Thursday, August 13, 2020

Interview -- John Helliwell (Supertramp)



"It was nice.
We celebrated and then 
we had a job to do."
~ John Helliwell ~


In 1973, sax man John Helliwell was invited to join the prog band Supertramp.  Helliwell made his debut on the band's incredible third album, "Crime Of The Century," and has been on every album since.  Make no mistake, Supertramp will always be Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies puppy to pet, but John Helliwell's unmistakeable woodwind savoir-faire always seemed to bring out the best from the two geniuses.

Go have another listen to their iconic album "Breakfast In America." (1979)  If you have a record collection, you probably have it.  It is an almost perfect "needle-drop to label" spin that has gone on to sell over 20 million copies.  John Helliwell's blow shines a bright light everywhere.  And not just with Supertramp.  From Thin Lizzy to Pink Floyd, his presence can be heard.  In recent years, he's been touring with the Super Big Tramp Band...a jazz big band orchestra performing classic Supertramp songs.  And this October, he has a solo album due to drop..."Ever Open Door."   Busy is as busy does.  John Helliwell.  Go get you some.

John Helliwell Interview -- August 2020
John Helliwell

Casey Chambers:  Hitting on the wonderful and incredibly successful album "Breakfast In America," I'd like to begin by asking about "The Logical Song"...one of Supertramp's biggest hits and one of at least four tracks that were making huge radio noise for you guys that year.  When did you first put your saxophone on it?

John Helliwell:  I'm trying to remember if Roger (Hodgson) had written it in '73.  I don't think so.  I think it was about '75 or '76 when I first heard it.  It was '78 when we recorded it.  Whenever we were rehearsing "The Logical Song," it always seemed that the saxophone was the right thing to do at that point in the middle.  And then again at the end.  It just seemed to give it a little bit of excitement.  Sometimes what's needed is a bit of calm and quiet, but in this one, even though the sentiment is a bit of a down...the song being about teachers hammering thoughts into pupil's heads and not allowing them to think for themselves,..it's still kind of an up number.  And that saxophone solo seemed to be appropriate.

Casey Chambers:  Where did you guys record this monster?

John Helliwell:  Well, "Breakfast In America" was recorded at a studio called The Village Recorders in West L.A.  We went into that place in 1978.  We followed Steely Dan who had been in there for a few months recording their album..."Aja." (1978)  And we inherited their engineer, Lenise Bent.  She was the engineer on our album and had worked on "Aja" as well.  And it was good there at those studios.  Very nice people ran it and we had a good time.  And we spent months in there.  Too long, really.  We were very, very finicky about getting the right sound for things.  I believe the engineer and the producer,  and us...the drummer Bob (Siebenberg) of course, and Russel Pope who was sort of the sixth member of the band...we all spent one week just trying to get the drum sounds right for that album.

Bob Siebenberg, Rick Davies, Roger Hodgson, 
Kate "Libby" Murtagh, John Helliwell, Dougie Thomson

And this is interesting.  When we came to record "The Logical Song"...our method of recording was to concentrate on the backing track.  If it was a piano and bass number, it would be piano, bass, and drums, basically.  That's what we concentrated on.  And in this instance, to get the best drum sound, they used the main studio for the drums.  They put the piano in one little side room with glass.  And the bass in another side room with glass.  That used up the extent of the studio.  So I just played along with them for atmosphere or whatever.  Just to play along.

It wasn't too important to have the definitive saxophone sound or solo right then...so for me...they put me in the toilet. (laughs)  I was there in the toilet with just headphones.  I couldn't see them and they couldn't see me.  So when I wanted to sit down for a rest...then there I was. (laughs)  Now the thing that happened...in the course of a day, we'd have several versions.  And I think with this one..."The Logical Song"...we probably ended up with about six different versions.  And I played on every one.  At the end of the day, they made tapes for us to take home.  And on the tapes were the piano, bass, and drums.  We didn't use the saxophone as a reference if you know what I mean.  After listening to the backing tracks, we were all in agreement that one was the best.  When they turned it up and listened to which saxophone solo was on it...that became the one we kept.  There must have been some kind of magic.  'Cause all the solos were different.  And that particular solo just happened to be on the best backing track.  So that's the story.

Casey Chambers:  That's crazy stuff. (laughs)  And it is a magical song.  And one that jumps outta my car radio all the time to this day.  And that sax...mercy!

John Helliwell:  Yes, it's stood the test of time.  It certainly has.

"The Logical Song" - Supertramp / Live in Paris (1979)

Casey Chambers:  When "Breakfast In America" blew up large the way that it did, how prepared were you guys for that?

John Helliwell:  Well, it was good.  When the album was released, we started what I think was our biggest tour.  The album came out in March and I think we started touring the States in March.  We were just gigging and doing well.  The crowds were doing well.  And we heard about the album going up the charts.  And I think we all had a good feeling.  We were in Norman, Oklahoma when we learned "Breakfast In America" had reached number one.  It was nice.  We celebrated and then we had a job to do.  We had to get along to our next gig and just keep playing.  But it kept us on our feet if you know what I mean.  It didn't go to our heads.  And that tour...it went really, really well.  It was great.

Casey Chambers:  Who came up with the album design?  I saw somewhere it was voted one of the 50 all-time best covers.

John Helliwell:  What happened...there was a man that worked for A&M Records out of London.  And his name was Mike Doud.  And he helped us with the album cover.  We came up with one or two ideas and he developed them.  And then he came along with this drawing of Manhattan. And a waitress as the Statue of Liberty holding an orange juice glass instead of the flame.  So we thought that was a good idea.  And then we got Mick Haggerty, the photographer, and he created a substitute Manhattan as though you see it from an airplane.

"Breakfast In America" - Supertramp (1979)

He created Manhattan out of breakfast cereal boxes, knives, forks, and cups and we thought that was very clever.  Then he added a window around it as though you're looking out of an airplane.  But then he got a glamorous young blonde waitress and we didn't think that was quite right.  We wanted someone more like one you'd find at your local breakfast place.  A nice lady that looked like your auntie or something.  And they found Kate Murtagh.  She is the one who made it onto the cover.  We actually called her Libby.  That was our nickname for her.  And while on our actual tour in '79, we had Libby come up on stage at a couple of places and serve us orange juice during the performance.  I think the record company used her as well, having her go around promoting the album.  It was a nice little something to do and she liked that.  She survived until about two years ago.  She was living in a care home in Oregon.  In Portland, Oregon.  And I corresponded with her.  She was a really nice...a really nice lady.

Casey Chambers:  Her face was everywhere.  I also remember her doing the Dan Aykroyd movie, "Doctor Detroit." (1983)  And she was also on the back of the album with all you guys hanging out at the diner.

John Helliwell:  Yes, that was taken just down the road from the recording studios...just off of La Brea in Hollywood.  It was a diner called Bert's Mad House.  It doesn't exist anymore.  I think it was knocked down.  But we decided that for "Breakfast In America" we all ought to be eating our American breakfast.  So we all gathered there and we brought along Kate...aka Libby...to serve us. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Pass me the Tabasco! (laughs)  Changing channels, you've also had the opportunity to play some sax on other artist's albums.  Thin Lizzy's..."Bad Reputation" comes to my mind.  What a cool gig.

"Dancing In The Moonlight" - Thin Lizzy / "Bad Reputation" (1977)

John Helliwell:  Oh, yeah!  That came about for two reasons.  The first reason is there's sort of a family connection between us.  Bob Siebenberg, our drummer, grew up in Glendale, California and one of his best friends was...and still is...Scott Gorham.  Now Scott Gorham's sister...Vicki Gorham...she married Bob Siebenberg.  So Scott Gorham became Bob's brother-in-law.  And Scott Gorham eventually joined up with Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy.

Now, the second thing...in 1977, Supertramp was touring...doing some gigs in Toronto, Canada.  And Thin Lizzy happened to be there recording an album.  And I think Bob went down to see Scott and was talking to them and they said, 'Hey, why don't we get John to come down and blow on a couple of numbers?'  Which is what happened.  I took my saxophone and my clarinet and went down there and played.  I played the clarinet on one number, and then I played tenor saxophone on "Dancing In The Moonlight" which subsequently was released as a single.

Casey Chambers:  The sax really adds a fun and slinky vibe to that Lizzy song.

John Helliwell:  Yes, thank you.  Thank you very much.  Yeah, I enjoyed playing on it. They got an interesting sound.  A good sound.  It's kind of different.  It's not double-tracked, but it sounds like there are two saxophones playing together.  That's in my mind, anyway.  I don't know what the effect is called.

Casey Chambers:  And you performed that song with Thin Lizzy on "Top Of The Pops."

John Helliwell:  I did.  Subsequent to their album coming out.  At that time I lived in Southern California.  But just by coincidence, I was back home in England.  And Thin Lizzy called me probably just a day or two before and asked if I wanted to come and do "Top Of The Pops" with them.  So, yeah, I did.  I think that was the only time we did it together.  I never made it on stage with them.  I just wasn't there at the right time.  So it was nice to see them all again and hang out.  It's not like doing a gig, but it was good fun.

"Terminal Frost" - Pink Floyd / "A Momentary Lapse Of Reason" (1987)

Casey Chambers:  Fast forward about 10 years and you were asked to play on a Pink Floyd album.  How cool was that?

John Helliwell:  Yes, that was great.  It was after David Gilmour came to Los Angeles to play on one of our albums..."Brother Where You Bound." (1985)  And I got to know him for a day or two doing that.  And about a week or so later, he called and said, 'You want to come down and play on the album I'm doing?'  He was doing it in Los Angeles somewhere.  So I just went down and had a blow on there. (laughs)  So that's how that happened.

Casey Chambers:  And you played on the killer instrumental track called, "Terminal Frost."

John Helliwell:  Yeah, it was on "A Momentary Lapse Of Reason." (1987)  It's interesting.  On this album, there are three saxophone players.  One is me.  Another is Scott Page.  And another one is Tom Scott.  But on a few numbers, there are no specific credits for who is playing.  So people just have to guess.  If I listen, I can sort of tell.  I'll think to myself...' Oh, that's me.' or 'Oh, that's not me.'  (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Were you and the other two sax players in the studio at the same time?

John Helliwell:  No, I never saw them.  I know them, though.  Well, I don't really know Tom Scott.  But I know Scott Page very well because he played with Supertramp when we were touring.  And he subsequently went out on the road with Pink Floyd in the late '80s and early '90s.

"Breakfast In America" - Supertramp / "Breakfast In America" (1979)

Casey Chambers:  Returning to "Breakfast In America," you take a surprising louie on the title track and contribute some bouncy old school clarinet.  How do you decide which instrument you want to reach for?

John Helliwell:  I usually use a clarinet for something maybe a little bit more ballad-like...'cause it can be so smooth.  But in this instance...it has a different rhythm.  It has sort of an ' oh pa pa' sound.  When we were rehearsing and it came time for a solo,  I said, 'Let's try the clarinet.'  It's quite unusual to have a clarinet in a rock band anyway, but it just fit.  A nice bright, bright sound to go with how the song was going on.

Casey Chambers:  Here's a deeper cut from this album you may not get asked about often.  The epic closing track..."Child Of Vision."  It's a favorite and you and your sax get to carry the song gently away.  And it seems almost appropriate that it's you that brings the album to its conclusion.  What comes to mind when you think of that song today?

John Helliwell:  Well, it was the only time that I used the saxophone to trigger a synthesizer.  That's the sound we get at the end of that number.  There wasn't a solo in the body, but after the piano comes in, the saxophone kind of takes over and it fades out.  And when you hear it, you can hear the saxophone and the synthesized sound together.  It's not something I did very often.  There are specific ones made... electronic wind instruments made...but I never really got on well with them.  I like to play with a reed...with some kind of resistance to how you're blowing.  But it takes the sound you make from the saxophone and triggers the sound in the synthesizer.  It was the only time we did that, but I think in "Child Of Vision" it was successful.

"Child Of Vision" - Supertramp / "Breakfast In America" (1979)

Casey Chambers:  "You're bloody well right!" (laughs)  And I hear "Child Of Vision" on deep track radio from time to time and it's always a welcome listen.   What's an album or two in your own collection that you like to spin?

John Helliwell:  One of my desert island records...ones you'd take with you and you could listen to it again and again and again would be Glenn Gould playing "Bach: The Goldberg Variations" from 1955 or '56.  Glenn Gould was an eccentric genius pianist.  And he was quite young when he made this recording.  It was written 300 years ago and recorded in 1955.  Glenn Gould just playing the piano.  It's just...it's amazing.  And quite famous.  That would be one of my choices.  I'll give you another one.  Something completely different.   Another of my really favorite albums and what I consider to be one of the great rock and roll albums of all time.  It's called, "Edgar Winter's White Trash" performed by Edgar Winter's White Trash.  It's from about 1970.  And it's really great rock and roll mixed with blues and gospel.  And they're a great band.  It's a really dirty record.  I don't mean the lyrics.  I just mean the sound is really, really good.  And completely different from Glenn Gould.

"Give It Everything You Got" - Edgar Winter's White Trash / self-titled (1971)

Casey Chambers:  Excellent.  Two more albums for everyone to check out.  You've been working on some new music yourself.  Tell us a little about that.

John Helliwell:  Yeah, I've been working on two projects.  One of them is called Super Big Tramp Band.  It's me with an 18 piece jazz orchestra playing instrumental versions of Supertramp tunes.  We've done quite a few gigs and we've had some good success playing.  We were lined up to record an album, but then the COVID-19 struck and we had to postpone that for a while.  And my other project is an album I'll be releasing in October of this year called, "Ever Open Door."  It's an album of ballads with me playing tenor saxophone and clarinet with Hammond organ and a string quartet. One of the numbers..."The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men"...is available at the moment.  It's really, really nice.

You know, you go through various processes of making a CD.  There's the recording.  The mixing.  And then finally you have to master it so that it's available in all the various formats.  We recorded and mixed it in England.  And there's a place in Vallelonga, Italy that is famous for its mastering.  One of the very, very best.  So I went there at the end of January for two or three days to get it mastered.  And it was fortunate that I went then because it was just before the whole of Northern Italy shut down because of the virus.

Casey Chambers:  No doubt.  Just in time.  Wasn't "Ever Open Door" the name of a Supertramp song?

John Helliwell:  Yeah, two of the numbers on the album are.  When I was choosing songs for the album, I picked some folk songs, some songs from films...just things that I liked.  And I thought I'd have a listen to the music I made with Supertramp over the last 20, 30 years.  And I chose, "If Everyone Was Listening" by Roger (Hodgson.)  I thought, yeah, that'd be a nice one to do.  And "Ever Open Door" by Rick (Davies.)  And then I thought it would be a nice idea to call the whole album..."Ever Open Door."  It seems to work.

Casey Chambers:  Looking forward to hearing it.  That'll be sweet.  It's really been a pleasure talking with you, Mr. Helliwell.  And what an honor.  Thank you so much.

John Helliwell:  Well, you're welcome.  Yeah, I'm very proud of my association with Supertramp and all the other musicians I've worked with.  It's been good.  Thanks a lot, Casey.

"The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men"  - John Helliwell  (2020)

John Helliwell Official Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers
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