Supertramp's John Helliwell from geeky kid to rock icon


Supertramp - the super band of its time.

Supertramp – one of the biggest bands of their era, was founded by a pair of songwriters and musicians in Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. The band took its name from a 1908 novel called The Autobiography of a Supertramp. Both golden era albums Crime of the Century and Even in the Quietest Moments were produced by former Beatles producer Ken Scott. It was success that the  members of Supertramp could never have even dreamed of. My guest today, saxophonist John Helliwell shares the story with us. 

John was born in a small town in the north of England. He became a computer programmer. And then after two years decided to do music full time. It was a very fruitful scene from about 1965 onwards, and all sorts of people blossoming, Jimi Hendrix coming to London, the WHO starting the Rolling Stones starting the Beatles continuing from early 60s, there was a very good thriving club scene to all sorts of people. It was good in the late 60s, things changed rapidly over the years. So it was it was a very fruitful scene. And then he joined Supertramp in 1973.

After I joined we made the album Crime of the Century. So that was the kind of beginning of a slow climb up through the 70s of making an album and touring and making an album touring and getting more successful each time we did very well then it was it was our big time. I guess we hit the big time in the late 70s and early 80s. There was the original, five and with the inclusion of John playing saxophone and clarinet that was very different from the mainstream. They also had two singer songwriters. And quite a good emphasis on a piano playing as well. So they were keyboard oriented, a little bit of guitar, saxophone. So it was different. And then the addition of a drummer from outside of the UK from California and having his way of playing – everyone really gelled.

The five of us just gelled!

When John joined, he knew the band had something good together. And so they made the album Crime of the Century, (Supertramp had already made two albums before that with different personnel). But this was the five that stuck together for at least 10 years. And they thought they had something good.  And they did. Success started to come their way. They had a really good live performance so that endeared the band to the public- if a few people came to see them on the first tour then a lot more on the second and more on the third etc.

Breakfast in America

When Supertramp switched to a more pop oriented approach they really peaked with their most popular album Breakfast in America in 1979. For the last couple of months of work on the album, the story goes that Roger Hodgson actually parked a camper van outside the studio, so that he could work around the clock on the tracks without being disturbed. Roger lived and breathed the album, he had a hunch it was going to be a big success. And it couldn’t have been more right! Breakfast in America seemed to be more a collection of popular pop songs, all of which took the world by storm.

According to John Helliwell, the incredible success was simply due to the way the five members of Supertramp reacted together. Another factor he says was the inclusion of the clarinet on Breakfast in America. At the time it was really unusual for a clarinet to be used in a rock setting, so it just made them different.  Nobody else really had any wind instruments. They were their own little niche musical niche and were very happy to pursue that.  They worked really hard and were extremely keen to be able to reproduce what they did on record, live in concert. They managed. From all accounts, the experience of seeing Supertramp live in concert was one that left an indelible mark.

Take the Long Way Home

Take the Long Way Home from the Breakfast in America album,  reached number four in Canada and number 10 in the US. For some reason it was never released in the UK. John Helliwell also played on Pink Floyd’s album A Momentary Lapse of Reason during that time.

Playing with Pink Floyd's David Gilmour

They spelt his name wrong, but he forgives them for that. They’d been making an album and wanting a huge guitar solo. The members all agreed it had to have the feel of a Pink Floyd guitar solo- a David Gilmour solo. So instead of just talking about it, they asked David and he obliged. He came. And just a few months later, he asked John if he’d play some stuff on his album. That’s how that works.

Finally learning to read music

In 1983, Roger Hodgson decided to leave the band. The others carried led by Rick Davies. They decided to take a hiatus. John came back to England to study music. He understood that Supertramp wasn’t going to be working for a year or two so he decided that he’d like to get better at playing the saxophone and music in general. So he enrolled into the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and studied the saxophone there. He’d been in the rock business for a long time, but there I learned to read.

And then the band reunited and headed out on the road again in the latter part of the 90s and into the 2000s. There was a bit more time off, and then they continued to tour occasionally until 2011. A huge tour had been organised for 2015 but Rick developed a condition called multiple myeloma and could not continue. Today Rick has all but recovered from that condition and there remains a slim possibility that we may see a Supertramp reunion and tour. I know Id love that. Would you too?

John Helliwell today

Today John Helliwell plays music based on his many inspirations – including jazz, funk, blues, soul and rock. He has a jazz group, Crème Anglaise, and also plays around Europe lately with Leslie ManDoki and Alan Simon. Supertramp is still on hold but may continue touring in the future. John now has two more projects : 1) The Super Big Tramp Band – an 18 piece big band playing the music of Supertramp instrumentally with John soloing and acting as master of ceremonies and 2) Ever Open Door – a sextet playing folk tunes and ballads with saxophone and clarinet, a string quartet and Hammond organ.

If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode you may like to check out

or head to John’s own site for more information

further info can be found on Roger Hodgson’s website

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