The term “supergroup” has always been somewhat subjective – Just how famous do the members have to be when a band starts out for them be considered “super,” anyway? The tag is also something of a jinx, since historically most so-called supergroups stay together only long enough to eek out a single studio album (two on the outset), as a too-many-cooks situation will almost surely arise among individual musicians who are already well-established on their own and probably came into it with their own distinct musical agenda.
While some supergroups have consisted entirely of well-known musicians – i.e. Asia, Chickenfoot, and safe to say the Traveling Wilburys – it almost seems as though a few of them reserve a token place for one or two members whom most of the public will be “meeting” for the first time. We could cynically claim that these musicians won the lottery, but in most cases there’s no question that genuine talent got them the gig (and let’s be honest: a front row seat for the inevitable clash of superstar egos is hardly an enviable position). Here are nine musicians who were relatively unknown when they got the chance to be “the new guy” (or gal) in a rock supergroup.
# 9 – Max Bacon – GTR
A rock supergroup being fronted by an unknown is somewhat unusual, but it was pretty clear that singing was not going to be the focal point of GTR, especially since the very name was an abbreviation for “guitar.” This reflected the band’s epicenter, which was not one but two veteran prog axemen, Steve Howe of Yes and Steve Hackett of Genesis.
Vocals for GTR were provided by Max Bacon, another Brit who had previous sung for a series of less-known bands (Moby Dick, Nightwing, Bronz), and probably sounded much more like Jon Anderson than Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins. GTR’s self-titled 1986 album went gold and spawned the Top 20 single “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” but we can imagine that both Steve H.’s wanted to rule the band, so this ended up being their only release.
# 8 – Rebecca Cole – Wild Flag
In 2010 Washington, DC singer/guitarist/songwriter Mary Timony – well into a solo career which followed her stint fronting the acclaimed indie band Helium – teamed up with drummer Janet Weiss and singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein, who had been two-thirds of the influential Olympia rock outfit Sleater-Kinney, to form Wild Flag. Rebecca Cole had previously been the drummer in Denver band the Minders, but in a rare switch of instruments ended up playing keyboards in the new project. Despite a very positive general response, Wild Flag was folded up after just one album.
# 7 – Deen Castronovo – Bad English
In 1987, two ex-Journey members, guitarist Neil Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, formed Bad English along with lead singer John Waite, who’d had a number one hit as a solo artist (“Missing You”) and had previously played with Cain in The Babys. Sitting behind the drum kit for this one would be Deen Castronovo, who had previously played in the Portland band Wild Hogs.
Bad English’s debut album went platinum and generated two Top 5 hits, but after the failure of the follow-up release (ironically titled Backlash), Schon and Cain wisely chose to re-form Journey (Castronovo joined them for seventeen years starting in 1998, not just playing drums but doing lead vocals on some of the band’s classics live).
# 6 – Michael Des Barres – The Power Station
Although he would eventually become more prolific as an actor, in 1985 the then-unknown Michael Des Barres was called to step in as lead singer of the Power Station, a band comprised of bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor (still not related) from Duran Duran and former Chic drummer Tony Thompson. Soulful rock crooner Robert Palmer – then a decade into his successful solo career – had been the original vocalist on the group’s self-titled debut album, but flatly refused to tour or record additional material claiming it was understood that album was to be the extent of the project. Still, platinum sales and two Top 10 singles compelled the rest of the band to press ahead, thus performing with Des Barres at Live Aid as well as a tour of arenas.
# 5 – Dave Kushner – Velvet Revolver
Velvet Revolver was comprised of three former members of Guns N’ Roses – guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagen and drummer Matt Sorum – and Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland. Rounding out the line-up was rhythm guitarist Dave Kushner, who had previously played in L.A. bands Wasted Youth and Electric Love Hog. VR’s debut album Contraband went to number one in the US and sold two million copies, but the year after the follow-up release Libertad, Weiland liberated himself from the project, effectively ending it. Kushner would go on to play in other bands, do TV and film soundtrack work and be named one of the “Great Unsung Guitar Heroes” in 2009 by British magazine Total Guitar.
# 4 – Michael Cartellone – Damn Yankees
At the dawn of the Nineties former Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw and ex-Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades were joined by larger-than-life platinum-selling (and, yes, already controversial) solo guitar slinger Ted Nugent to form Damn Yankees. Along on drums would be Michael Cartellone, who had previously played with Shaw, as well as with former Roxy Music keyboardist Eddie Jobson. Damn Yankees split after their second album but Cartellone (who also enjoys a second career as gifted painter) would go on to keep time for artists ranging from Cher to German heavy metal band Accept.
# 3 – Ric Grech – Blind Faith
Quite possibly the epitome of a rock supergroup – both in terms of the profile of the members and the quality of the end result – Blind Faith was formed in 1969 by guitar god Eric Clapton and drummer extraordinaire Ginger Baker – both previously of Cream – along with Traffic vocalist Steve Winwood. All of them at one time or another had jammed with bassist Ric Grech, who had for the past two years been playing in the British group Family. Grech had supposedly committed to joining Blind Faith before formally quitting his previous band (although there’s a good chance they would’ve fired him anyway after he supposedly showed up for a gig too drunk to perform). Blind Faith would only release the one album, and Grech died in 1990 at age forty-three.
# 2 & 1 – Chris Slade and Tony Franklin – The Firm
Formed in 1984, the Firm in a sense ended up as the antithesis of Blind Faith: the partnering of one of rock’s greatest guitarist with one of rock’s greatest vocalists, which in the end didn’t work. Still, with Jimmy Page being that guitarist and Paul Rodgers being the vocalist, there wasn’t a musician alive who wouldn’t have killed to be part of the Firm’s rhythm section, and that honor ultimately went to drummer Chris Slade and bassist Tony Franklin.
Slade had drummed with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band for most of the Seventies, but Franklin – barely out of his teens at the time – had done very little besides some work with British musician Roy Harper (who introduced him to Page). In their mostly negative review of the Firm’s debut album, Rolling Stone tagged Slade and Franklin “journeymen” and implied that Page and Rodgers were slumming it by working with them (now that’s not firm, it’s mean).