Sunday August 12, 2012
MUSIC MYTHS & LEGENDS By MARTIN VENGADESAN
ONCE upon a long ago, sometime in the early 1980s, I was a kid in Petaling Jaya. On weekdays, my mother used to drop my sisters and I at my grandmother’s house in the morning while she went off to teach at Assunta school, and we’d catch the schoolbus for the afternoon session at Sekolah Seri Petaling. Those were days that seemed like they’d last forever. But of course, nothing really does.
At this point, one of the biggest influences on my budding musical tastes was my mother’s younger brother, now well known as dancer/choreographer/presenter Joseph Gonzales.
My uncle probably doesn’t remember this, but he had a mix tape, which I memorised, because he played it every day for what seemed like years. Certain songs, like Queen’s We Are The Champions, have stuck with me for life and become radio and stadium staples, while the same can’t be said for Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchie and various Irene Cara hits.
One of the more curious songs on that compilation was Breakfast In America. A squeaky-voiced little gremlin seemed to be singing the rather unflattering words “Take a look at my girlfriend, she’s the only one I got. Not much of a girlfriend, never seem to get a lot”. As meaningless as the song eventually proved to be, it was ridiculously infectious and seemed to be something of a hit. I didn’t know who sang it at the time, of course, but it was in my head.
A few years later, I was living in Belgium and a gentleman called Guido informed me that his favourite band was Supertramp. He was somewhat horrified when I dared ask if Supertramp was a Belgian band. But as luck would have it, I then came across a programme which played both a new single by Rodger Hodgson (a frankly atrocious tune called London) and an older hit by his band Supertramp (the immaculate, utterly joyous It’s Raining Again). As you might guess, it then all fell into place, and I suddenly realised I’d been listening to Supertramp all my life.
On my next trip back to Malaysia, I managed to rummage through my uncle’s collection and make a copy of Supertramp’s finest album Crime Of The Century ... and the deal was done.
The funny thing is, Supertramp almost didn’t happen. Its two main men Hodgson and Rick Davies were given an awesome opportunity in 1969 when Dutch millionaire Stanley Miesegaes funded the band and its recording ambitions, but after three years, he gave up as the band disintegrated. Tunes like Maybe I’m A Beggar and Aries have an epic quality, but clearly, failed to connect with an audience.
After the split with Miesegaes, Hodgson and Davies revamped their sound and got a whole new line-up including saxman John Helliwell, bassist Dougie Thomson and drummer Bob Siebenberg.
There was also a shift to focus on the group’s tight playing and distinctive songwriting, which relied more on clever changes of direction rather than instrumental prowess.
The first album by the new line-up still feels like Supertramp’s masterpiece. Crime Of The Century (1974) has the feel of a concept album, but I’m still not sure if it is. It seemed to me like the story of a persecuted young lad struggling through his grim schooldays. Certainly, it had lyrics which will resonate with angsty, disenfranchised teenagers and what’s more, the band’s sound on this album clearly seems to have influenced certain parts of Pink Floyd’s subsequent concept album The Wall!
I dare say that Supertramp’s wonderful mixture of savvy pop and classically-tinged hard rock never reached greater heights than on pieces like School, Asylum, Rudy and the awesome title track, which has a lengthy outro (based on some simple minor key piano chords) that somehow tugs at the heart strings. The (occasionally) hard-rockin’ Bloody Well Right and Dreamer take some getting used to, but they are gems, too. Supertramp then really hit its stride with Crisis? What Crisis? and Even In The Quietest Moments, leading up to 1979’s smash hit Breakfast In America, which was how I’d gotten started with the band in the first place. The oh so clever Logical Song, the unforgettable propulsive chorus of Goodbye Stranger, the peppy Give A Little Bit and It’s Raining Again simply added to the catalogue of great Supertramp ditties. Ultimately, however, the dynamic that made Supertramp so exciting was damaged when Hodgson quit in 1983.
But now, more than 30 years on from my first Supertramp encounters, it still doesn’t take much to roll back the years to a time that is forever lost and yet, right behind me.