The musical “supergroup” is a cultural phenomenon that owes its birth to the 1960s, notably with the creation of Cream. So the 80s can’t claim this one. But as usual it takes it to excess. We are talking about a decade where execution often took a backseat to ambition. Fortunately for music fans there were a few cases where talent and authenticity collided. They’re worth a listen.
- The Traveling Willburys
No list of supergroups should start – let alone be complete – without Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Charlie T Jr., and Lucky Wilbury’s bohemian outfit of “half-brothers.” In 1988 George Harrison (Nelson) whimsically put together the musical brood of himself, Roy Orbison (Otis), Bob Dylan (Lucky), Tom Petty (Charlie T.) and Jeff Lynne (Lefty). They only released two albums (1988’s Traveling Willburys Vol. 1 and 1990’s Traveling Willburys Vol. 3 – apparently they can’t count). Roy Orbison died upon completion of the first album. And although ideas of a tour were suggested by Harrison and Petty, an actual traveling Traveling Willburys never came to pass. Nonetheless, the first album was popular enough to win a Grammy and reach triple-platinum status in the U.S.
2) The Firm
It was the supergroup rock fans had been salivating for. Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers in the same band. Hopes were high, but for the band members, which also included former Uriah Heep drummer Chris Slade and bassist Tony Franklin, expectations were more conservative. Page has maintained he never expected the group to record more than two albums, but given his next big project featured a similarly idyllic pairing with former Deep Purple/Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale, it’s not hard to image the legendary guitarist in a characteristically restless mood.
3) The Power Station
Like most of the supergroups of the time, The Power Station was thrown together as a lark. While on a brief hiatus Duran Duran members John Taylor and Andy Taylor (they’re not related) began collaborating with Chic drummer Tony Thompson on a cover of T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” for former model Bebe Buell. Buell’s involvement was dismissed when Robert Palmer became interested in contributing vocals, and by late 1984 The Power Station had formed, taking it’s name from the recording studio in New York City where the first album was recorded.
Despite Taylor, Taylor, and Thompson’s intentions to maintain the group with a cast of revolving singers, The Power Station broke up in 1985 with its various members returning to their former roles – save Andy Taylor who went on to record as a solo artist until his return to Duran Duran in 2001. The Power Station attempted a reunion in 1994 but were hampered by the death of bass player Bernard Edwards.
4) Mike + The Mechanics
A supergroup whose members may not seem “super” on their own, Mike + The Mechanics is the brainchild of Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford, who enlisted Paul Carrack (formerly of Squeeze), Paul Young (Sad Cafe), Peter Van Hooke (Van Morrison) and solo/session player Adrian Lee to create a side project absent of his Genesis counterparts. Despite plans as a one-off project the band chose to continue after the critical and commercial success of its eponymous debut album.
Mike + The Mechanics remain active, though Rutherford remains the only original member in the band. Although its members were not as widely known as many other supergroups of the 1980s, Mike + The Mechanics remain one of the most successful and celebrated English collaborations of all time.
5) The Highwaymen
It wasn’t all rock stars taking part in the big collaborations of the 80s; country got in on the action, too. Outlaw country had grown immensely popular as something of a western music response to the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. The four biggest “outlaw” acts of the era came together in 1985 to form The Highwaymen; Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash recorded three albums between 1985 and 1995.
Jennings and Cash’s deaths in 2002 and 2003, respectively, ended any hopes of a Highwaymen reunion. But their collaboration marks another example of the fleeting brilliance that ought to remain indelible in the annals of time.