Taking The Long Way Home - Roger Hodgson
by Peter Lindblad
Being trendy was never high on Roger Hodgson's list of priorities.
So, when the beautiful people of the late '70s were squeezing into tight polyester pants and doing whatever they could to be seen at Studio 54, Hodgson and Supertramp were merging Beatlesque pop sensibilities with progressive-rock ambition to create a sound that was both radio friendly and deceptively complex.
"Supertramp was always out of step with the times, out of step with fashion, and you know, it was our blessing and our curse," says Hodgson. "I mean, we never looked at the world and thought, 'Oh my God, we've got to do a disco record,' or 'we gotta do this because that's what's happening out there.' We were doing our own thing, and we didn't have any guidelines within the band. A great pop song, 'It's Raining Again,' for example, was as much fun to play as 'Fool's Overture,' which was epic, or 'Rudy.'"
Open to a broad spectrum of influences, ranging from classical to folk to rock and prog, Supertramp, with its songwriting tandem of Hodgson and Davies, sold scads of albums in the '70s. Starting with its third album, Crime of the Century, in 1974, Supertramp began a wildly successful run that culminated in 1979's Breakfast In America, a masterstroke of pop invention that yielded classic AOR staples like "Logical Song," "Take The Long Way Home" and "Goodbye Stranger." In between, Supertramp released 1975's Crisis? What Crisis?, and 1977's Even In The Quietest Moments, which spawned one of the band's most enduring hits, "Give A Little Bit."
All of this came on the heels of two bloated, but undeniably melodic, progressive-rock albums, a self-titled debut and 1971's Indelibly Stamped, that were commercial failures.
Of the band's first album, still prized by a large segment of Supertramp's fan base, Hodgson says, "I think it did have a certain magic back then, but I don't really think it stood the test of time. It's got a certain charm to it, but maybe it shows the seeds of what came later."
At the time, Supertramp, formed in 1969 when a Dutch millionaire bankrolled Rick Davies' dream of recruiting a rock band and Hodgson answered Davies' ad in Melody Maker for a partner, was struggling to find its identity. Founding members Richard Palmer and Robert Miller left before 1972 and eventually, Supertramp's rich patron withdrew his support.
Left to their own devices, Hodgson and Davies regrouped, adding bassist Doug Thompson, percussionist Bob Siebenberg and multi-instrumentalist John Helliwell. With this lineup, Supertramp pulled off the Crime of the Century and experienced a rebirth.
"That was a very exciting time for us because we'd just found the band, we'd just found John and Bob, and even Dougie hadn't been with us that long," recalls Hodgson. "The record company had heard demos of 'Bloody Well Right' and 'School' and said, 'Hey, there's something here. Let's support them.'"
On the strength of those singles, Supertramp convinced the label to let them go to the country to continue work on what would become Crime of the Century.
"It was the fashion of that time. Traffic had done it, and so, we wanted to do it," says Hodgson. "We wanted to be put up in a farmhouse and just live together for a few months to really bond and come up with something really great, and that's what we did."
Team Supertramp, consisting of "the wives, the dogs, the babies ... everyone," according to Hodgson, set up in the west country of England for three or four months.
"We literally had our equipment set up in the garage and dreamt and came up with Crime of the Century," says Hodgson. "And then from there, we went and recreated what we'd come up with demo-wise in the farmhouse with Ken Scott in the studio. it was a magical time."
A contradiction of simple, concise pop songs like "Dreamer" and "Bloody Well Right" and wandering, exploratory prog-rock, Crime of the Century reconciled the two driving forces within Supertramp that were always at odds.
"The great thing about it was, we didn't censure or limit ourselves, or I didn't anyway," says Hodgson. "And I think that's the secret. I think when you start doing that — which I've fallen into, when you start trying to come up with a hit or trying to create an album that's going to fit with the current music scene — you're doomed."
Faced with the daunting task of trying to live up to the artistic and commercial promise of Crime of the Century, Supertramp got off track a bit.
"There was a lot of pressure to come up with an album quickly and go out on tour after the success of Crime of the Century," remembers Hodgson. "I knew we had the songs. I think Crisis? What Crisis? is a great selection of songs, but they didn't come out as good as I was hoping anyway. And part of that was the stressful situation we were under. So, yes, the title of that album definitely suited what was going on in the band."
Emerging from the pressure-cooker of Crisis? What Crisis?, Supertramp turned introspective for Even in the Quietest Moments.
"Crisis? What Crisis? came from a sketch that Rick did in the waiting room of the studio, and it reflected the stress we were under just getting that album completed," explains Hodgson. "Even in the Quietest Moments really reflected my spiritual search. I had done a lot of searching in California and done a lot of yoga retreats and meditation retreats, so the mood of the album came from those experiences."
To many, Crisis? What Crisis? and Even in the Quietest Moments were seen as steps in the evolution that would produce the majestic pop breakthrough Breakfast In America. Hodgson doesn't view it that way. To him, each album had its own distinct personality, and Breakfast In America was a whole different animal.
"Breakfast In America was, again, just a collection of songs," says Hodgson. "I've always had about 60 or 70 songs to pull from. I still have. So, when it came to making an album, Rick never did have a backlog, so I had to kind of look at what he did, what he was writing, and see which songs of mine blended with his to make a great listening experience. So, I was always trying to find the best collection of songs. Like, 'Fool's Overture' wouldn't have belonged on Breakfast In America, you know? Or 'School' wouldn't have belonged on Crisis? What Crisis? It's amazing how each album does have its own vibe."
Supertramp's post-Breakfast In America period saw the band pursue more R&B-oriented material. 1982's appropriately titled Famous Last Words wound up being the band's last stand on the album charts, producing the hits "It's Raining Again" and "My Kind of Lady."
A year later, Hodgson abandoned ship. The reasons were varied. Some have posited the idea that family strife tore Hodgson and Davies apart. Others say Hodgson wanted a solo career. Whatever the case, Hodgson says the contradictory nature of his partnership with Davies was actually the key to Supertramp's success.
"It was very much the magic or the essence of Supertramp, that kind of yin-yang polarity of Rick's songwriting and my songwriting and our two musical styles," says Hodgson. "Rick was five years older than me, so he had grown up on the music of jazz and blues. That was his background, and that's where he gravitated towards, where I grew up on The Beatles and more pop rock. Actually, when we played together, there was an incredible empathy between the two of us — when it was just the two of us — and it was very magical, especially earlier on, when there weren't too many other people around and it was, literally, just the two of us."
A healthy competition developed between them.
"We wanted to give the best of ourselves, and having another writer in the band kind of gave that sense of competition that really did bring out the best in us," says Hodgson.
As far as their working relationship goes, Hodgson and Davies had separate roles.
"When it came to recording and arranging the songs, that was really my forte more," says Hodgson. "I was the main arranger in the band. I wrote all the bass parts, for example. Rick came up with the quirky ideas. I was more into arranging. I saw the big picture of the song, and Rick came up with the quirky additions, and I loved 'em. So, it was a good marriage. And funny enough, rhythmically, when the two of us played, it was really electric, and our challenge was really to find a drummer who could support that, the two of us playing, and Bob was the closest we came to it."
Backing up the unique, percussive piano stylings of Hodgson's — so apparent on songs like "Take The Long Way Home," "Logical Song" and "Dreamer" — was not easy for any drummer, although Hodgson never meant it to be difficult.
"You know, I really think of myself as quite a primitive piano player, keyboardist," says Hodgson. "I did take music lessons, or piano lessons, for a year or two when I was a teenager, but they didn't really help. I never got into reading. It was more I just got into playing for fun and out of it came a very unique style that's actually more percussive, more rhythmic, than technical. I mean, I think if a classical pianist looked at my style, he'd say, 'Oh my God, how can he play like that? Your hands are in the wrong position, etc.' But it works for me. It was supposed to suggest what the drummer was supposed to do, and ideally, the drummer would come in and play, and they'd be married together, my style and the drummer's. But it's interesting, you do kind of hear the beat in my left hand and my right hand, and you can hear what the drummer's supposed to be doing."
After Supertramp, Hodgson did embark on that solo career, turning out well-received efforts such as In The Eye of the Storm, Hai Hai, Rites of Passage and Open The Door. An accident that left him with two broken wrists derailed his best-laid plans, but a recently released DVD, Take The Long Way Home — Live in Montreal 2006, and a rousing acoustic performance at the Concert for Diana in 2007 have put him back in the public eye.
"I really feel like this time in my life is a whole different era," says Hodgson. "Even though I'm singing a lot of my old songs, it's almost like I'm having a whole new relationship with them. I certainly have a whole new appreciation for them. And I think, because I'm enjoying singing, and I'm enjoying performing, and enjoying life in general much more, that's helping to make this feel like a whole new beginning. I don't know. [His time with Supertramp] was so long ago now, and it was a wonderful time in my life, but I'm 57, and it feels like I've gone through several lives in this life. Supertramp was one. My family and marriage was another, and now I feel like I'm in another one."
Does the life he has now have any room for Davies? Hodgson says the two have been talking lately, but there are no plans to record together. As for his solo career, he's just happy to have options.
"Word is spreading that I'm back, and that I've got a great show, and that I'm in good shape, and people are really enjoying it," says Hodgson. "So, we're getting offers in every day. It's wonderful. I'm just very happy to be in such good shape and having such a good time, and whether an album is in the future, there probably is, but I don't know what the timing of that is."
Judging from the amount of hits he's had, his timing is awfully close to impeccable.
Peter Lindblad is the Editor of Goldmine Magazine