We Took An Exhaustive Look At The 20 Best (And Worst) Supergroups In The History Of Music

by 2 months ago

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As far as I’m concerned, the world needs more of the following things: summer ales, dog parks, Cuban sandwiches, and supergroups.

Yes, supergroups; the product of the stars aligning and a handful of established and well-known musicians getting together to make some music, record an album or two, and then disappear from our lives forever.

I should mention I’m talking about legit supergroups, which I would clarify is a group that consists of at least two established, relatively big-name musicians. With all due respect to someone like Danger Mouse, I don’t consider either Gnarls Barkley or Broken Bells supergroups. They’re successful collaborations between an established musician and prolific producer.

I like to think Danger Mouse would understand.

So would the dudes in Journey, who the internet tells me is a supergroup, but at this point, they’re Journey. Anything they did before Journey simply doesn’t matter. It’s what happens when you give the world something like “Don’t Stop Believin.'”

It’s been a while since we were treated to a new supergroup but The Highwomen—comprised of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires—recently came along to rectify that problem.

The arrival of the Highwomen got me thinking about the history of supergroups, a history that (according to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner) began with Cream back in 1966. Oddly enough, Cream is also generally considered the greatest supergroup of all time, although some people would make cases for The Traveling Wilburys or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

With that said, I’m down with Cream, if only because I’m historically partial to the originals when it comes to lists.

Rankings aside, I do think that when it comes to the history of supergroups, the bulk of them can be placed into one of five tiers.

Let’s do a deep dive, shall we?

Tier 1: Holy Shit, That Really Happened?

Looking back at music history is always an interesting endeavor and zeroing in on the history of supergroups is no exception. A handful of these bands now seem like urban myths; ghost stories people tell their friends while drinking beers around the campfire.

Given what we know about the musicians involved, it seems damn near unbelievable that some of these groups actually came together.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

With all due respect to Crosby, Stills & Nash—which was a supergroup in its own right and had already released a successful self-titled debut albumthe fact that Neil Young got added to the fold is pretty wild. The closest comparison I can think of is Kevin Durant joining the Warriors a few years ago.

Riding high on the popularity of their debut, the trio found itself in need of a keyboard player. Their manager suggested Young, who had played in Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills and was starting to forge his own path as a solo act.

Young agreed to join, switching back and forth between keys and guitar, but only if it was agreed that he could continue playing with his band Crazy Horse.

In the history of rock ‘n roll, the addition of Young to Crosby, Stills & Nash might top the list of ringers that were brought into a new band. It’s up there with Dave Grohl briefly joining Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers after Kurt Cobain’s death and Pearl Jam getting Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron to play drums for them.

Shortly after joining the group, all four members dropped solo albums and Young released one of his greatest—After the Gold Rush—which he quickly followed up with Harvest. Just a few years after joining the group, Young dipped out. He’d reconnect with the trio from time to time over the years, but for the most part, the moment had passed.

The Highwaymen

In 1985, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson teamed up under the name “The Highwaymen” and in the process laid the foundation for the outlaw country genre. This wasn’t like Young joining Crosby, Stills & Nash because in this case, all four ramblers came aboard at the same time and at roughly the same points of their respective careers.

If Young joining Crosby, Stills & Nash was akin to Durant joining the Warriors, this was the 2008 Celtics coming together. It was a few veterans teaming up for one more shot at a championship.

The Highwaymen went on to record three albums over the next ten years and continued to play until health problems for Jennings and Cash derailed them.

The Traveling Wilbury’s

Three decades after they came together, The Traveling Wilburys’ line-up sounds like the set-up for a joke you’d hear at a bar or one of those Saturday Night Live sketches where a handful of celebrities meet up somewhere in what is really just an opportunity for the cast to break out some impressions.

If anything, it sounds too good to actually be true.

But man, this was really a thing.

The band was cooked up by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne when the two of them were in the studio working on Harrison’s Cloud Nine record. Harrison expressed an interest in putting together a band and, as if the two of them were on the playground selecting teams for a pickup game, each got to draft someone to join.

Harrison drafted Bob Dylan and Lynne picked Roy Orbison. Like most wild ideas, though, it eventually drifted away; gone, but not forgotten.

Tom Petty came into the picture after he became friends with all four dudes, first connecting with Lynne and Harrison while playing shows with Bob Dylan. He then became close with Orbison, as the two of them bonded over old-time rock music.

They all finally found themselves together in the same room in Los Angeles when Harrison was in town to record a B-side for a single of his. While recording in Dylan’s garage, they teamed up on “Handle with Care,” a song that was very quickly deemed too good to just be a B-side. The song needed an album and just like that, Harrison and Lynne’s crazy idea became a very real idea.

The good times were short-lived, though.

Orbison died of a heart attack in 1988 and the band produced just one more album without him. Eventually, solo careers (the project had jump-started the previously sluggish careers of Petty and Dylan) made getting the group back together too difficult. The four surviving members had to settle with keeping themselves busy with their middling solo endeavors.

Tier 2: Did Someone Steal My Dream Journal?

Sometimes a supergroup feels like the living and breathing incarnation of your wildest dreams, like when it features musicians from some of your favorite bands coming together in what you can only assume will be an absolutely wonderful experiment.

While it might not always work out like you hoped, that initial rush that runs through your body upon hearing that such a group has formed makes it worth it.

Or almost does.

Oddly enough, sometimes when people from your favorite bands team up it can be like when a team has loaded up in the offseason and looks unstoppable on paper. However, once they hit the field, there’s obviously something missing.

The biggest and best example of this?

Audioslave

Audioslave looked amazing on paper. You had three of the dudes from Rage Against The Machine and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. It would be a modern-day Led Zeppelin!

And at first, it seemed like it could actually turn out that way. There were kinks, of course, but there’s always kinks. It’s rock ‘n roll. There are literally kinks embedded in the fabric of the genre.

The kinks didn’t go away, though, and it soon became apparent that the kinks were actually flaws. Besides having a terrible name, the two parties involved never quite seemed to be on the same page.

What made it frustrating is that they showed signs of great things but those signs never really led anywhere. If anything, those signs led to Cornell eventually getting back together with Soundgarden and the Rage fellas teaming up with B-Real and Chuck D in Prophets Of Rage, two moves that ultimately made more sense for everyone involved.

Another example of things looking better on paper than in real life?

Oysterhead

WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THESE NAMES? Do better.

Oysterhead—featuring Les Claypool of Primus, Trey Anastasio of Phish, and Stewart Copeland of The Police—came together in 2000 when Claypool was asked to throw a band together for New Orleans Jazz Fest.

About a year later, the trio released their first and only album, The Grand Pecking Order. They toured for a bit before eventually going their separate ways as their main gigs got in the way.

They got back together a few years later, however, playing a set at Bonnaroo in 2006.

It’s not as if Oysterhead was bad. Far from it, actually.

If anything, Oysterhead was pretty awesome, if not somewhat inconsistent. Their album featured 13 original tunes, but I’d say that of those songs, 70% are actually good. The rest are just weird, which I suppose is to be expected when you get three music nerds in the same room. It’s as if each of these fellas felt emboldened without steadier hands around and just went buck wild.

It’s not all bad news, though, because sometimes supergroups culled from your deepest of dreams actually work out or at least get really damn close.

Them Crooked Vultures

Them Crooked Vultures isn’t just one of the best supergroups ever assembled but might be one of the best rock bands ever created. The band formed in 2009 and featured Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age on vocals and guitar, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin on bass, and Dave Grohl on drums. The end result was just as heavy and forceful as it sounded like it’d be.

The band dropped a big ol’ foot-stomping rock on their lone release, an album highlighted by the excellent tune “New Fang,” which just plain rocks. “New Fang” even won a Grammy, taking home Best Hard Rock Performance in 2011.

See?

Sometimes even the Grammys get something right.

Velvet Revolver

On a lesser scale is Velvet Revolver, a supergroup that damn near seamlessly combined the best rock had to offer from the 1980s and 1990s as it brought together members of Guns N’ Roses and Stone Temple Pilots.

They threw the unabashed and unapologetic big-time rock bravado of Guns into a blender with Scott Weiland’s chameleon-like rock vocals, and as luck would have it, an updated take on thrashing glam rock came out.

The group—which was also a dangerous mix of combustible elements given the egos and history of drug use involved—was somehow able to survive long enough to produce two albums, Contraband (2005) and Libertad (2007.)

Eventually, though, things fell apart. Weiland’s drug use began to create a rift within the band and he soon distanced himself from the other members, who (oddly enough) were also distancing themselves from him.

Weiland left the group (or, depending on who you ask, was fired) in 2008, and similar to how the members of Audioslave retreated to friendlier surroundings, the Guns dudes reconnected with Axl Rose to get the band back together and Weiland reunited with Stone Temple Pilots.

Jay Z and Kanye West

 

It’s hard to say if this duo is a supergroup or not, but for all intents and purposes, I’m calling them one. They recorded a whole album together, toured together, and (not for nothing) definitely acted as if they were a duo.

I’m calling them a supergroup and that’s that.

They also are a supergroup that represents both kinds of groups that have been highlighted so far. On the one hand, the end product was good but not as good as we had hoped.

I blame a lot of that on expectations; both rappers were at the top of their game when they came together for Watch the Throne and the hype was real and warranted. But it was almost too much hype and almost impossible for them to live up to it.

They came close, though.

Temple Of The Dog

 

When Pearl Jam crashed into our lives in 1991, it instantly created a hunger for more from the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle scene was happy to oblige.

Following the tragedy of Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Wood’s death, his friend and roommate Chris Cornell found himself writing songs about him—songs that were slower and not nearly as aggressive as the ones he was playing with Soundgarden.

As he looked for an outlet for these songs, he turned to Wood’s former bandmates (and soon-to-be members of Pearl Jam) Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, who grasped onto the project as both were also in need of a way to come to terms with the death of their friend.

Named after a lyric from one of Mother Love Bone’s songs, Temple Of The Dog was rounded out by Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Mike McCready, who was also a soon-to-be member of Pearl Jam.

The band’s lone album, Temple of the Dog, was released in 1991 but didn’t really gain the public’s attention until Pearl Jam truly blew up the following year. By that point, Soundgarden was also more popular and (speaking solely for myself here) the idea of a group consisting of members from both bands was almost too much for a teenaged grunge-enthusiast to handle.

However, Temple Of The Dog wasn’t the only supergroup to emerge from the Seattle scene during that time.

Mad Season

Not nearly as popular as Temple, Mad Season was still a force and was comprised of mostly Seattle vets. Mike McCready formed the group with bassist John Baker Saunders after the two met in rehab and had both returned to Seattle following their stay.

Once back in the Pacific Northwest, they teamed up with drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and vocalist Layne Stanely of Alice in Chains.

The band only recorded one album (that seems to be a thing in this tier) before Staley’s drug use took its toll on the band. When Saunders died in 1999, the project was put to rest.

Tier 3: So, They Tell Me You Were A Supergroup

For some supergroups, a funny thing happens on the way to rock immortality and that is the passage of time. When you look at a group like The Traveling Wilburys, it’s hard not to also be amazed at the people involved given what has become of the legacies of those involved.

But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes as the years go on for some supergroups, what they did before they came together gets lost in the shuffle and the supergroup becomes what they’re known for.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Full disclosure: I know who Emerson, Lake & Palmer are but have no clue about where each guy came from before they teamed up. I know they’re a supergroup because the internet tells me that, but I also know I’ll just have to take the internet’s word for it, which is always a dangerous thing to do.

I suppose my lack of knowledge regarding the histories of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer could be traced back to my lack of knowledge about prog-rock, which I admit is limited.

If I knew more about the genre, I’d know that The Nice (Emerson’s band) and King Crimson (Lake’s band) were titans of industry in the world of late sixties pro-rock. Emerson and Lake started jamming together in 1969 and were briefly joined by Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums.

Mitchell never panned out, though, and the duo eventually found Palmer, who had been playing with (and these are real bands) Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown.

The sixties were a weird time. No one talks about it but it’s true. Sometimes I think the whole decade was on drugs.

Bad Company

Bad Company formed around 1973 and was led by Paul Rodgers of Free. The band also consisted of Free’s drummer Simon Kirke, Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs, and Boz Burrell, who had played bass for King Crimson.

Unlike some supergroups who managed to only put out an album or two, Bad Company released twelve albums between 1974 and 1996.

To put that in perspective, Free only released six albums, Mott The Hoople released seven, and Burrell only released three when he was with King Crimson.

Bad Company might be the best example of a supergroup whose members would list the supergroup before their other projects on their résumé.

Electronic

Electronic is our first new wave supergroup and that’s exciting.

Unlike the gents in Bad Company, Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner (the guys behind Electronic) most likely name their band second (or maybe even third) when listing their accomplishments, and for good reason. Marr had played with The Smiths while Sumner played with New Order.

If anything, Electronic finds itself in this tier because I honestly had never heard of them and if you were to introduce them to me and describe them as a supergroup, I don’t know if I’d believe you at first.

I suppose my knowledge of English alternative dance music is lacking in the same way my knowledge of 1960’s prog-rock is, and for that, I apologize.

The Power Station

The Power Station was another mid-80s supergroup and consisted of Robert Palmer on vocals, the drummer from Chic, and two of the dudes from Duran Duran.

Before going any further, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more 1980s-sounding band name than The Power Station. If you saw The Power Station on a bill or bar’s marquee now, you’d probably think an 80s cover band was playing and literally no one could blame you.

Palmer was originally tasked with providing vocals on only one or two tracks on the band’s debut album, as the plan was to have a revolving cast of vocalists including Mick Jagger and Billy Idol. However, after recording with Palmer, the singer proved to be simply irresistible and was asked to join full-time.

It was a relatively short run for The Power Station, though, as Palmer ended up deciding to pursue solo projects shortly after they released their first album.

The band gave it a go with a different singer, but soon (and as is the case with most side hustles) their main gigs started to get busy again and The Power Station fell by the wayside.

Tier 4: How Many of These Things Has Eric Clapton Been In For God’s Sake?

The short answer is three (but kind of four).

The devil is in the details, though. When it comes to the supergroup section of Clapton’s résumé, the one he was in were some of the best and most popular ever assembled.

Cream

As we’ve already mentioned, Cream is generally considered both the first supergroup and the best supergroup. Clapton teamed up with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce in 1966 when Clapton was looking for a new gig after souring on his time with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers.

Baker and Bruce had played together in the Graham Bond Organisation and to say that the two failed to see eye to eye is a massive understatement. They fought regularly—fights that would include them sabotaging each other’s instruments and at one point resulted in Baker pulling a knife on Bruce. Baker was understandably a little shook when Clapton suggested Bruce but ultimately agreed with the move.

Cream seemed to exist almost in spite of itself, as it was propelled by the talent of those involved but was ultimately hampered by egos running wild and disagreements that plagued the trio’s short run.

By 1969, they were finished, having recorded three albums and becoming the first group to have an album, Disraeli Gears, be the first-ever double album to go double-platinum. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Blind Faith

Clapton had become friends with Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic.

With Traffic on hiatus and Clapton left wandering the planet following the inevitable combustion of Cream, the two started jamming together. Baker rambled by one day and very quickly became the drummer for the new project. Clapton briefly kicked around the idea of bringing Bruce in to play drums, but seeing as how dicey that had been before, it was quickly ruled out.

“Quick” is the operative word when talking about Blind Faith because this didn’t last long. The group struggled to get its footing while trying to emerge from the shadow of Cream and Traffic, and at shows, they were forced to play songs from those bands, which didn’t sit well with anyone involved (most notably Clapton).

Blind Faith lasted for all of one tour and one album before calling it quits.

Derek And The Dominos

A few years later, Clapton put together Derek and the Dominos, and while it’s not technically a supergroup, it did for a little spell feature Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. I’d say Derek and the Dominos is best chalked up as an almost-supergroup, given that at one time it featured two big-time musicians.

However, perhaps the most super of supergroups Clapton was in is probably the one that is least known and it’s a damn shame because anyone who cares even the slightest about rock music should know about this next band.

The Dirty Mac

The Dirty Mac featured John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. That right there is a supergroup.

As supergroups sometimes go, The Dirty Mac was like a comet as it was only seen once in a lifetime. The group played a handful of tunes during the filming of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in December of 1968. It was the first time Lennon had played live with anyone besides The Beatles since they got together and his first time playing live since the group stopped touring in 1966.

The band played ripping versions of The Beatles songs “Yer Blues” and “Revolution” and a little dose of Yoko-weirdness with “Whole Lotta Yoko.”

And just like that, they were gone.

Tier 5: Are You Serious?

For every Dirty Mac, Traveling Wilburys, or Them Crooked Vultures—supergroups that almost made too much sense—there’s a handful of supergroups that are genuine head-scratchers.

Chickenfoot

 

This band’s moniker sounds like a nickname you’d give to someone on your Little League team and no, it would not be someone everyone liked. But no, Chickenfoot is a band and (dumb name aside) Chickenfoot is a supergroup.

Chickenfoot (still a real name) came together in 2008 when former Van Halen dudes Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony spent time jamming with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith at Hagar’s Cabo Wabo club in Mexico.

Oh, I get it now. I get why they’re called Chickenfoot. You rock out in Mexico at a club where tequila flows like water and all of a sudden you’re going by something as ludicrous as Chickenfoot.

The band eventually added guitarist Joe Satriani and began touring and recording. Smith’s touring schedule with the Chili Peppers combined with poor album sales limited the band’s output to just two albums and a third release that was a combo joint, featuring their greatest hits and live tracks.

Wait, greatest hits?

You guys only recorded two albums. How many “greatest hits” could there be?

Man, tequila really makes a person do some wild shit, huh?

SuperHeavy

Rounding things out is a band featuring Mick Jagger and Damian Marley and that’s not even the weirdest aspect of SuperHeavy. On one tune, “Satyameva Jayathe,” Jagger sings in Sanskrit.

Yeah, Sanskrit, also known as a “5000-year-old dead language.”

SuperHeavy was conceived by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, who was inspired by the sounds he was hearing outside his home in Jamaica. Stewart and Jagger apparently also dug Indian music and decided to add that to the mix as well because why the hell not?

The duo invited noted Indian musician A.R. Rahman to join the group, which also included Marley and Joss Stone (Marley’s rhythm section tagged along as well).

In 2011, the group released their only album, SuperHeavy.

Only one more album and they too can release their own greatest hits album.

Supergroups don’t always make sense but they’re almost always entertaining.


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