Super troopers: The rise of the Supergroup

Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart and Joss Stone have released an unlikely collaboration

The world is awash with supergroups. Barely an hour goes by without some new, unforeseen alliance of musical talent being announced. Unforeseen, in many cases, because so ridiculously improbable.

Take the new project SuperHeavy, featuring Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, Damian Marley and AR Rahman. What on earth is that going to sound like, once the competing forces of rock, reggae, soul, pop, psychedelia and Indian film music have fought their way to an acceptable rapprochement? It remains to be seen whether SuperHeavy amount to much more than a frisson of publicity, though the doughty Stewart has a better track record than most of bringing improbable projects to completion, and may be able to drive this weird wagon-train of disparate talent to market.

One problem for supergroups is reconciling the inevitable ego clashes between musicians who unsurprisingly consider themselves super. This is a conundrum that can be solved by the organisational abilities of a catalyst like Stewart. The Traveling Wilburys may have been a dream alliance of Beatle (George Harrison), Bob (Dylan) and Big "O" (Roy Orbison), as well as Tom Petty, but without Jeff Lynne to make everything sound right, would they have become anything more than a couch-bound jam session? Not that having a fixer/producer in the ranks guarantees success: the Thom Yorke/Flea project Atoms For Peace may have included the Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, but we have yet to hear any actual music.

In some cases, what appears to be a supergroup may turn out simply to be a vehicle for the creative overspill of a single member, whose sheer determination drives the project along. Currently, two such notables are making their whims reality on a frequent basis.

Damon Albarn is an artistic gadfly seemingly able to turn his hand to any musical form, from Afro-pop crossover to Chinese opera, and he wields the persuasive power of success. When the Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen joined him for The Good, The Bad & The Queen, they must have been reassured that however tentative it appeared in theory, the project would yield listenable results.

Likewise, when Jack White gets an idea – whether for neo-prog-rock combo The Raconteurs or neo-Goth-rockers The Dead Weather – it is going to bear fruit whoever else is involved, even if Jack ends up just stuck behind the drums.

Some supergroups exist more as occasional side projects, indulging the shared musical interests of their members. One thinks of the guitar virtuosi supergroup G3, which has involved Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Robert Fripp, among others; or the avant-guitar ensemble French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson; or, most recently, Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings, in which the country guitarist is joined by the pedal steel player Greg Leisz and the six-string polymaths Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. For others, it is impossible to discern the attraction that brings the members together: what, one wonders, could various members of Hanson, Cheap Trick, Smashing Pumpkins and Fountains Of Wayne possibly have in common that might bring them together as Tinted Windows?

Sometimes, a supergroup arises from some ulterior motive: John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band was essentially a vehicle for his political activism, initially at least. More recently, the Mario Caldato-led Bottletop Band is intended to promote and help fund the Bottletop charity, promoting aid projects in the third world.

The more successful recent supergroups, though, have been those whose members fit together stylistically. The alliance of Josh Homme, John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl in Them Crooked Vultures resulted in an album of focused rock power, while the intentions of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, Jim James and M. Ward were well signalled in their chosen name, Monsters Of Folk. The Scottish folk-pop supergroup The Burns Unit grew out of a workshop and conference celebrating the poet Robert Burns – which may account for the low-key but artistically potent success of the band's work.

The roots of the supergroup as it is most commonly recognised derive from jazz, particularly after bebop introduced the notion of technical virtuosity as an end in itself. The very first supergroup was that which played the legendary Massey Hall Concert in 1953 – a mouth-watering line-up of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach subsequently became known as The Quintet. Later aggregations of jazz players, notably Miles Davis's two great quintets and the fusion supergroup Weather Report, likewise relied on shared virtuosity, resulting in lengthy bouts of soloing.

The first rock supergroup (unless one counts Sun Records' Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, not a supergroup in the sense used here) was Cream, formed in 1966 by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker as an improvising blues-rock trio of talents considered nonpareil.

The irony is that Cream's singles, such as "I Feel Free", "White Room" and "Badge", are their legacy, while the interminable workouts for which they were renowned at the time – such as the live disc of the double album Wheels Of Fire – have not aged well at all, presenting musicians seemingly battling for space rather than reacting to each other. But Cream were hugely successful, selling shedloads of albums in what had until then been a niche market.

As prog-rock began to dominate the music business, Emerson Lake & Palmer took the supergroup to grandiose levels, befitting their intention to fuse rock and classical music. (Interestingly, they might have been known as HELP rather than ELP, had Jimi Hendrix not died before the alliance could be consummated.)

The greatest American supergroup, however, placed no undue importance on solo-heavy improvisations. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's virtuosity resided primarily in their vocal talent, combined with all four members' abilities as songwriters. Unlike most supergroup recordings, CSNY's first couple of albums are eminently listenable four decades on, even inspiring a new generation of folk-rock close-harmony groups. The reason for their enduring quality is the exact opposite of that driving most supergroups: rather than jamming and releasing the occasional yard or two of improvisation as an album, CSNY paid painstaking attention to the writing of the songs, then to the arrangement of the cut-glass harmonies and finally to the recording. Their albums were exercises in meticulosity, rather than virtuosity.

This focus on excellence, combined with the collective talent involved, made CSNY, effectively, the American equivalent of The Beatles, just as that band was splitting apart. And like The Beatles, there was a certain amount of droit de seigneur involved in their position. CSNY became the social embodiment of a counter-cultural elite centred in the Laurel Canyon district of Los Angeles, living a life of good food, great drugs and gorgeous women. At an early series of shows at New York's Fillmore East, each member reportedly had to have a different cuisine catered in their dressing room each night. Crosby might have Chinese food, Stills Jewish, Nash Italian, and Young Japanese. The next night it would switch around. And if the wrong beer was placed in a member's cooler, they would go off in a hump.

At first, everything was hunky-dory between the members. Graham Nash was delighted to realise ambitions beyond those envisaged by the cabaret-bound Hollies; David Crosby was delighted that his songs were recorded, and beautifully so; Stephen Stills was delighted to be the undisputed musical prime-mover; and Neil Young was delighted to get a little commercial as well as critical success. And all of them were euphoric about the way their voices blended together.

But just as oil and vinegar make a nice French dressing when shaken together, after a while they separated out. The group became a revolving door of splits and reunions, with diminishing returns, although it was perhaps to their credit that they were more likely to fall out over musical differences than Crosby's well-documented personal indulgences. At one point, a studio argument about a single harmony resulted in Nash refusing to talk to Stills for two years. That is dedication to one's art.

What one wonders, when considering the prospects for SuperHeavy, is how much the project depends on the kind of social aspects which came to figure so heavily in CSNY. It is well-known that the new band came about largely through the geographical proximity of Jagger and Stewart's Jamaican residences, and Stewart's role as Stone's producer, with Marley drafted in to provide a touch of island spirit and Rahman involved for heaven only knows what reason. Maybe he was on holiday and bumped into Dave down the market. But what kind of supergroup is it where music seems to be a subsidiary consideration to socialising?