Classic Music Review: Breakfast in America by Supertramp

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My review of Breakfast in America has nothing to do with an intense passion for Supertramp, or a desire to fill an obvious hole in my library. Prior to this review I knew very little about Supertramp. I had heard “The Logical Song,” “Give a Little Bit” and “Bloody Well Right” and maybe a few other tunes, but nothing I heard left much of an impression either way.

What motivated me to write this review is that my understanding of French culture is still a work in progress. Having a French mother and visiting France several times over the years helped me acclimate to a certain extent, but until you actually experience daily life in a different country, you cannot begin to appreciate the differences between your new culture and your culture of origin.

There are many things I find puzzling about French culture. French humor completely escapes me, but as I didn’t find the Americans all that funny, it’s no big deal (the British and the Irish, though, leave me in stitches). The taboo against excessive smiling is something I understand intellectually, but after having smiled naturally for thirty-three years I’m not going to make a major effort to rid my face of my laugh lines. French taste in music is another area where complete alignment is highly unlikely, for while I have the same level of appreciation for jazz, the French don’t rock very hard. And while I love the great French chanteuses, I find French male vocalists almost abhorrent. It’s easy for anyone to fall in love with Françoise Hardy or Camille; trying to get into Serge Gainsbourg requires major aesthetic reconstruction.

My curiosity about French musical tastes is what drove me to review this particular album. I happened upon an astonishing statistic one day while researching French music-buying patterns. Breakfast in America is the biggest-selling English-language album of all-time in France.

Take a moment to get your head around that fact.

Now look at this list. These are the English-language albums on the top twenty best-selling albums of all-time in France:

  1. Breakfast in America, Supertramp
  2. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd
  3. Thriller, Michael Jackson
  4. 1967-1970, The Beatles
  5. Saturday Night Fever (soundtrack)
  6. The Joshua Tree, U2
  7. 1962-1966, The Beatles
  8. Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits
  9. Dangerous, Michael Jackson

Notice any curious absences? None of The Beatles’ real albums made the list. Nor did any albums by The Rolling Stones. In fact, neither The Beatles nor the Stones have ever had a diamond album in France, the highest category possible, and the diamond level was reduced to 500,000 copies in 2009. English-language artists with diamond albums include Elton John, Nirvana, The Cranberries, Madonna, Norah Jones, Phil Collins, Shakira, Simon & Garfunkel, Spice Girls, The Black-Eyed Peas and ZZ Top.

What the fuck kind of culture is this? No Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Elvis, Tull, Iggy Pop, The Clash, Hendrix, David Bowie, Steely Dan? How did Nirvana make that list and not Oasis? ZZ Top instead of The Who? Do these people know dick about rock ‘n’ roll?

The answer is an emphatic no. The most popular rocker of all-time in France is a guy named Johnny Hallyday, whose career involved translating Elvis, dance-craze tunes and certain iconic chart-toppers into French. His versions of “Hey Joe,” “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Black Is Black” are worth a few giggles, but that’s about it. Like most French male singers except Christophe Maé, he gobbles the scenery.

But he doesn’t sound anything like Supertramp, and I wanted to solve the mystery of Breakfast in America, an album I had never heard in its entirety until a few weeks ago.

I listened to it three times, as always, and the more I listened to it, the curioser and curioser the experience. I didn’t like it at all the first time through, but that’s not uncommon. Often it’s a sign that the artist is doing something daring and different. After the second pass, I swore I would find the bastard who invented the Wurlitzer electric piano and gouge out his eyeballs. What a horrid fucking instrument! After three times through, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Who the fuck would buy such obvious crap?

A lot of people, apparently. Breakfast in America went quadruple platinum in the States. Wow. Won two Grammies. BFD. One of the Grammies was for the “art package,” which tells me that people in 1980 had very low standards when it came to art. The other really blows my mind: “Best Engineered Album.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Breakfast in America is seriously overproduced, over-arranged and over-engineered. Every bit of available space is filled with something superfluous, every song is drenched in echo and reverb to make it sound “big,” and every arrangement is designed for maximum drama, even when both music and lyrics are as empty as a politician’s promises. There is very machine-like quality to Breakfast in America, as if it went through whatever that doohickey is that takes all the healthy stuff out of Wonder Bread. The two lead singers, Hodgson and Davies, have vastly different approaches to vocals, and the only thing they have in common is that they’re both bloody awful.

As demonstrated most vividly on the album’s biggest hit, “The Logical Song,” Roger Hodgson has a pouty voice. In this trite and silly song protesting the transformation of the imaginative and free-thinking child into another drone—an ancient theme dating back to Dickens—he sounds like the whiny little kid that you’d love to beat the shit out of if you were violently inclined. “But I don’t wanna be wogical,” you hear him sniffle. Like all of his tunes, “The Logical Song” has a sing-songy, pogo-stick quality, like you’re listening to the music of someone whose real dream was to join the circus and instead had to settle for a career as an overrated rock star. The song “Breakfast in America,” a recounting of Hodgson’s adolescent impressions of the United States, defines the word “vacuous,” and while his vocal does come across as adolescent-sounding, all of his vocals sound that way, so it’s not like his pouty little voice enhances the meaning of the lyrics (not to imply that there is any meaning of measurable significance).

As for Rick Davies, he has the voice of the lead singer in a third-or-fourth bill band who got the job because he was the guy who owned the P. A. system. In his big hit, “Goodbye Stranger,” he sounds like a Brit trying very hard to sound like a Texan, as if that were a desirable and laudable goal. I read where his voice was described as a “raspy baritone,” which is somewhat fair if you add the word “characterless” before “raspy.” I also read that he is admired for his “sophisticated blues and jazz-influenced progressive rock compositions,” but he sure as shit doesn’t show any talent in that direction on this record unless you consider Kenny G a jazz musician.

The worst song on an album of really bad songs is the insipid “Lord Is It Mine,” where Roger takes the poutiness out of his voice and turns choirboy. Saccharine and submissive to the point of embarrassment, the song opens with the classic slow piano chord intro used to introduce many an empty rock opus. The lyrics are so astonishingly childish that I wonder if it was something he wrote as a kid and still believed in Santa Claus:

If only I could find a way to feel your sweetness through the day
The love that shines around me could be mine
So give us an answer, won’t you
We know what we have to do
There must be a thousand voices
Trying to get through

Not a whole hell of a lot of insight there. Any logical kid is going to wonder, “Hey, if a billion people are praying to God at the same time, how do I know he’s listening to me?” The answer is never properly explained here or in any religious text, and according to these lyrics, there is apparently no need for the question, since “we know what we have to do.” When the logical part of the mind has atrophied, circular logic is all that comes out. Another explanation for these lyrics and the rest of the fluff on Breakfast in America is that Supertramp began life as a progressive rock group, and apparently they carried forward the tendency of that genre, inherited from psychedelia, to write lyrics that seem to be pregnant with meaning but are as empty as a virgin’s uterus.

I won’t bore you by covering all the equally weak tracks on this turkey, but even after a thorough study of the record, its popularity with the French remains an enigma to me. My mother can’t stand them, but she’s an independent and iconoclastic woman when it comes to music. The French generally appreciate jazz, which is full of the unexpected; Breakfast in America is thoroughly predictable. Then again, electronic dance music is popular here, and that music does share the same over-processed characteristics of Breakfast in America. We only have one guy in the office who was in his late teens in 1979, a charming gent named Michel, and as an aficionado of classical music, he had only a very vague memory of the album. I did learn that Supertramp did a big live concert recorded for posterity in a former slaughterhouse gussied up with the name “Pavillon de Paris,” so maybe their popularity was heightened by that performance. Roger Hodgson said in an interview (with touching modesty) that “my songs touched the heart of the French people,” and he may have something there. The French can get surprisingly sentimental at times.

Sigh. Now I know that I live in a country where the people adore superficial, sentimental pop music. Comparing and contrasting that to the culture of my country of origin, I’ll take superficial, sentimental pop music over gun worship and unrestrained greed any time.

4 responses

  1. Had a good chuckle at this one! You’re braver than I am since I’ve never been able to sit through one side of a Supertramp album (yes, I have tried). They were a strange and rather anonymous band… ask anyone on a street in Britain or America to name two members and I think you’d see them struggle to name just one. They had a few hits here in the UK and thankfully they seem to be almost forgotten now.

    As for their music… non! It’s muzak to my ears – slick, empty, no substance and ultimately, bland – they don’t rock, they’re not inventive and I abhor that whole sound. It says absolutely nothing to me. I admire your attempt to give them a fair crack of the whip but I just knew they wouldn’t turn you on in any way! It is bizarre to learn of this album’s lofty status in France… TRULY bizarre. Well, at least I can go to sleep having learnt something new today!

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  2. It’s not like the French are on their own in their fondness for this album. It was a massive seller in America and many other countries as well. The reason is simple: It is full of catchy tunes. I don’t think the album has aged particularly well, and I haven’t listened to it in years, but “Goodbye Stranger” alone has more hooks than entire albums by other artists. The same goes for “Take The Long Way Home.” And as for “The Logical Song,” I agree that it is whiny and obvious, but damn, is it ever catchy! The busy arrangements and angsty vocals perfectly reflected the era in which the album was made, but really, it’s all about the catchy tunes. That’s always been the case with pop music, so maybe you are just pulling our legs when you pretend to be mystified by the popularity of this album.

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    1. No, I’m not pulling anyone’s leg. I get the catchiness, but the bottom line is it’s an album of muzak, and since you can hear muzak everywhere you go, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to buy muzak. I’m still trying to figure out how my French, classically trained mother could go through a John Denver phase, so maybe it’s just part of the French character that I’ll never understand.

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  3. I don’t think it sounds like Muzak. The hit songs, in particular, have a lot of energy and dynamic range, and the shrill vocals really grab one’s ears. The music has lost most of its impact as years have gone by, but like most mega-selling albums, it racked up most of its sales in the first year of its release.

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