Friday 29 May 2009

Nelson's Column: The First 'Supergroup'


This week, that 1st CSN LP and how it changed the definition
                              of the word ‘band’

Amazingly, it will be 40 years this week since the release of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first album, one which changed our whole perception of what it meant to be a ‘band’. In this first of a series of semi-regular columns, Nelson looks at the impact this super-trio continue to have on music……………….

It used to be easy didn’t it? A ‘band’ was a group of musicians who grew up on the same corner of the same street, went to the same schools, hung out in the same clubs and ended up playing in the same groups. The only difference with your ‘brothers’, in fact, was the instrument you played.

CSN were the first to change all that, in rock and pop circles at least (we’ll leave aside the special case of Cream for the moment, as only Eric Clapton was a truly household name at the time of their first single) and have often been claimed as the world’s first super group. Crosby was a guitarist with the Byrds, Stills a guitarist with the Buffalo Springfield and Nash a guitarist with The Hollies. All three men had reached the pinnacle of the pop charts with different groups but had rejected the lifestyle altogether after realising that they lacked the space to express their identity.

That seems strange to believe now – despite the many changes CSN brought onto an unsuspecting public, ever since the mid-70s it’s been taken for granted that any member splitting for a group will go solo (before rejoining the band again – it’s only a matter of time before Robbie Williams gets sucked back into Take That). That was the case in 1969 too – Crosby and Stills had both been plotting solo careers before realising they were working together unofficially so often they might as well get together properly (recording several demos under the name ‘The Frozen Noses’ as a result).
Certainly, none of them ever wanted to be in a ‘band’ ever again – and it was only an informal get together in late 1968 when Crosby and Stills were showing off a new song (‘You Don’t Have To Cry’) and Nash started singing along that they changed their minds. But CSN wasn’t an ordinary group, from the very beginning – all three men felt so heavily penned in by ‘pop prisons’ and strict ideas of what group members could and could not say that they decided to lay down some new rules about governing their group.

There was no leader in the group, with all three equal characters jostling for position (Crosby by being a natural counter-culture rebel leader, Stills by being a forceful workaholic and Nash via friendly persuasion) and all three expressing themselves and their individual thoughts and feelings without being afraid of how these songs would look when sat next to their colleagues’ work. Therefore a song like Crosby’s ‘Deja Vu’ – with it’s weird time signatures and talk about past lives informing our present selves – sits easily against Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ (with it’s more straight- forward country tale of learning from past mistakes and guiding the next generation to help them best make their own decisions) and Stills’ ‘Carry On’ (with it’s rock moral about how, if only we can hold on through the bad times, ‘love is coming to us all’). 

As you can see, all three men are heading for exactly the same destination, but they all have very clear views as to how they’re going to make that journey and what they have to do to get there. This is what makes the first (and second) CSN/CSNY albums such a landmark in music history – here we have four very individual writers all working towards the same message but approaching it from different angles. The closest you get to a previous partnership like this is the Beatles, with Lennon’s droll sarcasm and scattered brainstorms balanced by McCartney’s thoroughness and natural melodic sense. But CSN take this idea to it’s logical conclusion, adding in a third (and when Neil agrees to join them a fourth) voice to the mix and stressing their differences, rather than have George Martin’s production values smother both Beatles for the sake of ‘album unity’.

Almost every track on every CSN album sounds like a completely different beast to its predecessor and successor (even if all three writers do, from to time, rehash old ideas of their own) and that’s exciting to listeners then and now. You don’t know where each of these albums are going next. And yet CSN still seem like a band of brothers with similar interests, even now many many years after the band’s split (next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the first CSN split, believe it or not!)            

Perhaps modern bands should take a leaf out of CSN’s book: differences are what cause the artistic tensions within a band and should be encouraged, not extinguished. Just look at the awful situation we have with today’s girl and boy bands, where the only differences seem to be people’s hair colour (and occasionally talent). Whatever the future of ‘supergroups’ (and let’s face it, there haven’t been many recently have there?!), this week’s anniversary of the first CSN album is still a milestone in popular music – the point when it was showed how possible it was for former pop stars to have successes in a completely different context and how key individual expression is to band members’ satisfaction.

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