Photo: Black Country Communion, photocredit Enzo Fornino/LFI; Robert Knight
The rock supergroup is back. Once a byword for hype and hubris, the idea of renowned musicians getting together to form instantly famous new groups is in vogue again. Last year saw the release of successful first albums by Them Crooked Vultures, Chickenfoot and the Dead Weather, bands who between them included members of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age and the White Stripes.
All three of these supergroups have toured internationally and continue to work together with reported enthusiasm, the Dead Weather having already released a follow-up album earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the self-titled debut by Black Country Communion has shot into this week’s album chart. An impressive compendium of heavy-rocking riffs and high, hoarse vocals, the album features the former Deep Purple bass-player and singer Glenn Hughes, the prodigiously talented blues-rock guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham (who sat in for his father, the late John Bonham, in the Led Zeppelin reunion show of 2007) and Derek Sherinian of virtuoso prog-rockers Dream Theater.
The band is the brainchild of Kevin Shirley, the veteran South African producer who has worked with Iron Maiden, Aerosmith, the Black Crowes and many others. He wisely prefers to play down the supergroup tag. “I think that label smacks of opportunism and being put together for the wrong reasons,” he says. “I think this band is real. They’re super musicians, a lot like Zeppelin in the way that they gel. But I don’t see them as a supergroup.”
While the track record of Black Country Community as musicians is not in question, the dustbin of rock-and-roll history is full of all-star bands with dodgy names, assembled in haste and disassembled almost as quickly.
The template was established in the late Sixties by Blind Faith, the aptly-named band featuring Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Their first gig was in front of a vast audience in Hyde Park, and their first (and last) album went straight to number one in Britain and America. But, riven by conflicting ideals, ambitions and egos, the group dissolved in less than a year.
Other super-powered combinations from that era fared better. Humble Pie, Bad Company and Journey became million-selling attractions, while Crosby Stills & Nash are still performing today.
For many bands, however, the supergroup ticket has been more of a curse than a blessing. Who now remembers the Firm, a clodhopping Eighties liaison between Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company) and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) that was quietly retired after a couple of mediocre albums? Page’s subsequent partnership with Whitesnake singer David Coverdale foundered even more quickly, while a coalition between Rodgers and Kenney Jones (the Faces, the Who) in the Law was even less distinguished.
In the Nineties, a bunch of so-called supergroups such as Blue Murder, Temple of the Dog and Contraband mixed and matched players from Soundgarden, the Scorpions, Pearl Jam, Whitesnake and others with such bewildering speed that even their most committed fans were hard pushed to keep track of who was in which of the latest uber-line-ups of the day.
The problem with so many of these acts was the unrealistic sense of expectation heaped on them, combined with the overweening sense of entitlement that came with it. Playing together successfully in a band of equals requires a chemistry that gets harder to locate the more baggage a group of musicians is carrying. The spirit of camaraderie required to forge a collective identity can be elusive when the singer’s manager has to talk to the drummer’s manager in order to agree on a date – and maybe even a fee – for attending preliminary rehearsals.
Some supergroups, such as Velvet Revolver and Audioslave, have weathered the initial hype and enjoyed sustained success, albeit not on the scale of their previous bands (Guns N’ Roses, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden and so forth). And it seems that the key players in the new breed of supergroups have learnt from the lessons of the past. Them Crooked Vultures did absolutely no promotion until they had written and recorded an album and played some suitably humble gigs (as the unannounced support to Arctic Monkeys). And, far from simply repeating themselves with a bunch of famous friends, Jack White and Dave Grohl have used their respective new groups to showcase a different side of their musical personalities – both reverting to their first instrument, the drums.
Black Country Communion have evidently been paying attention, too. “The motivation in all of this really was the music,” says Shirley. “The whole has got to be greater than the sum of the parts.” He dismisses reports of the band initially being at loggerheads over money issues as “a little bump in the road” and notes that all four members are on an equal split of the takings – although where that leaves him as the producer is unclear.
Bonamassa, who hasn’t played in a group since he was a teenager, is adamant that BCC is not simply a flag of convenience. “You don’t want to join something just to give yourself a credibility bump,” he says. “You have to learn from the history. The first thing people ask is, 'Is this for real? Is this going to last, or is it going to be all over just as soon as we’ve bought the T-shirt?’ Well, it’s not about that for me. I’m happy to make 10 more records with these guys, and that’s God’s own truth.”
'Black Country Communion’ is out now; www.bccommunion.com