Behind the Album: How Supertramp Became the Unlikeliest Rock Heroes with ‘Breakfast in America’

It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon that was the 1979 album Breakfast in America by Supertramp. Normally, you’d say that it was the right band at the right time, or some cliché like that. But that didn’t really apply here.

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Their brand of “sophisti-rock” didn’t quite gibe with punk and disco, the musical extremes of the era. And it’s not like Supertramp were a buzz-band at the time; instead, they were more like respected veterans whose individual members were relatively anonymous. How then did this all come to pass? Let’s go back and have a little Breakfast. Maybe some kippers, Mummy dear, Mummy Dear?

They Took the Long Road … to Stardom

Supertramp first formed in 1969 and released two albums that went nowhere. But their 1974 record Crime of the Century found some footing thanks to the hit single “Dreamer.” The band fell very much in the progressive rock camp, with ornate instrumentation and long suites adorning their records. To balance that out, they featured a pair of solid songwriters in Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. The two men possessed contrasting lyrical and musical sensibilities, which made their albums more diverse than the average prog fare.

Still, as 1979 rolled around, you would have received massive odds on Supertramp coming out that year with one of the most successful rock albums of all time. The band’s subtle change in approach while making the album that would become Breakfast in America was to streamline their songs just a bit for better radio consumption.

While there wasn’t a hard-and-fast theme connecting each song, Breakfast in America did include more than a few piercing looks at life in the U.S. as viewed by outsiders. Despite hailing from Great Britain, Supertramp always performed better stateside, and their members (John Helliwell, Bob Siebenberg, and Dougie Thomson were on board with Hodgson and Davies for the album) had also lived there for years.

A Filling Breakfast

Working with producer Peter Henderson, Supertramp toiled tirelessly through 1978 to get everything right, taking months on the mixing process alone. But it was worth the struggle. Breakfast in America features a fantastic, crisp mélange of sounds. The songs were earworms, which is why the hit singles kept coming. But they contained enough dynamic musical twists that they didn’t wear out their welcome from the constant airplay. Think of Helliwell’s feverish sax solo on “The Logical Song,” Davies’ impassioned harmonica on “Take the Long Way Home,” or the ingenious melding of two melodies in “Goodbye Stranger.”

Hodgson, with his high-pitched vocals, rose to the forefront with his offerings. “The Logical Song,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Lord Is It Mine” captured that middle-aged questing-and-questioning vibe that’s always been such great fodder for songwriters. Meanwhile, his title track offered a somewhat jaundiced look at American excess.

For his part, Davies mostly came through with tracks that focused more specifically on one-to-one relationships, although the album-opener “Gone Hollywood” dovetails very well with Hodgson’s material. Davies also delivered the unforgettable “Goodbye Stranger,” which managed to take a lovable look at a guy whose peripatetic lifestyle causes him to leave behind his relationships. And it gave us all a chance to indulge in some falsetto singalongs.

The Aftermath

It’s kind of staggering to think of the success Breakfast in America has enjoyed, with somewhere close to 20 million albums sold. Three Top 20 singles in America also came from the record, which topped charts around the world. Sadly, the success also seemed to exacerbate the growing rift between Hodgson and Davies.

In a dynamic not at all unlike that of their prog-rock competition Pink Floyd (they even both had divisive members named Roger), Davies and Hodgson reached the point where they couldn’t work together. The title of the Breakfast in America followup in 1982 proved prophetic, because Hodgson would depart after …Famous Last Words…, never to return. Davies led the band through four more albums, the last of which was released in 2002.

Although the five men who made this landmark album are all still living, there’s no sign a reunion is forthcoming. Supertramp’s career before and after doesn’t quite suggest the band had a peak like Breakfast in America in them. But they did, and oh, what a peak it was.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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