'Breakfast in America': On the Album That Turned Supertramp Into Superstars (And Triggered Their Dissolution)
Supertramp’s 1979 quadruple platinum-selling smash Breakfast in America is not, in the strictest, sense a concept album. Its principal creators, the British-born prog-rockers Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies have been quite clear about this point.
That said, Breakfast in America -- released on 40 years ago this Friday (Mar. 29) -- is a record largely informed by the pair’s experiences and observations of American society after settling in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s. Materialism, the quest for fame, television, California girls, Texas millionaires, Coca-Cola and Taco Bell all have a place within the grooves of this masterpiece of exquisitely arranged pop-rock. If the 19th Century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville had arrived in the U.S. a century later and tried to format his observations into densely layered, but unspeakably catchy pop songs, it might look and sound quite a bit like Breakfast in America.
Supertramp’s breakthrough album was released 40 years ago today to immediate commercial triumph. The band’s three previous records had all gone gold in the U.S., but the runaway success of the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 smash “The Logical Song,” pushed Breakfast in America to new heights. Two other singles, “Take The Long Way Home” and “Goodbye Stranger” eventually cracked the chart's top 20, and the LP itself hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart just a month after its release on May 19th. It ended up holding the top spot for six non-consecutive weeks that spring and summer, the third-longest run of 1979 atop the chart, just behind Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door and The Eagles’ The Long Run.
The impressive commercial dominance of Breakfast in America was by no means an accident. The album was part of a conscious effort made by Davies and Hodgson to shift away from their progressive rock roots on albums like 1974’s Crime of the Century and the following year’s Crisis? What Crisis? into poppier and more consumer-friendly territory. And yet, to actually pull off that kind of course-correction is no simple feat. “In a way, it’s easier to write minor-key opuses than a really good catchy pop song,” Davies told RAM Magazine in 1979. “That’s not easy at all.”
The challenge of creating and arranging Breakfast in America consumed nearly a year of their lives, including seven months’ worth of overdubs, and another two months dedicated just to mixing the different songs. Monday through Friday, from 2:00 to 11:00 p.m., the band worked tirelessly perfecting every note, while also trying out off-kilter ideas just to see how they sounded.
Meticulousness was everything, but the effort shines through in the precise sound of each track on the record. From the vibrant saxophone solo on “The Logical Song” to the razor sharp falsetto harmonies on “Oh Darling.” The harrumph of the horns on the title track to the crunch of overdriven guitars intertwined with the glistening melodies on “Just Another Nervous Wreck,” everything is exactly as it’s meant to be.
Because all of Supertramp’s songs are credited as having been written by Davies & Hodgson together, you get an illusion that they were written “eyeball to eyeball,” to borrow a phrase from John Lennon. This is decidedly not the case. Though both men gave input on each other’s compositions, they were largely written separately. Of course, nothing in the context of a band is created in a vacuum and much of the shape of the music stemmed from the clash of personal proclivities between the two of them.
Hodgson reportedly wrote the title track while he was still a teenager, and had to wait eight years before Davies would acquiesce to putting it on one of their records. The latter always thought the song's signature hook (“Take a look at my girlfriend...”) was a trite piece of writing which may not have worked among the tracklist of Crime of the Century, say, but certainly fits the aesthetic of this album. For his part, Hodgson dissuaded Davies from calling the record "Hello Stranger," and centralizing it around a musical conversation between the two of them. Both were proven right in their individual stances in the end.
The breadth of topics and the incisive way they are written about remains the central power of Breakfast in America. It’s actually a pretty dark record, but hidden by a wall of Wurlitzers, bombastic saxophones, and soaring vocals, it takes a few listens before you start to comprehend its truest depths. There’s the painful quest for glory on the album opener “Gone Hollywood." The yearning for innocence lost on “The Logical Song.” The general sense of world weariness on “Lord Is It Mine.” And the simple desire just to be really heard by another human being on “Casual Conversations.”
Despite their undeniably successful collaborative abilities, Breakfast in America also signaled the beginning of the end of Supertramp. “I could sense the album was going to be huge, but I could also sense the band was splitting up,” Hodgson told In the Studio. “I knew the beginning of the end was being sown.” Indeed, Hodgson and Davies lasted just one more album together, 1982’s …Famous Last Words… -- which hit the top 5 of the Billboard 200 and launched a Hot 100 top 20 hit in "It's Raining Again," but suffered from the disparity between the competing visions of the two artists, and achieved nowhere near the blockbuster sales or impact of Breakfast in America. Hodgson would depart for a solo career afterwards, leaving Davies the sole remaining original member of Supertramp.
All these years later it’s a bit ironic to listen to Breakfast in America and consider how many of its songs have become ingrained in the fabric of American pop culture. Michael Scott re-interpreting “Goodbye Stranger” into a shady send-off to The Office’s hangdog human resources head Toby Flenderson is an outstanding example. So is the use of “Take The Long Way Home” in Judd Apatow’s cult television favorite Freaks And Geeks, or Homer Simpson name-checking the “rise of Supertramp” while flashing back to his courtship of Marge, soundtracked of course, by “The Logical Song.” And of course, emo-rap outfit Gym Class Heroes rose to prominence in the late '00s with the breakout hit "Cupid's Chokehold," whose Patrick Stump-sung chorus interpolated the famous "Take a look at my girlfriend..." vocal from "Breakfast."
What was once a subtly satirical, outsiders view of the country in its title, has morphed into an essential touchstone of America itself. If only Supertramp had heeded their own advice on “Gone Hollywood”: “There’s no use in quitting / When the whole world is waiting for you.”