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Monday, July 24, 2006

Superwrong Supergroups - Harp magazine

By Tom Scharpling

It’s a special thing when artists who’ve achieved greatness in their own right join forces to create a new musical entity. We’ve been blessed with a number of these “supergroups”: Blind Faith, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Velvet Revolver and Golden Smog, to name just a few. When a supergroup clicks, it can be magical. But when they don’t work…look out.

The Million Dollar Quintet

It’s a little-known fact that the Million Dollar Quartet —Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins— was originally a quintet. The fifth member of this historic December 4, 1956, Sun Studios jam session was a brand new Sun artist by the name of Teddy Ray Jenkins. According to legend, Jenkins had the total package: rugged good looks, a great voice and charisma to burn. Word also has it that Presley was very concerned that Jenkins would soon be on the fast track to usurping his rock ’n’ roll crown. Luckily for Elvis, Jenkins was certifiably nuts. "Read More" click link below


“There was something just not right with that boy,” said Jerry Lee Lewis of Jenkins in a late-’70s interview. “Talented and good lookin’? Sure. But crazier than a rattlesnake at a Thai wedding.” [We don’t know what this means, either.]

Jenkins’ eccentricities were on full display that chilly December afternoon. “He wanted us to sing this song he’d written called ‘I Don’t Like Ike,” said Lewis. “It was about how angry he was that Eisenhower got re-elected that November. He was terrified that Ike was going to outlaw pegged pants. We wouldn’t sing it, and Teddy got really angry.“ Jenkins further exacerbated the situation by accusing Cash and Perkins of implanting his mind with pornographic images of New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel. The final straw came when Sun owner Sam Phillips discovered Jenkins playing the studio piano with “little Teddy.”

The world will never know what it missed when it comes to Teddy Ray Jenkins; he never did cut a single side for Sun, or any other label for that matter. Just a month after Phillips dumped him, Jenkins was killed by his postman, George Larson. Seems Jenkins had been stuffing his mailbox with mousetraps in an effort to prevent Larson from delivering the Saturday Evening Post, a publication the unhinged singer insisted came “directly from the pen of Satan.”

Yes? No!

In 1979, on the heels of the lukewarm response to their Tormato album, Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson announced he was leaving the band. The remaining members had a tough decision to make, considering how Anderson’s “eunuch on helium” vocals were such a distinctive component of the band’s identity.

Fearful that fans would cry foul if they plugged in an Anderson sound-alike, keyboardist Rick Wakeman insisted the band go in a completely different direction. The rest of Yes agreed, but when Wakeman suggested New York proto-punk Lou Reed join the band (Wakeman played keyboards on Lou’s debut solo album and the two had stayed in touch throughout the 1970s), you could’ve heard a pin drop. Bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe were aghast, but when Wakeman threatened to follow Anderson out the door, they reluctantly gave in.

Strangely enough, Reed didn’t hesitate to join the band when the offer came in. Some speculate that it was nothing more than a financial decision on Reed’s part, but whatever his motivations, in October 1979, Lou Reed was announced as the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Yes.

The band began work on an album tentatively titled Street Wizard, and the results were by all accounts a complete disaster: There was simply no way to make Reed’s gritty lyrics fit in with Yes’ ambitious, epic music. But they tried. Songs like “Nevermore Cruise” (about a transvestite gnome) and the title track, in which a drug-addled warlock combs the Lower East Side trying to “conjure up a fix,” typified the jarring clash. Drummer Alan White also found Reed’s guitar playing to be “that of a child flailing about.”

Wakeman refused to acknowledge his mistake, choosing to leave the group. Reed soon followed, and the remaining members made another seemingly odd choice, hiring Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of the synth-pop duo the Buggles to record the album Drama. Fun fact: “Bad Mead,” a song from the Reed era, eventually became “Leave It,” a minor hit on Yes’ 1983 comeback album, 90215.

Blood, Sweat, Earth, Wind & Chicago

By the spring of 1985 the three biggest horn-driven bands in rock were on the same shaky ground as ’79-era Yes. Chicago had just lost lead singer Peter Cetera to a solo career; Blood, Sweat and Tears’ 1984 album, The Challenge, bombed hard; and Earth Wind & Fire had actually been broken up for a year. With little to lose, the three bands consolidated to create what BS&T singer David Clayton-Thomas would call “the horniest supergroup of all time.”

A summer concert tour was soon announced, but problems arose almost immediately. The astronomical cost of transporting, lodging and feeding the mammoth 25-piece band and its crew meant that ticket prices would have to be in the vicinity of $65.00 a ticket—unheard of at the time.

There was also the issue of how the band would be run and who would play on what songs. Superstar egos being what they are, everybody wanted to play on every song. This meant that at any given moment the stage would be jammed with three drummers, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and lead vocalists playing and singing at the same time—to say nothing of the small army of horn players honking away. One crew member, who quit during rehearsals, likened the megaband’s cacophonous sound to that of “a herd of elephants rampaging through a music store, only louder.”

The “Three Sides of the Coin” tour hit the skids two weeks in due to a class action suit filed by hundreds of audience members claiming that the low-end vibrations from BSEW&C’s trombone section gave them acute nausea and diarrhea. After being rebuffed by the makers of Pepto-Bismol, Rolaids and Tums for much-needed tour support, BSEW&C packed up their horns and went home.

The Traveling Wilburys Version 2.0

And here’s the story of a successful supergroup that should’ve known when to call it quits. The Traveling Wilburys, the all-star band comprised of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, stormed the charts with their smash album, Vol. 1, in 1988. But when Orbison passed away that year, the wind was taken from the band’s sails. Their follow-up disc, Vol. 3, was a commercial failure, and the Wilburys name was retired…until the winter of 1993. That’s when Jeff Lynne began making overtures to the surviving members about a third album. And even though he was politely turned down, Lynne soldiered on. He acquired the rights to the band’s name and began assembling a new version of the Wilburys.

And what a line-up it was. Lynne, attempting to match the diversity of the original line-up, recruited musicians as disparate as former Police guitarist Andy Summers, Cream drummer Ginger Baker, P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and, believe it or not, “Twist” legend Chubby Checker.

A cursory listen to studio tapes shows that the sessions for Vol. 4 were fraught with tension from day one. Although Ginger Baker’s angry outbursts cast a pall over much of the proceedings—at one point he tells Summers, “if you keep using that damn chorus pedal, I’m gonna ram it up your chute”—it’s Checker who steals the show in terms of unbridled creative weirdness. When Summers balks at learning a new Checker tune called “The Grunge Twist,” he lays into the guitarist, saying, “You thought working with Stink (sic) was tough?! You disrespect me again and I’ll be doing ‘The Twist’ on your kidneys, you British wad of shit!”

The band managed to scrape together a dozen songs, but Vol. 4 was never released due to a conflict between Lynne and Checker over Chubby’s insistence that each CD include a coupon for his line of “Chub’s Grub” frozen dinners.

Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster have been called "the Glimmer Twins of Comedy." Scharpling is a writer/producer for the television show Monk. Wurster plays drums for Superchunk and Robert Pollard. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that anything in their column ever actually happened.

First printed in Jul/Aug 2006
Superwrong Supergroups


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