From Super to Nuts: The History of Super Groups
Originally published in Guitar World, March 2010
Them Crooked Vultures are just the latest in a long line of rock supergroups. GW presents a sampling of the phenomenon, from the classiest to the craziest.
In musical history terms, the “supergroup” is a relatively new peculiarity that developed in the Sixties, when rock and roll was well into its adolescence. Before then, the biggest names in music rarely, if ever, collaborated. Classical composers mostly worked solo, jazz musicians preferred to form their own namesake bands after becoming famous, and country artists generally swapped backing musicians like wives at a key party.
The supergroup phenomenon began during the turbulent Sixties when rock musicians started to develop irreconcilable differences with other members of their bands. Thanks to the experimentation of acts like the Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, pop musicians had seemingly unlimited creative avenues to explore. Unfortunately for many bands, the wealth of possibilities led to acrimonious disputes over what step to take next. Groups found themselves in situations where the guitarist wanted to become a purist blues scholar, the drummer decided to dabble in East Indian–influenced psychedelia, the bassist insisted that jazz was where it’s at, and the singer felt that bubblegum pop was the next logical step. The only logical solution was for the members go their separate ways with other like-minded musicians.
While many artists find creative satisfaction in solo efforts or one-off projects, the supergroup differs in that it is an actual band, not a temporary indulgence. Even though many supergroups last for only an album and tour, most are formed with the intention of creating something even bigger and better than their members’ previous bands. Some have succeeded at that goal, but more than a few have produced the lowest points of its members’ careers.
Several criteria should be met before a band can be considered a true supergroup. First, each member must have previously played in a commercially and/or critically successful band. For example, Velvet Revolver qualifies as a supergroup because Slash, Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum and Scott Weiland came from commercially successful bands (Guns N’ Roses, Stone Temple Pilots) and Dave Kushner came from critically acclaimed groups (Wasted Youth, Infectious Grooves).
Second, the band can’t simply be an established act with a new member in tow; if all but one member of the group previously played in the same band together, it’s not a supergroup. For example, Audioslave were not a supergroup, because they were essentially Rage Against the Machine with Chris Cornell swapping places with Zack de la Rocha, just as Van Halen did not become a supergroup when Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth and Metallica did not become a supergroup when they hired former Suicidal Tendencies/Ozzy bassist Rob Trujillo.
The last and most important, and perhaps hardest to quantify, criteria is that a supergroup should be more than the sum of its parts. Many all-star projects have fallen far short of expectations, but a true supergroup usually manages to enjoy some form of commercial or critical success before rampant and inevitable egomania takes over and sends its members running for reunions with their previous bands.
Eric Clapton had earned a reputation as a guitar hero for his work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but when he joined forces with bassist/singer Jack Bruce (formerly with the Graham Bond Organization and Manfred Mann) and drummer Ginger Baker (previously with the Graham Bond Organization) in 1966, he became elevated to guitar god. Surprisingly, Clapton was not aware that Baker had actually fired Bruce from the Graham Bond Organization prior to enlisting both for his new band, but even more surprisingly, Baker and Bruce put aside their past differences to create timeless, enduring music during Cream’s two-year existence. Cream became the first of many supergroups to follow.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG
With a name that is more appropriate for a law or accounting firm than a rock band (and that paved the way for similar supergroup names like Beck Bogert & Appice, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were the first folk-rock supergroup. The band really is Crosby, Stills and Nash with Neil Young playing an occasional, unpredictable role, which has resulted in the confusing release of four CSN studio albums and three CSNY studio albums over the years. All four members previously played in chart-topping bands (David Crosby was a founding member of the Byrds, Stephen Stills and Neil Young played together in Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash penned numerous hits with the Hollies), but CSNY’s Déjà Vu album shattered the success of their previous efforts. Certified seven-times Platinum in the U.S., it is one of the best-selling supergroup efforts of all time.
Bad Company are often overlooked in discussions about supergroups, but all four of the band’s original members enjoyed previous commercial success: guitarist Mick Ralphs with Mott the Hoople, bassist Boz Burrell with King Crimson, and singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke with Free. Bad Company also goes down in the history books as the first supergroup signed to the record label of a supergroup—Led Zeppelin’s own Swan Song label. Bad Company hits like “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Ready for Love” (sense a recurring theme here?) were the soundtrack to thousands of teenage make-out sessions that took place in the back of Camaros, Chargers and Chevy vans, and these songs remain frequently played staples of classic rock radio.
Andy and John Taylor seemed to have gone certifiably nuts when they left Duran Duran in 1984, at the peak of the group’s success, and teamed up with Chic drummer Tony Thompson and the late blue-eyed soul singer Robert Palmer, best known for his pop-rock hit “Bad Case of Lovin’ You.” The group came together more by accident than due to any grand plan. John had attempted to record a funky version of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” with Andy and Thompson, with his girlfriend—professional groupie Bebe Buell—on vocals. Before recording her tracks, Buell left Taylor to perform vocals on some other rock star’s member, so the trio brought in Palmer instead. Although the singles “Bang a Gong” and “Some Like It Hot” were big hits, Andy returned to Duran Duran shortly afterward, while Palmer stole the Power Station’s formula for his hits “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible.”
“Misery acquaints man with strange bedfellows” goes a famous Shakespeare quote, but the same could be said of flagging careers in the midst of seismic shifts in musical trends. The pairing of Ted Nugent with Styx’s Tommy Shaw, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades and previously unknown drummer Michael Cartellone (which kinda nullifies true supergroup status) made for strange bedfellows indeed, but back in 1990, when thrash metal was on the rise and grunge was bubbling under, there were few places for displaced Seventies and Eighties rockers to turn, other than to each other. The band’s power rock ballad “High Enough” became one of hair metal’s last gasps, helped perhaps by Nugent firing flaming arrows into effigies of Saddam Hussein during the band’s live performances.
When Les Claypool was asked to put together a band for the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2000, he enlisted two of his favorite musicians: Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Although the performance was to be a one-time affair, the three got along so well that they recorded an album, The Grand Pecking Order, and toured the next year. The undeniably quirky album may not have produced any hits, but it’s a critical favorite that showcases some of these musicians’ finest recorded performances.
There is one other supergroup criteria we forgot to mention. The band should have a stupid name, and you’d be hard pressed to find a name more stupid than Chickenfoot. After they were booted from Van Halen, singer/guitarist Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony decided to get even by following a similar strategy that David Lee Roth took in the mid Eighties and enlisting a hotshot guitarist (Joe Satriani) and a top-notch drummer (Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Like the recipe for the ultimate margarita, this combination goes down smooth but delivers a mighty powerful kick.