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WPGM Commentary: Super-Groups… A History Of Disappointment?

Audioslave, a band made up of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden fame, and Rage Against the Machine alumni Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, reunited recently to play a set at the ‘Anti-Inauguration Ball’. A super-group by any definition, yet Audioslave are also arguably the perfect argument against the super-group.

On the face of it, the combination of Cornell’s impressive vocals with the impeccable rhythm section of Commerford and Wilk, with Tom Morello’s unique brilliance on guitar should have yielded some of the best hard rock this side of Led Zeppelin. But though there were unquestionably flashes of brilliance, “Like A Stone” foremost amongst them, these were the exception rather than the rule.

Much of Audioslave’s discography is instead filled with songs that fail to live up to the impressive releases of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, such as “Be Yourself”. This surely begs the question, can super-groups ever be as good as their parent bands?

The tradition of the super-group began really with Cream, who are also almost certainly the most successful example. The band was comprised of Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals and Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals. Hall of Fame members since 1993, Cream are considered to have influenced a range of bands as diverse as The Jeff Beck Group, Black Sabbath and Rush.

But it is worth comparing Cream as a super-group with those that have followed. Cream’s members had found acclaim in the British blues scene in their previous groups, The Graham Bond Organisation for Bruce and Baker, and The Yardbirds for Clapton, but only moderate fame.

They were certainly not world famous musicians when Cream formed. But more significantly still, Cream were a band before they were a super-group because they were formed before the ‘super-group’ trend began. This meant that Cream was the main focus of Bruce, Baker and Clapton, and therefore also why songs such as “Sunshine of Your Love” were recorded.

“Sunshine of Your Love” is a song that is instantly recognisable for its bass driven blues riff. But Ginger Baker’s distinctive 1 and 3 beat drum pattern is also a key component of the song, as is the Clapton penned refrain, which gave the song its title. But could “Sunshine of Your Love” have been written had Bruce, Baker and Clapton had their minds on other matters and other bands?

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also arose during the early days of the super-group, albeit from folk rock, rather than blues backgrounds. The main stalwarts of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were also inducted into the Hall of Fame as a collective, in 1997.

Their success was based on intricate vocal harmonies. A fine example of this is “Our House” from their 1970 album, Deja Vu, which was the first they released as a quartet. “Our House” was born out of a moment of domestic simplicity between Nash and Joni Mitchell, who he was then living with. This sense of domestic bliss is vividly conveyed by the quartet through the calming, almost hypnotic vocals.

However, Deja Vu is an album that succeeds due to the varied performances and songs the quartet put together. The steel guitar infused “Teach Your Children” providing a very different tone to the aforementioned “Our House”. The cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is again a different musical direction, a hard rock and blues influenced track. Yet despite this variation, all the tracks on Deja Vu retain a sense of being Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs and recordings.

This does not contrast positively with the musical stylings of Audioslave. Although there were good moments within Audioslave’s three albums, there was a lack of standout music. For example, “Cochise“, a single from their eponymous debut effort, is an enjoyable listen. The rhythm section, particularly Wilk, keep the listener on tenterhooks during the song’s intro, waiting for Tom Morello’s guitar and Cornell’s vocals to arrive.

When they do, the effect is electrifying, and Cornell’s vocals impress throughout, although the song is disappointing lyrically. The same can be said of “Show Me How to Live”, also from Audioslave, and the titular track on Out of Exile, the band’s sophomore release. The band is tight throughout, the riffs are enjoyable, and the vocals strong.

The issue however, is that although Audioslave’s catalogue is full of listenable songs, truly innovative exciting tracks are few and far between. Moreover, Audioslave never really move away from sounding like a combination of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, to find their own sound.

Nor is this a critique that can be levelled only at Audioslave. Another super-group to consider is Them Crooked Vultures, a collaboration between Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

Their self-titled debut, and so far only, album, was warmly received, and justly so. The rhythms are punchy, Josh Homme delivers vocally, especially on the excellent “Scumbag Blues” where his falsetto is used to great effect. Dave Grohl, always most at home behind a drum kit, drives the tracks on with his energetic style, and John Paul Jones provides Led Zeppelin-esque touches.

However, considering the talent assembled to create the record, much like Audioslave’s efforts, it is a disappointment. Them Crooked Vultures is good, but it is inferior to anything Nirvana and Led Zeppelin released, and worse than the Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age at their best. It is an album that is less than the sum of its parts.

What then, is it that was lost in the intervening years between Cream and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Audioslave and Them Crooked Vultures. The answer appears to be that super-groups stopped being bands in their own right, but instead became musical experiments.

That isn’t to say that there have been no worthwhile experiments. Run the Jewels, the super-group, pairing of Killer Mike and El-P continue to impress, and an earlier Chris Cornell led super-group, Temple of the Dog, was more or less responsible for the formation of Pearl Jam.

However, generally, super-groups have moved from serious collaborations between musicians, to one-offs, no longer concerned with pushing boundaries, finding their own sound or letting genius bounce off genius. Super-groups all too rarely push to develop their own sound, either becoming a pastiche of their parent bands, or being a glorified jam session.

It’s good fun, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed when it could be so much more.

Words by James Smith

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