The Supergroup. That mythical entity that carries such soaring expectations that it is remarkable that any of the bands ever make it into the studio. It’s like the Honors Society kid who letters in three sports, dates a cheerleader, and is a top flight boxer- how can he fail, right? Until it’s ten years later and the sheriff is tucking the eviction notice into the pocket of his work shirt while he’s passed out on the trailer floor with a needle in his arm.
What’s a Supergroup? A gaggle of well-known musicians from different bands (and often different genres) who come together to form a new musical entity.
Just like the Honors kids, Supergroups start out with great pedigrees, lots of breaks, and doors swinging widely before them, but that doesn’t always mean that these advantages translate into something memorable. But when they do click it can be one of the most exciting spectacles in music.
Supergroups are the embodiment of our musical fantasies come true. “What if?” becomes reality. This is the stuff that even casual music fans stop to ponder. Die hard musos can come to blows over them. Somewhere in the world right now, there is an intense, late night, cocaine-fueled debate raging about the ultimate Supergroup.
“Quick- put together the greatest group of all time.”
“What kind of band?”
“How many guitarists do I get?”
“They can be dead, right?”
“Of course- I said ‘the greatest group of all time,’ not the greatest group alive.'”
“Who said anything about keyboards?”
“Just checking. Ok, I’ll start with Keith Moon on drums…”
And so it goes.
When a Supergroup forms, expectations come with the territory. Some people think that the Supergroup will far exceed the sum of its parts and create something ballsy and transformational, while others are immediately skeptical, writing the band off as soon as they hear who’s in it. But no matter where one falls in this spectrum of opinion, everybody watches to see what will happen.
Fans always hope for a true hybrid- something new, where the strengths and talents of each contributor are mixed into equal parts and distilled into pure audio gold. Thankfully, this has happened many times. Distressingly, for every time this has happened, there have been ten Supergroups that never seemed to click, leaving the galaxy wondering what those musicians were thinking in the first place.
And then another one comes along and a new debate begins.
Now, before reading further, take a pen and paper and write down three Supergroups.
Good. Before proceeding, some common ground will be helpful. There are certain elements that define and distinguish a Supergroup. Here’s my definition- let’s see if we’re on the same page.
The Anatomy of a Supergroup:
1. The members of the group must be famous before entering the Supergroup.
Why else are we going to call it a Supergroup if we don’t already know who the members are? “Super” means that the artists are famous or at least well-known at some level, even if their fame is primarily within a genre of music.
Also, timing is everything. Many groups have established a musical legacy, with members later branching out into successful solo careers. The phrase “Supergroup” cannot be retro-fitted onto the original band.
Therefore, The Eagles are not a Supergroup.
2. The Supergroup must consist of at least three famous members.
The reason for this rule is simple- two people make a duo, not a group. Even if the duo is backed by wildly talented studio musicians, they are still just a duo with help.
A duo is not a Supergroup, and therefore Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane did not constitute a Supergroup by recording Rough Mix.
3. A Supergroup must be an entirely new and distinct entity from the member’s previous musical associations.
A Supergroup is not formed by one famous musician joining a band that is already well-known. The new member would still be shackled with the obligation to play the band’s old songs on tour, as they were originally written, to satiate the already existing fan base.
Therefore, Dave Navarro joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers did not create a Supergroup.
4. A Supergroup must record an entire album of primarily original material.
For decades, rock and roll all stars have pooled their talents for one off singles, guest appearances at each other’s live shows, charity benefits, jam sessions, and limited appearances on each other’s album. These arrangements are intended to be temporary and pose little social or financial risk for the artists involved. Without a commitment to create music together and record an album, there is no Supergroup.
Therefore Live Aid did not yield any Supergroups. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame* “All Star Jams” are not ad hoc Supergroups. The new Slash album, where the guitarist brings in an all star parade of vocalists and other guest musicians, is not a Supergroup because the only constant in the mix is him.
5. The Supergroup must play their own instruments.
A bunch of vocalists harmonizing for a studio album is not a Supergroup. A Supergroup’s creative juices must flow through instruments played by them, performing mainly songs written by them. Covers are to be expected but they should not outweigh the original material.
Therefore, The Three Tenors are not a Supergroup.
Look at your list. How are we doing? Now let’s see how our lists compare.
The Supergroup Hall of Musical Justice
In the interest of expediency, I will list the original members of the groups, along with their primary claim(s) to fame before joining the Supergroup. Some musician’s more notable musical associations are not mentioned if those relationships did not exist before the Supergroup.
5. Humble Pie (1968 – 2003)
Original Members: Peter Frampton (The Herd), Steve Marriott (The Small Faces), Greg Ridley (Spooky Tooth), Jerry Shirley
In the early Seventies, Humble Pie not only was one of the earliest outfits to get the Supergroup name, but they were known as one of the hottest live acts in music, set in stone on their 1971 live album Performance – Rockin’ the Fillmore. The founding members, though not occupying the same stature as members of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, had nonetheless carved out rock solid reputations before forming the group, such that Humble Pie secured a record deal immediately and saw their debut album chart in both the US and the UK. They went on to release over ten albums and they have transcended the novelty of being a Supergroup, enjoying a reputation as a truly classic rock and roll band.
Humble Pie were nasty when they played live. In fact, their name had nothing to do with their sound, which was heavy, bluesy, and relentless. They played every song like it was their last, and their body of work, particularly their earlier stuff, makes it abundantly clear that Humble Pie was a full time job. And thank God for that.
4. Them Crooked Vultures (2009 – Present)
Original Members: John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age)
TCV is the newest Superkid on the block, and what an entree they’ve made. This is one of the Supergroups that very evenly and effectively blends the sounds of the founding members into something that is at once familiar and unique. Formed in 2009 with a self-titled debut album released that November, TCV have made their presence felt as much on tour as they have with their album, which is punchy and loose, with funky rhythms and unusual time signatures that suggest that the combination of Jones and Grohl is one for the ages.
The Zeppelin sound rings clear on the album, but there’s no cheap rip off here. With Homme’s rock swagger and Grohl’s thunderous pounding, their music shakes walls. Great Chinese walls.
3. Cream (1966 – 1968)
Original Members: Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds), Jack Bruce (Manfred Mann), Ginger Baker (Graham Bond Organisation)
The Blues may have been born in the States, but the English have long given notice that Americans must share the blues throne with their colonial cousins. At a time when the electric blues were setting the UK on fire, Cream killed the competition, going so far as to name themselves Cream to remind the world that they were the cream of the crop of UK blues musicians. Brazen bastards…
They only lasted for two years, due largely to the inability of Ginger Baker to be stand in the same postal code as Jack Bruce. Still, they fit four albums into those two years, rattling off classic jams like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” that still sound pretty fresh over 40 years later. Smoking leads with lots of trippy wah wah pedal was their trademark sound, but despite their nuclear disdain for each other, Baker and Bruce made up one of the best rhythm sections in rock.
2. Temple of the Dog (1990 – 1992)
Original Members: Chris Cornell (Soundgarden), Jeff Ament (Mother Love Bone), Stone Gossard (Mother Love Bone), Matt Cameron (Soundgarden), Mike McCready
Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron came in from Soundgarden, which had already made their mark with their heavy Zeppelin-meets-Sabbath sound. Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard had a critically-acclaimed major label debut with Mother Love Bone, and had just released the band’s second album when their lead singer, Andrew Wood, died from a drug overdose. TOTD was an album written and recorded as a tribute to Wood.
Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready rounded out the lineup, leading many to think that Temple of the Dog was a Supergroup between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. However, TOTD recorded their album before Pearl Jam was even formed.
Beyond the members and the story behind the band, the music is what makes this band great. Top to bottom, Temple of the Dog is a killer album. While it has its share of fist-pumpers (Pushin Forward Back), it has breathtaking melodies (Say Hello 2 Heaven), soaring harmonies (Hunger Strike), and McCready’s Hendrix-influenced solos that somehow fit perfectly with the powerful rhythms rolling beneath them. The lyrics are top notch and the vocals showcase Cornell (and to a lesser extent Vedder) at peak form. The album weaves its classic rock influences perfectly into the spacey melodies and crunchy riffs that went on to become the trademark Seattle sound.
1. Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young) (1968 – Present)
Original Members: David Crosby (The Byrds), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield), Graham Nash (The Hollies)
The Granddaddy of Supergroups. CSN, later adding Neil Young, represent all of the talent, drama, fame and ego that we could ever hope for in a Supergroup. The founding members were already enjoying tremendous success with their feeder groups, with reputations as both talented musicians and volatile personalities preceding them. Crosby, already in his drug prime (but before his gun-toting, sperm-donating primes) had been kicked out of the Byrds. Buffalo Springfield had imploded from the weight of the band’s personalities, leaving Stills musically homeless, and spindly Graham Nash (now Graham Nash, O.B.E.) got fed up with life in The Hollies when the group balked at his efforts to take the band’s songwriting in a new direction.
As if the fiery personalities of Crosby, Stills, and Nash didn’t present enough challenges, Neil Young was added after their first album (which featured the massive hit Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), and with Young, they recorded Deja Vu, which contained now-classic staples such as Teach Your Children (with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel), Almost Cut My Hair, Our House, and the Joni Mitchell cover Woodstock. A couple months after releasing this album, the Kent State shootings occurred and Neil Young penned Ohio, which the group released as a single and which is disarming in its venom, underscored by the infamously sparse guitar melody at the beginning and the blended harmonies in the chorus.
While Young has bounced in and out of the group, the original members have soldiered on through the years, touring and recording as a group, while still pursuing solo efforts and other collaborations. Live, they continue to blow audiences away not just because their songs are recognizable, but with their pure musicianship, which has done nothing but expand and improve throughout the years.
The Supergroup Honorable Mentions
The following Supergroups all earn Honorable Mention for contributing something either lasting or unique to the Supergroup legacy.
5. Fantômas (1998 – Present)
Original Members: Mike Patton (Faith No More), Buzz Osborne (The Melvins), Dave Lombardo (Slayer), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle)
These guys get a nod for pure creativity. Avant-garde is the phrase that everyone seems to want to use for this band. Of course, one man’s “avant-garde” is another man’s “inaccessible”. No matter here, the band is as heavy on samples and spacey loops as they are on the metal. Live, they are ridiculously entertaining. Their cover of the theme from the movie Cape Fear is devastating.
4. Audioslave (2001 – 2007)
Original Members: Chris Cornell (Soundgarden), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine)
Audioslave met expectations by creating a sound that is the approximate halfway point between Soundgarden and RATM. With one of the greatest ever rock and roll voices and the instrumental contingent of RATM, everyone expected a very big sound, and that’s pretty much what was delivered. Some of the political overtones of RATM were muted, just as some of the bombast of Soundgarden was diminished. Thought the band’s commercial polish has alienated some fans of the original groups, the band dropped three solid rock albums that feature tight jams and quality songwriting.
3. A Perfect Circle (1999 – Present)
Original Members: Maynard James Keenan (Tool), Troy Van Leeuwen (Failure), Tim Alexander (Primus), Paz Lenchantin, Billy Howerdel
A Perfect Circle sets itself apart with the sheer weight of the music. Super dense, dark and yet still listenable, APC created a sound that balances slashing metal with clear vocals and distinct melody. Powerful and moody, APC later added members of The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson’s band.
2. Mad Season (1994 – 1999)
Members: Layne Staley (Alice in Chains), Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), John Saunders (The Walkabouts)
Substance abuse problems started and ended this tragically under-appreciated Seattle band. McCready and Saunders formed the band after meeting in rehab and brought in Staley after the band began recording to contribute lyrics and vocals. Staley’s vocals dominate the album, and while dealing with the same demons that he sang about in Alice in Chains, Staley’s lyrics with Mad Season suggest hope, or at the very least, acceptance. The music’s strength is as much about restraint as it is about force. Staley and Saunders both eventually died from drug overdoses.
1. Velvet Revolver (2002 – Present)
Original Members: Slash (Guns N’ Roses), Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses), Dave Kushner (Wasted Youth)
A lot of people were bitterly disappointed by Velvet Revolver, mainly because the GNR legacy had created expectations that were near-impossible to meet. But divorced from these expectations, VR turned out to be an above-average rock outfit, with a debut album, Contraband, that remains one of the better straight out rock albums from the early Naughties. Slither, Sucker Train Blues, and Do It for The Kids are all legit, pounding rockers. While the best of this album doesn’t approach the best of GNR or STP, the quality is nonetheless high and just as importantly, the quality remains consistent throughout the entire album.
Drugs, egos, and online fighting eventually drove Weiland out of the band, though not before releasing their second album, Libertad, which was had some good tracks, but which lacked the consistency of the debut.
The Supergroup Legion of Musical Doom
Groups that were better left as individual pieces.
5. The Firm (1984 – 1986)
Original Members: Paul Rodgers (Bad Company), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Chris Slade (Uriah Heep), Tony Franklin
Swan Song label mates Page and Rodgers struck gold by actively shunning their respective musical legacies to create The Firm. Their names carried them further than the music would have, standing on its own. They made their millions from songs like Radioactive and Satisfaction Guaranteed, and then The Firm disappeared.
4. Chickenfoot (2008 – Present)
Original Members: Sammy Hagar (Van Halen, solo), Michael Anthony (Van Halen), Joe Satriani (solo), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Hagar, Anthony, and Smith started out jamming in Hagar’s club in Cabo San Lucas and liked it so much they wanted to bring in a guitar player and start a new band. They brought in guitar god Joe Satriani and recorded an album that now serves as irrefutable evidence that Joe Satriani doesn’t need to be in someone else’s band.
3. Asia (1981 – Present)
Original Members: Geoff Downes (Yes), John Wetton (King Crimson), Steve Howe (Yes), Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
With a prog pedigree longer than Axl Rose’s resentment list, this band continues to vex the world in not just one, but two incarnations: Asia, and Asia Featuring John Payne.
2. The Power Station (1984 – 1985)
Original Members: Robert Palmer (solo), John Taylor (Duran Duran), Andy Taylor (Duran Duran), Tony Thompson (Chic)
When you finish watching the last of your Miami Vice DVDs, you can always roll your jacket sleeves up, put on some Power Station, close your eyes, and float all the way back to 1985…
1. Damn Yankees (1989 – 1996**)
Original Members: Tommy Shaw (Styx), Ted Nugent (Solo), Jack Blades (Night Ranger), Michael Cartellone
“Kiss my American fucking ass.” -Ted Nugent
*Or as Mojo Nixon would clarify, “The Rock and Roll Hall of Lame.”
**The band showed up and played an acoustic set at the 2010 NAMM show. You have been warned.