The Great Albums

Supertramp, Breakfast in America

June 30, 2002


We take a lot for granted in America, so much so that some of our oddest behavior often becomes invisible to us. For this reason, it can be enlightening to view ourselves through the mirror held up by an outsider.

The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously turned his focus upon us in Democracy in America , which was published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Italian commentator Beppe Severgnini did something similar much more recently with Ciao, America: An Italian Discovers the U.S. But in the world of rock, few albums have done this more effectively than Supertramp's "Breakfast in America," which was issued in pristinely remastered form (though devoid of the liner notes or extra tracks that we've come to expect from quality reissues).

"In America, more than anywhere else in the world, care has been taken constantly to trace clearly distinct spheres of action for the two sexes," de Tocqueville wrote of relations between men and women here in the States, "and both are required to keep in step, but along paths that are never the same."

The English quintet Supertramp made much the same observation in 1979, surveying the wreckage on the battlefield in "the war between the sexes" at the end of a decade in which the liberating sexual revolution of the '60s mutated into the self-centered hedonism of the disco era before the inevitable backlash brought about a resurgence of our infamously ingrained Puritanism.

None of this made us very happy. Or, as Roger Hodgson sang from a decidedly male point of view in the title track: "Take a look at my girlfriend/She's the only one I got/Not much of a girlfriend/Never seem to get a lot."

Contemporaries of the original English progressive-rock bands such as King Crimson and Yes, Supertramp formed in 1969, though, like Genesis, it always placed more emphasis on sound and songcraft than on flashy displays of technical prowess. The group did share the ambition of merging rock's energy with the loftier "artistic" aspirations of classical music, and its origins recall the famous patronage system of Renaissance Europe: The band got its start when a young Dutch millionaire named Stanley August Miesegaes agreed to fund a band led by his friend, vocalist and keyboardist Rick Davies.

Davies found his bandmates through an ad in the weekly Melody Maker, and the group enjoyed its benefactor's largesse for two albums before Miesegaes withdrew his support. On its third album, the combo move toward a lighter, poppier sound largely defined by the alternating vocals and dueling keyboards of Davies and fellow songwriter Hodgson. Released in 1974, "Crime of the Century" began to build the group's following, but its real masterpiece would come with its sixth album.

The sarcastic humor of "Breakfast in America" starts with the striking cover image, which is seen as if through an airplane window. A plump, maniacally grinning, and very American waitress stands in for the Statue of Liberty, her back turned to a New York skyline constructed of kitchen utensils, egg cartons, and condiment holders.

As anyone who has ever traveled Route 66 can tell you, the soul of this country can be found at its roadside diners, so it's little wonder that Supertramp begins its overview of this country's landscape with a hearty breakfast (though as the musicians chow down in the back cover photograph, each of them is reading a British newspaper).

Supertramp relocated to Los Angeles to record the album, and the group worked at that city's Village Recorder. Appropriately enough, the disc opens with the spare and moody "Gone Hollywood," contrasting the image of America's dream factory with the protagonist's actual surroundings "in this dumb motel/Near the Taco Bell/Without a hope in hell."

The conflict between the American ideal and the American reality runs through the album's 10 songs, finding its most eloquent voice on the second track, "The Logical Song," which examines the familiar art-rock theme of the Romantic artist struggling to find his place in the harsh modern world. (Or, viewed against the backdrop of the current music scene, the art-rock Utopian looking for relevance in the age of punk-rock realists.)

While the musical settings are worlds apart, Supertramp's basic message isn't really that different from that of bands like the Clash or the Sex Pistols (though the latter would strongly object to that). "When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical," Hodgson croons in "The Logical Song," unfurling a string of well-chosen adjectives over a jaunty, rolling piano. "But then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical."

Like many in the '70s, Davies and Hodgson long for a world where it's OK to dream, but they don't overly idealize the dreamers. The fairly despicable men who populate songs such as "Goodbye Stranger" ("I'm an early morning lover/And I must be moving on") and "Take the Long Way Home" ("So you think you're a Romeo/Playing a part in a picture show") cavalierly tramp on their lovers' emotions as they search for their own elusive fulfillment. The songs could well have been written by John Travolta's vacuous character in "Perfect," if not by Tony Manero in "Saturday Night Fever."

Echoes of that film's phenomenally successful soundtrack can be heard throughout "Breakfast in America," in some of the driving (and, yes, danceable) rhythms, but especially in the falsetto harmony vocals, which recall not only the Bee Gees in their disco years, but the far more interesting (if less familiar) art-rock group of the early '70s. (There's an interesting mystery to be solved in the question of why so many progressive rockers, from Jon Anderson to Peter Gabriel, and Geddy Lee to the boys in Supertramp, chose to sing as if they were girls.)

Musically, "Breakfast in America" can now be heard as a fine example ofwhat's lately been called "ork" (short for "orchestral") rock, a missing link in the chain between "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys (who are evoked by the line, "See the girls in California") and recent groups like Cardinal, Yum-Yum, and Belle & Sebastian (though indie hipsters will scoff at this idea). While a band like the Electric Light Orchestra turned to classical instruments as arena-rock shtick, Supertramp utilize woodwinds, brass, and strings skillfully and sparingly, adding just the right touch to the mood of the songs.

One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find better use of a tuba anywhere in rock than on the song "Breakfast in America." And the occasional clarinet rocks, too.

Driven by the singles "Goodbye Stranger," "The Logical Song," and "Take the Long Way Home," the album eventually sold more than 18 million copies worldwide. But to focus unduly on the radio hits (which became almost annoyingly ubiquitous on FM rock radio through the '80s) is to slight a disc that works best as a wonderfully moody and very personal travelogue, cataloguing overheard "Casual Conversations," pausing for a moving prayer with "Lord Is It Mine," and ending with the beautiful ballad "Child of Vision," which poses a question that's as valid today as it was in 1979, and which could perhaps only be asked by a stranger visiting a strange land.

"You're messing up the water/You're rolling in the wine," Supertramp sings. "You're poisoning your body/You're poisoning your mind/You gave me Coca-Cola/You said it tasted good/You watch the television/It tells you that you should/How can you live in this way?"