The Super Group: a collection of well known stars that band together to make up a highly touted record selling juggernaut, attract all of the attention, get the plum gigs, and of course, get all the girls. Most have failed, few rise above the hype and the lucky ones (usually ones not noted initially as super groups) grab the brass ring of success.
Early super groups were defined by the band Blind Faith. Even the name suggests what the audience should have going into the project. Members of Cream (kind of a super group already) and Traffic (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Ric Grech) combined ideas and personnel to make one middling album (known more for its topless twelve year old girl on the album cover than any music inside), a 1969 tour that pulled in the dollars but showed the band to be more or less a blues jam band with few real songs, and relied on their former bands for in concert faves. Playing the same Cream songs to increasing hordes of rabid fans who were out of their minds wasted was exactly why Clapton had broken Cream up, so the writing was on the wall. They pulled the plug and quickly faded from memory, thus providing the model for many super groups to follow. (see GTR)
But this article isn’t about the dinosaur era of failed super groups, it is about groups that nearly formed, or formed and then disbanded without any output. You know, the big “what if’s?” of rock history. One of the first of note did not have a name, but was going to be a collision between the most histrionic rock guitarist going, and the most over the top keyboardist of all time: Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. It was to be called either HELP or HELM depending on the final line up. With the end of the Nice, Emerson was looking to retool a band. He had already pooched Greg Lake from King Crimson, and was fishing around for some pieces of the puzzle to round out the band. Supposedly he contacted Hendrix to jam together, and (depending on who you listen to) Jimi came by to sit in on some of the early sessions that yielded Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This is where the story gets a little murky. The one thing that has been documented is that Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell showed up to a rehearsal at Emerson’s studio with a large entourage. Discussions of Mitchell coming on board to round out the trio led to the wild idea of including Hendrix. It is uncertain whether Carl Palmer was in the loop of discussion as of yet as a drum choice. It is likely that, had the project gone a bit further, Hendrix would have had the final say in drummers, and gone with his favorite in Mitchell over the unknown Palmer. British tabloids at the time hinted at the HELP moniker, but a close look at the facts indicate that the HELM lineup would have been the final outcome. Witnesses to the first meetings said that the huge drugged out entourage Hendrix brought with him did not lend to the ‘friendly jam’ atmosphere that nascent bands crave in the formative stage, and that Lake and Emerson “freaked out”, and had second thoughts. Still, for any fans of Hendrix and ELP, the thought of two of the most talented point men in rock being able to duel on stage and trade riffs and solos of unimaginable depth is pretty appealing. (Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 put an end to the proposal). But the jazzier leanings Hendrix was dabbling in at the time make it even more of a tantalizing proposition. Which leads to….
Hendrix, McCartney, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This lineup is documented by an October telegram sent to Apple Records and Paul McCartney trying to get the bass player to show up in New York for the album sessions. Hendrix and McCartney are already a fairly enticing proposition, but throw in jazz legend Miles Davis and phenom jazz drummer Tony Williams? Good god the mind boggles at the thought of what that quartet could have accomplished. Whether Macca would have been one of many bassists on the album or a solid member of the quartet is unknown. But the tantalizing scrap of paper in the Hard Rock Cafe bears witness to something that rock fans can only dream about- a super group that could have rewritten musical boundaries forever. The Hendrix album Nine to the Universe released in 1980 had jazz leanings, and a little known album session with John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame showed the direction Hendrix was heading. (McLaughlin nixed the release of his jams with Jimi, alluding to crappy playing on his part. I have a bootleg of the session, and McLaughlin gets truly smoked at every turn and is out of sorts with Hendrix, not something a flash guitarist wants on his resume). In the long run, McCartney was on holiday and it is unknown whether he was apprised of the telegram. (Apple was notoriously inefficient in 1969). But this would have been something special, no doubt. A group that would have defined and redefined “jazz rock”.
Led Zeppelin Mk 0, Proto-Zep 1966
This is a band line up that has fueled much speculation and disagreement over the years: Led Zeppelin almost happened in 1966. There is only one enticingly small piece of evidence that documents this incarnation of the proto-band. A barely noticed B-side to a Jeff Beck single (Hi Ho Silver Lining) called Beck’s Bolero had been recorded in May 1966, and quietly slipped out in 1967. A truly earth shaking super group this was too: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums. Page and Beck had a short run together in the Yardbirds (Train Kept a Rollin’ in the film Blow Up was their only documented duet), but this single had the earmarks of a real band. The Who were on the verge of a break up once again (Daltrey had been fired briefly in 1966) and Moon and Entwistle had discussed a project involving Jimmy Page. Whether the original name Lead Zeppelin originated with Moon, Entwistle or future Zep manager Peter Grant is unclear (Page has tapped Moon as the origin)–Entwistle was adamant that Grant was present at his and Moon’s initial discussions and stole the idea, including that he had even thought the project out to include the Hindenburg in flames on their first album cover (which Grant also nicked). Soon the Who and Moon had kissed and made up, and this idea was put on the backburner to simmer for a couple of years.
Beatles, Stones, Dylan form a single band
Before passing out of the sixties, another proposed band has recently come to light. In the realms of the word super group, this one would have been a doozy: a nine piece band comprising Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Yep–Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, all in one band. Producer Glyn Johns let this one out in his recent book. According to Johns, the impetus for this project came solely from Bob Dylan. He wanted to make an album with the most influential song writers of the 1960’s, and see what the combined talents could collaborate on to produce. The time period would have been the summer of 1969-Self Portrait era of Dylan, post Brian Jones Stones, and the chaos of Let it Be for the Beatles. Johns had worked for years on the Rolling Stones production end, and Dylan was intrigued by his recent work with the Beatles. Despite Dylan’s enthusiasm, only George Harrison and Keith Richards jumped at the chance and tried to gather support. Wyman, Ringo and Watts waited to see what others would do, and Lennon felt ambivalent. McCartney and Jagger would not even consider it for a second, perhaps reflecting the power struggles then going on in both bands. Despite the cachet these names generate, it is hard to see how this would have played out. Collaborative song writing? If real, then it would have been something we’d still be analyzing to this day. But other luminaries were sidling up…
Fast forwarding a decade comes a super group that strikes very close to home: XYZ. Representing eX Yes and Zeppelin, XYZ was formed in late 1980 as both Yes and Led Zeppelin had imploded (the former due to a break up during the failed follow up to Tormato, the other by the death of John Bonham.). At the time, two of my favorite bands had just jumped the rails, and my lifelong search to finally see Led Zeppelin live summer 1980 was thwarted by Bonham’s untimely death. Whispers by those who had insider information spoke of XYZ-Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Chris Squire and Alan White. Holy Crap–talk about a consolation prize! I anxiously awaited further news. I carried around a 1981 clipping from a local newspaper from a ticket scalping agency for the better part of a decade. Around the border were upcoming big concerts they were pushing: The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, AC/DC…the hottest tours of the biggest bands circled in a border around the advert. But one caught my eye, the elusive XYZ. Was there going to be a tour? Holy shit! But then….an information black out. Nothing in the news anywhere about this. What was going on? In reality, Page, White and Squire had gotten together with former Greenslade keyboardist David Lawson to combine forces. As a front man, the obvious choice was Robert Plant. Rehearsals in early 1981 progressed well, but Plant dropped out after a single session with them, citing lingering trauma from Bonham’s death. Other sources claim the songs being written were straying into an unfamiliar ground as Squire and White drew Page into much trickier uncharted territory-fluctuating time signatures, stops and starts and evolving key changes–the hallmarks of prog rock and Yes. Plant found this material out of his comfort zone and a bit too “tricky” for his liking. Whichever excuse you prefer, Plant was out. This left Squire and David Lawson as vocalists, but the initial momentum and enthusiasm began to wane as rehearsals continued. Disputes over management between Brian Lane of the Yes camp and Peter Grant of the Zep camp did not help. (The aborted sessions produced some tantalizingly rare outtakes, which finally have surfaced in the bootleg underground and are readily available to the skilled internet surfer). Finally both parties realized that this was headed in the wrong direction without Plant to tie it together, and they went their separate ways. Some of the more finished material ended up on the rare Squire/White single, Run With the Fox. Other material ended up on the 1983 Yes reformation album 90125. One song ended up on a Page/Rodgers Firm album. One of the ‘trickier’ pieces finally surfaced 15 years later as Mind Drive on the 1997 Keys to Ascension2 Yes album. For many Yes fans, this was the last decent original song they ever released. Few know that its origins have Jimmy Page rattling around in there somewhere. But this wasn’t the only aborted Yes project of the era….
When Yes failed to come up with a follow up to Tormato, they imploded in Paris. Roy Thomas Baker was at the helm, and the band bickered endlessly. Writing was strained and Jon Anderson tried to wrestle control and impose his will upon the band, a very un-Yeslike attitude. (Songs of this era showed up on bonus tracks of Drama and the Anderson solo album Song of Seven. They are excruciatingly bad.) In the background was the easily disaffected keyboard genius Rick Wakeman. Rick had once famously consumed sausage sandwiches on his grand piano while playing on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour to show his disapproval of the material and horrify the recently vegan turned Anderson and Howe. So when Alan White broke his ankle during the sessions, Rick saw his opportunity and wisely bolted for the door.
WWB-Wakeman, Wetton, Bruford
But this was not the first time Wakeman had pulled a vanishing act. The first time was post Tales, in 1974. He then became a fairly large draw as a solo act, but stage productions for Journey to the Center of the Earth (performed around a lake with inflatable monsters bobbing up and down from the surface) and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (performed around a skating rink with ice skating characters, and orchestra and choir) drained finances like burning money in a stove. A solution was in the offing, and America had the answer. With ELP effectively off the road, a keyboard led supergroup was needed. That group was Wakeman Wetton and Bruford, WWB. John Wetton and Bill Bruford had most recently played together in the final 70’s version of King Crimson, and were nearly telepathic in their playing. Wakeman? Well as he himself has noted, was an unofficial member of the UK Olympic Drinking Team. This seemed doomed from the start, but they hung together for six weeks in May-June 1977, took promo photos on a James Bond movie set, had press releases out and record companies lined up. Unfortunately, the execs pumped up Wakeman’s already inflated ego with promises of ELP styled mega events with him at the helm. They also proposed a 50-25-25 split of the finances, something that Wetton and Bruford could not swallow. With accountants running with contracts after them, the band fell apart. Wakeman rejoined Yes, while Wetton and Bruford enlisted Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth for the more sedate and complex band, UK. The bombastic WWB never saw the light of day. Two songs of their work survived–Beelzebub surfaced on a Bruford solo album, and Thirty Years on the first UK album.
Recent history has provided many an example of super groups that fizzle out upon launch. Had these bands continued and actually toured and released albums,the same fate may have struck the above mentioned bands. But time and events will not let us know how this would have played out. One thing I do know, I really would have loved to see Jimmy Page in a progressive rock band. “What if?” indeed.