“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance
“I got money, I got fame, fast cars and everything … Got it all, still want more.”
Chickenfoot, “Soap on a Rope”
Two years ago, Sammy Hagar sold 80% of his Cabo Wabo tequila brand for US$80-million – easily enough to keep the former Van Halen front man in poundcake for the rest of his life. But instead of retiring, the 61-year-old has decided to hit the road with Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and stunt guitarist Joe Satriani; together, they’re Chickenfoot.
As their name suggests, the not-so-fearsome foursome acknowledge the inherent ridiculousness of the idea of a supergroup: It’s as if, like the Justice League of America, a collection of guitar heroes is banding together to save the world with the power of rock ‘n’ roll. And even though excess is the furthest thing from most people’s minds during a recession, a little escapism shouldn’t hurt.
That’s what Chickenfoot is banking on, as are a number of other freshly minted supergroups, including Street Sweeper Social Club (with members of Rage Against the Machine, The Coup and Galactic), The Dead Weather (The White Stripes, The Racounteurs, The Kills and Queens of the Stone Age) and Tinted Windows (Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson).
Where the super-tours that were popular last summer featured three or four acts banding together to play larger venues than they could fill on their own, a touring supergroup offers a condensed version of this phenomenon. Forming such a group is particularly useful if your day-job band is defunct or on hiatus – instead of risking a solo project, why not join with friends who are in the same boat, and mobilize all of your fan bases?
The first acknowledged supergroup was apparently formed for artistic reasons (Cream, in 1966), but filthy lucre was never very far from the equation. In 1967, Elektra Records held auditions and assembled its own prefab version, Rhinoceros. Incorporating members of Iron Butterfly, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Buffalo Springfield and other bands, the group met with public indifference but can at least still claim a small cult following. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will remember the similarly contrived and more crassly commercial Rock Star: Supernova supergroup in 40 years’ time.
Longevity has historically been a problem for the supergroup – Cream, despite its musical and commercial success, lasted for just over two years (followed by two short reunions). Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker’s subsequent project, Blind Faith, put out just one album before disbanding – a common fate for the supergroup. In fact, The Traveling Wilburys got so carried away when they managed a second album, they called it Vol. 3.
Many supergroups are short-lived because they’re collections of superegos, as demonstrated by band names that don’t exactly roll off the tongue: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Beck, Bogart & Appice. In some cases, members’ infighting is as famous as their music, as with CSNY, who have survived on and mostly off despite dire disagreements between members. When Zwan broke up in 2003, Billy Corgan called the rest of his bandmates “dirty, filthy people who have no self-respect or class”; in 2007, Chris Cornell left Audioslave due to what he called “irresolvable personality conflicts.”
But even supergroups who get along tend to make music that’s anything but super. Consider Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers’s band The Firm (1985-86), whose two albums of sleek but bland hard rock couldn’t hold a candle to Led Zep, or even to Rodgers’s previous supergroup, Bad Company. And anyone who would honestly claim that The Traveling Wilburys’ music stands up to the best of its members’ solo work is clearly not a fan of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison or Jeff Lynne. Rare is the supergroup that adds up to the sum of its parts, let alone more. The keys to artistic success in such cases appear to be a healthy distribution of talent (not all members of supergroups have equal power – think Aquaman vs. Superman) and the creation of a musical mosaic where each member’s contribution can shine, rather than an inoffensive melting pot. Besides Cream, CSNY and ELP, one may cite a few lesser-known artistic successes: the underrated, elegantly tuneful Electronic, the cartoonishly off-the-wall Fantômas and the exquisitely moody The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
Will any of this year’s crew live up to the hype? So far, the most promising is The Dead Weather, who if they can survive some early animosity (drummer Jack White and singer Alison Mosshart were apparently involved in a barfight in New York) will have the chance to develop their prowling swamp-rock, a compelling hybrid of all their bands’ sounds. The other three have been rather predictable: Tinted Windows provides sugar-rush power-pop and Street Sweeper Social Club hectic rap-rock, while Chickenfoot sound more or less like Van Halen, circa 1991.
That said, Hagar’s new band sold out their small-club tour faster than a speeding bullet and are planning a bigger European tour this summer – not bad for a band who haven’t even released their first album. They should benefit from the low expectations set up by their predecessors: If they can hold off from bashing each other with mic stands and crank out a few memorable riffs, they may be welcomed as rock ‘n’ roll saviours.