Best of the supergroups (and a few bad apples)
– by Kaitlin Fontana
For nearly as long as there’s been rock ‘n’ roll, there have been supergroups.
A quick Wikipedia scan will pull up the term as originating sometime in the late ’60s, which seems about right – that’s when the first group of famous rockers would have split off from their original, fantastic bands and started making music with other famous rockers. The results, as history has shown, are generally a mixed bag. The overwhelming feeling is that the group in question (or at least, its most famous member) was better off a) with their original group, and/or b) wallowing in relative obscurity.
Entering into this dangerous fray is Tinted Windows, who keep insisting in the press that they are not a supergroup, but rather just a bunch of friends hanging out. I call bullshit, for while I can believe that Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) would hang out with James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), it’s harder to picture Schlesinger hanging with Taylor Hanson, just from an age point of view. Hanson is 26, Schlesinger 41. When Fountains of Wayne began, Taylor Hanson was 12. How did they meet, and when? Weirder still is the band’s drummer: Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, who is part of Tinted Windows because the other three thought they needed some “Bun E. Carlos-style drums.” Points for going for it, I guess.
In many ways, supergroups are like second marriages for their members: easier to start, relatively speaking, and maybe even easier to manage, but loaded with the baggage and the memory of what used to be. When we first see one, we get excited – that person and that person, together? Amazing! It’s likely what they thought, too (“Me and him? Amazing!”).
But while the departure is thrilling, the follow up is harder. You’re not just dealing with the usual expectations, that is: what each individual is capable of doing. Instead, you’re saddled with the combination of expectations that comes of something like this. You want Audioslave to be everything Soundgarden was AND everything Rage Against the Machine was. You’re oblivious, as are they, that they can’t possibly be both, and so will probably be neither. A house divided against itself cannot stand. (There are a few exceptions to this; see below.)
Put another way: If Soundgarden is ginger ale, and Rage Against the Machine is root beer, you expect the combo (Audioslave) to be some delicious intersect of these two. Instead, what you get is a shit mix – what the kids call “swamp water.” It’s neither ginger ale nor root beer. It’s brownish fizz.
Tinted Windows might make it – if for no other reason than the fact that their members have a bit of distance from their other bands, either via time (Iha, Hanson) or via their tendency towards multiple projects (Carlos, Schlesinger). Their debut is pure power pop, which at its best soars on Schlesinger’s genius melody-crafting and Hanson’s voice, and at its worst offers the brownish fizz: a blob of poppy sweetness that loses almost all its charm in trying to be all things at once. Do check out “Doncha Wanna” and “Dead Serious”, but skip “Take Me Back” and “Cha Cha”.
How Tinted Windows will measure up, supergroup-wise, is yet to be revealed. Historically speaking, the best supergroups are those largely made up of solo stars (see: Traveling Wilburys, CSNY). Less baggage might certainly be a factor, and coming from solo to band makes it seem less like you’re trying to recapture your former band’s glory. Still, there’s no magic formula. Like any band’s fate, it ain’t up to them. It’s up to us.
Temple of the Dog – A grunge collaboration created to memorialize Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose. Their one and only album captures grunge’s early magic and combines it with a sense of sincere grief.
Me First and the Gimme Gimmes – Pop punk’s best members get together every few years and record punk-ified covers of their favourite songs, from broadway musical numbers to lounge crooners.
Postal Service – Indie rock’s royalty made an album without it being an affected mess. In fact, it’s a clean and sweet record. (Fun supergroup crossover fact: on Jenny Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat, she gathers most of her fellow Postal Servicers plus a few others, and covers the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle with Care”.)
CSNY – A super group so super they only needed their first initials. Crosby, Stills and Nash? Pretty decent. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? Truly super. Neil Young is the key, people.
Traveling Wilburys – The supergroup to end all supergroups. To be a fly on the wall in the room with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne? Incredible. But what could have been some noodling by aging rockers past their prime was instead flooded with the joy of making music in a room full of mutual heroes, as evidenced by “Handle With Care” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.”
And a few of the worst:
Velvet Revolver – Axl Rose is easy to dislike, but there was magic in GnR for a time. To put Scott Weiland in his place both reminds us of Axl (pissiness, et al) and reminds us how great GnR once was in spite of Axl’s acrid personality. That Weiland is all the negativity without any of the chemistry is hard to take, especially since the music is horrendous.
Zwan – Zwan’s misguided formation illustrates the distance principle: Smashing Pumpkins were less than a year in the can before Billy Corgan strung together this “supergroup” – the superstars here being Billy and troubled drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. The band’s short life just reminded us how great the Pumpkins were, and how Billy had alienated his best members (James Iha, D’arcy and Melissa Auf Der Mar).
Audioslave – Just like Velvet Revolver, this is a case of forest for the trees. Individually, Chris Cornell and the Rage band are great – together, they’re somehow a spellbinding shit show (which, by the way, seems impossible. How can you be worse than the sum of your parts? Physics says that you shouldn’t be, but here we are). Plus, what is it about second bands that dictates they will always have terrible names?
Damn Yankees – A hair-metal conglomerate with the biggest ego of the genre attached (the right-wing nutbar Ted Nugent). This one might have been a timing issue, more than anything – Damn Yankees came about right at the height of the Gulf War, and Nugent’s super patriotic statements and actions made more headlines than the band. Plus, hair metal was dying, and the Nuge’s craziness only reinforced that.
Asia – The best prog-rock personalities of the ’70s put through a strainer and reduced to their basest elements, Asia was a project of an over-eager A&R rep. Proof that you can’t be all things to all people, especially when you’ve been tossed off as a vanity project. Remarkably, despite inner turmoil on a soap opera scale, the band still exists – as TWO bands, Asia and Asia Featuring John Payne.