How hit album ‘Breakfast In America’ proved Supertramp’s undoing

Having emerged thanks to funding from a Dutch millionaire, the British group recorded classics that are still radio regulars today, but fell apart at their zenith amid clashes between their two lead members

Supertramp in the United States on May 11, 1977. From left to right: Dougie Thomson (bass), Bob Siebenberg (drums), John Helliwell (saxophone), Roger Hodgson (vocals, keyboard and guitar) and Rick Davies (vocals and keyboard).Matt Green (Getty Images)
Carlos Marcos

In the annals of rock history, Supertramp tend to be relegated to secondary status. They were enormously successful, selling millions of records and playing before packed-out crowds at huge venues, even during the years when they released fewer albums. However, they’re rarely in the conversation when it comes to listing the very best; the music media certainly doesn’t afford them the same importance as contemporaries such as Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Supertramp are viewed as the ultimate guilty pleasure, a band people enjoy privately without admitting as much publicly. This appears somewhat unfair. Their 1979 album Breakfast In America was their greatest success, a collection of optimistic, stylish songs crafted amid an atmosphere of internal tension — one that descended into downright discord during the group’s subsequent, triumphant tour. “That tour had a damaging effect on relationships within the band, both as musicians and as people,” Dougie Thomson, the bassist in Supertramp’s classic line-up, says. “By the end of the tour, we’d only be together for the two hours that we were on stage.”

If you turn the radio to one of the hundreds of classic rock stations out there today, half an hour won’t go by before one of Supertramp’s songs comes on. It could be Give A Little Bit, The Logical Song, School, Dreamer, It’s Raining Again or any one of a number of others. “I don’t remember a single day in my life when I haven’t listened to Supertramp,” says Abel Fuentes, one of the major experts on the British band. Fuentes has written a comprehensive history of the group, Tramp’s Footprints, a 750-page tome featuring interviews with around 90 people. Everyone connected to Supertramp has their say in the book. “Many critics and musicians praised the three progressive albums they put out in the mid-1970s [Crime of the Century, Crisis? What Crisis? and Even in the Quietest Moments], but after their overwhelming success with Breakfast in America, the same people accused them of becoming a pop band that was only interested in commercial gain,” Fuentes says. “What’s more, the fact that they moved to the United States and were a group that kept such a low profile, avoiding the scandals that the period’s rock stars regularly became embroiled in, also led the media to completely forget about them in their home country.”

Supertramp receive the gold disc for 'Breakfast in America' in Paris on November 28, 1979.
Supertramp receive the gold disc for 'Breakfast in America' in Paris on November 28, 1979. Jean-Louis URLI (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Supertramp defy all the rock clichés. With no single, identifiable front man, they were anti-stars who didn’t fit the roguish profile of other groups. This was the 70s, when bands-behaving-badly became the norm. “We weren’t pop stars with bad habits who sought the spotlight,” says Bob Siebenberg, Supertramp’s drummer. “The journalists that followed us were after scandals, but we always disappointed them. They could only write about our music.” Going right back to the very start, the group’s story is a distinctive one. That we’re talking about them today is thanks to the money put up by a Dutch patron called Stanley August Miesegaes, a multimillionaire who fell in love with Rick Davies’ music and financed the group during the most difficult time — its beginnings. Sam, as he was known, turned off the tap in 1972, after the band had released two albums, 1970′s Supertramp and 1971′s Indelibly Stamped, which proved their least significant records. The group hit rock bottom when Sam dropped them. Neither of their discs had sold many copies, and now their patron had left, taking his checkbook with him. They were done for, it seemed.

However, it was a low ebb that spurred them on to show what they were made of. The band’s two driving forces, Davies and Roger Hodgson, focused on composition, and began to work magic. The release of the 1974 album Crime Of The Century — a disc many believe is their best — proved the turning point. “It had tracks that were simple and sophisticated at the same time,” Fuentes says. “In the face of the extravagant sounds that dominated the period, it was a breath of fresh air. What’s more, its production was so crystal clear that, five decades later, the record is still often used to test out all kinds of sound systems.”

The cover of the 1979 album 'Breakfast in America.'
The cover of the 1979 album 'Breakfast in America.'

Neither Davies nor Hodgson were anxious to take the lead in concerts: they would each perform at one end of the stage, leaving the humorous John Helliwell, the man responsible for the band’s characteristic saxophone sounds, to act as master of ceremonies. Internally, however, Davies and Hodgson were not on the same page. “They are two completely different people, polar opposites,” Thomson says. Davies is pragmatic, a realist, cynical, working class and a carnivore; Hodgson is spiritual, an idealist, romantic, middle-class and a vegetarian. Although the pair would sign their songs jointly as part of a Lennon/McCartney-style agreement, each composed on his own. Davies’ songs carried a clear rhythm and blues influence; Hodgson’s were more poppy and commercial, and were notable for his high-pitched tone of voice. Both sang and played the keyboard (Hodgson was also a guitarist).

And then came Breakfast In America, Supertramp’s seismically successful album. In 1979, no other disc could be heard more frequently; only The Wall, by Pink Floyd, and Off The Wall, by Michael Jackson, equaled the record in popularity. Some critics, however, took aim at the album as too commercial. “We had decided to record songs that were simple and could have a commercial impact,” Davies says in Tramp’s Footprints. “The pop side of things had always been a part of Supertramp, but perhaps it had been overlooked because of the comparisons that experts made between us and groups like Genesis and Pink Floyd. Sometimes we joked that if we needed to be more commercial, we wouldn’t find that very hard.” All the optimism with which the album filled its listeners was in stark contrast to the bad atmosphere that pervaded the studio during recording.

John Helliwell in October 1979, during Supertramp’s 'Breakfast in America' tour.
John Helliwell in October 1979, during Supertramp’s 'Breakfast in America' tour. Rob Verhorst (Redferns)

Davies opposed the inclusion of Hodgson’s song Lord Is It Mine, citing its “spiritual character.” He lost the battle. Hodgson had radicalized his way of life: conversations with him were dominated by talk of the soul, yoga, and communes. He began to get on the rest of the group’s nerves. The reasons for the break-up of Supertramp’s classic line-up were “Roger’s spiritualism and egocentricity,” Helliwell tells this newspaper, adding, “Roger did not appreciate the contributions of Bob, Dougie and me.” Davies wrote Casual Conversations as a criticism of Hodgson: “It talks about Roger and me unsuccessfully trying to communicate with each other — we had a lot of comings-together.” Hodgson responded with Child of Vision. “I wrote that song as a criticism of the materialistic way of life in America, but in truth it was directed at Rick,” he says in Fuentes’ book. “We were completely different. It was becoming difficult to work together.” The Breakfast In America album tour was a huge success, but when the fans left the arenas, the fault lines within the group were becoming more and more pronounced.

While the rest of the band travelled by air, Hodgson took to a caravan, accompanied by his partner. Davies even banned anyone from smoking weed in his presence, in a clear attack on Hodgson. In Tramp’s Footprints, Hodgson says “something died in the group” after the Breakfast In America tour: “I had the impression that Supertramp was disintegrating. In those concerts, I felt like an actor performing the same part night after night. We had become slaves to a huge production.”

The group released a live album (the wildly successful Paris in 1980), followed that up with a studio disc, 1982′s Famous Last Words, and went on tour after that. However, Hodgson had already told his fellow band members of his intention to leave. He did so in 1983. For many, that was the moment Supertramp ended, even though the group, led by Davies, continued performing and recording albums. They didn’t attract the same success as the band’s earlier work. When Hodgson departed, a verbal agreement was reached: he would allow the group to carry on using the name Supertramp, as long as they didn’t play any of his songs. That meant doing away with some of their most popular tracks: the likes of School, Breakfast In America, The Logical Song and Give a Little Bit. Hodgson would perform them on his own, and Supertramp would focus on Davies’ work. The pact held for a few years, until Davies grew tired of fans calling for the group to play Hodgson’s songs during concerts.

Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson
Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies at Olympic Studios, London, in the mid-1970s. Fin Costello (Redferns)

Describing his reaction to hearing Supertramp play his songs as a member of the crowd, Hodgson has said: “I was devastated — I felt sick. Even my son Andrew, who was with me, started to cry. I couldn’t understand how Rick could use all these songs of mine when he had so many good songs.” Over the years, there have been as many as three attempts to bring the band’s classic line-up back together again, but they have always been scuppered by age-old frictions. Fuentes points the finger at the group’s “deplorable” management. “Rick Davies’ wife took over in 1983,” he says. “At no point has she ever tried to keep the band’s name alive. While other legendary groups from the 70s have brought out all types of old recordings despite being inactive, that kind of material is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to Supertramp.”

In 2005, Thomson, Siebenberg and Helliwell took Davies to court in a bid to force him to share control over the rights to the band’s catalogue from their heyday, 1974 to 1983. They won. Despite clashing with them in the courtroom, Davies then unexpectedly got together with Siebenberg and Helliwell years later, and they went on tour as Supertramp. Hodgson, meanwhile, carried on recording discs and touring without his former band-mates. Asked by this newspaper whether he believes Supertramp’s classic line-up will ever reform, Thomson says he doesn’t think it’s likely. “The first 10 years were really great, but I think too many negative things happened after that which would have made it very difficult to go back,” he explains. “Better to stay with the memories of the good times.”

Today, Supertramp’s two most prominent members are in retirement as major live performers. Hodgson, 73, canceled a planned 2020 tour because of the pandemic and hasn’t been seen on stage since. After recovering from a cancer diagnosis in 2015, Davies, 78, performs two or three times a year in a bar in Long Island, New York, where he lives. He plays old-style blues and the odd Supertramp song. Now, though, he avoids any tracks written by Hodgson, the frenemy with whom he started a band that has never stopped having an audience.

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