Top Supergroups of the '80s

Over the years some cheapened the notion of the supergroup by expanding its definition to apply to huge superstar bands in general, but the classic prerequisite must always be that at least two members of any given band made a significant impact as a solo artist or as a member of another ensemble. And while there's always plenty of gray areas when it comes to identifying significance or impact, here are what I deem the best examples of '80s supergroups. It's my site, so I make the frickin' rules.

01
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Asia

Asia perform on stage in London, 1983, left to right: Carl Palmer, Geoff Downes, John Wetton, Steve Howe.
Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As one of rock's most accomplished, successful supergroups, the original quartet with the continental touch stands out as one of the most quintessential. In this case, all four members have established names within the fading genre of progressive rock. Bassist and singer John Wetton, with pipes of grandiosity, had been slated to anchor a prog supergroup since his departure from King Crimson. But that plan didn't come to fruition until his union with guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, drummer Carl Palmer of ELP fame, and former Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes. While critics and prog purists balked, the band's accessible stew was pleasing when it worked, namely in the form of the classic '80s tunes "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell."

02
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The Firm

The Firm
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic

The partnership of singer Paul Rodgers (already a supergroup veteran through his stint as frontman in '70s stalwarts Bad Company) and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page combined bigger talents and names than Asia, but with the significantly less commercial payoff. In fact, the band's music seemed to exemplify the phenomenon of fine ingredients that look great on paper resulting in dilutions rather than new, exciting combinations. Unlike Asia, the likewise blandly named Firm had trouble generating anything remotely fresh, a fact that diminished Rodgers' still powerful vocals and Page's working status as a rock god. Although "Radioactive" and "All the King's Horses" generated some interest, the former seemed nothing if not competently uninspired.

03
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Mike + the Mechanics

Mike + the Mechanics
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Phantom Sound & Vision

Although detractors may argue that the most interesting thing about this band was that its name employed the plus sign as a conjunctive link instead of the more typical ampersand, Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford turned his "side project" into a relatively long-running pop act. The other primary component of this supergroup was singer Paul Carrack of '70s pub rockers Ace, who was also earlier a short-term member of Squeeze. This guy has always been one of the rock's most soulful vocalists, as the haunting "Silent Running" and tearjerking "The Living Years" deftly show. Still, for my money, it's the Other Paul Young (of UK band Sad Cafe semi-fame) that turns in the most memorable performance in the inspired hit "All I Need Is a Miracle."

04
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The Traveling Wilburys

The Traveling Wilburys
Album Cover Image Courtesy of WEA Int'l

Supergroups often arise from casual one-off ideas, and the best such example is this laid-back yet powerhouse lineup of legends Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and, until his 1988 death, Roy Orbison. It would be expected that such a conglomeration of talents and egos would result in the strife that plagued Asia and followers GTR, but the Wilburys' music broadcast only camaraderie and a genuine sense of fun. That's not to say the music ever stoops to novelty, either, as "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" display refreshing combinations of the various hooks championed by all five members. Ironically, the overblown label of supergroup doesn't seem to fit here, but in the '80s no such ensemble was more super(b).

05
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The Highwaymen

The Highwaymen
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sony

A similar labor of love during the mid-'80s transcended its possibly fringe status at the time as (gasp) country music. That important genre of popular music may not receive mention very often when it comes to '80s music, but the collaboration of buddies Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash with songwriter's songwriter Kris Kristofferson and the indomitable, seemingly invincible Willie Nelson was really pretty special. Combining each member's outlaw musical past and renegade personality ultimately became a showcase for the warmth of friendship as well as highly revered musical talents. Perhaps because no member had ever been pigeonholed individually, the Highwaymen seemed to exist simultaneously within and outside the '80s music circle.

Almost by definition, the '70s punk rock scene was not particularly conducive to the bombastic concept of the supergroup. In fact, many feel that the form would have never emerged in the first place had the excesses of progressive and corporate rock not become larger than life by the mid-'70s. Even so, this distinct group, led by Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators and guitarist Brian James of the Damned, didn't seem to care much about following rules, even the somewhat strict ones surrounding the punk rock mystique. After all, British and American punkers were never easily fast friends, and yet here were Ohio native Bators and first-wave British punker James working together to create a glam/goth/punk hybrid that still sounds fresh today.