Supertramp – Crime of the Century (1974) – a classic rock album review

Well, we haven’t done one of these in a while, eh? I have plenty of other bands I could choose to write one of these about, and I will, but I’ve been in a Supertramp mood just lately (I may or may not have recently written a short story that is most emphatically NOT Supertramp fanfic), so I figured I’d go back and look critically at a few of their classic albums, starting with their third album, the star-making Crime of the Century.

Supertramp Crime of the Century

tl;dr Version: If you don’t already know this album front to back, I have no idea how you got here. But just in case you need help deciding, here’s my review.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: This album was one of the then-current rock albums playing in my household around the time my baby sister was born, and it is as deeply embedded into my musical DNA as Sgt. Peppers, A Night at the Opera, and Boston’s first album. I don’t need any other reason to like it, but there are a great many reasons to do so, and most of them are musical.

Boring Version: My favourite art teacher basically hated these guys (he called them Supercramp), and in the late 80s, it was fashionable to dump on any band that had prog rock pretentions, and Supertramp was a pretty ripe target, given that they managed three albums of middling progressive rock sensibilities, and then began shedding that mantle for a more jazzy pop stance that eventually lead them to Breakfast In America and a brief touch with super stardom, followed by the obligatory 80s breakup album, and the long, slow descent into rock obscurity. But during this period of their career, they were brilliant, and this album, though not as commercially successful as Breakfast, is perhaps their critical high water mark, bookending their most fertile period.

School starts with high, wailing harmonica. We’ve heard plenty of harmonica in westerns, folk songs and classic blues records, but for a prog rock album, that’s a new one, at this point in the game. Roger Hodgson eventually takes over, singing the opening lines as guitars approach from either side like sparring partners feeling each other out, and then a crescendo of sound initiates the dance. This is a poignant number trying to explain the complexities of the social conditioning institution that is school. The instrumental on this is monumental and goes through a building phase and an arrival phase, never being too chops-heavy, but being both very muscular and melodic, piano and bass waltzing with a bit of synth in the background. The bridge back to the verse is pretty beefy, delivered by songwriting partner Rick Davies, and then Roger takes it back and hammers it home with a verse that leads directly into the surprise outro. Very strong opener.

Bloody Well Right opens up with a slightly bluesy chops fest on the mighty Wurlitzer electric piano, and then a mountain of saxaphone and funky guitar escort in Rick’s answer to Roger’s opening statement, thus establishing this as something of a concept album, though I hesitate to name it as such outright, for reasons I’ll explain later. This number is a rollicking, rocking number with a bit of a clever twist, as the chorus is pinned on this almost dancehall piano figure, and the outro, when it arrives, is a jazzy pop turn. A very cool song.

Hide In Your Shell is where the theme of the album gets a little more ethereal, Roger singing about a philosophical outlook on life against a gentle stack of layered keyboard lines, and then the chorus arrives. The thing is, as pop songs go, this has three or four different distinct sections of music that come and go almost too quickly to write about. There’s even Theremin in there. After the second go round of the verse and chorus sections, they go into a long refrain segment where Roger basically concludes that he needs to make some kind of connection to his audience. And then another distinct section of music as they wind to the finish with a singalong chorus and R&B saxaphone.

Asylum is where they dial it down a bit, Rick on grand piano, singing about his pal Jimmy and his funny ways, before it comes clear that someone wants to have our singer locked up in the titular asylum. The premise might seem a little trite or absurd from my little precis, but the thing is, the musical themes (and there are several) make it clear that this is a very considered piece of music. The lyrics are some of Rick’s most cutting, as he makes it clear that people really don’t understand him, even as he laughs at their confusion over his behaviour. It has this elegiac refrain section with organ, strings and carillon bells and all the rest, and the thing is, the twist is, he starts to break down towards the end, and it becomes apparent that the joke is on him, and it’s such a dark ending, you can’t help but feel a little hollowed out by the finish. And then it finishes with that jaunty little piano figure from the top.

Dreamer Is probably the first truly dyed in the wool pop song in their entire canon, and yet, this is no meager Britney Spears track. Roger delivers this refrained chorus intro with an electric piano figure bouncing along behind him that carries the entire song, and the piece winds round and round until we find ourselves in a call and answer section with big damn drums and the whole thing winding to a crashing halt with a little xylophone chiming away to the rhythm of the now vacant piano. Incredible.

Rudy opens with a truly gorgeous piece of grand piano figure, and then Rick starts singing about Rudy, whose story seems to tie us back to the main story, but by the slenderest of threads; a possible reference to his troubles as a school boy. There are several lovely sections of music in this seven minute track, including a bit with a voiceover in the background, and a fierce call and answer between Roger and Rick to a Shaft-like funk theme. It’s a truly powerful piece of music, arriving at an almost Day In The Life moment that leads us into a brief coda, and it becomes clear that he has been watching a sad movie, and he’ll soon be back on his train.

If Everyone Was Listening has another piano opener, Roger spelling out a theatrical presentation, alluding to the metaphor time and again as an analysis of the audience and life in general as a theatrical performance. The music goes through a few distinct phase using strings, clarinet and piano, but I won’t attempt to break it down for you. it’s short enough.

Crime of the Century is without a doubt the closing number, and it’s a moody thing with piano and huge drums slide guitar and then carnival organ as it becomes apparent that the titular crime of the century has been committed not by some criminal mastermind, but by you and me. And what is our crime, we’re left to wonder, as the guitars and pianos and swirling organ and Moog bass and immense drums and a string ensemble and finally the greatest saxaphone solo in the universe leave us to ponder. By the end of the song, you really want to know what the hell you did wrong.

This album is and has always been a bit of a mystery to me: a concept album in almost exactly the same mold as Sgt. Peppers, where the story is actually made of several seemingly disconnected vignettes (a lot like my latest novel, but I digress), tied together by a unifying theme of powerful dissatisfaction with life and society as we know it. It burns through and exhausts easily two album’s worth of song segments in half the time, chewing scenery and leaving you feeling like you’ve just had open heart surgery. So it IS a concept album of sorts, but not a neat and tidy narrative one as we have come to know them thanks to the efforts of Pete Townshend and Roger Waters. It’s still a most affecting album for me, and chokes me up in a few places when I think too long about what certain lines have come to mean to me personally.

So yeah, if you’ve actually never heard it–HOW have you never heard it?–and this review has done nothing to inspire you to check it out, or even if, like my high school art teacher you don’t like the band or the album, I’m at a loss for what to say. Truly. It’s a monumental album, and maybe not the most progressive, but certainly one of the most moving of it’s day. And in the end, isn’t that what life’s about?

© 2015 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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