The prefix “super” does not always make good on an upgrade. Superfoods just deliver the pretence of healthiness and no guarantee of taste, Superman is a grown adult who hasn’t figured out the appropriate use of his underpants, there’s no evidence Superdry hooded tops are more absorbent than the competition, and any rock star who steps into Superdrug is liable to leave disappointed.
So it is with the concept of a Supergroup, the name for any band consisting of members from other bands to form a new unit.
In broad terms, supergroups can be divided into the good, the bad and the Clapton.
Good supergroups are the rare ones which last, but even then, they (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Emerson, Lake and Palmer) have an unfortunate habit of sounding like chartered surveyor firms and an even more unfortunate habit of forcing fans back to the original source.
Most people would rather listen to an Arctic Monkeys record than The Last Shadow Puppets, or favour Duran Duran and Chic over the Power Station.
The bad are often assembled for one single for charity, often in response to famine, disaster or most unfortunate, a BBC2 documentary featuring choirmaster Gareth Malone. Unsuccessful supergroups tend not to hang around too long as they are filled with egos who will not commit to more than one album.
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The worst supergroup of recent years proved that the Super-tag remains unreliable. SuperHeavy featured Mick Jagger, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Damian Marley, Joss Stone and legendary Indian musician A.R. Rahman and as such groups go, they were a great advertisement for a Keith Richards solo record.
Supergroups are not the preserve of Yes men – unless, of course, these men are members of the prog giants Yes, all of whom frequented supergroups the way Jeremy Corbyn frequented protest rallies. Members of Yes were in so many supergroups, they must have had a problem with No. There was a group called UK, another called Asia and an Explorers Club thrown in for good measure. Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe morphed later into Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman, there was GTR, XYZ, The Chris Squire Experiment as well as National Health, Badger and Refugee, the last three sounding like policy initiatives from the Countryside Alliance.
Eric Clapton was seen as the godfather of the supergroup, with Cream being seen as the first of its kind before Clapton formed other supergroups including Derek and the Dominoes. When the Pet Shop Boys joined forces with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner of New Order to make a record with new supergroup Electronic, Neil Tennant quipped “we’re the Blind Faith of the ’90s.”
In recent years, apart from valiant efforts from Dave Grohl, Damon Albarn and Jack White, the supergroup label should by rights have been subjects to the occasional steward’s inquiry. One megastar plus some other blokes doth not a supergroup make (see Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Bowie’s Tin Machine and Slash’s Snakepit). Moreoever, a supergroup is not the same as a compound group – two bands welded together – with all respect to FFS (Franz Ferdinand & Sparks), or McBusted (McFly & Busted).
This month, a supergroup has emerged that has bucked the trend by being quite good. Members of Midlake took a chance and called up musicians from different spheres they admired, in a positively Wilburyan effort of ambition.
Midlake’s Eric Pulido, McKenzie Smith, Joey McClellan, and Jesse Chandler have lured what Pulido calls their own “poor man’s Travelling Wilburys” – Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle (who has endured a brutal week after the sudden midweek death of bandmate and bassist Kevin Garcia), and Travis’ Fran Healy. The new venture is called BNQT (intended as Banquet the same way MGMT is pronounced Management). Results, based on two years of work, phone calls, emails, and in Lytle and Healy’s cases, visits to Midlake HQ in Denton, Texas, are on the basis of lead-off track Restart and Kapranos-fronted Hey Banana encouraging. There wasn’t a market for a band which sounded a bit like Grandaddy, Franz Ferdinand, Travis and Band of Horses, but Pulido and co-created one just in case.
Songwriting and vocal duties are split and the musicians seem to be at the stage in their career when they have left their previous success outside the studio and embraced the collaborative nature of the enterprise. “There are frontmen who are driven by that need for attention, possibly because they didn’t get enough as children,” Healy told Paste magazine. “But I had plenty, and everybody else [in BNQT] has. All of these frontmen are quite good at that job, maybe because they’re not so desperate for the spotlight. Maybe for the next album, [Pulido] should get people who crave the spotlight and see how that changes the dynamics.”
It’s encouraging to hear there may be a second incarnation of BNQT. Pulido and other members of Midlake have already bizarrely done the opposite of supergroup building seven years ago. In 2008 and 2009, they let the frontman of the Czars John Grant use their home studio and played as backing band on his first solo album, Queen of Denmark, released in 2010. It is one of the most outstanding records of the past ten years, and every subsequent Grant project has marked him out as a unique and major talent leading to awards, recognition and gushing praise from Elton, Kylie, Tracey Thorn and many others.
As a rare example of a group establishing a separate Super- solo artist, it was definitely a job well done.