- On 08 October 2012
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Creammagazine , Oct 4th, 2012
Supertramp are a band as definitive of the 1970s music scene as any other. They possessed all the key ingredients required just as the mainstream music arena really began to grow competitive. Up against the ubiquitous likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (from the more ‘serious’ side of rock) and ELO and America (the somewhat lighter side of the spectrum), Supertramp stood out thanks to a universal sound that combined genres of pop, rock and a brand of new electronica (their main competition in that department was, indeed, ELO – whose very name in full – the Electric Light Orchestra – ultimately convinced the rock fraternity that electro would eventually be the way to go in making music, at least in part).
Each member of Supertramp could proudly boast multi-instrumental skills, dabbling in brass and woodwind here, digital technology there. The band formed in the UK in 1969 and split in 1983 due to lead singer, Roger Hodgson, calling it quits to bring up kids. In 1988, the band re-formed with former members and several new ones. One key player has been John Anthony Helliwell – famous for his saxophone and keyboard contributions to hits such as Breakfast In America, The Logical Song, Dreamer, Goodbye Stranger and Take The Long Way Home.
Four of those singles were lifted from the album Breakfast In America, which to this day makes it into credible music magazine’s ‘best of’ lists. In The World Critics List, music journalist Joel Whitburn ranked Breakfast the fourth greatest album of all time. In The Guinness All Time Top 1000 Albums it was voted #207, and also made the 69th greatest British rock LP of all time in the Classic Rock industry poll. In Australia, Triple M listeners voted the album in at #43 in their ‘100 Greatest Albums of All Time’, and in France it is the biggest selling English LP of all time and the third biggest seller overall (and believe us, there is stiff competition in the music business in France).
As well as playing various instruments in the band, Helliwell serves as MC during their live gigs, one of which – recorded in Paris in 1979 – has just been released in HD on Blu-ray and DVD. Here, Helliwell chats to Cream about longevity in the music industry, the art of the remix, and delivering repeated magic on stage as he and his band does on record.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Tell us about the release of your Blu-ray and DVD Supertramp: Live In Paris.
J.H: You have to bear in mind that this was filmed in the ancient days of the end of the ’70s so it was not recorded digitally initially, but on proper film. But it comes over very well. It’s actually good to be able to see it so clearly after all these years. Of course we’d heard the music on the live album Paris but it’s nice to see the concert in full.
This particular concert was performed and recorded in 1979, which was a phenomenal year for Supertramp, being the year your perennial album Breakfast In America came out.
J.H: Yes, we released Breakfast In America in March of that year, and we began touring in August right through to December. The live recording was done about eight months into that tour, so we were very together and knew what we were supposed to be playing. Looking back at it, it’s good to see the empathy and the tightness in the band.
You would have had a lot on your plate then. There were four hit singles from that album alone.
J.H: Yes, and that was the longest tour we’d ever done so we were very tired by the end of it, and actually took a couple of years off after that. Everyone was a bit knackered at the end of it, but it was well worth it. It was actually the last time the five of us [original members] played together. For the tour after that we had some extra musicians… In general, I think 1979 just captured a really good spirit for us as a band.
How do you compare music of that era compared to what you’re hearing on radio and on the net today?
J.H: Well I get a bit fed up with the music of today. I think there’s still a lot of good music out there, but there’s also so much more out there nowadays and I can’t listen to everything. There are some genres of music that I don’t get. My range is classical, jazz and pop, and blues and soul.
So would I be right in saying that a lot of your influence went into the bigger Supertramp hits with all that fife and brass?
J.H: The sound we made at that time was just the combination of the five of us, working together sounding quite unique. Admittedly, it was unusual to have a saxophone in a rock group back then. And certainly it was unusual to have keyboards in there. Our sound just happened to have a magic combination I think. As for influences, there was the Beatles-type background from [lead singer] Roger Hodgson and [bassplayer] Dougie Thompson, and from myself and [keyboardist] Rick Davies came a more jazzy-type sound. And then, from Bob Siebenberg – our American drummer – came a sort of surf sound.
Well the combination worked to appeal to a broad audience. Even today bands are taking samples from your records and weaving them into dance music, of all genres.
J.H: Yes, there have been a few dance versions of our songs but if you ask me, the originals are the best [laughs].
When did you tour most recently?
J.H: Well the last tour we did with the same band members that you see on the Blu-ray and DVD, was in 1983, but Supertramp have played ever since. In 2010 we toured Europe for two months, and then we toured Canada, and then back to France in 2011. We haven’t played this year but we could possibly tour next year again. It’s up to Rick Davies when we work, but I’m always happy to.
How likely would it be that we might see you tour Australia?
J.H: I’d like to think of it as a possibility. The last few tours have been through Europe and North America. Australia is obviously quite a long way, but I’d like to come back. We were there in the ’70s, even before this video was done, actually. I think was 1976 we were in Oz.
Is there any modern music that you particularly like?
J.H: I love Muse; I think they’re really creative.
They’ve certainly got a vaudeville edge to them that I thought you’d find appealing.
J.H: Yeah, they’re a little like Queen used to be. They can go ‘pomp’ and then get back to basic rock. They’re my favourite band at the moment. Them, and Elbow.
I think we need more pomp and circumstance in music; it helps keep us entertained.
J.H: Of course. There are a lot of miserable records out there, so we need something to make us happy.
Well musicians are show-people at the end of the day, so part of the job should be to make us –the audience – happy.
J.H: That’s true, but there’s room for all types. If you want to go to a concert and think about things and be morose, you can go see Morrissey. But there’s all sorts now, and I think variety is good.
On the subject of showmanship, I believe you’re the MC of the band, telling stories on stage in between songs.
J.H: That was just because nobody else wanted to do it! It started when we were touring in 1974 for the album Crime Of The Century. It was all quite serious, that album, so it was good to just relieve the tension occasionally with a bit of a chat. I still do it, and like to keep it natural and to not think too much before I speak. Sometimes I can put my foot in my mouth, but most of the time it engenders a good spirit with the audience.
Do you feel you’ve got enough stories from life on the road to write an autobiography?
J.H: I haven’t written anything because I find it difficult to remember stuff, but Bob Siebenberg is writing an autobiography which obviously includes a lot of Supertramp, so that’s something to look forward to.
Thinking cap on now: what are your top five albums of all-time?
J.H: Let’s see… Asia by Steely Dan would have to be in there… Heavy Weather by Weather Report… Somethin’ Else by Cannonball Adderley with Miles Davis… Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis… and I’d also pick Glen Gould playing [Bach’s] Goldberg Variations. That’s just off the top of my head.
Nice variety. Thanks for your time, John, and we look forward to watching the Live In Paris release.
J.H: Thank you, and enjoy!