back and check it out.

I think that “Take The Long Way Home” is my favorite of the hit singles from Breakfast, and I think that it holds up better than some of the others, maybe in part because the song uses what sounds like a real piano, and not the dated sounding electric one that many of the band’s songs relied on. (Although the title track also sounds good after having not listened to it for a while) And maybe it is because that while it is still a pop song it lopes along, taking, I guess, the long way home. Or maybe because of its ambivalent message. Hodgson, who wrote the song, has said that it is about

home on two levels. I mean, I'm talking about not wanting to go home to the wife, take the long way home to the wife because she treats you like part of the furniture, but there's a deeper level to the song, too. I really believe we all want to find our home, find that place in us where we feel at home, and to me, home is in the heart and that is really, when we are in touch with our heart and we're living our life from our heart, then we do feel like we found our home. 

After that blockbuster came a placeholding live album, and an even poppier studio followup, which while having a couple of hits, really was a pale imitation of Breakfast. At that point Hodgson left the band to record some mostly forgotten solo albums. Davies kept the band together, releasing some more experimental records that had some initial chart success, but not for long. Both Supertramp and Hodgson continued to record and tour occasionally (and separately), and no real reunion ever bore fruit. In 2015, Davies was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, forcing a tour cancellation, and the band’s website simply says “There are no upcoming tour dates scheduled currently.” Hodgson’s website, on the other hand, shows a vigorous touring schedule through the rest of 2018 and 2019.

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