Has it been thirty years already since the rock band Supertramp released its album Breakfast in America? Apparently. The album, originally released in 1979 as a 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record, came emblazoned with the now iconic picture of a waitress posing at the Statue of Liberty. It sold over eleven million copies worldwide. Since then, it has morphed onto CD (infamous picture still intact) and now is playing digitally in MP3 players everywhere, including mine.
I would like to say I took the album for a spin recently, but that would date me. No, it came off my MP3 player where I most recently enjoyed it while pressing metal at my local Gold’s Gym. It really doesn’t matter. At three decades old, Breakfast in America is still going strong. Few would characterize the album as the best example of a rock album out there. However, if some aliens from outer space press me to recommend one album from the thousands that are out there to best represent rock and roll, Breakfast in America it would be. In spite of the band being British, it feels and sounds quintessentially American.
Perhaps it wins some sort of award for the most hits on one album. Breakfast in America came with four Top 40 hits and embedded themselves into our collective memory: the title track, “The Logical Song”, “Goodbye Stranger” and “Take the Long Way Home”. In 1980, the album won the Grammy for Best Recording Package, beating out fierce competition from Led Zeppelin and The Talking Heads.
Why did Breakfast in America succeed where so many others failed? It was hardly Supertramp’s first album; in fact, it was their sixth. For a rock album, it does have a unique sound, since it is rife with an unusual instrument: the Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Supertramp also emphasizes the harmonica and saxophone, hardly the sorts of instrument typically associated with rock bands. Despite some of the odd choice of instruments, it is unmistakably rock and roll. It succeeds, as best albums do, by fusing together a combination of good vocals and instruments with clever little song vignettes to which most people can readily relate.
For me the best song on the album is “Goodbye Stranger”. It brilliantly marries cleverly arranged rock music with the narrative of a handsome drifter. He moves from woman to woman, breaking their hearts and then abruptly moving on. But hey, no hard feelings. “Tried to see your point of view. Hope your dreams will all come true.” This is preceded with some devastating lyrics, which point to a likely handsome but vainglorious and empty man afraid of aging and commitment, and who is probably part misogynist to boot. “And I will go on shining. Shining like brand new. I’ll never look behind me. My troubles will be few.” Most women can relate; the dating pool is full of superficial men like this guy. Many men can relate too, in an uncomfortable way, for we may have modeled this man’s silly playboy-like behavior at times in our lives. A nice ending touch to the song is the way the guitar strums like a motorcycle accelerating into the sunrise.
For the most part the album is rife with songs like this. The title track “Breakfast in America” portrays a guy disappointed that he has a second-class girlfriend. He dreams of the dazzlingly curvy and buxom girls in California, while obsessively dwelling on how overwhelming ordinary is his own girlfriend.
“The Logical Song” may be an ode to the village idiot. It portrays someone totally confused by modern life who yearns for the innocence of childhood and cannot quite grasp why he is being molded to be logical, practical and cynical. Society is far more complex than he can fathom and he yearns for someone to give him a simple explanation of just who he is.
“Take the Long Way Home” appears to portray a star (a fellow rock star perhaps?) that thinks he is more popular and talented than he is. Most of those around him are not fooled, including his wife and neighbors who see him as flawed and vainglorious. His solution is to escape to the city, intoxicate himself with mesmerized fans while finding marital satisfaction elsewhere. But what happens when the applause stops and the fans fade away?
Other songs are arguably as good as those that hit the Top 40. The opening track “Gone Hollywood” is a good case in point and speaks to the empty feeling of despair of those drawn to Hollywood’s glare but who cannot seem to make it in that culture. “I’m in this dumb motel near the ‘Taco Bell’ without a hope in hell. I can’t believe that I’m still around.”
“Oh Darling” is something of the antithesis of “Goodbye Stranger”. It tells of a man drawn to love a woman who appears to be several points above him on the attractiveness and intelligence scale and knows it. He feels drawn to smother her with love but it seems it might be pushing her away in the process. He seems to understand that she will look for satisfaction elsewhere.
“Lord, Is it Mine” is a song about someone trying to find the personal presence of God but is not quite connecting. Instead, he keeps finding himself endlessly careening around in this messy place called reality where there are no ready answers and God seems distant at best and wholly absent at worst.
Not all the songs on this album necessarily make a lot of sense, but they are all worth listening to. “Just a Nervous Wreck” is a great rock and roll song, but the lyrics are a jumble of confusing metaphors. “Casual Conversations” is a song about an estranged couple with communication problems that are still in a relationship for no appreciable reason. It reminded me of “Overs” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album. The closing track “Child of Vision” described the disillusionment of a follower who realizes his role model is squandering his life.
I am still unclear why this particular album struck so many of the right physical and metaphorical chords. The lyrics are often good, but not outstanding. It is in the fusion of music to lyrics where it seems to reach greatness. Most rock and roll aficionados cannot imagine not having Breakfast in America in their collection. They would no more depart with it than their copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Amazingly, it still feels both fresh and relevant. The angst articulated by the band may be late 1970s, but we still wrestle with the same very human issues that underlie these songs today.
I know Breakfast in America will always be in my rock and roll collection, right next to others I consider iconic, including Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (also released in 1979). Perhaps some of these nuggets will enrapt distant future generations too. Breakfast in America may prove to be on that short list of rock albums that will be immortal, particularly if the aliens get a hold of it.