The Thinking Man's Take On: Supergroups

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In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the term “Supergroup” bandied about a lot more than usual. There have been debut releases from Dead Weather (featuring members of White Stripes, Raconteurs, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Kills) and Tinted Windows (featuring members of Hansen, Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and Cheap Trick). There have been announcements about the formation of new groups like Drummer (featuring members of Black Keys, Beaten Awake and Six Parts Seven) and The Almighty Defenders (featuring Black Lips, King Khan, and BBQ). There has been a Broken Social Scene Reunion (featuring members of Stars, Metric, Feist, Do Make Say Think, Apostle of Hustle, Green Day, Naughty By Nature, Bono, The Brazilian National Soccer Team, Color Me Badd, New Kids on the Block, and Barack Obama). But I’m here to set the record straight. These are not all supergroups, no matter how many times Pitchfork uses that word.

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See somewhere we got confused. Someone accidentally said “Supergroup” instead of “Side Project” and everyone got all mixed up – we thought supergroup sounded better, more legitimate. So we dropped side project (except when referring to Spencer Krug), and substituted a name that implied that these bands could fly. False.

There are certain criteria that a supergroup must meet. As usual, I’d like to give my two cents about what really makes a supergroup super.  Super.

The Thinking Man’s Supergroup Qualification Criteria:

1. At least two of the members need to be from established groups or be established as solo artists.

Seriously, let’s have some standards with the word super. We’re not talking about some let-our-powers-combine Captain Planet business here. When members of four unknown bands get together and form a new band, they form a new unknown band, not a supergroup. I’m tired of getting e-mails from promoters talking about the exciting collaboration between Johnny from I Don’t Know This Band and Bobby from the Nobody Cares. Unless you have a recognizable name on your resume (and I mean really recognizable), you’re just looking for your big break – not forming some earth shattering brain trust of musical talent.

Oh, and the two members need to be from different groups. No fair taking two or more people from one famous band, combining them with a bunch of people no one has ever heard of, and calling it a supergroup. That’s a side project.

How recognizable are we talking? Well, looking at the names in the first paragraph, Drummer is out – only Black Keys qualifies as established enough. The Almighty Defenders are borderline, teetering toward not counting, if only because who names their band BBQ? White Stripes + QOTSA checks out. And as much as it pains me to say it, Hansen + Smashing Pumpkins + Fountains Of Wayne + Cheap Trick qualifies as well. Does Broken Social Scene count? No: see point 2.

2. The group cannot have 10+ members.

Broken Social Scene themselves reject the title of supergroup. Which is good, because they aren’t a supergroup. They’re a collective that is made up of fantastic and established musicians who play with a constantly rotating cast of characters. It’s like when you call someone your girlfriend, but mean that they’re your friend and a girl, not that you’re dating. Broken Social Scene is super, and they’re a group, but they’re not like…you know.

The exception to this rule would be if a group played together all the time, a la Polyphonic Spree. In that situation – where members of a few established bands formed a new group and toured and recorded with a static lineup that didn't change – we would call it a cult.

3. The group must be formed with the intention of recording more than one album.

This one is tricky, because it’s not necessarily about the end result. Instead it’s about intention. One of the best parts about supergroups is that they often consist of people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, which creates awful group dynamics. Chris DeVille called supergroups “ego summits,” and it’s no surprise that many don’t make it past their first release. But what's important is what they mean to do.

Groups that form with the intention of recording one album and one album only are not supergroups. Billy Bragg and Wilco’s fantastic Mermaid Avenue record is a prime example – a really cool collaboration, but not a supergroup. Supergroups require commitment to the idea of being an actual group, not a project.

4. The group must perform under a collective name .

Another reason I’d say the Billy Bragg/Wilco combo doesn’t qualify is the name. It’s a quibble, but I think supergroups should perform under a collective name. Even if the name is just taking the last name of all the members (Hi Crosby, Stills, and Nash!).  Real creative, guys.

5. The group cannot be a previously existing band with a new frontman

Hi Audioslave. I’m talking to you. Someone called you a supergroup, and it made me sick to my stomach. You are not a supergroup comprised of Rage Against The Machine and Soundgarden members. You are Rage Against The Machine with a new singer. I know you recorded a couple albums, and you even got some good press as establishing your own new sound. But whenever anyone mentions your name, it’s always followed by the comment, “You know, the new Rage Against The Machine band.”

6. No jazz.  Very limited hip hop.

The no jazz rule should make sense. Jazz musicians are inherently individual performers, and jazz ensembles are inherently fluid organizations. Attempting to nail down a lineup of jazz musicians is like attempting to nail down jello. Fun, entertaining for a few minutes, but futile in the end.

The hip hop rule is more difficult, however, and I struggled with it a bit. There are some supergroup-ish collaborations. Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Blackstar comes really close, but it’s really more of a superduo than anything else. The Lupe/Kanye/Pharrell combination as Child Rebel Soldiers could prove to be one. Wu Tang Clan has been called a supergroup, although I would argue that they’re more of a hip hop collective. In general, I think the same logic that holds with jazz holds with hip hop – artists are inherently identified as individual performers, so legitimately cohesive supergroups are tough to find.

I’m sure that there are other rules that should be defined. The artists have to actually perform together – no mashup acts like the Jay-Z/Linkin Park collaboration. The group has to actually be good, and the music has to live up to the description of “Super”. Billy Corgan can’t be involved. The six listed above are the biggies, though, so I won’t keep rambling on. Since I know someone will ask, groups I think qualify best:  CSNY, Asia, The Highwaymen, Traveling Wilburys, A Perfect Circle, Oysterhead, Velvet Revolver, Chickenfoot (sigh), and Dead Weather.  I’m sure there are others, so feel free to let me know.  And no, I don’t think The Postal Service counts.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog,The Stu Reid Experiment.  His dream supergroup consists of David Byrne, Dave Longstreth, Sharon Jones, Michael Angelakos, and Barack Obama.