Saturday, January 5, 2019

Supertramp's 'Breakfast in America' reconsidered

Perhaps it’s a matter of age, temperament, and the amount of your adolescence that you spent hiding from your parents. Confident ‘rock’ albums of the 1970s, whether by pre-punk behemoths Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin or punk posers like The Clash, are these days widely accepted in polite, white, male, middle-class circles. However Supertramp’s ‘Breakfast in America’ (released March 1979) had what for some was a more appropriate soundtrack to ‘suburban’ bedroom angst than the shed-load of pop platitudes that still pervaded about rebellion, ‘frontlines’ and class conflict (including from Pink Floyd). Such bourgeois issues usually didn’t penetrate the minds of those living in net-curtained semis, where entertainment was of the family variety and politics was what two parties usually only did every four or five years.

Album cover of 'Breakfast in America' (released on A&M Records; artwork by Gothic Press, London)

To be fair, Supertramp had, since ‘Crime of the Century’ in 1974, been chronicling, among other things, late teenage fears and, sometimes, coping mechanisms. On ‘Breakfast in America’ however we get the band’s principal singers and songwriters, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, in two set-piece lyrical and vocal contests over meaning and materialism in the west. On ‘Goodbye Stranger’, Rick Davies semi-ironically trumpets every young man’s apparent desire for personal freedom of a decidedly non-political kind, while Roger Hodgson’s backing vocal offers some salutary ripostes on the essential emptiness of such a lifestyle. On ‘Child of Vision’ it isn’t so much America that is being taken down by Hodgson with a Christian disdain for hedonism and other sins of Mammon, but the west in general. 

This connected to a me as a schoolboy in Sussex, England who was beginning to question the values he had been brought up on, but who didn’t relate to those for whom calls to ‘destroy’ or ‘revolt’ had provided an effortless, and essentially meaningless, release. Unlike the Sex Pistols’ single, ‘God Save the Queen’, which was banned two years earlier, ‘Logical Song’ was a Top Ten UK hit that actually addressed the stigma that anyone who sought to articulate their social disconnection could be made to feel, rather than moronically equating an economically-struggling social democracy with a ‘fascist regime’. Hodgson expressed what some school kids were feeling, using adjectives shocking to a BBC Radio 1 audience and that admittedly ‘O’ Level English students would be more comfortable with. However he wasn’t being pretentious. When Pink Floyd celebrated illiteracy, and got a surprise Christmas Number One on the backs of working class kids from a north London primary school, they most definitely were.

Above all perhaps, ‘Breakfast in America’ is strong on ‘hooks’, big on ‘catchy’, and shows a band at the peak of its powers. It was to be a pretty abrupt downward trajectory after this album, but then Supertramp’s ability to melodically sing about insanity, adolescence, and loneliness was more at home in the 1970s. At the time that ‘Breakfast in America’ came out, the American rock critic Robert Christgau begrudgingly conceded its musicality but then held it against Supertramp when he claimed that tuneful vocals and beat weren’t the same as feeling and rhythm. Perhaps these things are in the ear of the beholder. However there is emotion aplenty on this album – in voice and subject matter - and ‘Child of Vision’ positively swings. ‘Take the Long Way Home’ chronicles personal alienation; ‘Lord Is It Mine’ has Hodgson laying himself emotionally bare. Alone and in need, he thanks God for giving him hope and teaching him humility, but wrestles aloud with his inability to sustain his faith. Using the ugly language of today: this ‘impacted’ me at the time. The whole of ‘Breakfast in America’ still does, forty years later.