Musically with the apparent laying off of Supertramp, John began to consider studying for a music degree. He knew he’d want to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and this may have been one of the family’s decisions in relocating back to Yorkshire some time in the early 90’s. However he kept in contact with all his Supertramp buddies including Roger Hodgson and when asked by Roger to go out on the road in America for a mini series of gigs, accepted readily. The “Rites of Passage” band played several Californian dates in the summer of ’96. The last date (2 nd August in Nevada City) was recorded live and issued as the CD “Rites of Passage”.
The new Supertramp album “Some Things Never Change” took shape over 1996. However there was a very big snag looming on the horizon. John was by now living back in England and was well into his degree course in Manchester. If all went to plan it should occupy him for the following year, a year which Rick had earmarked for a new Supertramp tour. After much soul searching, the oldest student on his course, the 51 years young John decided to shelve his degree for the time being and get back out on the road.
The “It’s About Time” tour was announced towards the end of 1996, marking the emergence of Supertramp mark IV. John and the others began their tour in Europe in April, reaching N. America by mid July.
On 9 th April 1997, John, Rick and Bob were awarded with the “Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres” medal by the French Government. This green and white medal is one of the country’s most distinguished cultural awards and is a measure of just how highly the French regard Supertramp (as an example, Bowie wasn’t awarded his until late ’99!)
The tour crossed back again to Europe in September ‘97, proceeding to sell out a further five consecutive nights at The Royal Albert Hall. John took on his usual role of MC and revelled in his intro to “Take the Long Way Home” which consisted of a mock safety announcement advising the audience about traffic jams or diversions all around the venue. Of course half way through it, a giant Helliwell “talking head” appeared, looking down at the stage from the video screen. In a classic moment John got to talk to his alter ego, the virtual image peering down at him and saying “John. Listen – all you’ve got to say to them is, ladies and gentlemen when you go home tonight, take the long.. way.. home”. The ever sartorial MC definitely surpassed himself on this tour, appearing most nights in a silver John Paul Gautier suit (apparently he had a second one in a brown tone which he wore to some shows).
At the end of the tour John retired back to Yorkshire to home and family.
His tour performance was again preserved for posterity the following year
with the release of the live double album “It Was The Best of Times”
which had been recorded back in London the previous 19th and 20th September.