FEATURE: An Unstoppable Force: The Brilliance and Rare Genius of the Supergroup




An Unstoppable Force


IN THIS IMAGE: The cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ debut album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

The Brilliance and Rare Genius of the Supergroup


A lot of things have disappeared from music as time...


 IN THIS PHOTO: boygenius (Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

has marched on and technology has played a bigger role. In fact, I think general music tastes have shifted so much that once-loved configurations and aspects have died. I have talked about the girl group and how, in 2018, we can really say they are a force. There are some around – include Little Mix and Four of Diamonds – but look back to the 1980s and 1990s (when the likes of TLC and En Vogue ruled) and that seems so far in the past. I would love to see the return of a time when girl groups were very much ruling but I think the best of the best have ended and it seems hard to recapture that spirits and wave. Maybe music will turn once more and girl groups will come back in fore but I fear their best days ended in the 1990s. One aspect of music that still exists and provides a mighty punch is the supergroup. Today, we have boygenius: the combination of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. It might not pack the same sort of earthquake as the finest of all time but I love when artists from different genres can get together and create this incredible attack. Boygenius’ eponymous E.P. gained a lot of great reviews and showed that, even though the trio had never worked together before, they blended in perfect harmony.

They are not the only ones from recent memory who have united with swift and brilliant results. LUMP is the brainchild of Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay and, again, their eponymous release was celebrated. I am a huge fan of Laura Marling but was not too aware of Lindsay. Both musicians do not depart too far from their regular, better-known lives but the chemistry is undeniably strong and electric. Many might say it is an unfair advantage putting big musicians together – a rather stellar and monster-like unit that is stronger and more experienced than most other groups around. Neko Cae, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs created case/lang/veirs and these three legends produced a stellar eponymous album in 2016 (I wonder whether there is a rule modern supergroup need to make everything self-titled?!). I love that album and fuses the songwriting brilliance and distinct voices of three artists who, throughout the years, have changed music and produced some phenomenal albums. Each artist gets a spotlight regarding lead vocals and songs and it is a democratic band that benefits from a unity and togetherness that is stronger than most other groups. It can be risky putting a group of disparate and untested artists together in a group – the results are not always wonderful. Look at two titanic, Chris Cornell-led supergroups and there has been some mixed results.

Audioslave consisted Soundgarden’s Cornell and Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. Their 2002 debut album, Audioslave, featured the biblical song Cochise, but many critics noticed a rather limp and patchy album. Each member shone in their original band but the combination of vocal and music was a little mismatched and not as harmonious as you’d like. The band recorded a few albums and, aside from Out of Exile (2005), they were given lukewarm critical reception. Those Rage members have gone on to work in other projects – including the Chuck D-led supergroup Prophets of Rage – whereas Cornell, as lead of Temple of the Dog, released only one album. The 1991 eponymous debut/album gave us incredible tracks like Hunger Strike but the project did not last long. It depends on who you put together but it was a shame the two bands did not last longer and shine brighter. Temple of the Dog featured brilliant musicians like Jeff Ament (Mother Love Bone) and Matt Cameron (Soundgarden) but was a brief venture. The best supergroups are those that instantly click and there are no tensions in the ranks. It can be the case that egos get in the way but, even looking at the most successful and potent supergroups, and there have been some cases of tensions and disputes.



It depends on your musical preferences and which supergroup tops your list. Cream combined Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce and, whilst there was some fire and bristle at times, Cream are considered one of the first true supergroups. They were platinum-selling (1968’s Wheels of Fire) and they blended Psychedelic-Rock and Blues in an orgy of brilliance. If bands like Temple of the Dog encapsulated all of the Seattle Sonic boom and kept the spirit of Grunge alive; Cream was a dizzying mixture of 1960s bliss and the roots of Blues. There have been modern supergroups that have united the sounds of its members seamlessly and sprinkled in something fresh. Look at The Dead Weather and the unlike-yet-explosive mixture of Jack White and Alison Mosshart; the physical might and combined legacy of Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss) of Them Crooked Vultures and on-off-on-again treasures like The Breeders (the line-up has changed but sisters Kelley and Kim Deal are the central force). There have been a few short-lived and halfhearted attempts at supergroups and, whilst many of them only exist for a few albums; hearing these amazing musicians in the same studio, all pulling in the same direction is truly stunning. There are two that stand above everyone else.

To many, there is no finer and more influential supergroup than Crosby, Stills and Nash & Young. Consequence of Sound talk about the formation of the band; the way they clicked and what they provided the world:

“ David Crosby had been kicked out of The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, following the demise of Buffalo Springfield, was a man without a band when the two began working together. Shortly after, Graham Nash of The Hollies, a friend of Crosby’s, sang harmonies with the two at a party hosted by Joni Mitchell, and the three realized they were a unique fit together. They opted to use their surnames as a band name, basically so they couldn’t get fucked over like they felt they had in previous bands. Neil Young came aboard a couple years later in 1970, despite the fact that he and Stills had not always gotten along as bandmates in Buffalo Springfield. It was decided early on that Young would be free to carry on his solo career and work with Crazy Horse. Ladies and gentlemen: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Heaven help us all”.

“CSN and CSNY tick all the boxes when you think about what a rock and roll outfit can achieve, endure, and get tangled up in. In their earliest days as a four-piece, they were at Woodstock and will forever be associated with the spirit and politics of the late ’60s. On their best days as a band, their songwriting and performances, particularly their vocal harmonies, are on par with the greatest to ever hit the studio or the stage. On their lesser days, there was more sex, drugs, infighting, and prison time than there was “teaching your children well.” But through it all, the four have survived and for many have become a can’t-miss touring institution. Should Nash and Crosby bury their latest hatchet — preferably not in each other’s backs — it’s possible the book hasn’t closed just yet on CSNY”.

The 1969 debut, without Neil Young, has such tracks as Marrakesh Express, whereas Déjà Vu (1970) has all four...and the combined songwriting powers produced Our House, Teach Your Children and Helpless. The supergroup alternated between CSN and CSNY and their last studio album was 1999’s Looking Forward. I have heard interviews David Crosby has given recently and it seems like there are too many strained relationships within the ranks to overcome. It seems there is a big tension between Crosby and Graham Nash and, whilst it is possible the band might reform down the line, I think it is unlikely we will see them come back with another record. Look at the solo work of Neil Young, Graham Nash; Stephen Stills and David Crosby and there is enough genius there to keep anyone satisfied! It might have been a big risk putting them together but the unity worked wonderfully. The fact one of their main weapons was the beautiful harmonies means the music easily resonates and sinks in. I am a fan of each musician but feel they were at their strongest when combined. Many musical historians will see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as the best supergroup ever but, to me, the best is the Traveling Wilburys.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Traveling Wilburys/PHOTO CREDIT: Neal Preston

Their debut, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, turned forty on 17th October and it is amazing to think there was a time when George Harrison, Roy Orbison; Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan were on the same record! Here is a quick bit of background from Wikipedia:

In early April 1988, George Harrison was in Los Angeles and needed to record a B-side for a European 12-inch single. Jeff Lynne was also in Los Angeles writing and producing some tracks for Roy Orbison on his album Mystery Girl (released posthumously), as well as Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever. While having dinner with Lynne and Orbison, Harrison related how he needed to record a new track and wanted to do it the next day. Harrison asked if Lynne would help, and Orbison offered his old friend his hand as well, seeing how fun it would be. Needing a studio at short notice, Harrison called Bob Dylan, who agreed to let them use his garage studio. After dinner, Harrison stopped by Petty’s house to pick up a guitar he had left there, and invited Petty along too. Gathering at Dylan’s Malibu home the following day, Harrison, Lynne, Orbison and Petty worked on a song that Harrison had started writing for the occasion, "Handle with Care". At first, Dylan's role was that of a host, maintaining a barbecue to feed the musicians; at Harrison's invitation, Dylan then joined them in writing lyrics for the song. The ensemble taped the track on Dylan's Ampex recording equipment, with all five sharing the vocals.[3]

"Handle with Care" was considered too good to be used as a B-side, so Harrison decided to form a band and record another nine songs for an album. The group got together again for nine days in May, recording the basic tracks and vocals at Dave Stewart’s home studio in Los Angeles. Overdubs and mixing were carried out in England at Harrison’s home studio, FPSHOT (short for Friar Park Studio, Henley-on-Thames).

Masquerading as the Wilbury brothers, the participants would be known as Nelson (Harrison), Otis (Lynne), Lucky (Dylan), Lefty (Orbison), and Charlie T. Jr. (Petty) Wilbury, with drummer Jim Keltner credited as Buster Sidebury. Harrison was no stranger to the use of alternate identities, as he had adopted them with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandand with his plethora of pseudonyms as a session musician, including L'Angelo Misterioso, George O'Hara and Hari Georgeson. During the Beatles' first tour of Scotland, in 1960, he had used the pseudonym "Carl Harrison", in reference to one of his favourite musicians, Carl Perkins.[4] With the Traveling Wilburys, this concept was taken a step further, since the participants' real names do not appear anywhere on the album, liner notes, or the songwriting credits”.

Their ten-track debut album saw each of the five artists take a spotlight and everyone except Roy Orbison had songwriting credits.

Handle with Care seems like classic Harrison whereas the memorable Last Nite sees a Petty-penned song lifted by a quivering Orbison contribution. Not Alone Anymore is pure Orbison showing why he is one of the best singers ever whereas Tweeter and the Monkey Man is a Bruce Springsteen pastiche written and sung by Bob Dylan – a brilliant song from him at a period in his career where his solo work was not at its best. The reason why I feel the Traveling Wilburys are the finest supergroup is because of the friendships and warmth you get with the music. Each musician enjoyed huge success before the band started but I feel none of them were producing their best solo material in 1988. Suddenly, when all together, they created this album that brought new light and brilliance from each of them. The sheer stature of each member (remember, there is a Beatle and Bob Dylan together!) makes them mightier than any other supergroup! The only reason the project was short-lived was because of Orbison’s premature death late in 1988 from a heart attack – not long after the album was recorded and released. In fact, Thursday just gone marked the thirtieth anniversary of Orbison’s death and, while the remaining members created 1990’s Traveling Wilbury’s Vol. 3; it was not a patch on the original and was lacking that Orbison firepower! You might think it is rather naïve to celebrate such a band who only recorded one brilliant album but the combination of stellar musicians and incredibly evocative songwriting makes them my favourite.


 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

I came across the Traveling Wilburys not long after their debut and, as a young child, it was an eye opening experience. I was brought up on The Beatles and, of course, knew about Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. I was a big fan of Bob Dylan and did not ever think the day would come when these music legends would join forces. There was no ego in the ranks and, on their debut album, you can tell each of the voices and who wrote what – even though the musicians were using pseudonyms -; the fun they were having was infectious and obvious and the results speak for themselves! The album is timeless and the songs balance humour and fun with exceptional craft and tightness. In a retrospective review; AllMusic talked about the rare success of the album and how the music world had never seen such huge artists combine:

Looking back via The Traveling Wilburys, the group's success seems all the more remarkable because the first album is surely, even proudly, not a major statement. Even under the direction of Lynne, who seems incapable of not polishing a record till it gleams, it's loose and funny, even goofy. It's clearly a lark, which makes the offhanded, casual virtuosity of some of the songs all the more affecting, particularly the two big hits, which are sunny and warm, partially because they wryly acknowledge the mileage on these rock & roll veterans. "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" are the two masterworks here, although Roy's showcase, "Not Alone Anymore" -- more grand and moving than anything on the Lynne-produced Mystery Girl -- comes close in the stature, but its stylized melodrama is a ringer here: it, along with Dylan's offhand heartbreak tune "Congratulations," is the only slow thing here, and the rest of the album just overspills with good vibes, whether it's Tom Petty's lite reggae of "Last Night," Jeff Lynne's excellent Jerry Lee Lewis update "Rattled," or Dylan's very funny "Dirty World," which is only slightly overshadowed by his very, very funny Springsteen swipe "Tweeter and the Monkey Man."

The Traveling Wilburys built upon Harrison's comeback with Cloud Nine and helped revitalize everybody else's career, setting the stage for Dylan's 1989 comeback with Oh MercyPetty's first solo album, Full Moon Fever, produced by Lynne (sounding and feeling strikingly similar to this lark), and Orbison's Mystery Girl, which was released posthumously. Given the success of this record and how it boosted the creativity of the rest of the five, it's somewhat a shock that the second effort falls a little flat.


IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé (who is already in The Carters with Jay-Z but could easily spearhead a modern-day supergroup to beat them all)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

We have some emerging supergroups and those we left behind but I think there is an opportunity for modern musicians to join together! Just imagine the people we could put together and what could arise! I have spoken about the bygone girl groups but what if we saw Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child) join with former members of TLC, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa?! Maybe combining the biggest Pop artists of the mainstream or having a few legends together in a new venture could yield wonderful results. Unlike girl groups; I think there is more life and potential to be drawn from supergroups and there are countless combinations that could ignite the music world. Everyone will have their favourite and, since the 1960s/1970s, we have seen these big ventures and tremendous albums! I will always treasure the Traveling Wilburys but know a lot of people prefer Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Children of Grunge like the excitement of Audioslave whereas newcomers like boygenius are giving critics a lot to shout about. Music’s history has been heighten with these superhero alliances and I know we will see many more supergroups spring up in years to come. I have been remembering Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 thirty years after its arrival and am still struck by the genius of the music. Some of the older supergroups did not work out long-term but, as the Traveling Wilburys showed; even if you are together for a short time it is possible to create something that...


 IMAGE CREDIT: Pinterest

LASTS for decades to come.