40 Years Ago: Supertramp Blow Up With ‘Breakfast in America’
After toiling in obscurity with their earliest releases, Supertramp managed to score a few hit singles and albums during the mid-to-late '70s -- but they were only a warm-up for their sixth album, Breakfast in America.
Released in March 29, 1979, Breakfast found the band moving away from the more serious, prog-influenced fare that anchored records like 1974's Crime of the Century and 1977's Even in the Quietest Moments in favor of a more concise, radio-friendly approach that often emphasized the tongue-in-cheek humor of bandleaders Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson.
As Hodgson explained in an interview with Melody Maker later that year, "The songs on this album were chosen because we really wanted to get a feeling of fun and warmth across. I think we felt that we had done three pretty serious albums, and it was about time we showed the lighter side of ourselves."
That didn't mean Breakfast in America was all laughs, however; it was nearly titled Hello Stranger, due to a preponderance of songs about relationships broken by a lack of communication -- a subject Davies and Hodgson knew well, given how poorly they were getting along during the making of the album.
Although their songwriting partnership had long been the basis of the band's music, by the time Breakfast got started, they hadn't actually written together in years; as they admitted during a 1977 NME interview, Supertramp existed in a state of delicate detente.
"A few of the songs really lent themselves to two people talking to each other and at each other," recalled Hodgson later. "I could be putting down Rick's way of thinking and he could be challenging my way of seeing life. We were thinking of making that the theme ... We weren't communicating very well through this album."
Their problems were personal as well as musical. Hodgson admitted to being put off by the presence of Davies' wife (who'd become the band's manager) on the road, saying, "It has split us two up a lot, and because we're the core of Supertramp it splits the band up as well. She's an amazing lady and fits in really well. But ... it does tend to cut Rick off from the rest of us. There's rarely any hostile vibes because of that, but...as a band it doesn't feel like a complete unit. It's very seldom that all five of us are actually together socializing or talking about things."
Not that they necessarily would have had much to talk about anyway. Hodgson underwent a spiritual awakening during the '70s, and Davies wasn't shy about expressing his disdain for the way those themes had surfaced in songs like "Babaji" and "Lord Is It Mine." "Personally, I decry it," he told NME. "I'd sooner remain anonymous than become religious. I might fight with Roger on this next album about that ... It's not right. You've got people in the band who couldn't give a damn."
Ultimately, the duo ended up retreating to largely separate corners while writing Breakfast in America. As Davies explained in the aforementioned interview, "If I look at a song of Roger's and I think it's wrong, I've got to be really 100 percent there to fight that. Usually I just don't have the energy to, because I see it blowing up into a huge misunderstanding." Rather than expressing their dissatisfaction openly, the erstwhile partners channeled their estrangement into tracks like "Casual Conversations," which includes the lines "It doesn't matter what I say / You never listen anyway" and "Imagination's all I have / But even then, you say it's bad / Just can't see why we disagree."
According to Hodgson, their rift may have started as far back as 1972, when Davies refused to take LSD with him. "The result of me tripping was that I had my mind open to all kinds of stuff that he didn't," he explained. "That created a barrier, because we couldn't share the experience. LSD is a very strange drug. It started my education again ... totally. It lets you see life in a totally different aspect, and allows you to free yourself of everything you've been conditioned to for your entire life. It really showed me my potential for growth."
On paper, it looks like a recipe for disaster, but whatever their problems, Davies and Hodgson managed to bring out the best in one another with Breakfast in America. While some fans might have been disappointed by the lack of an extended number like the 11-minute "Fool's Overture," which closed out Even in the Quietest Moments, the new songs benefited from a more streamlined approach, with arrangements whose extraneous bits were excised during a lengthy recording process that sprawled across six months, two studios, and two rounds of demos. Co-producer Peter Henderson later insisted that he saw no evidence of a rift between Davies and Hodgson, possibly because music was the one thing they could still share.
"We have a strange relationship," Hodgson mused. "It's always been a strange one. We're both oddballs, and we've never been able to communicate too much on a verbal level. There's a very deep bond, but it's definitely mostly on a musical level. When there's just the two of us playing together, there's an incredible empathy. His down-to-earth way of writing, which is very rock 'n' roll, balances out my lighter, melodic style."
That certainly proved to be the case with Breakfast in America, which wove bluesier, Wurlitzer-laced Davies numbers like "Gone Hollywood" and "Goodbye Stranger" between future Hodgson hits like "The Logical Song" and the title track. The overall effect was surprisingly, satisfyingly cohesive -- and eminently well-suited to Top 40 radio, where the band enjoyed a run of four hit singles that included the Top 10 smashes "The Logical Song" and "Take the Long Way Home." The album quickly rose to the top of Billboard's album chart, where it stayed throughout much of the summer of 1979.
For Hodgson, the record's huge success was nothing more than the culmination of a plan. "I always knew it was going to be a huge album," he said later. "I knew our time had come and if it hadn't happened, the big man in the sky was playing a trick on us. I felt that it had to happen, the mere fact that we had to struggle so long for it."
But with all that success came yet another lengthy Supertramp tour, and although they played to healthy crowds and enjoyed solid reviews, returning to the road didn't help the fraying bonds between Hodgson and Davies -- or make it any easier to pen material for the next record.
"I think we're going to have to use the time a little more creatively than just endless tours, because that will kill us in the end," insisted Davies. "The five songs that I did on Breakfast are the only things that I've done in three years. I can't think straight when we're on the road. I'm just thinking about where we're going next ... It's down to, can we survive without being around each other so much? Can we all exist within our own little worlds and then come back together as Supertramp?"
The answer to that question turned out to be "yes...sort of." Although Hodgson remained in the fold for the band's next studio release, 1982's ... Famous Last Words, he and Davies found themselves staring across an even greater creative divide, and he soon left the group to pursue a solo career. Both he and Supertramp have recorded sporadically over the ensuing decades, and their few attempts to broker a reunion have all ended in failure -- a continued source of frustration for fans who point to Breakfast in America as proof that the band's classic lineup was more than the sum of its parts.
That's a notion Hodgson disagreed with as early as 1977, when he shrugged, "I haven't reached my zenith. But maybe the band has."
Weighing in on the topic two years later during the 'Breakfast' tour, he added, "Rick and I are really starved of musical growth. We've climbed to the top of the mountain. Now what do we do? Most bands just stay at the top and sing the same old songs, but that means nothing to us. We really feel like we've got to grow. The band will stay together as long as it's growing. If it's reached a peak, we might as well find other musicians and do something else."