Reinvestigating Supertramp's "Crime of the Century": Prog Review #27

Reinvestigating Supertramp's "Crime of the Century": Prog Review #27

Crime of the Century.jpg

Even more so than Rush, Supretramp is the prog band that doesn't sound like prog. Crime of the Century is probably the most accessible album on the Rolling Stone list.

There are two approaches to prog that I can see. There are the bands who take the progressive impulses as the point in and of themselves. These are bands like King Crimson, Yes, or the Mars Volta who produce music that takes a lot of effort to understand and appreciate. The purpose is to do something new, experimental, challenging, and well, progressive.

And then there's a band like Supertramp for whom progressive features are taken simply as a way to enhance pop songs. I see Supertramp as more akin to Billy Joel and Elton John than to the contemporary prog bands of the day. While others built on a foundation of jazz, hard rock, and classical music, Supertramp looks to other genres. Like John and Joel, the piano lead recalls old school rock and roll, and like those piano men, Supertramp incorporates some R & B and soul influence. There's even a bit of funk in the breakdown on "Rudy" and the liberal use of brass throughout the album. There's also a loungey tone throughout that triggers a strange nostalgia in me. (The album reminds me of family road trips, only my parents never listened to Supertramp, so I don’t know what the connection is.)

I had the opportunity to listen to the entirety of Crime of the Century while driving recently, so I was able to really pay attention to the structures of each song and consider my thoughts. It was only when I got to the end of the closing track, the title track, that I noticed something very peculiar about what Supertramp is doing with their music, on this album at least. Progressive ideas may not be the point of Supertramp, but the band uses those available options to turn half-finished song ideas into amazing compositions.

"Crime of the Century" starts with this slow pair of verses with a nice layer of synths and some tinkling keys. Struggling to rise just above that is a shuffling, halfhearted drum beat and some occasional guitar drones that fall off before they begin. When the vocals finish, we get what sounds like it should be a pre-chorus: the drums and guitar finding their footing and taking over the song toward a dramatic build. And then everything falls off. A second of silence and then this plaintive staccato piano line that carries the song right to its end. While that's going, other instruments slowly build up again: a more urgent drum beat, some atmospheric guitar, a doom and gloom bass line, epic string swells, and then the return of that glorious saxophone that makes appearances throughout the record. And never a chorus in sight.

Elton John had his prog moments too.

This made me realize that "School" also has no chorus; most of these songs have no chorus. School has two verses and a long instrumental, then a bridge and another verse. That piano solo is one of the great piano solos (and the subtle melodica part is great too). It's twinkly and upbeat and makes you wanna dance. Which is crazy when the verses are in a minor key and are a depressing study of stifled individuality. Supertramp pulls off this same magic trick on every song. The unexpected shifts in tone become expected, but how and when is up in the air. It's in the jazz-pop intro to "Bloody Well Right" that morphs into a stomping rocker, and then to the sing-songy chorus. It's the concert piano opening to "Rudy" that gives way to a pseudo-Latin beat, soul strings, and noodling guitar. And the way it turns into something out of a film score after the near-silent piano solo.

After registering the endless variations of what should be a grating keyboard rhythm on "Dreamer," the showtune quality of "If Everyone Were Listening," and the dramatic mood swings of "Asylum," you realize just how incredible it was for the band to put so much music, so many styles, and so much emotion into 45 minutes.

And the lyrics are just as impactful.

In the verses of "Crime of the Century," the song promises to expose social evils, those "who ... rape the universe / How they've gone from bad to worse / Who are these men of lust, greed, and glory? / Rip off the masks and let see." But we never see. Instead, all we have after the verses is 4 minutes of wordless, mournful beauty. The nature of these pervasive evils is far too complicated and profound and difficult to be put into words that will expose and solve them.

The album builds an interesting argument about the individual's struggle in a heartless world, with only occasional moments of hope (“Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right” notably). The iconic "School" is a lament for educational conformity's demoralizing effect on a child. That child could have grown into either the theatrically defiant subject of "Bloody Well Right" or the world weary subject of "Hide in Your Shell," or both. It's the speakers of "Asylum" pleading for freedom and understanding, the titular "Dreamer," and the monologuist in "If Everyone Was Listening" imagining if their exposure of the "Crime of the Century" would even matter. Maybe every song is connected to "Rudy":

He ain't sophisticated, nor well-educated

After all the hours he wasted, still he needs time

He needs time

He needs time for livin'

He needs time

Rudy can be anyone.

I had never considered the cohesion of the lyrical themes on this album before. I had not really thought of Supertramp as a prog band before. I hadn't even noticed how peculiar the song structures are. And I've been listening to this disc fairly often over the last 15 years. That's how sharp the composition is. Everything is engaging and pretty and powerful. But it's also strange and complex. Crime of the Century may be the perfect prog album for someone new to the genre.

It's damn near perfect.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  17. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  20. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  21. Camel - Mirage

  22. Rush - 2112

  23. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

  24. Magma - Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh

  25. The Mars Volta - Deloused in the Comatorium

  26. Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts

  27. Supertramp - Crime of the Century

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Supertramp - Crime of the Century

  3. Genesis - Foxtrot

  4. Camel - Mirage

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. King Crimson - Red

  7. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  8. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  9. Rush - 2112

  10. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  11. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  12. Rush - Moving Pictures

  13. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  14. The Mars Volta - Deloused in the Comatorium

  15. Premiata Forneria Marconi - Per Un Amico

  16. King Crimson - Larks’ Tongue in Aspic

  17. Pink Floyd - Animals

  18. Frank Zappa - One Size Fits All

  19. Yes - Fragile

  20. Rush - Hemispheres

  21. Tangerine Dream - Phaedra

  22. Magma - Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh

  23. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  24. Can - Future Days

  25. Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

  26. Van Der Graaf Generator - Pawn Hearts

  27. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

A recipe for Van Der Graaf Generator's "Pawn Hearts": Prog Review #26

A recipe for Van Der Graaf Generator's "Pawn Hearts": Prog Review #26