(April 27, 2019). In late March 1979, the English rock group Supertramp released its landmark album Breakfast In America. Six weeks later, on April 25, American disco goddess Donna Summer released her own such album with Bad Girls.
The two polar opposite albums – genre-wise – would wage a spirited battle over the ensuing three months that would see each spend six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top LPs & Tapes chart (now simply known as the Billboard 200), with each becoming the respective artist’s biggest album of their careers.
It was the season of Supertramp and Summer – a 12-week period that would see them dominate the No. 1 slot, even alternating at the position – while holding off challenges from the latest releases by veteran acts like ELO and Earth, Wind & Fire as well as breakthrough albums by Cheap Trick, Rickie Lee Jones, Peaches & Herb and Sister Sledge.
During one 8-week stretch, from June to early August, Breakfast In America and Bad Girls held a lock on the top two positions, the longest one-two punch of any two albums that year. It wasn’t until mid-August when the prematurely Beatle-hyped band The Knack raced to the top that the Supertramp/Summer reign would end.
But the parallel rock and disco universe that gave us Supertramp and Summer was one for the ages. And it wasn’t limited to their reign on the album charts.
The two acts had some other intertwined trivial anomalies and anecdotes, similarities and contrasts that one blogger (yours truly) is old enough to remember and thought would be fun for djrobblog to explore as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the spring and summer of Breakfast in America and Bad Girls.
First the packaging…
Both Breakfast In America and Bad Girls depicted a singular working woman in their cover art. In Summer’s case, it was the artist herself playing the key role of sex worker in the world’s oldest profession (hence the album’s title and partial theme). Summer is prominently (and invitingly) featured in the foreground dressed in black lace, while in the backdrop she’s seen standing at a torchlight street pole while a beat cop observes her.
In the case of Supertramp and Breakfast, the woman was veteran American actress Kate Murtagh as a waitress named “Libby.” Libby stood in a more family-friendly pose mimicking the Statue of Liberty while holding a tall glass of orange juice as the “torch” in one hand and a menu bearing the album’s title in the other. Behind her is the NYC skyline – consisting of various breakfast table items and stacks of boxes representing the two World Trade Center towers😢.
Speaking of the towers…
Did anyone else catch the irony of the “torch” being placed directly in front of the WTC towers? The Twin Towers would succumb to the 9/11 attacks 22 years later, an event that Donna Summer herself linked to her health issues – specifically, the lung cancer that took her life in 2012.
Speaking of waitresses…
Perhaps drawing inspiration from the album with which she did battle during the summer of 1979, Donna Summer paid her own tribute to waitresses four years later with the cover art (and title track) to her She Works Hard For The Money album, an album she said was inspired by a real life restroom attendant named Onetta she encountered at a Los Angeles restaurant and who was featured on the album’s back cover.
And speaking of women…
With both albums featuring American women on their covers, it’s worth noting that both Donna Summer and Supertramp were part of the same history involving women on the Hot 100 singles chart that year.
On June 30, 1979 – for the first time ever – women held the top five positions on the Hot 100. Two of the songs were by Summer: “Hot Stuff” at No. 2 (down from No. 1) and “Bad Girls” at No. 3 (on its way to No. 1). The other three songs were by Anita Ward, Sister Sledge and Rickie Lee Jones.
The song at No. 6 that week? Well, it was none other than Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” the adjective-laden pop smash that became the band’s biggest hit and was coincidentally the top song by a male act during that historic women’s week.
And speaking of adjectives…
While Supertramp’s lead-off single was well known for its heavy (and clever) use of adjectives (and, as few people rarely mention, several adverbs too), Donna Summer’s tantalizing lead tune “Hot Stuff” only had a few of its own. In fact, even when you throw in the adjectives in “Bad Girls,” they don’t add up to those used in “Logical.”
Here’s the, uh, long and the short of it – a comparison of the three songs’ lyrical adjective content (adjectives are listed in order of appearance in the lyrics; adverbs not included):
“The Logical Song”: young, wonderful, beautiful, magical, sensible, logical, responsible, practical, dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical, deep, simple, absurd, fanatical, acceptable, respectable, presentable, digital, unbelievable, and marvelous.
“Hot Stuff”: some, thousand, hot, this, another, warm-blooded, wild (yes, “thousand” is used as an adjective in this case).
“Bad Girls”: bad, sad, all, right, nice, good, else, hot, high, naughty, different, and some (no, “same” is not used as an adjective here).
That’s 22 adjectives for “Logical” vs. 19-combined for “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls,” with the letter and syllable count weighing even heavier in favor (or to the detriment) of Supertramp’s tune (depending upon one’s grammatical perspective on pop tunes).
Beginning and ending in Hollywood…
While both Breakfast In America and Bad Girls drew on inspiration from American institutions, it was Los Angeles – specifically Hollywood – that received the first and last nods on the two albums.
The opening track from Breakfast was “Gone Hollywood,” a semi-satirical take on a man who moves to L.A. with the hopes of becoming a star and who eventually succeeds (becoming the “talk of the boulevard”).
On Summer’s Bad Girls, the closing track was “Sunset People,” a direct reference to Sunset Boulevard, with the disco diva describing all the aspects of fast-living that Hollywood’s strip affords its dwellers.
Both songs were duplicitous in nature. While Supertramp’s “Hollywood” was a story of depressing pessimism-turned-optimism about the prospects of living there, Summer’s tune straddled the line between cautionary tale (of worldly 16-year-old girls and stars hiding behind tinted-glass cars) and glamorizing the lifestyle (“doin’ it right, night after night”).
Three big hits each…and the one-year-too-late hits that should’ve been…
Both albums produced three top-20 hits each during 1979, with Summer’s three all reaching No. 1 (“Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”) or No. 2 (“Dim All The Lights”). Supertramp’s tunes peaked at No. 6 (“Logical Song”), No. 15 (“Goodbye Stranger”) and No. 10 (“Take The Long Way Home”).
Three singles was still a lot to mine from an album in those days, as only a few had produced four or more (with only the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours having generated four top tens by the end of the 1970s). So the Supertramp and Summer accomplishments were commendable.
Still, it was the hits that got away from each album – and the respective labels’ singles release strategies – that boggled the mind.
In Supertramp’s case, the title track was an album rock favorite. Yet “Breakfast In America” was not released as a single until a year later when the live version was issued from the band’s Paris album. The song peaked at a paltry No. 62 on the Hot 100 as a result, long after the fervor around its original album had subsided.
For Summer, it was “Sunset People.” The techno-dance song had been a major hit in clubs in 1979 and would likely have been a big pop hit had it been issued as a single then. Instead, Casablanca Records held off, going with “Dim All The Lights” as the third release. By the time they were ready to issue “Sunset People” as a single, Summer had already left the label, scored other hits (“No More Tears,” “On The Radio”) and was embroiled in a lawsuit with Casablanca, preventing the song’s release stateside. Bad Girls did eventually get that fourth top-40 single in late 1980 with the aptly titled tune “Walk Away,” which Summer had already done from Casablanca months earlier.
How they got there… and the payoff
Both Breakfast and Bad Girls represented slight musical departures for their respective artists. Supertramp had languished mostly as an art-rock group with only smatterings of mainstream success in the years leading up to their major 1979 breakthrough. After the top-20 success of 1977’s “Give A Little Bit” and its stellar album Even In The Quietest Moments, the band made a decided turn towards commercialism with Breakfast. All ten of the album’s songs still maintained a rock element, but there was clearly more polish in the sound production, with melody and clever lyricism being at the forefront of each track.
With Bad Girls, Summer likewise maintained her roots with heavy emphasis on disco and those four-on-the-floor thumping beats associated with the genre. But she also veered more towards techno and rock – elements that she’d explored in her earlier work. The smart move gave what could have been run-of-the-mill disco tunes the kind of edge needed to make Bad Girls the standout album it ultimately was.
Both albums wound up being the biggest sellers of each artist’s career, with each reportedly selling 4 million copies. Both albums finished in the top ten of Billboard’s year-end rankings for 1979, although not as high as one might have thought.
Breakfast finished at No. 5 while Bad Girls ranked as the No. 8 album of 1979 (falling below even her own earlier album Live And More, which placed at No. 6 due to a Billboard points system back then that rewarded chart longevity over actual sales figures. Summer’s live album had the benefit of being a 1978 release that charted during the entire 1979 chart year).
Beating out both albums on the year-end list were releases by the Cars, Bee Gees, Doobie Brothers and Billy Joel, who had the No. 1 album of 1979 with 52nd Street.
And speaking of Joel…
Both Breakfast In America and Bad Girls were nominated for Album of the Year Grammys, with both losing to – you guessed it – Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was a rare case (back then) of the Grammys mimicking the charts as four of the five nominees were among the ten biggest sellers of the year.
But both Supertramp and Summer would receive Grammy consolation prizes, with Breakfast In America taking home two technical awards (Best Recording Package, Best Engineered Album – non-classical) and Summer winning the inaugural Best Rock Vocal performance (female) for “Hot Stuff.”
Summer’s Grammy performance was especially impressive as songs from Bad Girls were nominated in four different genres that year (disco, R&B, pop and rock), owing to the decided diversity of genre-spanning hits on the album. The irony of Summer winning the rock category with a song that ranked as the No. 1 disco audience response song of 1979 (while losing in the disco category to the woman she dethroned as the genre’s queen – Gloria Gaynor) is not lost on this writer.
Breakfast In America is still considered one of the best albums of the 1970s, as it ranks in several publications’ Best Albums of All Time list. The album lasted well into 1980 on the charts (totaling 88 weeks on the Billboard 200 and even rejuvenated sales for the band’s prior albums Crime of the Century and Even In the Quietest Moments, which re-charted during the Breakfast run. Breakfast In America ranked as the No. 5 album of 1979 and the No. 21 album of 1980, and has since reportedly sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Bad Girls was Donna Summer’s crowning achievement, but its biggest statement was in the fact that it didn’t confine the artist to the dying disco craze of its release year. Summer was able to move on to other genres (she was nominated again for a rock female vocal performance the following year for “Cold Love” off The Wanderer album). She would go on to have several more hit singles and albums during the 1980s, including four more top-10 pop hits and a No. 1 R&B single (1983’s “She Works Hard For The Money”).
And for the final RRHOF kick in the pants…
In the end, it was the Queen of Disco – and not the legends of art-rock – who made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Donna Summer was a five-time nominee who finally got in posthumously in 2013 (she died in 2012 from lung cancer).
Breakfast In America may have had the last lap on the Billboard charts (88 total weeks vs. only 49 for Bad Girls), but Supertramp has yet to be nominated to the RRHOF.
It’s the kind of strange irony that one might have never predicted when both albums were ruling the charts, and one that I’m sure rock purists love to criticize.
I say let ‘em, while the rest of us just enjoy the music of both artists, particularly their classic albums from 40 years ago this spring.
Breakfast In America and Bad Girls will be forever linked as the two albums – polar opposites as they may be – that took us through the spring and early summer of 1979, with tunes that are still loved by many 40 years later.
For those who need a refresher of both, check out these Spotify links.
Breakfast In America:
(The article was edited to include the reference to Donna Summer’s She Works Hard For The Money album and cover art. Thanks to several readers for pointing out that coincidence!)
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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