Supertramp – Crime of the Century Review
45 years ago today, on the 1st of September, in 1974, British prog-rock band Supertramp released their 3rd studio album, “Crime of the Century” After, 2 relatively unsuccessful albums, “Crime of the Century” finally took the band to the upper league, with 2 hit tracks (“Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right”) and a place in UK’s Top 10 Albums list. It was the first album of theirs after their breakup, which led to it being drummer Bob C. Benberg, woodwinds player John Helliwell, and bassist Dougie Thomson’s first feature in the band. It defined Supertramp’s piano-centered sound with frequent sax additions by John Helliwell. With its combination of prog and pop elements, the album appealed to a very large audience, as can be seen from the volume of its sales.
Rick Davies – lead & backing vocals, acoustic piano (tracks 1-3, 4, 6, 8), Wurlitzer electric piano (tracks 1, 2, 5), Hammond organ (tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 8), harmonica (tracks 1, 3, 8), Moog synthesizer (tracks 1, 3, 6), string synthesizer (track 3)
Roger Hodgson – lead & backing vocals, electric guitars (tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8), 12-string acoustic guitar (tracks 1, 3), acoustic guitar (tracks 2, 8), acoustic piano (track 7), Wurlitzer electric piano (track 5), Fender Rhodes electric piano (track 3)
John Anthony Helliwell – saxophones (tracks 1–4, 6, 8), clarinet (tracks 1, 6, 7), backing vocals (tracks 3, 5, 7), glass harp and celesta (track 5)
Dougie Thomson – bass guitar
Bob C. Benberg – drums, percussion
Christine Helliwell – backup vocals on “Hide in Your Shell”
Scott Gorham – backup vocals on “Hide in Your Shell”
Vicky Siebenberg – backup vocals on “Hide in Your Shell”
(Anonymous street musician) – saw on “Hide in Your Shell”
Ken Scott – water gong on “Crime of the Century”
1- School (5:35)
Being the opening song of the album, the track “School” is the song that foreshadows the upcoming musical feast and it is probably the song that can be considered as the most proggy and that can summarize the whole album. Starting off with a bluesy harmonica, we get the metaphor of the school actually being the jail itself (because harmonica is an item that is specific for jail-and the cover art contains jail bars). After the harmonica parts, we get to hear the beautiful and dramatic voice of Hodgson and with an acoustic guitar. After the small build-up of the song, you hear a melody that is one of the best I’ve heard in my life. The piano breakdown of the song could be the only reason to buy the vinyl even if the rest of the album was garbage, it is that amazing. Next, we hear the tone changing bridge to avoid us from getting bored. School ends with Roger’s sensitive acoustic guitar and voice. The song is thoughtfully and genuinely produced and written since all of the instruments adds so much more to the song-considering their absence.
Roger Hodgson was a “dreamer” private school student and this piece is actually a dedication for his little self when he refused to adopt the system of school and created his own personality without the limitations and directions of it(similar to the song Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2). The lyrics contain the inner thoughts of young Hogdson, as well as the pressuring society. However even though the general direction of the song is being a cynical epigrammatic way, Hodgson ends the song with giving a hopeful and encouraging message, which is “be yourself no matter for what-because it is up to you”:
While I am still living, I’ve just got this to say, It’s always up to you if you wanna be that way.
2- Bloody Well Right (4:32)
The catchy bluesy melody of “Bloody Well Right” took it to the top of US charts at the time of its release. The song consists of the phrase that named the song, which makes it being a US hit pretty ironic considering it’s specifically a British phrase. The lyrics are a follow-up to “School” which is easy to see in the first line: “So you think your schooling’s phony.” It basically makes fun of all the complaining in the first track and says that it will not amount to anything. After repeating the phrase “You’re bloody well right” 5 times in the hook, it says “I don’t care anyway,” which is indicative of the self-mockery between these two tracks.
As for the music, the song continues pretty uniformly throughout. The bluesy Wurlitzer piano, occasional guitar licks, and the funky sax sound are enough to describe the song. Supertramp of course did not leave the music as is, without any experimentation whatsoever. The heavy wah solo, in the beginning, is a really nice addition to the overall theme. Many such elements, combined with the laid-back vocals create a happy, joyful vibe. The song talks about how the complaints you have about the system will not be fixed, which is a pretty messed up thing, but does so in a very care-free, laid-back way. In that sense, such a piece of simple and joyful music beneath these lyrics make perfect sense.
3- Hide In Your Shell (6:50)
The opening, that sounds upbeat yet genuinely shy, has one of the most beautiful chord progressions created on an electric piano thanks to the genius of Roger Hodgson. The melody of it is the preparation for the vocal lines, sung by Hodgson, which creates a smooth flow between the sections. Though the melody is slow and soft, the lyrics that accompany is much darker and reflect a melancholic picture. He refers to the person that he is talking to and criticizing as “you”, which gives the listener real goosebumps when it’s mixed with the angelic voice of Hodgson. It is as if he is seeing through our souls and singing it in a fashion that makes it relatable to every audience.
Hide in your shell cos the world is out to bleed you for a ride What will you gain making your life a little longer
About the song, Hodgson himself said: “People often write to me and say that this song, in particular, strikes a chord in them. Maybe it’s because I was going through a difficult time in my life when I wrote it that people are able to relate to it. Our teenage years seem to be difficult ones for many of us, especially if one is sensitive. I know there is a tendency to want to Hide in Your Shell.”
The song itself is a prog masterpiece, and it doesn’t even need odd time signatures to achieve this title. It has choruses, verses, and pre-choruses all blending with each other to create some of the most catchy and memorable sections on the whole album. It is filled with small additions, just enough and at the right time, that make every part more unique and enjoyable to listen to. And especially after the more apparent and laid-back feel of “Bloody Well Right”, this melancholic song represents the identity of Supertramp, a piano-driven group that is not afraid to take risks and combine pop, rock, jazz and progressive rock with such mastery. This combination was what made Supertramp a grand success overnight with Crime of the Century, and it is also what makes this band an unforgettable experience that will stand against the obstacles of time.
4- Asylum (6:50)
This song can be examined by Supertramp’s musical talent and it would still be an amazing review however I want to do something else with Asylum, I want to focus on its songwriting. This song’s narrative is one of its kind and the use of music improves the narration in a way that I have never seen anywhere else. With the help of the medium of the music, this narrative is told in the best way possible. The track opens with a calming piano intro that gives a twist to the story. This piano gives a sense of security to the listener and creates a peaceful atmosphere. With this delightful piano intro, the audience jumps into a very interesting narrative of a person who is suffering from a mental illness. Even though this person suffers from an illness, he denies it. He doesn’t want to go to the asylum. He claims that
I’m just as sane as anyone It’s a just a game I play for fun – for fun.
With the vocals, the listener can really feel the feelings of this person. His desperate tone when he says “Please don’t arrange to have me set to no asylum” makes listeners root for the character. And with the help of the false sense of security and trust, the listener starts to believe that yes it is just a game, he is not really insane. However, something whispering can be heard in the background; something sinister which suggests that the narrator isn’t that reliable. Then the song starts to increase its energy. With the entrance of the drums and the other instruments, the experience the song delivers turns into exciting from relaxing. With this entry, the song makes a turn. Now the audience sees that something in our character is wrong. He is not like others. And because of this difference main conflict enters. Men from Asylum tries to put our narrator into a cage. While they are putting him in a cage, our character laughs to their anger while still pleads for his life which shows that there is a division in the narrator’s mind. While men are putting him to the asylum forcefully, Supertramp uses a calming tone for the song. While bad things happen to our narrator Supertramp uses a relaxing background to create “conflicting tones” which is a technique used for creating an uneasiness. And in this situation, they used it as successful as Tarantino. Then the sinister whispers start to creep into the narrator’s mind which shows that he is in an asylum for a reason. In this part, trust that was created at the beginning of the song starts to fade away. The message of the narrator switches to insurrection against the fact that he is insane from a cry for help because of a false diagnosis. Everything starts to build up. Our narrators reach the maximum in the denial. Everything explodes with
Now I’ve never been insane Oh what’s the game? I believe I’m dying…
Then the audience sees the narrator falling in the madness and sinister thoughts of his win. The narrator loses his mind, everything goes to chaos, and screams are everywhere in his mind. He starts to admit that he is actually mad and song loops to itself with the calming piano melody which does the opposite of relaxing. Compelling narrative combined with music that improves the story, this is the formula of great songwriting.
5- Dreamer (3:33)
Dreamer is the song that winds the people up from the similar songs that they have been listening to thick and fast(Hide in Your Shell and Asylum). Being the refreshing lemonade of the album, the dreamer is another song that is written by Roger Hodgson(Half of the songs of the album is written by him, the other half is written by Rick Davies; both of them sings the songs that they have written). Roger Hodgson has materialized his personal feelings about him being a person that rejects the expectations of society and finding his way through the art(songs School, C’est Les Bon and much more), and encouraged people to be themselves-while mocking the people that underestimated him in a cynical way:
Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer, Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no!, I said dreamer, you’re nothing but a dreamer
Starting off with a lullaby-ish electric piano, Roger Hodgson’s voice directly cuts through it and we get the hear the harmony vocals and different techniques that the band uses to create tension(such as vocal dialogs between Davies and Hodgson that is used to demonstrate different people-it is also used in the song Rudy in the album). The song ends without truly reaching any climax with the same electric piano and toy voice that is used at the beginning of the song; as if the song was just a “dream”. Supertramp is one of the bands that used the keys and piano in so many different ways, and this song is certainly an example of their versatility.
6- Rudy (7:21)
Another hit from the album, the sixth track “Rudy”, written by Richard Davies, is a tale on its own. This probably explains why it is the longest track in the album with over seven minutes. The sound of the train at the beginning of the song was recorded at the Paddington station, in London. Though I wished that it was longer to establish the scene in a more elaborate way (maybe adding a few more details from the train station to make it more realistic and add more depth), it is a great start when you consider the story which kicks in after a haunting piano intro by Roger Hodgson that can somehow drift through different genres seamlessly.
This song, at its core, is about alienation and possibly aging. The main character Rudy, who also gave the track its name, is a lonely boy wandering through a city that is no good towards him, sitting in a train that has no destination for him, and living a life that has no meaning to him. On an “In the Studio with Redbeard” episode devoted to the album, Roger Hodgson stated that “Rudy” was the character on the album and was seen as somewhat autobiographical on Rick Davies’ life at the time. But these personal lyrics, when released in a groundbreaking album, went on to become a voice to many people that struggled with the same emotions as Davies.
So dim the light, dark are your fears Try as I might, I can’t hold back the tears. How can you live without love, it’s not fair? Someone said give but I just didn’t dare
“The Ballad of Rudy” once again proves Supertramp’s love for not following the usual order of song structure. You never know what will come next: a chorus, a pre-verse, or just a stupendously sophisticated strings section (we can all thank Davies for that beauty). By always holding the element of surprise, Supertramp found the freedom of constructing their songs according to its necessities, they weren’t limited by the simple rules of cheap songwriting, they couldn’t be. Because with Crime of the Century, Supertramp wanted to analyze something so genuine, yet so overlooked in today’s world: humanity. But who said we humans are as easy as a verse-chorus-verse song structure? We have hundreds of different emotions and thoughts that we express each day, and the worst thing is that sometimes we can even experience them all at once. And this was what Supertramp captured in this album, with their complicated structures, soulful melodies, and expressive lyrics. They captured the real profoundness of being a human in today’s world, whether it’s Rudy or anyone else referred in the album.
7- If Everyone Was Listening (4:06)
Hodgson’s final lead on the album “If Everyone Was Listening”, which is built on a rocking piano during the verses is the least popular song in the album. This striking melancholic tune (that’s the part where Rudy supposedly gives up, after all), thanks yet again mostly to the piano, although instruments like the saxophone and sax (god bless you Helliwell) also give out remarkable performances. Even though this song sometimes reminiscent of Pink Floyd, they are still very confident about their own sound. The highlight of the song is the subtle clarinet during the choruses and alto sax lead in mid-section which is just a little bit of Helliwell’s talent. Helliwell for me was hiding lots of his talent in the album and this is one of his shining points. His masterful use of woodwind instrument makes him one of the best sax (and other woodwinds) players in the world. With the help of clarinet, back-vocal, and effective drumming, chords become a divine hymn. Also, the intellectual lyrics of Hodgson’s helps this song to thrive.
If everyone was listening, you know There’d be a chance that we could save the show Who’ll be the last clown To bring the house down? Oh no, please no, don’t let the curtain fall
According to Entertainment Weekly, the message of the song is, “Not knowing what’s going on in everyone’s mind is just another form of not being in control. The fear comes not from the absence of knowledge of another person’s thought process, but rather from confronting the fact that we have no control over anything.” With his deep lyrics and Helliwell’s amazing performance, this song can be considered the most underrated song on the album.
8- Crime of the Century (5:33)
It is no doubt why the album is named after the ending song, “Crime of the Century.” The song is, in both my and the band’s opinion, the strongest song of the album. It comes in two parts. Initially, out of the silence that Rudy left the listener to bear, Rick Davies’s touching vocals and a piano melody that strictly follows the vocal melody appear. The grand piano sound highlights the emotional aspect of the song, if it had been any other synthesized keyboard sound, the song would not be as emotionally loaded as it is. The drummer strikes the toms just as Davies cries: “So roll up and see how they rape the universe” The rest of the first part is a constant back-and-forth between the drums and vocals. Davies shouts about the “lust, greed and glory” of mankind, and the drums respond with an almost angry tom fill. Eventually, the guitar joins this ritual by doubling on top of the drums and ending the first part of the song.
Up to this point, 2 minutes have passed in the song. The actual lyrical part only lasts about 1.5 minutes, and then Davies lets the instruments speak for themselves, as they can tell just as much as, or maybe more than words. In direct contrast to the first part’s busy, classical-sounding piano playing, the second part only has a 2-chord iconic yet simple piano melody to carry the song to the end. As if the emotional load in the instruments and lyrics already presented in the song isn’t enough, a string solo is put behind the piano. And then, the sax solo. If you are a saxophonist, listen to it a thousand times. If you are not a saxophonist, still, you gotta listen to it a thousand times. The sax solo in “Crime of the Century” is my favorite saxophone part in any prog song. Gentle Giant can not top this. King Crimson’s whacky sax parts can not top this. Even “Careless Whisper” can not top this. Moving effortlessly between chords, adding embellishments just in line with the drums, reaching up to the high notes through the ending. That. F#. In. The. End. And then, BAM, the harmonica we heard at the start of the first track “School” reappears, this time, as if it’s the last call at a bar. “We’re wrapping up kids,” it says, “take the last sip from that delicious sax, the strings, the piano, the drums, you’ll miss those guys.” And I do, every time. That’s why the album has been on repeat on my music app for like 3 years.