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Supertramp - Famous Last Words CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.20 | 345 ratings

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4 stars How fickle the madding crowd can be. A mere three years after launching the wildly successful bombshell that was 1979's "Breakfast in America," (the album that sat at the number one position for weeks on end and spawned four top twenty hit singles still spinning in heavy rotation on classic rock radio stations three decades later) Supertramp released ".Famous Last Words" and the public shrugged. Despite rising to the #5 position on the album charts it came and went in a flash before drifting into anonymity. Having never heard it myself I was somewhat reticent to add it to my crossover prog collection but now that I've repeatedly listened to it for months I'm pleased to report that I think it's gotten a bum rap that it doesn't deserve. In fact, it's pretty dern good and beats the britches off of the higher-rated but rather boring "Crisis, What Crisis?"

Since Roger Hodgson bid the band adieu shortly after this record hit the stores it's not surprising to find the personality clashes and general turmoil that existed in the group surfacing in the writing of he and cohort Rick Davies. Roger tap-dancing into the wings after 13 years of partnership with Rick doesn't come as much of a shock at all. Actually, that kind of longevity is, in and of itself, amazing. But the "official" reason given for the split is that their wives didn't get along. Huh? Excuse me, but WTF? Are you pulling our collective prog leg? One of the most heralded writing duos of the 70s parted ways because the company Christmas party was awkward? Why not just tell the ladies that if they can't play nice they're forever banned from the rehearsal and studio sessions? Sounds pretty ticky-tacky and childish if you ask me. Still, despite the ridiculous soap opera backdrop, they managed to put together a collage of songs worthy of your attention.

By the time the first few notes enter your ear canals you'll know this is the one and only Supertramp. Their unique sound is unmistakable and "Crazy" is a prime example of their inimitable style. It's a well- written tune based on pounding piano chords, John Helliwell's lively saxophone and Hodgson's soaring soprano voice but, at the same time, the lyrics betray the tension within. "These are crazy times," Roger sings, "and it's all been getting pretty serious..." I especially like the way they allow the "crazy" refrain at the end to play itself out and not cut it short for the sake of radio friendliness. The bluesy, Wurlitzer piano-dominated sway of "Put on Your Old Brown Shoes" instantly identifies it as one of Davies' lite-rock compositions and, as such, one shouldn't really expect any surprises. Helliwell tactfully avoids overplaying during his sax solo and the tight horn/guitar riffs that color the song towards the end are delightful. I get the feeling that Rick is serenading the soon-to-be-departed with resigned lines like "you know you paid your dues/did all you could/time to move on/no more to say."

According to reputable sources "It's Raining Again" climbed up to the #11 spot on the Top 40 but it also did a splendid job of avoiding being played on the stations I was listening to at the time. Now that I've become acquainted with this catchy little ditty I'm confused as to why the great unwashed masses didn't embrace it the same way they did, say, "The Logical Song." It's just as memorable and follows the same poppish formula but it faded from view as quickly as the LP did. Of course, 1982 was the dawning age of the damned MTV virus and perhaps the lack of a "groovy" video clip retarded its growth (not to mention its dubious use of the made-up-in-order-to-complete-a-rhyme word uptighter.) "You're old enough some people say/to read the signs and walk away/it's only time that heals the pain/and makes the sun come out again." Roger sings, possibly to himself. "Bonnie" (Come on, Rick, you couldn't pick a classier name than that?) is next and if you're patient enough to get through its initial puppy-love schmaltziness you'll be rewarded with a transcendent, symphonic prog movement featuring an infectious melody flowing over deep synthesized strings that is heavenly. I adore the acoustic piano sound producer Peter Henderson and his engineering crew procure throughout the piece.

Another identifiable trait of the Supertramp modus operandi surfaces when Hodgson straps on his 12- string acoustic guitar for "Know Who You Are" and delivers an airy, delicate performance sans drums with a haunting melody that sorta reminds me of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade." Richard Newson's sparse string arrangement adds a simple grace to the subtlety of the piece. Unfortunately, that quiet serenity is rudely interrupted by the pseudo doo-wop of "My Kind of Lady," the only throwaway track on the album. Okay, it's not horrific but it's definitely not my style and it resides miles away from Progland. Roger gets the 'Tramp train back on the rails with another 12-string extravaganza, the charming "C'est Le Bon." John's fluid clarinet and Dougie Thompson's easy-to- overlook-but-supremely-tasteful bass lines contribute to the number's allure as this one slowly builds to a full, towering chorus. Hodgson's poignant lyrics ring true for every musician who's had to swim against the current just to follow his artistic calling. "I never knew what a man was supposed to be/I never wanted the responsibility/I still remember what they tried to make of me/they used to wonder why they couldn't get through to me/'cause all that I had was this music/a-coming to me/and all that I had was this rhythm/a-coming through me." he sings.

Supertramp's prog leanings are very apparent on the last two cuts. "Waiting So Long" has a basic-yet- effective vocal/piano intro, then heavy accents add drama and gravity to the proceedings. The song utilizes a layer-by-layer construction that eventually leads to one of Roger's most emotional electric guitar rides ever and a menacing, thunder-in-the-distance finale. You can detect a palpable sorrow in Davies' voice. "Did you get all you want?/Did we see the whole show?/so where's all the fun/that we used to know?/as the memories fade/way out of view/I'd love those old days/to come back to you..." he laments, "But the blindness goes on, the blindness goes on..." The album ends with the equally despairing but nonetheless appropriate "Don't Leave Me Now." The stillness of the introduction is broken abruptly by strong, angry piano chords ala "Crime of the Century" and Helliwell's soulful saxophone wailing away. The heartbreaking words speak for themselves. "Don't leave me now/all alone in this crazy world/when I'm old and cold and grey/and the time is gone." Hodgson cries. As they wisely allow the tune to wander without hurry down its own lonely road you'll hear nostalgic strains of the harmonica from "School" wafting in the breeze. It's a classy touch. Accompanied only by funeral-like drums the music slowly disappears over the far horizon like a cemetery-bound procession mourning the death of a loved one.

Even if you're no more than a casual fan of Supertramp I advise you to give ".Famous Last Words" a fighting chance. You'll like it. It's not as accessible and internationally popular as its famous predecessor but few albums are. Actually, in a prog sense, it's more akin to "Even in the Quietest Moments." so its appeal to those who lean in that direction should be obvious. There's a lot here to enjoy. 3.6 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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