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Three easy pieces


With a collection of talent unrivaled by just about any band, the Traveling Wilburys are the supergroup’s platonic ideal. Photo credit:

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Three Easy Pieces is a monthly column where I guide you through a specific pocket of pop culture, showing you how it evolved from its inception to how it exists today. This month, I'm talking about supergroups. Yes, the notion of several famous musicians from other bands forming their own group together is inherently gimmicky (and the results are rarely outstanding). Still, there are some supergroups that transcend the gimmick.

BIRTH: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Honorable mention: Blind Faith, Asia, Cream

Though they formed a couple years too late to be considered the first supergroup (that would be Cream, with some sticklers claiming the little-remembered R&B group the Steampacket), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young may just be the greatest and most influential band to fall in that category. Pulling together members of the Byrds, the Hollies, and Buffalo Springfield, CSNY created some of the most indelible music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Any supergroup to be considered one of the best of their given genre is automatically way ahead of the game, seeing as how supergroups are often larks and side projects, which frequently result in a tossed-off vibe. CSNY are folk-rock titans, though, so they do stand apart from the rabble.

CSNY is one of those rare instances of most fans not even thinking of the band as a supergroup, as their career so completely eclipsed the musical lives they lived before.

DEVELOPMENT: The Traveling Wilburys

Honorable mention: This Mortal Coil, The Highwaymen, Temple of the Dog

In discussing supergroups, there is one band that stands as the platonic ideal: The Traveling Wilburys. It's possible that no other group has assembled more talent than the Wilburys. I mean, if George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne got together for brunch, that would be the most famous brunch to ever exist. Thinking of those music gods actually staying in a cabin and cutting an album is almost too much to bear. And yes, the Traveling Wilburys' music does have that tossed-off looseness I alluded to earlier, but all five of those guys could craft a timeless pop masterpiece almost on accident, so the quality of their output was still incredibly high.

There's an utterly charming mini-documentary out there on the making of the Traveling Wilburys' debut album, which details the democratic way they went about it, including requiring everyone to audition for their vocal parts; one of them recalls how self-conscious each of them would be to have to sing after Orbison, the man with the greatest voice in rock history. After Orbison abruptly passed away, the group sought to replace him with another ‘60s crooner in Del Shannon (who had experienced a bit of a resurgence with an album produced by Lynne). Sadly, Shannon also passed away, and after releasing a second album, the Traveling Wilburys called it quits.


Honorable mention: Wild Flag, Them Crooked Vultures, The New Pornographers, Run the Jewels

Alright, this one might take a bit of explanation. We've got two intact bands from separate generations, representing different genres, coming together to create music that somewhat miraculously mashes their two sounds together. First, we've got Sparks, the duo of brothers who made some of the most idiosyncratic art-rock of the ‘70s, before continuing to be weird and uncompromising to this very day. Next, we have Franz Ferdinand, who rose to prominence on the back of the disco-punk movement of the ‘00s. Their supergroup name, FFS, may have another meaning that you can suss out, but it's also simply their bands' initials combined.

Both bands have their theatrical side -- with Sparks being explicitly flamboyant and bold, and Franz Ferdinand being formed by mates who met in art school -- but it's still fairly remarkable to hear them mesh together so well on their self-titled debut. Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos has a sexy, Jarvis Cocker-esque baritone, which mingles well with the outré falsetto of Sparks' Russel Mael. The album is a stylistic grab bag, indulging mostly in Sparks' peccadilloes, such as glam, synth-pop and experimental freakouts -- but with that rigid, dancey backbone that defines Franz Ferdinand. An unexpectedly successful collaboration, to say the least.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Post-Modern Film Noir. 

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