967 - Supertramp 'Crime Of The Century' (1974)

My Rating: 4.00 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection:

Chart Peak (UK/US): 4/38

Favourite Tracks: School, Bloody Well Right, Dreamer
Least-Favourite Tracks: If Everyone Was Listening

Older brothers don't have much going for them when you're 9 years old. You learn how to take a punch, how to run away fast (before getting punched) & how to eat a variety of pet foods, but did they really have any positive uses? Well actually, yes there was that one saving grace; their record collection. Back in the mid-70s when about all I had were some scratched-up, hand-me-down Disney soundtracks, an album of orchestral war movie themes & one David Essex LP (ahem), my big brother literally held the key to an exciting new world of music. Behind the locked doors of his LP cupboard were dozens of shiny new records & despite the threat of almost-certain death, I eventually buckled under the temptation & busted my way in, rather appropriately choosing Crime Of The Century as one of my first ill-gotten gains. For this particular 9 year old, music was never quite the same again.

Skip forward several decades & I'm sitting here listening to this album for the umpteenth time & it still sounds great. But I suppose I would say that, wouldn't I? I grew up listening to it, it's intertwined with all sorts of childhood memories, it's the first record in the Top 1000 I already owned, so while I'm desperately trying to be objective about it, the truth is how the hell can I be? Wait a minute though, I don't feel that way about that bloody David Essex LP so there must be more to it than just some nostalgic feelings.

From the opening bars of the first track School you know this is going to be something special. Wailing harmonica with rumbling ethereal bass notes in the background & as the intro builds we get spooky guitar effects, children's voices, what's that - an oboe in there too? Then we get that creepy kid's blood-curdling screech (which scared the crap out of me the very first time I heard it) & the whole thing kicks off. But this is not your typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure; like 10cc every 30 seconds the melody seems to change completely & yet somehow the whole thing hangs together perfectly. And that's just it, much of the artistry of this album is that it can take something so complicated & make it sound so simple & accessible.

It's not just the songwriting, the production & arrangements are also interesting & innovative. Subtle little touches are everywhere; the chorus of Bloody Well Right with the Wurlitzer electric piano panned over to one speaker & a hokey, out-of-tune upright piano in the other; the theremin (or saw) whistling away under the chorus of Hide In Your Shell; the strings, orchestration & even clanging bell on Asylum (I only recently noticed the cuckoo clock at the end - I've heard this album hundreds of times & I'm still discovering new things buried in the mix). But it's not like all this production trickery is there as some kind of gimmick, it's been deftly applied to enhance the meaning of the songs. Rudy starts off at the station boarding his 'train to nowhere' & the arrangement creates the impression of a train rattling ever-faster down the tracks. Yes I know that's nothing new, but with its sweeping strings & wah-wah guitar stabs, I've never heard it done better.

Lyrically the songs are rather impressionistic. There is a common thread with themes of madness & isolation but the precise meanings are left open to interpretation. To me it is clearly a concept album - the songs segue into each other taking us on a journey that starts out at School, progesses through teenage rebellion, adult mental breakdown & culminates with the album-closing Crime Of The Century. Exactly what that crime is, we're never really told - I've got my own idea though & I quite like it like that.

Back in 1974, it wasn't long before my big brother discovered that I'd made off with his LP. But strangely I didn't get the pulping I'd imagined. I think he may have secretly been rather proud that he was having such a strong influence on my musical tastes. More likely he was just relieved that he didn't have to hear that David Essex album again. Either way it's a shame he wasn't so understanding when I discovered his stash of 'jazz' mags...


Stefan Heller said...

So that's where my bloody mags went!!
Absolutely right about the sodding David Essex album - review that one if you dare!

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