From the Back Pages

posted by Tom Moon on January 27, 2009 at 6:34 pm
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In the course of assembling 1000 Recordings, I considered many more works than made the final cut. Here's an entry for Supertramp's Crime of the Century -- I wrote up this album three different ways and never quite nailed the argument. This is the third attempt...

Art-Rock, Streamlined for Mass Consumption



At the time of its release, Supertramp’s third album was dismissed as an inconsequential reduction of progressive rock, some sort of “lite” version. That was in 1974, a time when the UK was overrun with ambitious bands making lavish opera-length art statements. Anything that wasn’t as sweeping as Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway probably didn’t have a prayer.

Heard now, apart from the moment of its creation, Crime of the Century registers as a wise and musically deft act of streamlining, a canny translation of prog notions for a wider audience. Its narratives draw on the genre’s standard themes of outsiderness and alienation: There’s a riff on conformity (“Bloody Well Right”), a harrowing depiction of mental illness (“Asylum”), and a treatise on the soul-destroying rigors of public education (“School,” which, rock snobs will note, explores the notion Pink Floyd used as the basis for its 1980 prog-rock epic The Wall.) The Crime verses unspool like scenes from a shadowy Hitchcock film, only occasionally veering into paranoid pathos (“Hide in your shell, cause the world is out to take you for a ride,” goes one foreboding pronouncement). More often the lyrics are not just plausible but resonant, in part because they arrive in small packets: The verses of these nine suitelike songs are punctuated by instrumental interludes and lovely winding-road melodies, episodes that serve to rachet up the tension, degree by noose-tightening degree.

These riveting connective bits often provide as much drama as the words do, and they’re one reason Crime endures. Sure, Supertramp wasn’t terribly heavy, and after this effort pretty much abandoned extended composition. But on this one inspired album, it created sprawling, cinematic music that is as engrossing as the masterworks of the progressive-rock kingpins.

Released: 1974, A&M

Key Tracks: “School,” “Rudy,” “Asylum.”

Catalog Choice: Breakfast In America.

Next Stop: Pink Floyd: The Wall.

After That: Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

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