When the first CD player to break the $1000 price barrier went on sale in 1986 for $500 I could at last afford one thanks to Yamaha. But I had a dilemma. With virtually all of my available cash spent on the player I had very little left to purchase some CD’s to play on it. I had just enough to purchase 2 CD’s so I had to choose carefully. I wanted my first CD’s to have a dynamic sonic range so that I could test the boundaries of the new digital format.
In those days very few discs had been recorded specifically with the digital format in mind and while I could have gone for something obvious like Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms (one of the first albums to be recorded directly onto a digital format) I decided instead on Peter Gabriel’s So (which had just been released) and an older classic in the shape of Supertramp’s Crime Of the Century.
I took the CD player home and played those discs over and over again and when I went to bed that night I left Crime Of The Century set on that fabulous digital option called repeat and woke up the next morning with the disc still playing. This of course was previously impossible on analogue formats so it was a remarkable innovation at that time.
Now 30 years later with the purchase of a Technics turntable (see this post for the back story) I’ve now gone full circle and am rediscovering my vinyl collection – talk about a revolution. The last Made For Vinyl album I reviewed was So, which naturally led me to Crime Of The Century this time around.
I’m not about to sit here pondering the differences/nuances between the two formats by jumping from one to the other – far too clinical for my inclination. This series on Sound Distractions is really about rediscovering my vinyl collection – essentially when and why I first fell in love with these albums that were originally recorded for the vinyl format.
So what makes Crime Of The Century such a great record? As Supertramp’s third album it was a make or break record for them. Their first two prog rock albums had failed commercially and with that all of the band members apart from founding songwriters Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson had left the band. Then a year before these recording sessions began Supertramp’s Dutch backer Sam Miesegaes withdrew his support after financing the band for a number of years.
With a new line up featuring drummer Bob Siebenberg (credited as Bob C. Benberg), Dougie Thomson (bass) and John Anthony Helliwell on sax and clarinet the band entered Scorpio Sound, along with Trident and Ramport Studios (owned by The Who) to record Crime Of The Century in early 1974.
They became the band’s classic line up and would remain unchanged for a decade until Hodgson left the band. While Crime Of The Century wasn’t their greatest commercial success most of the band regard it as their creative peak.
The album opens with School, a killer track led by Rick Davies’ blues harp that oozes atmosphere with haunting guitar riffs that later builds seamlessly through Dougie Thomson’s driving bass and the song’s fabulously frantic keyboard solo from Rick Davies. Lyrically it’s a straight forward questioning of accepting the status quo and very much a predecessor to The Logical Song from Breakfast In America.
By this stage of the band’s career Davies and Hodgson were writing songs separately for the most part, although both School and the album’s title track were collaborations between the two. Hodgson says that School was basically his song, although Davies wrote the brilliant piano solo and made a significant contribution to the lyrics. For mine School is their finest song, closely followed by Fool’s Overture from 1977’s Even In The Quietest Moments.
After a solitary introduction on the Wurlitzer the theme from School carries straight into the opening line of Bloody Well Right with “so you think your schooling’s phoney” and with it the band launches into a funky strut with Rick Davies’ bluesy vocal delivering the chorus refrain that would become an all too familiar fan favourite. Bloody Well Right became Supertramp’s first US hit with American DJ’s preferring this track to its double A side counterpart Dreamer (which didn’t become a hit in the States until it was released again as the single from the double live album Paris six years later).
The melancholic Hide In Your Shell is vintage Roger Hodgson. The soaring harmonies from the group and the strident chorus with accompanying sax from John Helliwell ensure that the song doesn’t get bogged down in its own introspection. The intricate arrangement of the song and the interplay of the instrumentation is so impressive that it’s one of the real career highlights of the band as an ensemble piece.
Asylum is Davies at his dramatic and tortured best. There’s a real theatricality to the song from Hodgson’s spoken dialogue with lines like: “Good morning, how are you?” and “What a lovely afternoon!” but the real drama unfolds towards the end of the song when he howls like a man defending his innocence while being locked away because he’s “not quite right”. And then the song quickly falls into the simple piano melody with which it began and side one is done.
The album’s obvious pop hit Dreamer opens side two. The song was written by Hodgson when he was still a teenager and was the first time he’d laid his hands on a Wurlitzer. Roger’s demo of the song included a rudimentary percussion of cardboard boxes, but by the time he’d presented it to the band for inclusion on this album they were impressed enough with his demo to copy his original arrangement.
The real magic of Dreamer comes not from the multi tracking of Hodgson’s voice in the song’s hook, but the contrasting exchange between Hodgson and Davies’ vocals in the bridge about two thirds of the way into the song. The call and response of:
“If I could see something..” / “You can see anything you want boy” “If I could be someone…” / “You can be anyone, celebrate boy”
is derived from their separate vocals in alternating channels that then ramps up through the instrumentation and driving percussion into one final climactic chorus before the song simply tails away with Helliwell providing the tinkling bell-like sounds on a celeste.
Rudy was apparently an alter ego for Davies with the lyrics loosely based on his personal experiences of the time. The song is the longest and most complex track on the album and progresses through a series of ambitious tempo and genre changes ensuring Supertramp stay in touch with their prog rock roots. It’s when the 70’s funk section kicks into gear complete with synthesized disco strings around the 4 minute mark where the band are really smoking that the song takes off with Hodgson’s soaring vocal lines alternating with Davies really giving the song some juice:
“All through your life, all through the years” /
“Nobody loved, nobody cared”
“So dim the light, dark are your fears” /
“Try as I might, I can’t hold back the tears”
Again it’s the contrast between these two distinct voices (and personalities) that really gave Supertramp that edge and it’s why this album as the last album where Hodgson and Davies truly collaborated as songwriters and arrangers that made Crime Of The Century so exceptional.
If Everyone Was Listening has Hodgson taking the lead as he muses over our inability to control our own destiny, no mater how much we might plan and scheme with our own grand designs, ultimately we have to accept our fate. Musically it’s probably the song on the album that gains the least attention, but it’s a solid piece that taps into a little theatricality again with some trad jazz leanings.
The title track closes the album and what a finale it is. Davies’ vocal growl swings from sweet to sinister as he cynically dissects “these men of lust, greed and glory”. The symphonic sweep of the song is punctuated by a recurring piano motif with a propulsive drum pattern from Bob Siebenberg carrying the momentum with John Helliwell’s swirling sax solo an absolute standout.
Crime Of The Century is a brilliantly conceived album that keeps the integrity of Supertramp’s prog rock roots while broadening their sound to reach a wider audience. Rolling Stone rated it as one of the best prog rock albums of all time and while Supertramp made some superb albums in the years that followed none ever captured the dramatic tension between the band’s two leading players quite like this one did. Crime Of The Century is their magnum opus.