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.