Breakfast In America for Beginners: A Duffers’ Guide to Supertramp’s 1979 LP

(Almost) everything you need to know about Breakfast In America, Supertramp’s sixth album which is 40 years old this year

  • Album: Breakfast In America;
  • US Release Date: 29 March 1979 (#1);
  • UK Release Date: 31 March 1979 (#3);
  • US Chart Singles: The Logical Song (#6), Breakfast In America (#62), Goodbye Stranger (#15), Take The Long Way Home (#10);
  • UK Chart Singles: The Logical Song (#7), Breakfast In America (#9), Goodbye Stranger (#57);
  • Producers: Peter Henderson/Supertramp;
  • Management: Dave Margerson, Mismanagement;
  • Supertramp: Richard Davies (vocals, keyboard), Roger Hodgson (vocals, lead guitar), John Anthony Helliwell (saxophone, backing vocals), Dougie Thomson (bass guitar), Bob C Benburg (percussion).

As pivotal dates go, the 29th of March 1979 really pushed the envelope. Britain was in election mood as James Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no confidence by one vote. This would lead to a General Election on the 4th May and a Commons Majority of 40 for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party.

Over in Los Angeles, the 29th of March 1979 was a pivotal date for an Anglo-American rock group. One of the said group’s earlier albums may have inspired a front page headline in The Sun: Crisis? What Crisis? Which was supposedly said by the departing PM during the Winter of Discontent whilst on holiday.

Whether you think Shakespeare, The Day of the Jackal or Supertramp inspired The Sun‘s (or Rupert Murdoch’s?) shift towards The Iron Lady is open for interpretation. At the start of 1979, Supertramp enjoyed some success in the UK and Europe. They were huge in France and Canada: co-founding member Roger Hodgson said at least one in three Canadians had a copy of Crime of the Century (in a solo concert in Montreal).

Though success in Europe is one milestone, the difference between a very successful group and a hugely successful group boils down to one market.

America. The United States of America.

The Beatles, who influenced Roger Hodgson in his formative years, broke the mould stateside. Likewise with The Rolling Stones. Depeche Mode are bigger in Boston, Massachusetts than Boston in Lincolnshire. Def Leppard, pretty much a cult band from Sheffield in 1983, struck more of a chord in Seattle than Settle thanks to MTV.

Back in 1979, Supertramp didn’t have MTV. Only word of mouth, radio airplay and A&M Records. By 1977, the band moved from the UK to Los Angeles to record their best known album, Breakfast In America. Recording began when Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson made some home recorded demo tapes. Another set of demo tapes were recorded at Southcombe Studios, Burbank, California, using an eight-track mixing desk.

For recording engineer Peter Henderson, this was a project that could make or break his career. In 1978, he became a freelance sound engineer, after previously working for AIR Studios in Oxford Street, London. As a freelancer he previously co-produced Climax Blues Band’s Gold Plated LP.

To save time on the final mix, they spent a week trying out different sound setup. One week became a month, then two months. By the second month, the group still weren’t 100% satisfied with the results. They could have done a bit more work, but they had a deadline to fulfil.

Their next stop was Studio B at The Village Recorder. In a 2005 Sound On Sound article, John Helliwell’s saxophone parts were recorded in the toilet facing the control room. The mixing was completed at Crystal Studios by the 22 February 1979 on a custom-built 56-channel mixing desk. Somehow they managed to reach A&M Records’ deadline taking a grand total of nine months to record the album. Seven months of the process included overdubbing; two months of which were spent looking for a good sound setup.

40 years on from its release, Breakfast In America still sounds fresh today. Given that its original release date predates the Fairlight CMI, software like Cubase and Pro Tools, the nine-months it took paid off. Shortly after release, Supertramp broke America and the rest, they say, pancakes with maple syrup.

A Whistle-Stop Tour of Breakfast In America

For newcomers to Supertramp’s collected works, this album, Crime of the Century or Even in the Quietest Moments… are suitable starting points. Breakfast In America is the group’s most accessible work and the one that endeared many followers to the Supertramp cause.

Side A

Gone Hollywood: thanks to a searing piano introduction, the opening track draws the listener into the album with a slightly melancholy tone. Topped by Roger’s opening vocals, it establishes the conversational nature of some of Supertramp’s music. If you are familiar with their earlier works, this approach is used in Fool’s Overture and Rudy. In this opening track, very much a ‘Rick Song’ which is melancholy till we hear a key change. This is marked by Roger’s refrain of “If we only had time/Only had time for you…” Thereafter, the song takes on a more happier guise.

The Logical Song: as you could tell, a ‘Roger Song’ with introspective lyrics and uplifting melody. This thanks in no small part due to the Wurlitzer electric piano. As stated in many of his interviews, Roger says how he was “a joy bubble” before having that taken out of his system in his adolescence. At the age of seven, he was sent to Stowe boarding school and his experience in Public School inspired The Logical Song. In the song, he is in a quandary as to whether he’s “a radical, liberal or fanatical criminal”. Near the end, we hear a Swanee whistle and a Mattel Electronics football game.

In the UK singles chart, The Logical Song was Supertramp’s highest placed single, peaking at Number Seven. By 2002, German techno group Scooter covered The Logical Song in their inimitable way, peaking at Number Two.

Goodbye Stranger: a Rick Song which shows the group’s mellow side and a second outing for the Wurlitzer electric piano on this side. Rick’s understated yet assertive delivery drives the song along which is neatly complemented by Roger’s falsetto vocals in the chorus. In the album version, the guitar solo at the end and Roger’s whooping adds to the song’s charm.

Breakfast In America: could you imagine this album without the title track? In my view, the title track is among my top four on this album. The song was written by Roger Hodgson ten years before the album was ever conceived. Three years after Scooter’s cover of The Logical Song, Gym Class Heroes covered the song as part of Cupid’s Chokehold.

Oh Darling: the final track on Side A is a good closing piece. From the start it shows off the Wurlitzer electric piano to good effect which precedes Rick Davies’ lead vocals.

Side B

Take The Long Way Home: by far my favourite track on Breakfast In America, thanks largely to its lengthy intro and harmonica. In Take The Long Way Home, the song details the travails of performing before being brought back down to earth. By the end of the song, it tells the listener how you’ve taken the long way home, hence “When you look through the years and see what you could have been/Oh, what you might have been/When you’d had more time”. It could also be a song that says “I’m glad to be home after a tough journey from Russia, Canada, or Ashton-under-Lyne”.

Lord, Is It Mine: true to form with any of Roger Hodgson’s work, a most introspective song. This is helped by an understated yet driving piano chord. The real cherry on the Bakewell Tart is the middle eight that follows John Helliwell’s saxophone solo (“If only I can find a way/To feel your sweetness through the day/The love that shines around me could be mine…”). The song was also used in the 1980 film Roller Boogie.

Just Another Nervous Wreck: also on the ‘B’ side of The Logical Song‘s single release, Just Another Nervous Wreck shows off Rick’s strengths as a storyteller. It is direct, with a style that would set the tone for Waiting So Long (on …Famous Last Words…) and in a Latino style on Free As A Bird with An Awful Thing To Waste.

Casual Conversations: another Rick Song though one where he takes sole charge of the vocal parts. John Helliwell’s saxophone parts are also a strong point in this song. The original title of Casual Conversations was going to be You Never Listen Anyway.

Child of Vision: a magnificent closing song with the Wurlitzer electric piano in full cry. The long radio-unfriendly intro leading up to Roger Hodgson’s opening vocals well and truly gets the listener pumped up for his retort. The song looks at the effects of American culture and encourages the listener to think differently.

The ones that got away

It is claimed that three tracks were omitted from the running order of Breakfast In America though resurfaced elsewhere. Waiting So Long is one example which appeared on …Famous Last Words… before Don’t Leave Me Now.

On Roger Hodgson’s solo début album, The Eye of the Storm, was two songs that were omitted from the final cut. Both of which on Side A; one being the album’s opening track (Had A Dream (Sleeping With The Enemy)) with the other being Hooked on a Problem (which closes the ‘A’ side of his 1984 LP).

Hello Stranger?

The original title of Breakfast In America was going to be Hello Stranger at the insistence of Rick Davies. During the recording process, Roger wanted a fun title for Supertramp’s sixth album. With the emphasis on entertainment, Rick Davies’ original lyrics for Gone Hollywood were tweaked to ensure commercial success. Before then, Supertramp’s more commercially inclined tunes were Bloody Well Right, Dreamer, and Give A Little Bit.

The front cover

Mike Doud’s front cover art is instantly recognisable, with breakfast items making up a Manhattan scene viewed from an aeroplane window. The Statue of Liberty is a waitress with a Libby name badge. In real life, Libby was played by the late actor Kate Murtagh.

The back cover

On the reverse, we see all five members of Supertramp enjoying their American breakfast in Bert’s Mad House, on La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles. They are seen reading their home town newspapers. Robert Siebenberg is seen with a copy of the Los Angeles Times; Roger Hodgson, The Oxford Mail; Dougie Thomson, The Glasgow Herald; for Rick Davies, the Swindon Advertiser. John Helliwell is seen with a copy of the Manchester Evening News.

The title track

The title track, Breakfast In America, predates the album by ten years. In 1969, the song was written by Roger himself on a pipe organ and based on his youthful impressions of America. Those of stunning Californian girls (cross-referencing The Beach Boys), the then-new-fangled Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, and a request for kippers at breakfast time (a very English breakfast option).

Strictly speaking, we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of Roger’s original song as well as the LP!

“When I was young…”

When I was born, Breakfast In America was troubling the higher reaches of the UK album chart, having peaked at Number 3 on the 06 May 1979. I first came across Supertramp via Piccadilly Radio (or some other local or national station) on a bus out of Oldham. The song was It’s Raining Again which formed my earliest memory of the group.

In 1989, thanks to Alan Freeman’s Pick of the Pops one Sunday afternoon on Radio 1, I first heard The Logical Song and thought “wow… fantastic”. It was taped on my fairly well worn Boots C90 audio cassette. Well, taped in a Ronco/K-Tel compilation sense with some parts trimmed off at the edges (with Fluff and myself running out of tape on side one). That afternoon played a great part in me wishing to explore the Supertramp canon further.

Ten years later (and nearly 20 years since its original release date), I picked up my vinyl copy of Breakfast In America from Huddersfield market. The album has been a firm favourite ever since, alongside the other Supertramp albums I have in my collection.

What happened next?

Breakfast In America changed the band’s fortunes beyond recognition. The album was released part way through the band’s world tour which opened at Balch Fieldhouse, in the University of Colorado. The album has sold over 18 million copies worldwide (and yours truly has two copies himself – vinyl and CD).

On the Billboard Hot 100 it was America’s biggest selling album of 1979. It didn’t do too bad in the UK either, peaking at Number Three and staying in the album charts for 52 weeks. It returned to the album charts for a week in 1983, shortly after Roger Hodgson’s decision to go solo and spend more time with his family.

1979 to 1983 was truly Supertramp’s golden era, elevating the band to worldwide stardom. The band moved from packed houses in theatres and student halls to open air arenas. Their reputation as a fantastic live band grew thanks to its visual effects and John Helliwell’s wry delivery as the Master of Ceremonies as well as their songs. This was captured for posterity in Paris (29.11.79), their 1980 live album recorded at the Parc de Pavilion in Paris.

In 1980 and 1981, the band had a well deserved rest before recording …Famous Last Words…, their last album with Roger Hodgson’s vocals. By then, Roger moved to Nevada City in northern California away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Part of …Famous Last Words… was recorded in his home studio (the Unicorn Studios) and at Rick Davies’ home studio (The Backyard Studios, Encino).

Due to the album’s sound engineering qualities, it was tested in Hi-Fi shops for demonstrating music centres and component systems. Its popularity led to seven reissues, firstly with MFSL’s audiophile release in 1990. Alongside the remainder of Supertramp’s back catalogue, Breakfast In America was reissued on CD in 2002. These were remastered by Greg Caibi and Jay Messina at Masterdisk from the original master tapes.

In 2010 came two rereleases: Deluxe and Super Deluxe versions of the CD, one with a second disc of live songs from the Breakfast In America tour, omitted from the Paris album. The Super Deluxe version included a poster, vinyl LP, poster, DVD, hardback book, and other memorabilia. At this time of writing, a nearly new copy of the Super Deluxe version is going for £196.50 (plus £3.50 postage and packaging) on eBay.

In 2013 this was followed by a Blu-ray HD release with the album available in three different sound formats. By 2018, MFSL rereleased a remastered version on hybrid SACD. There was also a vinyl rerelease on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean thanks to the renewed popularity of 12″ LPs.

Breakfast In America, 2019 style

40 years on, the album stands up well today. Most of its songs, particularly The Logical Song, Take The Long Way Home, and its title track, are performed at Roger Hodgson’s concerts. Wherever he is touring, his gigs make for an unmissable night.

Should yours truly reach his 80th birthday, there’s every chance that Take The Long Way Home would still be sung or played in 2059. The songs are evergreen enough to outlive Supertramp and its members.

Before I go…

Do you have any memories of Supertramp’s Breakfast In America album? Did you purchase your copy the first time around in Woolworths or your local record shop? Did you purchase any of the reissues? Do you have any special memories of the songs (if for example, you heard it on a café jukebox)? Feel free to comment. We particularly welcome comments from anyone who has seen Supertramp or Roger Hodgson live.

There’s only one way we can end this beginners’ guide to Supertramp’s most successful album: the track which opens the ‘B’ side. As John Helliwell used to say, “If you go home tonight, you must…”

S.V., 29 March 2019.

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