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Supertramp - Supertramp CD (album) cover




Crossover Prog

3.47 | 310 ratings

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2 stars Gather 'round, all ye prog tots, and lend your ears to this fairy tale: Once upon a time a skinny, starving minstrel valiantly chased his dreams of riches and fame night after night whilst playing for table scraps in sundry alehouses hither and yon. One fateful evening a prince of the realm, successful in getting out of the castle and away from his beastly princess wife, was draining more than a few pints in the local pub where said troubadour was plying his trade. The prince, possessing more money than sense, took a shine to him and bought him a Mai Tai. He asked the emaciated artiste, "What's a talented squirt like you doing in a sty like this?" to which the reply came "You do whatcha gotta do, man." The bored prince, having failed to master even "Wild Thing" on the guitar, yearned in vain to be an idolized rock star so the next best thing would be to own one. "What's it take to cut an album?" he asked. "Moola and lots of it," was the quick response. "No problem. When can you start?" slurred the inebriated prince to the stunned musician. They shook hands on the deal and lived happily ever after. (Not sure about that last part.)

Improbable? A desperate, crossover prog singer/songwriter's wet dream, you say? Not at all. True story, swear to God. Rick Davies was the poor piano man and a Dutch millionaire by the name of Stanley August Miesegaes was the prince who offered him a hearty pat on the back and a blank check. Blindly bankrolling a scruffy-looking dude without much of a band or studio experience to speak of was evidently the kind of long-odds risk that excited Stanley. Rick, no fool he, wasn't about to look a horse in the mouth when he's got a gift so, after placing an ad that drew another fledgling dreamer named Roger Hodgson into the wild caper, Supertramp was born. They recruited a drummer and an axe man and went to work. The resulting LP is understandably weak and unremarkable overall and 99.9% of these scenarios end up being handy tax write-offs for the reckless financiers but in this case Miesegaes' gamble poured the foundation for an entity that would eventually conquer the world and rule the airwaves of the late 70s and early 80s. This time reality was stranger than fiction. You can't make this stuff up.

Low expectation is a pre-requisite for listening to this debut with any objectivity because it's clear that, lacking the oversight of a seasoned producer, they really didn't know what they were doing while doing the best they could. I also find it strange that since the lyrics imbedded in their later work are, for the most part, exemplary, they appointed their guitarist Richard Palmer to be their wordsmith. He's no Dylan, believe me, and there's nary a single verse of his worth mentioning. They open with a snippet of a song that bookends the record, "Surely," and its somber vocal-over-piano-and-acoustic-guitar approach sets a dim tone for the music that follows. "It's a Long Road" is next and it sports a corny, face-painted Indians on the warpath as depicted in cheap westerns theme blended in with jazzy nuances and some feisty energy. Vanilla it is but even in this, their formative stage, they wisely tossed in unexpected touches like a haunting harmonica wail to add a hint of individuality to their craft.

One flickering ray of light to be found is the adventurous "Aubade/And I Am Not Like Other Birds of Prey," a tune that's better than its preposterous title by far. The initial foray is a ghostly organ piece that has little to do with the song that ensues. It has a folkish, early Genesis vibe that makes me think Rick and Roger were two of the twenty or so who purchased that seminal group's first album and were favorably influenced by it. The track doesn't follow the usual commercial pattern of the times and, while not particularly invigorating, one must concede that they weren't aiming to scale the pop charts with this eclectic fare. "Words Unspoken" is an amateurish concoction of disconnected ideas forced together to make a tune and Palmer's distracting pseudo-jazz guitar noodlings make it even harder to sit through. Hodgson whips out his trusty flageolet to pipe the intro to "Maybe I'm a Beggar," another dour ditty that displays their deep-running folk roots. They lay down a very timid track that belies their studio na´vetÚ, the arrangement is far too predictable and Richard's sloppy guitar solo is atrocious and painful. They end side one with a cozy campfire number called "Home Again" that's strictly junior league and was probably an afterthought.

By blatantly ripping off the riff from the Yardbirds' "Train Kept a Rollin'" they attempt to get some dancers on their feet with "Nothing to Show," an up-tempo rocker with octave vocals but they generate little heat, if any. Davies' Wurlitzer electric piano ride during the extended instrumental segment is a welcome change of pace but it rambles on without direction for the most part. On "Shadow Song" Roger's usually strong soprano seems unsure of itself and it's the kind of number where everybody tries to find something to play on it without getting in the way. It's bland and devoid of dynamics.

The longest cut, "Try Again," is the dented crown of this wilted bunch. Their admiration of pre-"Trespass" Genesis is apparent and that's not a bad thing in this case. The inclusion of multiple melodies and a Gabriel-styled slant in the vocal make this by far the proggiest entry. The curious bent-string breakdown was not well thought-out, however, but at least Palmer doesn't overextend his abilities and ruin the mood completely. Rick's growling Hammond leads the tune's gradual buildup to the obligatory, shuffling "boogie" movement (a popular time-filling ploy of that age), then they return to the original gist. They indulge briefly in an ill-advised, totally out of character "freak out" detour that makes me think that sugar daddy Stanley insisted they do something "wacky like those Pink Floyd guys" somewhere along the way. Fortunately they manage to end it with a boisterous exclamation point. The coda is a reprise of "Surely" that broadens out into a grand processional aka Procol Harum and it's actually one of the album's finer moments.

Kudos to Rick Davies for not hesitating to take advantage of the huge opportunity presented to him. He didn't let the fact that he was a fresh fish out of water stop him from dedicating himself to learning everything the hard way by tenuous trial and error. He and Roger Hodgson also didn't allow themselves to be wholly discouraged by the failure of this LP to generate even a smidgen of public interest but cheekily chalked it up to being a lucky pair of neophyte sheep in the company of wolves that somehow survived to bleat another day. When you take into account that after only one more so-so album they would put together their incredible "Crime of the Century" masterpiece you must conclude that the rich prince's folly was anything but. Just goes to show how powerful a little encouragement (and, of course, a fat wallet) can be. 2.3 stars.

Chicapah | 2/5 |


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