The Very Best Of Supertramp


Polygram, 1990

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I went to a small high school. This meant that, while I didn’t know every single person there, I was at least passing acquaintances with most of them, and the rest of their names at least rang a bell. I feel the same way about the bands that were popular when I was in high school in the late ’70s. There are the ones who were my best friends. There are the ones who were in my class who I was very familiar with. And then there are the ones who I’ve nearly forgotten many times in the intervening years, but when their name is mentioned, I’ll go “Oh, yeah, I remember that one conversation we had” (or that one song I liked).

Supertramp is one of the latter bands. I was never a fan, but there were certainly a handful of songs I was familiar with, and while I don’t regard them with any particular nostalgia or deep affection, they’re familiar in the way that a classmate who I wasn’t friends with but shared experiences with might be. They are of an era, and so am I. And that leaves me open to revisiting them and exploring mutual memories of times and places.

One of the things about these guys is that they never really seemed to resolve what kind of band they wanted to be. A little bit pop, a little bit prog, in some ways they briefly defined the sub-sub-genre of prog-pop—structured, hooky verse-chorus-verse songs that nonetheless never shied away from digressing into carefully segmented yet esoteric little jams, or taking a quirky angle on a subject, giving this very British group a sort of Pink Floyd-meets-Badfinger aspect. They also had a pair of strong singer-songwriters in Rick Davies (keyboards / vocals) and Roger Hodgson (guitars / keys / vocals), with Davies providing an edgier, jazzier contrast to Hodgson’s airy yet incisive compositions.

The group’s 1990 anthology my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Very Best of Supertramp is, to my ears, exactly what it says it is. You get six tracks—fully three-quarters of an album—from their very best studio release, Crime Of The Century, four from their best seller Breakfast In America, a pair from the solid Even In The Quietest Moments, and just one a piece from a trio of their lesser discs (Crisis? What Crisis?, …Famous Last Words…, and the first album recorded after Hodgson left the band, Brother Where You Bound). Their earlier and later albums are deservedly ignored.

The hits will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’70s, or has listened to classic rock radio since. “Goodbye Stranger” is elastic pop-rock with prog tendencies, remembered mostly for its hooky chorus, but it’s actually a rangy song with distinct segments that feature interesting transitions. “The Logical Song” builds a tune that asks if growing up has to mean losing your idealism and becoming cynical around a jaunty keyboard melody even as it delivers this piercing summation of bourgeois life: “Respectable, presentable, a vegetable.” And this is where Supertramp really thrives—in the flickering contrast between the light and the dark, the playful and the angry. A song like “Bloody Well Right” locates the essence of Supertramp in the tension between the gentle, frisky electric piano and the stinging guitar, as well as between the airy Hodgson lead vocal and the growling Davies reply,

When Supertramp is catchy, they’re really catchy; it takes an act of will not to sing along to a chorus like “Take The Long Way Home,” or “Dreamer,” or especially the stadium-sized singalong “Give A Little Bit.” These are pop songs with gravitas, songs about loneliness, shattered idealism, and longing, set to indelible hooks.

The less familiar songs—which tend to feature more of Davies’ rougher vocals and less of Hodgson’s—are somewhat of a mixed bag. “School” and “Crime Of The Century” lean to the prog side of the band with distinct sections and transitions, the latter with a strong Floyd feel as Davies’ railing vocal gives way to a dreamy, rather hypnotic middle section featuring a heavy, circular melody embellished with a sax solo. “Rudy” ditches the sing-songy electric piano often featured elsewhere in favor of straight-up percussive piano and features some interesting tempo and tone shifts, plus a long jam.

The notable moments remaining are two. The hooky Hodgson number “It’s Raining Again” features a snazzy sax solo from the under-utilized John Helliwell, playing off against a catchy keyboard melody. And the closing “Cannonball” features Davies’ angry kiss-off to his departed songwriting partner, a cold, sleek, repetitive, mostly unappealing exercise in self-indulgence that suggests the group should have called it day when Hodgson left.

The Very Best of Supertramp takes just the right approach for a casual fan like me, mixing a few deeper album tracks in with the well-known singles while keeping a tight focus on the group’s most memorable work. I do remember these songs, and many of them are well worth getting reacquainted with.

Rating: B

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