The 10 Greatest Supergroups of All Time

As DREAMCAR drop their debut, we look back at the supergroups who lived up to the billing

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Most of us are born with an inclination toward supergroups. My first supergroup was a diabetic concoction of Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Fruit Loops all floating in the same cereal bowl and turning my milk a color that would stump marketing execs at Crayola. A few years later, I spent countless hours playing fantasy general manager and drafting Dream Team-rivaling hoops squads on PlayStation. Not long after that, I completed a middle-school history project in which I reimagined Woodstock with a lineup of contemporary bands that I felt captured the original festival’s spirit. If I recall, I regrettably organized the Summer of Nu-Metal – shame on me.

Of course, all of this, except for my Frankenbreakfasts, was pure fantasy. Our parents rightly teach us early on to make practical choices, compromise, and settle because we live in a world where we can’t have it all – where we can’t play pick-and-choose with reality like it’s a video game or breakfast on the go. The appeal of supergroups, in part, recalls that selfish, fussy kid in the cereal aisle who wants the best of all sugary worlds at the same time. So, when bits and pieces of our favorite bands merge and join forces to create something new and promising, some small part of our spoiled selves rejoices in the world having delivered what usual only comes to fruition in our imaginations.

What strikes me most about supergroups — both those on this list and in general – are how varied their origins and subsequent journeys often are. My favorite story of how a supergroup came together goes to Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, the lead singer of which, Screaming Lord Sutch, more or less tricked his backing band by turning a playful jam session into his debut album. Devious to be sure and all the more shocking when you find out that band included Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Jeff Beck, and Noel Redding. Some of the supergroups on this list came together through friendship or mutual admiration while the impetus for others was creative frustration or even shared tragedy. In some instances, these groups formed and split in the relative strum of a chord; in others, the supergroup, so often thought of as a side project, became the de facto regular group and for what those artists involved are most remembered. In each case here, an aligning of stars, however ephemeral, made a significant impact on music as we know it.

So, how did we make sense of the term “supergroup” in order to make this list? Well, the majority of the supergroup’s band members must’ve been relatively well known prior to joining the group in question. Secondly, each group on this list recorded at least one proper studio album together. That criterion eliminates dozens of contenders who might have only existed as a group for a single night or performance. Beyond that, we stuck to the supergroup eyeball test. For instance, Foo Fighters felt more like a Dave Grohl solo project that later got fleshed out, Broken Social Scene (by their own admission) more a collective than an actual supergroup, and Plastic Ono Band more a rotating ensemble than a steady unit. At any rate, these are the supergroups we feel truly live up to that super billing.

Excelsior! (I’ve always wanted to say that.)

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director

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10. Them Crooked Vultures

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Years Active: 2009-10 (on hiatus)

Super Friends: Them Crooked Vultures brings together two of the biggest hard rock heroes of the last few decades in Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Nirvana/Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl — and then combines them with one of the absolute gods of rock ‘n’ roll, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

“Superest” Song: The herky-jerky blues thrill of “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” has one of those iconic guitar groove breakdowns that made Zep legends in the first place, boosted with a dash of desert stoner goodness.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: It’s telling that Them Crooked Vultures started hitting festivals and massive live sets months before their studio recordings hit. Their mastodon stomp was designed for the stage, and their roaring performances showed it.

Super Powers: You’d think that a 28-year age gap between its members might mean we’re dealing with strange bedfellows, but then the language of rocking out seems to transcend decades. Seeing modern rock heroes Grohl and Homme play alongside a member of one of the most important classic rock bands was an amazing shock, but just imagine what it must have been like to actually be one of those guys. For a couple of kids growing up on Zeppelin, Grohl and Homme hold up their end of the bargain, their riff chops matching JPJ’s minute for minute. But let’s not forget the bassist, as he keeps up with the younger guys’ ferocious playing. They only have one album and a year or so of touring under their belts, but you never know when the Vultures could start circling again. –Lior Phillips

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09. The New Pornographers

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Years Active: 1997-Present

Super Friends: How many Canadian singer-songwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Not sure, but to put together a supergroup, what works is bringing together Carl Newman, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and Neko Case as a core and then adding in musicians from other bands.

“Superest” Song:  Considering the depth of songwriting talent and material in The New Pornographers’ catalog, it’s a difficult choice, but the rollicking, grand “Sing Me Spanish Techno” showcases their charm and ability in equal measure.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: Depending on who’s available, you’ll have a couple of handfuls of brilliant musicians crowd the stage and fill the room with magnetic material. When Newman, Case, and Bejar are all there, the vocal weaving is astonishing, but a night at a New Pornos show is a powerful affair no matter the exact lineup.

Super Powers: Oh Canada! Like a star-studded ensemble romantic comedy, The New Pornographers have a lot of flash and flair, but celebrity isn’t their sole power. Newman’s the orchestra leader here, and the endlessly charismatic songs are the beating heart. Now seven albums into their work as a unit, the group have only gotten better with age, not letting any of their solo projects stand in the way. Even Bejar’s absence while working on Destroyer albums couldn’t throw things off balance, as proven by the new Whiteout Conditions, their first album without him. From the jittery high of “Electric Version” (and the album that takes its name) to the fluorescent Brill Bruisers, The New Pornographers show that a supergroup can thrive on subtlety. –Lior Phillips

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08. The Postal Service

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Years Active: 2001-05, 2013

Super Friends: The cleverly named The Postal Service came together when Deathcab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello started sending each other tapes through the mail. Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis jumped on board not long later while the Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn and former Tattle Tale member Jen Wood contributed to tours.

“Superest” Song: While jittery, experimental tracks like “Natural Anthem” are absolutely thrilling, how could you put down anything but “Such Great Heights” — the song that launched a thousand covers, commercials, and sweet kisses.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The Postal Service’s 2003 debut, Give Up, spawned an almost equally beloved tour. After a decade or so of hot anticipation for a follow-up, Gibbard and Tamborello went out for one more quick batch of festival dates before calling it quits.

Super Powers: For a project that started out so quietly (DAT tapes sent through the mail don’t make a ton of noise), The Postal Service sure went on to drive a lot of fervor. It all started when Gibbard contributed vocals to a single Dntel song (“(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”), and the two decided to keep the magic going. Fusing twitchy electronics and soaring pop chops into an electro-indie masterpiece, Tamborello, Gibbard, and Lewis created a bubbly touchstone for a generation. –Lior Phillips

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07. The Breeders

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Years Active: 1989-1995, 1996-2003, 2008-Present

Super Friends: When Kim Deal decided to step away from her second-fiddle role with Pixies and take the fore, she did so with the guitarist-vocalist of tourmates Throwing Muses, Tanya Donelly. They eventually added violinist Carrie Bradley from fellow Boston outfit Ed’s Redeeming Qualities and then brought in Slint drummer Britt Walford for their debut. Eventually Kim’s twin sister, Kelley, would become a key member, as well.

“Superest” Song: From the first flash of feedback, it’s clear that “Cannonball” is an absolute all-time classic. It’s certainly not the end of The Breeders’ greatness, but it’s a five-star smash that will never get old.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The Deals had their volatile moments, but when The Breeders were on, they had some transcendent times. That comes in large part from Kim’s soaring falsetto, already a Pixies secret weapon and now the spotlit tool in The Breeders’ arsenal.

Super Powers: Apparently, The Breeders first billed themselves as Boston Girl Super-Group, which certainly is a bold and straightforward way to describe the band where many shied away from the term. And though they may not have reached the acclaim of Pixies, they’re also far more than the “Cannonball” one-hit wonders that some assume them to be. Those that have dug into the outfit’s four albums know that there’s a lot of subtle depth to The Breeders, in addition to some sweet chops that have provided inspiration to a generation of indie rockers — Boston girls and others alike. Kim Deal deserved her own turn at the front of the stage, but The Breeders were so much more than a new solo project, instead fueled by the contribution of several notable musicians — and their legacy bears that out. –Lior Phillips

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06. The Dead Weather

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Years Active: 2009-Present

Super Friends: The Dead Weather fuses heavy-hitters from garage rock and alternative rock that already hit pretty hard on their own, namely Jack White, The KillsAlison Mosshart, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age, and Jack Lawrence from The Greenhornes (not to mention another of White’s bands, The Raconteurs).

“Superest” Song: The riff-tastic “Die by the Drop” captures the feral interplay between all four members, particularly Mosshart and White’s yowling, back-and-forth vocals.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: If the intensity on record seemed cranked to 11, magnify that tenfold for their live shows. Having two explosive band leaders (three if we’re counting Fertita) share the stage could be a challenge, but Mosshart and White play together like two wolves hunting their prey.

Super Powers: Jack White took a step away from fronting one of the most important bands of a generation to form the supergroup side project The Raconteurs, who went on to cross the globe with some amiable guitar rock. As if that wasn’t enough, he followed that up with an even bigger supergroup, The Dead Weather. White offers his staccato yelps from behind the kit while Mosshart howls at the fore, Fertita and Lawrence laying out jagged slabs of some of the most ferocious and inventive rock of the last couple of decades. Each musician gets their time to shine whether that’s via slippery solo or jackhammer wail, and yet it all fuses together into a mercurial chemistry. –Lior Phillips

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05. Traveling Wilburys

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Years Active: 1988-90

Super Friends: No, you’re not staring into the sun. That’s just the blinding star power of a group featuring a Beatle, a Heartbreaker, a Voice of a Generation, Mr. Blue Sky, and the Big O himself. George Harrison was looking to have some friends help him record a B-side – what would become “Handle with Care” – and gathered with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison over dinner at Bob Dylan’s Malibu recording studio. By dumb luck, the “quiet Beatle” forgot a guitar at Tom Petty’s house nearby, which is how Petty ended up as part of the group. Oh, and that’s legendary session drummer Jim Keltner on the skins. Whooey, it’s bright in here.

“Superest” Song: “Handle with Care”, the one-off song that led to the group, in a landslide. The phrase itself comes from Harrison seeing a box in Dylan’s garage marked with it, and he turned it into a highly relatable and sweet plea for gentleness following a rough patch of being “beat up and battered around.” While Harrison handles the verses, all five Wilburys sing on the track, including a tender bridge by Orbison that confesses, “I’m so tired of being lonely.” Apart from a final solo record, it’s one of the last vocals Orbison ever recorded and fittingly bookends with 1960’s “Only the Lonely”.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The name “Wilbury” comes from a studio joke between Harrison and Lynne; whenever parts got botched, Harrison would tell Lynne, “We’ll bury ’em in the mix.” Originally, Harrison wanted to call the band the Trembling Wilburys, but Lynne suggested “Traveling” as a better adjective. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, because the Wilburys never actually toured their music. While busy solo careers and Roy Orbison’s death just a half-year after recording their debut may have derailed plans to tour the multi-platinum smash, Harrison definitely had spent some time envisioning what a Wilburys tour might look like. Petty, on the other hand, suggested that touring would have been too “formal” a function and robbed the Wilburys of the looseness that made them special. In the decades since the band’s split, all the surviving members, particularly Petty, have occasionally worked old Wilburys tunes into their sets.

Super Powers: One gets a sense that The Traveling Wilburys served as a brotherly escape for its five main members. Each one was already a legend — though at different points and levels of popularity in their careers — and found a friendly outlet for telling stories, writing songs, and recording them without hassle or expectation. The fact that each donned the surname Wilbury for the project with a different old-timey Christian name sort of tells you that no Wilbury felt held against his will. Even though the supergroup would only last three years, the five continued to partner on projects and tours both during the band’s run and in the years that followed. Maybe the most telling sign of musical brotherhood comes in the music video for “End of the Line”, which was filmed after Orbison died of a heart attack in late 1988. During Orbison’s recorded vocal parts, the camera focuses on a guitar in a rocking chair next to a picture of the late, great artist. Once a Wilbury, always a Wilbury. –Matt Melis

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04. Temple of the Dog

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Years Active: 1990-92, 2016 (several one-off reunions)

Super Friends: Temple of the Dog have, without a doubt, the saddest origin story on this list. After Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood died of a heroine overdose in 1990, Soundgarden frontman and former roommate Chris Cornell started writing a batch of melodic songs — “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” being the first — to deal with the pain. He then asked Wood’s former MLB bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to help him record those two songs as a single. Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and future Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready rounded out the band, and a fresh-off-the-plane Eddie Vedder contributed additional vocals.

“Superest” Song: “Hunger Strike” eventually struck as the band’s big radio hit and has become one of a handful of songs still synonymous with Seattle grunge. However, given the origins of Temple of the Dog, it’s hard to argue against the sentiment behind “Say Hello 2 Heaven”, Prince spelling and all.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: Like the vast majority of supergroups, Temple of the Dog initially formed as a recording project. While they did play a couple early dates, most of their performances over the years have come as surprise one-offs when the band’s personnel have found themselves in town together. The closest the band have come to a regular tour was a short jaunt in November 2016 to commemorate their album’s 25th anniversary; that tour began in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and concluded later that month with two nights at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, effectively laying the band to rest until the next reunion.

Super Powers: What Temple of the Dog signifies probably depends on whom you ask. Initially, the record had been a bit of an afterthought until Soundgarden and Pearl Jam hopped on the grunge wave to global prominence. For many, it’s symbolic of that Seattle Sound boom. For others, it encapsulates all that movement came to represent: distorted guitars, thick boots and thicker flannel, and a series of tragic losses. For the band themselves, Temple served as a means to both heal and move on. Clearly, as the years have passed, the project has taken on a broader meaning. Lifetimes have flowed by like a river and brought all the good and bad that nearly three decades of living can bring. It’s a project that’s somehow turned nostalgic, poignant, and celebratory all at once. That’s not a bad legacy to come out of utter tragedy. –Matt Melis

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03. Journey

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Years Active: 1973-Present

Super Friends: Santana manager Herbie Herbert (reminds me of Lolita) began this journey when he brought Santana guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist-singer Gregg Rolie together with bassist Ross Valory and guitarist George Tickner of Frumious Bandersnatch, along with Prairie Prince (not making these names up here) of The Tubes on drums, to gig as a backing band in the San Francisco Bay area. Ninety million records and one Steve Perry later, we realize that Herbie Herbert was a goddamn genius.

“Superest” Song: You can get cute at times like these. You can pull out a deep cut, hold it up, and pose with it like a giant bass you caught on your fishing trip at the lake and soak up all the praise and adulation from others in the know. Or, you can admit that there’s a reason why your average American adult has heard and sang along to “Don’t Stop Believin'” more than a thousand times in his or her lifetime. There are only a precious handful of songs that become part of our shared pop-cultural lexicon — songs some of us know without even knowing how we know them. They’re implanted into our brains at birth and retrieved when triggered by moments like that opening piano. Still reticent? Hell, it’s the all-time best-selling iTunes track from the 20th century. It’s time to start believin’ me.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: Ironically, Journey (originally named Golden Gate Rhythm Section) were intended to be a gigging backup band. Little could they know at the time that their future await them not in background shadows but in arenas across the globe. Can they still hack it onstage? Well, why don’t you fly yourself to Vegas for tomorrow’s show and report back.

Super Powers: It’s a truly remarkable story when you think of it. A few successful members of prominent acts look to find a steady payday as backup musicians, and that endeavor turns into one of the biggest-selling bands of all time, culminating in a 2017 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter whether you’ve been along for the entire journey or just know the songs that all immigrants must sing from memory to obtain American citizenship, Journey have been an unstoppable force since 1973. When their original jazz-fusion sound flopped, they adapted. When Steve Perry hung up his hair after 20 years, they endured. And if 40-plus years, 90 million in sales, and serious hardware don’t impress you much, all you Shania Twains out there, consider this: Every macho adult male you know who listens to classic rock radio in his pickup truck on his morning commute has absolutely lost it lip syncing “Don’t Stop Believin'” into his stick shift dozens of times over the years. It seems we’re all just small-town girls at heart. –Matt Melis

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02. Cream

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Years Active: 1966-68, 1993, 2005

Super Friends: Blues guitarist toast of Britain Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers) and drummer Ginger Baker (Graham Bond Organisation), each disgruntled with his current band, opted to vamoose and form their own trio together. The problem? Clapton wanted singer-bassist Jack Bruce to fill out the band, and Baker had a troubled history with him. In order to finally get an already-fired Bruce to stop showing up to play with the Graham Bond Organisation, Baker allegedly had to hold him at knifepoint. Makes your Gallagher brothers seem downright cuddly, doesn’t it? Anyway, that’s how Cream arose.

“Superest” Song: There are a handful of riffs that everyone, guitarist and layman alike, knows. That opening to “Sunshine of Your Love” belongs to that category. You know it. Your parents know it. Your dentist hums it while he drills your teeth. If you’ve ever picked up a guitar, you’ve at least Googled a YouTube video on how to play it. To take this riff out of the popular music vernacular would be like removing the letter ‘R’ from the alphabet.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: As members of the Graham Bond Organisation, Baker and Bruce had been notorious for getting into onstage fights and sabotaging each other’s equipment. At least until the band’s tumultuous final year together, the two seemed to put much of that history aside. Always popular in Britain, after the transatlantic success of Disraeli Gears, the band found an audience across the pond as well. Describe Cream’s live act in three words: loud, loud, and loud. As amps improved, the band got so loud that one member could stop playing and the other two might not even notice.

Super Powers: You simply cannot have this list without Cream. They were arguably the world’s first successful supergroup, released the first platinum-selling double album (1968’s Wheels of Fire), showed how psychedelic rock and blues could blend, released three seminal rock albums that still blow minds, popularized the wah-wah pedal, rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, and managed not to murder each other in the process. Obviously, Clapton, Baker, and Bruce all have hall of fame resumes and can point to other achievements, but their three years together as Cream are as responsible as anything else for the Zeppelins, Becks, Sabbaths, and Allmans that would come to dominate hard rock in the following decade. Basically, Cream went deaf so we could continue to rock. And we salute them. –Matt Melis

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01. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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Photo by Jim Cummins

Years Active: 1968-70, 1973, 1974, 1976-2016

Super Friends: 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.

“Superest” Song: It may not be one of the classics that the general public associates with CSNY, but there are few songs in the American songbook more vulnerable and transcendent than the Young-led “Helpless” from the band’s debut as a four-piece, Déjà Vu.

Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: Get this: The band’s second gig as a four-piece was at a little festival called Woodstock. Overwhelmed by his surroundings, Stills famously announced, “This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people. We’re scared shitless.” The band went on to play everything from intimate theaters to football stadiums over the next few decades, sometimes with and other times without Young. As of 2016, the band has called it quits due to an estrangement between Crosby and Nash. If they reconciled to tour or record again, it wouldn’t be the first time the band overcame complicated internal relationships.

Super Powers: 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. –Matt Melis

 

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