Rock Band or Law Firm? The Invasion of the Would-Be Supergroups

Jeff Beck, Roger McQuinn, Paul Kantner, Jack Bruce, Keith Emerson, Leslie West. These are a few of the names burned into the pages of rock music history. They made their reputations in iconic bands of the Sixties like the Yardbirds, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain and the Byrds. But bands are invariably fragile entities, from the chart-toppers right down to the local covers group. Think of even your two or three best pals in the world and try to imagine working and travelling with them nearly non-stop for an indefinite period of time—not to mention with other people you may not be nearly as tight with—and you can see where even many of the most successful of groups have pretty limited time spans.

But an advantage of success is that you meet other talented peers and these connections invariably lead to new bands once the bloom is off the rose of your first star-making gig. For every Paul McCartney or Eric Clapton who had the right stuff for lasting solo careers, there were dozens of others more suited to being role players (for more on this check out some of my entries in the “We’ve All Gone Solo” category to the right) or nominal leaders who needed complimentary wingmen. With the surnames of these guys (they were almost exclusively male) already well-known to fans, this re-shuffling of the rock-musician deck led to a number of law-firm or acronym group names throughout the 70s and 80s. While some found even greater fame in this incarnation (notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Emerson, Lake and Palmer) many others had just a shining moment or two before splintering again, with others going solo and/or re-forming their more famous band, especially as the classic-rock “legacy act” thing became big starting in the Nineties. Here are nine of the more notable examples of this curious sidebar of pop history.

West, Bruce and Laing

I start with this power trio as perhaps the most natural fit in this category and who seemed most destined for bigger things as a unit. Felix Pappalardi produced most of the records by Cream, maybe the original pre-designated “supergroup.” When he hooked up with fellow New Yorker Leslie West in 1969, they formed Mountain as a sort of Americanized version of Cream, alternating gritty blues-rock (courtesy of West’s gruff vocals and blazing lead guitar) with an almost baroque take on pop songcraft (Pappalardi’s specialty). In 1972, with Mountain winding down and Cream long since broken up, West teamed up with Mountain drummer Corky Laing and Cream’s Jack Bruce, who neatly reprised his role as powerhouse bassist and co-lead singer, also Felix’s part in Mountain.

There was a lot of buzz circling around West, Bruce and Laing, who got a nifty million-dollar, three-album deal after a bidding war. Their first album, Why Dontcha, hit #26 in the U.S. charts and ticket sales were brisk for their concerts. The bloozy rockers dished out by the wrestler-sized West (like “Pleasure” and the title track) were popular with the decibel-crazed longhairs of the era and Bruce’s somewhat softer material balanced them out. In 1973 came the pretty good follow-up Whatever Turns You On but that LP stalled at #87 and rock music’s perennial elephant-in-the-room, hard drug abuse, would lead to bitter in-fighting and WBL never toured again. Their official break-up wasn’t announced until early ’74 around the time an indulgent live album (featuring a bum-blasting 13-minute version of the Stones’ “Play With Fire”) was released to complete the three-album deal. Jack Bruce would move on to his many projects, which in 1993 included the not-dissimilar BBM (with his Cream frenemy Ginger Baker and Irish guitar great Gary Moore) and, in 2005, a one-off Cream reunion. Mountain re-formed for one more studio album and, after Pappalardi’s death in 1983, West and Laing played under the Mountain banner for many years with a rotating cast of bass players.

Beck, Bogert and Appice

As the second of the Yardbird’s three iconic axemen, the mercurial Jeff Beck had a lot to do with the creation of the modern rock guitar sound but with his vast array of squealing, whooshing or stabbing sound effects, he was the most difficult to pin down. Bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice were forerunners of the heavy hard-rock engine stokers with their work in Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. Beck had met the package-deal rhythm section as early as 1967 with intentions of getting a thing together but contractual issues and the early edition of the Jeff Beck Group (which launched Rod Stewart) kept this from happening until 1972. The trio did some well-received shows and started working on an album, released in early ’73. I loved the BBA album as a 15 year-old (and still do) and it’s very much an article of its era. Beck’s bracing, sometimes unhinged, guitar solos and brash power chords, Appice’s walloping drum fills and Bogert’s hyperactive bass are well-matched to the slap-happy arrangements of a do-as-you-please era when rock was king. “Livin’ Alone” and “Lady” (with its Who-ish dynamics) are the highlights of the group originals. The group gleefully steamroll over Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” while changing gears completely for a refined remake of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” with a sensitive vocal from Appice that helped it become a minor hit. But soon, the restless Beck was packing up his white Stratocaster and moving on, and BBA would not complete a second studio LP, though a live album (originally released only in Japan) is now available on the Internet.

The Souther Hillman Furay Band

It wasn’t just the heavy rockers who were getting on the roll-call bandwagon when it came to assembling new “sure-thing” bands. SHF was the idea of David Geffen, who figured that the combo of singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and country-rock stalwarts Chris Hillman (a founding member of both the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros.) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) would make a great addition to his roster of artists at Asylum Records. With a supporting cast that included keyboardist Paul Harris, drummer Jim Gordon and pedal steel/dobro master Al Perkins, SHF got off to a promising start with the 1974 hit single “Fallin’ in Love” while the debut album hit #11, meaning there were quite a few copies mixed in with the Jackson Browne and Doobie Brother titles in the record racks of those so inclined. Though a pretty solid entry in that category, the group couldn’t overcome the personal disagreements natural in such inorganic assemblages. SHF did manage to squeeze out a second album in 1975 (Trouble in Paradise) but split up soon after.

Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit

A few months ago, I wrote about Paul Kossoff in the aforementioned “We’ve All Gone Solo” series as one of those deeply sad rock & roll fatalities, a talented and influential lead guitarist who was less than fully equipped to deal with the often callous vicissitudes of the music industry and band dynamics, never mind the wide availability of hard drugs. Free were hard rock pioneers but bad blood (esp. between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist-songwriter Andy Fraser) and Kossoff’s heroin use precipitated an initial break-up in 1972. Kossoff pulled himself together enough to lead up this band with Free drummer Simon Kirke, Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (later Ronnie Lane’s replacement in the last line-up of the Faces) and future Who sideman John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys and lead vocals. With its brooding bluesy sound, the KKTF album sometimes seems the lost bridge between Free and Bad Company, fans of either/both groups may find this a pleasant discovery if it flew under their radar first time around. It has many fine examples of Kossoff’s trademark sustain-filled soloing and Rabbit’s fluid keyboard work is a nice added dimension, even if his singing is merely competent when compared to Rodgers. But this was strictly a one-off and soon Free were having another go, though Kossoff’s continued addiction problem (among other factors) derailed that idea in ’73. Rodgers and Kirke soon saw the top of the mountain as half of Bad Co. while Kossoff died in 1976, his drug-damaged heart giving out on a flight from L.A. to New York.

Paice Ashton Lord

Hard rock heavyweights Deep Purple split up in 1976 after which two of their original members, drummer Ian Paice and keyboardist Jon Lord, teamed up with fellow Englishman Tony Ashton. The Blackburn-born Ashton was an accomplished pianist and singer and a bit of a gadfly, having done tons of session work, most notably for Family and John Entwistle. In 1971, he had had a big hit called “Resurrection Shuffle” with another group that sounded like an accounting firm—-Ashton, Gardner and Dyke. Paice, Ashton and Lord kept on with the sound of Ashton’s earlier group, blending in elements of R&B, jazz and rock with Ashton’s extroverted vocals on top. More of an enjoyable side project than an intended supergroup, they would only do the one album (with a live CD added years later). Jon Lord and PAL’s guitarist Bernie Marsden went on to form Whitesnake with singer David Coverdale (Paice was also in the band for a while) while Ashton was a bit out to dry. He re-invented himself in later years as a TV host and painter before dying in 2001. His two PAL bandmates went back to a re-formed Purple in 1984; Lord passed away in 2012.

McQuinn, Clark and Hillman

Let me take this time to give a shout-out to Chris Hillman, one of rock’s great utility players. Never a big star in his own right, he was nevertheless a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Stephen Still’s Manassas. Good bands all, and of course in the first case, damn near legendary. Hillman, who was a steady hand at the bass guitar and mandolin as well as a sometime singer and songwriter, had already been down the great re-shuffle road with Souther, Hillman and Furay. In 1979 he agreed to join his more high-profile ex-bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark but he soon found out that while Byrds of a feather may flock together, they don’t always do so in flawless formation. The original line-up already had a brief, middling re-union in 1973 but MCH never even got off the ground artistically. These bona-fide folk musicians, who did so much to kick-start the great folk-rock movement in the mid-Sixties, almost totally abandon that here. Instead of trying to update that sound for a newer audience they settled for an glossy, soulless production style that was grounded in a no-man’s land somewhere between the Little River Band and Firefall (there’e even a semi-disco number). I bet Hillman and McGuinn likely would prefer to forget that debut nowadays, but for the talented but troubled Clark, this is a sadder case. He saw MCH as a boost to a post-Byrds career that never really gelled. But he overcame the production values he so disliked and cut what to my ears sounds like the band’s best song (“Won’t Let You Down”) on their second album though his continued substance abuse issues meant he lost equal billing (1980’s City merely “featured” Clark). It was likely these same drinking/drug problems that contributed to Clark’s premature death in 1991.

KBC Band

For such a group of disparate talents and personalities, Jefferson Airplane maintained their classic line-up from late 1966 to 1970, becoming one of America’s great psychedelic-era bands, augmenting the Aquarian platitudes of the day with tough-minded social and political lyrics. Starting in the early Seventies, the Airplane parts would splinter off into an uncountable number of solo projects, duos and reconfigurations. Of course, from 1974-78 the front line of vocalist-songwriters (Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Grace Slick) led the evolution into Jefferson Starship and more widespread commercial success than they ever saw in the Sixties. Meanwhile, the band’s formidable guitar-bass pairing (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) had formed the blues-centric Hot Tuna. By the time of the late 70s, this deck of cards was getting re-shuffled with ever increasing frequency. With Balin’s departure, Starship had recruited the full-throated AOR belter Mickey Thomas and had scored a huge hit with the paint-by-numbers arena rocker “Jane” which was a long way away from the days of “White Rabbit.” In 1984 Kanter, with his idealism and sci-fi sensibilities out of fashion, was eased out of an organization he co-founded almost twenty years before. He soon re-teamed with Balin, the other co-founder in 1965, and added Jack Casady when Hot Tuna went on sabbatical. The group’s self-titled 1986 album turned out to be a solid, sometimes inspired affair that balanced romantic and political themes in a way that recalled the heyday of both the Airplane and Starship. Sure, the closely-miked drums and sax refrains are pure skinny-tie 80s. But Marty and Paul combined to pen two excellent topical numbers here: “Mariel” was inspired by revolutionary Nicaragua (Kanter had visited there with Kris Kristofferson) and the mini-epic “America” which not only did some soul-searching about the home country but also featured shout-outs to everything from the struggle against apartheid to West Germany’s Green Party. This anthem compared favorably to the Starship’s recent laugher “We Built This City” and though not a hit did get considerable FM airplay. As did “It’s Not You, It’s Not Me” which was one of several classy, grown-up romantic tunes by the Balin. But Marty was more reliable in his songwriting than he was in the area of band commitment. When he skipped out on a music video shoot to take an extended Hawaiian vacation, the group dissolved though all three would be on board for a brief Jefferson Airplane re-union some five years later.

GTR

OK, this is cheating a bit as GTR is not an acronym but an abbreviation for “guitar.” The two GTRs in this case are the lead guitarists from the classic lineups of two leading progressive rock bands, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis. By 1986, when this band released their sole album, their old bands had adapted in the post-punk 80s, when the fantasy themes and 18-minute suites of classic prog had fallen from favor. Genesis had become a pop juggernaut when Phil Collins stepped out front after Peter Gabriel opted for a solo career and Yes had recently scored their only #1 single with the new-wavey “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Howe was also a charter member of Asia, the standard bearer of amalgamated post-prog, but GTR was clearly a bridge too far. There’s certainly some fine playing by the two formidable six-string masters but the LP is bogged down by material that is neither fish nor fowl. Slick arrangements and clichéd lyrics trump the occasional instrumental inspiration and the leisure-suit videos didn’t help any (see below). Howe quickly retreated back to alternating his time between Asia and Yes, while Hackett (who has been critical of the project in retrospect) moved on to his many thoughtful solo efforts, earning much respect from both older fans and the younger neo-prog crowd.

Emerson, Lake and Powell

Well, this sort of brings us full circle, as the original ELP(almer) was cited up top as one of those self-named bands that did hit the jackpot, a group emblematic of both prog’s majesty and self-indulgence. Years after that band had run its course, keyboard maestro Keith Emerson and bassist-singer Greg Lake were keen to have another go but by 1985 drummer Carl Palmer was employed as the stickman with (wait for it) Asia. All involved insist that it was mere coincidence that his replacement had the right surname initial to keep the famous acronym going. Cozy Powell was the valued journeyman drummer (Black Sabbath, Robert Plant, Rainbow etc.) who also had a #3 solo hit in England with the Hendrix-influenced instrumental “Dance With the Devil.” ELP2 (as they were sometimes called) was a bit of a return to form considering the later albums of the predecessor band (Love Beach anyone?) with a unified group attack that replaced the solo-spot indulgences of old. It yielded a moderate hit (“Touch and Go”) that added a heady synth hook from Keith to a streamlined 80s arrangement.

Elsewhere, ELP2 built on past success with the “Karn Evil 9” echoes of “The Score” and also included was a mighty classical adaption just like in the good old days-—Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War.” Despite reaching #23 on the U.S. charts, there would be no encore record. Like the work of many of the bands here, this project was a fleeting moment in the vast backlog of pop music. It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, as they say, so when you need something a little off the beaten path after hearing the greatest hits once too often, it’s places like these where you can turn to appreciate as well the ambitions that came up a little short.

Copyright 2016–Rick Ouellette

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