When I was in high school, I was big into making music lists. Big into it. When I shuffle through the stacks of notebooks that I’ve kept collecting dust in drawers since those golden days of my youth, I can’t find any of the highly technical formulas I supposedly wrote down in my 7th period physics class, but I sure can find a lot of scribblings on the BEST BANDS EVER. I didn’t realize that my penchant for making such catalogs would serve me so well on the job one day, as it seems that music bloggers spend a lot of their time creating lists like THE TOP 25 BEST ____ EVER!!! Well, sorry to say, this particular post is not a list. But I will link you to some lists, so you do have that going for you.
The Smashing Pumpkins were not my favorite rock band, but carefully scrutinizing my hall of personal high school records, I can deduce that they were definitely in my top 30 or so BEST BANDS EVER for a significant period of time. So it was with a heavy heart that I learned of their great rupture in 2000, my senior year of high school, when frontman Billy Corgan announced on live radio that the band would soon return to the rock and roll dust from which it came.
After a brief period of mourning during which I burned sandalwood incense, donned the black-only apparel and floor-length cape of a modern age vampire, and shaved my head in tribute to the leader of this former musical powerhouse – ok, actually I didn’t do any of that, but I felt a little bit sad – I was soon able to find solace in the indubitable knowledge that the musical cavity now formed deep in the recesses of my heart would shortly be filled in by a concrete block composed of forthcoming Billy Corgan solo records.
Except that’s not what happened.
Legends started to emerge from the shadows, barely audible whispers could be heard swirling in the gloomy darkness of the post-Pumpkins landscape. Something was happening in America. And that something, was the formation of a new supergroup.
A supergroup? What was this stranger manner of beast? “Super,” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means
: extremely good
a : of high grade or quality
b —used as a generalized term of approval <a super cook>
2: very large or powerful <a super atomic bomb>
3: exhibiting the characteristics of its type to an extreme or excessive degree <super secrecy>
Now, thanks to the my casual studies of abstruse German philosophy (Nieztsche) and the slightly less recondite monthly periodical Action Comics (Siegel and Schuster), I had a deep familiarity with the idea of a SuperMAN. And from out of this, I even had some acquaintance with the idea of a superTEAM (The Avengers, The Justice League, a bunch of Nieztsches). But a superGROUP? This was unheard of!
But, as I soon found out, this was actually an actual thing. A supergroup was a collection of musicians who had formerly been in previous, distinct, and successful bands, who now coalesced into a new music-playing entity, their powers combined in novel form like in the old Captain Planet cartoon show. This had happened before, in creations such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Blind Faith, and the ever popular band Asia.
This new supergroup had a decidedly more contemporary constitution, however. The second guitarist, Matt Sweeney, was the frontman of a celebrated New York City indie rock band, Chavez, and the third guitarist was also an indie rock darling, David Pajo from the oft-praised and innovating post-rock outfit, Slint. Rounding out the menagerie of talented musicians was A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin and fellow Smashing Pumpkins drummer extraordinaire, Jimmy Chamberlain.
Unfortunately, this project was not long for this world, as the act only lasted one studio album before breaking up to pursue other projects – like a new band idea Billy Corgan had which he would come to call “The Smashing Pumpkins.” This was too bad, as to this day I still enjoy the sole record this band put out, Mary Star of the Sea, and I fondly look back on my experiences at the handful of their shows in New York I was able to attend.
Long before all this, when rock music was first born, it should have been pretty obvious that such things as supergroups would eventually come to be. This was foreshadowed by events in other, earlier genres of music. For example, the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers who had partnered for many years with the brilliant but tragic lyricist Lorenz Hart, would go on to team up with lyrical giant Oscar Hammerstein II, previously of Showboat fame. And in jazz, the great Duke Ellington had collaborated on occasion with such titans of the genre as early jazz legend Louis Armstrong and future hard and post-bop superstar John Coltrane. But still, the supergroup started as a distinctly rock music phenomenon, although it would later have representation in other genres such as country (i.e. The Highwaymen).
And then there’s Cream. Generally considered the first supergroup, the combined genius of guitarist and occasional lead vocalist Eric Clapton, lead vocalist and bass player Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker would go on to be a huge, though unfortunately too-short lived, success in the 1960s. From my perspective, supergroups tend not to equal the musical success of their component artists and the associated bands from which they come, but Cream is a glaring exception to that general rule. It certainly is the most important act Bruce and Baker would be associated with, and generally outranks other bands that Clapton has played with such as The Yardbirds and Derek and the Dominoes.
But are they the greatest rock supergroup? The answer to this question is a little bit murkier, and not all parties agree. For example, Pop-break.com argues that The Traveling Wilburys is the greatest supergroup of all time. Guitarworld, on the other hand, sides with Cream and doesn’t even have the Wilburys in their top 3. But whether or not they are the greatest or merely one of them, what is undoubtedly true is that Cream holds a special place in rock history. Despite turbulent relationships amongst the members of the band, Cream created some amazing down and dirty blues rock that still tastes like fresh cream after 50 years. Now that’s some powerful dairy.
– Brian R.
For your further reading pleasure, here’s a couple of other relatively brief but worth a look blog posts on supergroups from around the web:
– Brian R.