No living in a rock ’n’ roll fantasy

Judith Timson August 6 1979

No living in a rock ’n’ roll fantasy

Judith Timson August 6 1979

No living in a rock ’n’ roll fantasy

Judith Timson


Outside the Holiday Inn on a typically muggy Winnipeg afternoon, three limousines, shiny, black and empty, snake up the drive and come to a halt, their doors springing open. Out of the hotel come three members of Supertramp, at this moment, one of the world’s hottest rock bands. It seems the rock ’n’ roll fantasy is about to unfold:

Hounded by reporters, surrounded by photographers, barely visible in the seething mob of screaming fans, flesh pressing against their flesh, hands tearing at their clothes, the three spring to the safety of the limousines and flop exhausted into the backseat. One of them, pale and shaking from a night of debaucherie, stares glassy-eyed at the crowd: “Animals,” he murmurs,

“they’re all animals. ”

On this day, the fantasy gets deflated. Ignoring the fancy fleet, the three head for a mud-brown Chevrolet Impala. “Who’re the limos for?” lead guitarist and vocalist Roger Hodgson wonders out loud. “For the road crew. No buses today,” replies one of their managers. Hodgson smiles, delighted at the idea of Supertramp’s “roadies” arriving in high style at the airport to catch a flight to Toronto. As the Impala moves off into the traffic, saxophonist John Anthony Helliwell, with shoulder-length limp blonde hair, spectacles and a manner so dry it crackles, stares out the window. “Move along now,” he commands the driver. “I might get recognized.” He spots an old drunk slumped at a bus stop bench. “There! I think that guy’s seen us!” Everyone in the car laughs.

When you are very successful, with platinum records and sellout concerts to prove it, and when you are intelligent

enough not to take yourself too seriously, “remaining anonymous” can become a bit of a running gag. At any rate, the gag has been the reality for Supertramp. With neither the outrageous charm of the Beatles, nor the animal magnetism of the Rolling Stones, the five members of the band could walk down any street in the world unnoticed. Rejecting image, deflecting hype—they recently said no to People magazine— they are so nondescript that even their own record company, A&M, has trouble recognizing them, turning them away at the door, “like any scruffy kid looking for work,” says their Canadian manager Charly Prévost.

But Supertramp does not need to look for work. The group’s latest album, Breakfast in America, with its hit single, The Logical Song, has, since its release last March, climbed swiftly to the No. 1 position on the pop charts in Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland, Norway, Australia, the United States and Canada. And while another A&M recording star, Peter Frampton, once the darling of the under-20 set, has had to cancel shows in Montreal and Toronto because of lousy ticket sales, Supertramp, which has always been wildly popular in Canada, embarked on a midsummer 17-show tour that has been packing in the largest audiences ever to attend rock concerts in this country— and will continue to do so until the tour ends in Vancouver on Aug. 11.

While the groovers at either extreme go mindless with disco or celebrate the banal with New Wave, the vast chunk of audience in the middle has settled down to “listen” with Supertramp. First night out for the band in Winnipeg, 7,000 sat almost impassively in the Convention Centre, behaving as though they all had imaginary headphones pumping the Supertramp sound to them. The first show was mediocre: making that onstage connection again was hard for the band after a threeweek break to recover from an exhausting 53-show American tour. But what did the fans care: their average age was 17, they wore blue jeans, Tshirts, even jogging shorts, they looked on the whole, a clean-cut lot—and they were clearly The Converted.

The band laid out its impeccable “sophisto-rock,” a carefully orchestrated, symphonic blend of melodious music with lyrics that are sometimes compelling (History recalls how great the fall can be/While everybody’s sleeping, the boats put out to sea) and sometimes obscure ( You 're nothing but a dreamer... can you put your hands in your head, oh no!). The trappings were fancy: a superlative light show featuring two technicolor mandalas suspended from the stage; touches of drama—several movie clips as visual backdrops, including one of Churchill muttering “We shall never surrender”; touches of fun—a dancing costumed banana, a prancing gorilla and the Trampettes, a chorus of roadies dressed in tuxes.

At the end of an intensive 2^2-hour show, a slender, frizzy-haired little blonde six rows from the front leaped to her feet, calling for more. “They’re classical,” she sought to explain. “They’re poetic. They’re so ... artistic.” The artistry has much to do with the clarity of Supertramp’s sound, arguably less a matter of art than a triumph of high technology. Their equipment—50 tons of it, shunted from city to city on five semitrailers—almost has a personality of its own. Worth about $1 million, it is

all owned by the band and some of it was lovingly built from scratch. Through it, mellow sax, wonderfully bluesy keyboard work, upbeat tempos and smooth harmonies are translated into superlative sound.

It is very polished music, with nothing primitive or visceral (or even sexual) about it. Maybe a little bit of angst (I know it sounds absurd/But please tell me who I am) and a glimpse at the breakdown of society, but nothing you couldn’t comfortably hum while, say, jogging—the whip does not come down. Supertramp is for people who do not like their rock ’n’ roll scary.

They’re just not your average heavyduty rock band, nor do they come on like one: on the Air Canada flight from Winnipeg to Toronto, the scene was too subdued to qualify even as a British Museum version of Animal House, let alone the stereotyped horror vision of Rock

Band on the Road. Most of the entourage—about 30 of them, band and crew—sat together in the economy section, trading quips and a squirt or two from a rogue water pistol. John Helliwell was quietly reading an Isaac Asimov paperback until his eye was caught by a promo on the back cover for a book with the questionable title of All Night Stand. It promised a seamy, inside look at “the glamor, sex and excitement of a pop group on its way to the top.” Not Supertramp, which has gained the reputation of being a family, or at least an institution, on the road.

The band’s closeness stems from the fact that in the early days the members all lived together in various establishments, one a 17th-century Somerset farmhouse where, with outside financial assistance, they put together their music. Some of the road crew (one is an Oxford graduate) have been with Supertramp for more than five years, an unusual occurrence in the highly transient music business. “We consider ourselves a bit beyond your average rock ’n’ roll syndrome,” says one of them. Outsiders, especially anyone who wants to cruise on the band’s energy or status are firmly resisted. And insiders are constantly on “ego alert”: “We have an expression for anyone who lets the whole thing go to his head,” says Helliwell. “We say, you’re cornin’ on a bit bigtime, aren’t you?”

The band has had more than a nodding acquaintance with the little time: Helliwell used to be a computer programmer. Rick Davies, vocalist, keyboard artist and co-founder of the group, was a spot welder. Scottish-born bass guitarist Dougie Thomson once sold Bibles and drummer Bob C. Benberg, the only American in the band, at one time delivered flowers to mortuaries. Only Roger Hodgson, the product of a stuffy, upper-class education at Stowe, a British boarding school, has never held a down-to-earth job.

He and Davies got together in 1969 after Hodgson’s mother (“a very strong woman”) urged him to answer an ad in a music paper for a “genuine opportunity” to form a band. “I was scared, so she pushed me,” says Hodgson. The ad had been placed by Davies, a working-class bloke from Swindon, England, who had landed, much to his own surprise, in a lucky situation: while drumming with a group called The Joint in Munich, he had been introduced to Stanley (Sam) August Miesegaes, an eccentric Dutch millionaire with the soul of a poet and a burning desire to sponsor a rock ’n’ roll band. To Sam, Davies was a shining paragon of talent. With his encouragement (and money), Davies eventually gave up drumming and took up keyboards and singing.

In some ways becoming a kept musician simplified things, although Hodgson, who, after meeting Davies, also benefited from the largess, worries now that “spending Sam’s money wasn’t a good thing for us.” After a two-year volatile relationship, replete with 3 a.m. long-distance phone calls and outlandish presents (one a 40-seat decrepit bus), Sam took his leave of the group, forgiving them a $150,000 debt as a parting gesture.

Hodgson and Davies, the songwriting team at the centre of Supertramp’s success, messed around with different musicians and an undistinguished musical style for two years (putting out two albums) until 1973, when they held the auditions that established the lineup responsible for Supertramp’s unique, engaging sound. (Also responsible is their concert engineer Russel Pope, a wry South African who gave up his own musical career when he realized he would never be as good as Jimi Hendrix, and since then has contented himself with being credited as the unsung sixth member of Supertramp.) Dougie Thomson, 27, reed man Helliwell and drummer Benberg, a California expatriate living in London at the time, together with Hodgson and Davies, have released four albums—Crime of the Century, Crisis? What Crisis?, Even in the Quietest Moments and Breakfast in America.

From Crime to Breakfast, the band has spanned an ocean, and its move to California two years ago is reflected in its music. In the enigmatic title cut from Crime of the Century, it savaged “men of lust and greed and glory.” Now, it simply complains about “creeps in Hollywood.” Boarding-school boy Hodgson and factory lad Davies have succumbed to the American influence in strikingly different ways. Davies, 35, wears Calvin Klein designer jeans and is thinking of moving to Beverly Hills. He married a New York woman, Sue, who handles the band’s merchandising and fan club and is therefore as busy as he is on the road. Sometimes the two stay away from the band at a separate hotel where, says Sue, “we like to get dressed up and go out for dinner.”

Hodgson, 28, has found a more mystical calling, marrying a woman from a California commune and settling down into a way of life that includes meditation, health food and, when on the road, travelling with Karuna (formerly Karen) and their newborn daughter in a camper. He is given to such spiritual declarations as, “I don’t think the music comes from me; it flows through me.”

Over the years, their disparate personalities, temperaments and beliefs have become less a catalyst for creative tension and more a source of just plain tension. Davies, bearded and brooding, is known as the capital-S Sensitive one, as well as the cynic. His class-hardened approach is perfectly reflected in his feisty (and crowd-pleasing) song, Bloody Well Right: “So you think your schooling’s phoney... “Hodgson’s counterpoint, from The Logical Song— “When I was young it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle. . .’’—gets equal response. The two have not actually written together for years and both doubt whether they could do so again.

Davies’ only expressed vision of the future is a terse, “Well, I won’t be playing with Supertramp for the rest of my life. Thank God I can play a grand

piano. There are plenty of old people around doing that.” Hodgson, meanwhile, has become obsessed with larger themes. Unable to read a newsmagazine without shuddering at the self-destructive tendencies of modern man, he is convinced that present-day society is in the final stages of a breakdown. So he’s scouting around for “safe” land to buy and share and thinking of hoarding silver to get him through the coming depression. “But there’ll be a rebirth,” he says hopefully.

Hodgson thinks sadly that most music today is “selfish music” that offers little joy: “Of course, the Beatles had it all—music that touched the head, heart and body. I hope we do a little of that as well.” Davies, characteristically, is far more pessimistic. “Don’t forget we’re a very manufactured group,” he says. “I don’t see us as that big.” The fans thronging to see them would probably have their own thoughts about the cultural impact of Supertramp—after all, they appear to be more cerebral than most rock audiences. There is not much “getting down” with the music; it’s more a matter of being uplifted by the polish and perfection of the sound. Still, it would be a supreme irony if the result of all this alchemy, this blending of high-tech hardware and generous tal® ent, resulted in a sound so smooth it disappeared without a trace.