Pop: `Things move so quickly in England'

In a world of change, ageing pop-craftsmen Supertramp are about as fashionable as treacle pudding. They go down a treat in Belgium, though. By Phil Johnson
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You'd think three hours of Supertramp would be enough for anyone, but no, 8,000 Belgians still want more and they are going absolutely frantic in their pursuit of it. They stamp and cheer and clap and from somewhere deep inside give voice to a weird kind of bovine lowing noise. At first, you think this must be some peculiarly Flemish accolade - a kind of guttural, speech-based equivalent to the cigarette-lighter salute - but after a while you begin to discern a pattern in the repetition of the syllables, for they are calling out "Dreamer! Dreamer!", a chant based on the title of Supertramp's most famous song. At length, the group comes back for the anticipated encore - though it's not the inevitable by-rote ritual of most rock shows, the audience has to really low for it - and they dig in for another long innings. They play for at least half an hour more, but they still haven't done "Dreamer" by the time I leave.

"Dreamer. You're nothing but a dreamer." At this point, the collective folk memory begins to stall a bit. Is it, "put your head on your hands, oh yeah"? What follows, however, is as easy as pie: it's plinkety-plonk, plinkety-plonk, an instrumental vamp that continues until the next verse, whatever that might be. That Supertramp have colonised our unconscious is undeniable; that what remains is so partial is a bit disturbing. Unless you were a fan - and a staggering 18 million people bought Breakfast in America - they are a fairly dim memory. Despite their success they didn't, perhaps, make much of an impression in the first place.

If you remember anything, it's probably the covers of their albums of the Seventies. Almost certainly, you don't remember their faces, because Supertramp were an unusually faceless group. But at the same time, while pretty boys and big visual ideas have come and gone, Supertramp have endured. They are the geology of the rock landscape: flora and fauna, primitive life-forms, simian human forebears and even homo sapiens have had their 15 minutes of fame since, but Supertramp has remained, as steady as the sedimentary rocks. "We've had entire pop movements come and go between our albums, and we haven't even noticed," says Supertramp-in-chief Rick Davies, who founded the band in 1969. Sax player John Helliwell, who joined in 1974, concurs: "We've weathered out the Heath and Thatcher years, then Major ... now we just do our own thing, irrespective of who's in power." They're sublimely unaware that the Wurlitzer electric piano that has powered so many of their recordings, and which Davies still plays, is now a hip sound in dance records. "It's a trademark for the band," Davies says seriously. The secret of the group's success has been, Helliwell says, "Hard work, sonny."

They're a couple of nice-blokes-made-good, humorous, likeable and even rather endearing in their evident anxiety not to get stitched up, for they are very shy of the English press. One detects a strong residual resentment at the fickleness of the English generally for forsaking their solid, hand-crafted charms for the bright shiny gew-gaws and 10-day wonders of, well, punk, the 1980s, much of the post-war era actually. "Things move so quickly in England," Davies says a little tetchily, in his Wiltshire- cum-California accent (he has lived in LA for the last 22 years). "You sit down for three weeks and they're already on to the next thing." The Yorkshire-born Helliwell, who has returned to live near his home town of Todmorden, looks severe. "A lot of trends..." he mutters.

In Europe, though, they have remained huge. There are people, Davies says, who come up to him after gigs and say they learned to speak English from listening to Supertramp albums (presumably they repeat every statement twice, and change tempo when they come to the rhetorical hook). But one of the attractions of Supertramp, especially in Europe, is the very image of Englishness that they connote: a nostalgic version of dear old Blighty that calls upon the tropes of Seventies pomp-rock, Monty Python and treacle puddings.

Supertramp collude in this nostalgia. The visuals for the stage show even include that old speeded-up film of the London to Brighton train run, and in conversation with Davies about the band's roots, there's a strong Proustian sense of a far-off time when there would always be scones for tea and jumpers for goalposts. As the only child of a mum who ran a hairdressing salon from the family home in the railway town of Swindon in the Fifties, Davies would, you feel, appreciate the lovingly crafted detail of a Wallace and Gromit animation, although he may well not have heard of them.

Davies's introduction to his future career came when his parents bought a second-hand radiogram that came complete with a copy of Gene Krupa's "Drummin' Man". He eventually formed a band, Rick's Blues, with Gilbert O'Sullivan on drums before he was in short trousers - and continued playing when he left to attend art school at Bournemouth, later joining a south coast blues band called The Lonely Ones in Folkstone, previously led by Noel Redding. On a tip from a waiter they went off to Geneva for a club residency, and then to Rome. Stuck on the continent, they did music for films and began an ill-fated rock and classical fusion under the auspices of their manager and an American screen-writer who wrote all of the lyrics. "It was all like The Nice and Yes then, and we said fine, anything to keep from going to work, really," Davies remembers. "We signed to Robert Stigwood for two weeks but the music was awful. It all fell apart and I went back to England and started from scratch, advertising for a band. This was in 1969, and that was the first Supertramp, with Roger." Roger Hodgson, the group's other main singer and writer - "Dreamer" is half his song, which may be why they didn't perform it in Belgium - left in 1985 to pursue, as they say, a solo career.

"The funny thing is that, having been away in Europe for years, we actually missed that whole transition from R&B to the hippie era," Davies says. "I suddenly realised that there were groups like Procul Harum, Jethro Tull and Spooky Tooth and that you didn't have to leap around like an idiot but could try and do something, and that people would like it. That's when I thought we would stand a chance."

After getting it together in the proverbial country cottage to write original material, and admiring the example of King Crimson, they released their first album in 1970. After a couple of re-jigged line-ups, they finally made it big with 1974's Crime of the Century. Crisis What Crisis? (1975); Even in the Quietest Moments (1977), and Breakfast in America (1979) followed. Their old recordings have now been re-mastered and are being re-released, while their new album, Some Things Never Change, is their first studio set since 1987. Impressively, they have been out to lunch for longer than most bands have been in business. The current concert tour to promote the album is stunningly efficient, with a supporting cast of very expensive LA session musicians and the comparatively youthful Mark Hart, late of Crowded House, in the Roger Hodgson role. Lights flash, the London to Brighton train rolls, and it takes them three hours just to get through their hits.

"I try not to come over as the boss," says Davies - who looks exactly like a boss, perhaps of a medium-sized engineering works. "I just call them all up and ask whether they want to come and play. We don't have to go out, financially, because we've sold a lot of albums, and I think you'd get fed up if nobody showed up - I mean, I wouldn't bang my head against the wall to do it. But what am I going to be doing? I'm not painting my masterpiece." Masterpiece or not, the new album does contain one real gem in the gorgeous ballad "Live to Love You", and Supertramp still personify good, old-fashioned English virtues.

If they're not very exciting, it's only because they never have been, but they're as honest as the day is long. And if you want a recommendation, they're definitely still hip in Belgium n

Supertramp play Birmingham Academy, Mon; London Albert Hall, 10, 19 June. All dates are sold out, but the group returns to the Albert Hall on 17 Sept, with further dates in Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield and Manchester. `Some Things Never Change' is on EMI