The egos have banded

Carl Barât is tempting fate by spawning a supergroup - history has shown, time and again, that such collaborations are fraught with peril and, says Fiona Sturges, shouldn't be allowed
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The Independent Culture

It should be one of the Ten Commandments of the recording industry, a mantra that fledgling executives should be made to recite daily while still at business school - Thou Shalt Not Sign a Supergroup. Put a bunch of successful musicians into a studio together, and the chances are that they will quickly descend into self-congratulatory indulgence, churning out music not fit for human consumption. Allow them to go on tour, and you can guarantee that it will end in tears, if not all-out war.

It should be one of the Ten Commandments of the recording industry, a mantra that fledgling executives should be made to recite daily while still at business school - Thou Shalt Not Sign a Supergroup. Put a bunch of successful musicians into a studio together, and the chances are that they will quickly descend into self-congratulatory indulgence, churning out music not fit for human consumption. Allow them to go on tour, and you can guarantee that it will end in tears, if not all-out war.

With that in mind, it's hard not to be dispirited by the news that the ex-Libertine Carl Barât intends, after a chaotic gig last month at the Tap'n'Tin pub, in Chatham, Kent, to release an album with The Charlatans' Tim Burgess, the Primal Scream keyboardist Martin Duffy and the Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows, under the ghastly guise of The Chavs. In keeping with the curse that is the supergroup, the band have come unstuck before they've really got started - they are currently in dispute with another act who, rather amazingly, have already laid claim to the name.

The supergroup is a concept that chimes perfectly with rock music's inflated sense of importance. Financial reward and egotism are generally the driving forces behind such projects. Or the artists in question have found themselves unexpectedly unemployed. Whatever Barât and co's motivations, they have joined a long and dishonourable tradition of rich pop stars who think that, just because they have knocked out a few hit records, they are in a position to hang with the big guns and take music to a new plane of brilliance.

So confident in their selling power were the fabled foursome Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - the first real supergroup, and stars of rock's most enduring soap opera - that they didn't even give their band a proper name, preferring to ride on their admittedly weighty credentials. As the guitarist in The Byrds, David Crosby had already helped to pioneer West Coast folk psychedelia, while Graham Nash was a founding member of The Hollies. Stephen Stills and Neil Young had pursued successful solo careers after the demise of Buffalo Springfield.

Though their commercial instincts weren't entirely off the mark - their album Déjà vu had advance orders of two million - you can't help wondering if it was worth the effort. Fist-fights had been common in Buffalo Springfield, a tradition that Stills and Young continued into CSN&Y. On one tour, Stephen Stills insisted on being transported alone in a separate bus, presumably to accommodate his oversized ego.

After their 1974 split, they reformed, sans Young, in 1977, though the band's troubles continued in the form of cocaine addiction (Crosby), imprisonment (Crosby again), abandoned reunions (in 1975 and 1988), and accidents (Nash broke his legs in a boating accident in 1999).

Cream, the power trio made up of the ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton, Manfred Mann's Jack Bruce, and the Graham Bond Organisation's Ginger Baker, managed only two years before calling it a day, briefly reforming in 1993 to be inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Largely as a result of his guitar solos, it was Clapton who got all the kudos, which didn't please Bruce, who did most of the singing and songwriting.

Somewhat rashly, a year after Cream's split, Clapton and Baker teamed up with Steve Winwood to form yet another supergroup, Blind Faith. The name said it all, of course - it was ill-thought out and ultimately doomed to failure. The band made their live debut in front of 36,000 people in Hyde Park in June 1969. By September, they were no more.

For a classic example of supergroup folly, however, look no further than Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the early-Seventies prog rockers plucked from The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster, respectively. For their 1977 tour, this farcically self-indulgent three-piece recruited a 63-strong road crew, which included a karate instructor for Palmer and a "carpet roadie", whose sole job was to transport and maintain the fabled Persian rug on which Greg Lake insisted upon standing during concerts. While their first two albums were well received, their ludicrous version of "Fanfare for the Common Man" was the sound of ambition gone mad.

The Seventies and Eighties brought countless more examples of the supergroup-as-vanity-project, most of them mercifully short-lived, from XYZ (members of Yes and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page - they barely got as far as the recording studio) and The Firm (Page again, this time with Free's Paul Rodgers), to Power Station, the dubious extracurricular project of Duran Duran's John Taylor and Andy Taylor with Robert Palmer. Electronic, the late-Eighties band formed by New Order's Bernard Sumner, Pet Shop Boy Neil Tenant and ex-Smith Johnny Marr probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but the fact that they were all otherwise employed meant that they were slow to release anything.

Hard as it is to imagine, there have been a handful of occasions when supergroups have come together out of pure and simple artistic integrity. Had anyone even mentioned the "S" word to the The Traveling Wilburys - aka George Harrison, ELO's Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan - they would doubtless have thrown down their instruments and scuttled back to their mansions. So keen were they to remain anonymous that they adopted pseudonyms as the fictional sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury Snr. Similarly reticent were The Highwaymen, the genial country outfit comprising Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The atmosphere was one of whiskey-soaked celebration, and the music was pretty harmless.

Perhaps the greatest ignominy to befall any supergroup is being ignored. Five years ago, Lucy Pearl - the R&B "super-trio" comprising En Vogue refugee Dawn Robinson, Raphael Saadiq, once of Tony Toni Tone, and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammed - seemed destined for big things, but their debut album bombed. Ditto The Serpents, the 35-piece Anglo-Welsh collective of members of The Teardrop Explodes, The Christians, Super Furry Animals and the writer Jon Savage.

Given the current shortage of proper rock stars, the supergroup is now something of a rarity. Certainly, the industry's predisposition towards manufactured acts has turned anonymity into more of a blessing than a curse. But that's not to say that they're completely unheard-of. One of the most unlikely success stories of recent years is Velvet Revolver, the supergroup comprising three battle-scarred veterans of Guns N' Roses and a Stone Temple Pilot. On paper, they weren't exactly a reliable proposition - ex-Gunners Slash and Duff McKagan were in recovery from various addictions, while Scott Weiland was fresh out of jail - but their debut album sailed to the top of the charts. Furthermore, the band members even seem to get along.

But should Barât and friends really want to be taken seriously as a creative endeavour, they should perhaps take a leaf out of Gorillaz' book. This latter-day supergroup featuring Blur's Damon Albarn, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and the artist Jamie Hewlitt, creator of Tank Girl, have pulled off the rare feat of retaining their credibility while selling a large amount of records. The secret, it seems, is in the presentation. Their decision to assume the identities of cartoon characters has enabled record-buyers to judge them not on their status but on their music. All of which suggests that secret of the supergroup is not to be "super" at all. If your ego can stand it, just don't tell anyone who you are.

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