In the early days of rock and roll, listeners weren’t very sophisticated. As a musician it was easy to get pigeon-holed… you were either in a band or you were a solo artist. You were either Bob Dylan, all alone or The Beatles, four lads from Liverpool. If an artist in a band put out a solo album the general consensus was that the band was breaking up. You were either on the bus or the bus was coming after you…
The first artist I can remember who defied that paradigm was Rod Stewart. After he left the Jeff Beck Group to go solo, quickly followed by Ronnie Wood, he didn’t stay solo very long. He joined The Faces with Ronnie. But then he did something audacious that no one had never done before… he continued his solo career. He’d release a solo album and then a Faces album every year. Back and forth, back and forth. Fans, in the early 70s were clearly confused. Some concert venues went so far as to bill the Faces as “Rod Stewart and The Faces,” like the Faces were Stewart’s version of Wings… his back up band. That probably got a little awkward in the dressing room. There were always accusations from the band that Rod was keeping his best material for his solo albums. I think we all know where that led. And likely, dividing his time between projects diluted the finished product on one end…
These days doing solo stuff outside the setting of your established band is pretty much expected. It’s not the death knell of a band when the lead singer or the guitar player branch out and do something solo. Well, unless we’re talking about Aerosmith and Steven Tyler who suddenly turns into the village idiot and decides to promote “his own brand” vs the band, but again that ain’t normal. All of this is well and good with me, artists should express themselves as they wish. But it occurred to me the other day, there is a third category outside of band projects and solo projects… the infamous “side project.” Many times, instead of going full-on solo, a band member will do a one-off project with other musicians. Maybe it’s the artist’s attempt to stick his toe into the solo realm. Or maybe it’s just a musical vacation away from the usual mates in the band to work with some other friends or just some new, different musicians to test the creative boundaries. Think of it as a vacation only with instruments. I’m not talking about a guest shot on someone else’s album, I’m talking about a full on diversion from one’s career to do something else. I don’t think anybody has really celebrated the best of these, so after some bourbon and a lot of thought.. here are the best Rock N Roll Side Projects…
- The Traveling Wilbury’s – George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty all between albums convene at Lynne’s house and end up striking pay dirt with Vol. 1. After Orbison’s death they actually did a second album, but the second side project record is usually not as good as the first one.
- The Notting Hillbillies – Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits gets together with some old mates and does the underrated, mellow strummer, “Missing…and Presumed Having a Good Time.” “Your Own Sweet Way” was the stand out, but don’t under-estimate the charm of the other guys in the band’s turns on lead vocal.
- Mad Season, ‘Above’ – Mike McCready, the guitarist from Pearl Jam, says he got together with Layne Staley (among others) to show Layne that you could create music while sober. This record is murky but “River of Deceit” is one of Staley’s greatest vocals.
- Chickenfoot – Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, & Chad Smith got together for not just one LP, but 2, much like the Traveling Wilbury’s. I actually thought both of these records were great, but the second record, named Vol 3, just never caught on…
- Power Station – Robert Palmer took a break from his solo career to get together with a couple members of Duran Duran and the incredible Tony Thompson on drums as a lark to record the old T Rex song, “Bang A Gong.” Things got rolling in the studio and they knocked out an entire LP. I love, love “Some Like It Hot,” with the immortal line, “She wants to multiply, are you gonna do it?” Unfortunately this led the lead singer of Duran Duran, Simon Le Bon, to do the misguided Arcadia project… Oh, well. Palmer refused to tour behind the smash hit and went back to his solo career. That’s why it’s called a side-project, people.
- The Hindu Love Gods – Warren Zevon backed by REM. REM had been tapped as Warren’s backing band on the superb ‘Sentimental Hygiene.’ I’m not sure why but the band (sans Michael Stipe) went back into the studio with Zevon and punched out this LP of covers as diverse as Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and of all things, “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. They sure sound like they’re having a great time. It’s relaxed and awesome. Highly recommend this LP.
- Tin Machine – David Bowie decides to chuck the solo career for the anonymity of a band project. They actually did two albums, but the first one is the gem. “Under the God” is a great song, but check out their electrified cover of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Pretty amazing stuff.
- Stills/Young Band, ‘Long May You Run’ – Originally an attempted CSNY reunion, early in the sessions Crosby and Nash exited. Since the CN part of the equation had done well with their collaboration LPs, it only seemed natural that the SY part would follow suit. Critics decried this album for a lack of songwriting, but my college roomie Drew turned me onto this superb LP and I love it. The title track is great but so is Stills’ ode to scuba diving “Black Coral.” Recorded in Miami, this is like a much, much cooler Buffet album. Young split early in the tour for this album to get back to solo records… too bad. I love these two collaborating.
- The Little Willies – Norah Jones doing country covers and originals with a bunch of New York buddies of hers. They’ve done two full LPs, and contrary to the rule, they both kick ass. But as usual, I have to say, Norah could sing the phone book and I’d listen in… But be aware, the other guy sing selected tracks too. I have to admit I love the humorous song “Lou Reed.”
- The Foxboro Hottubs – Green Day in disguise. On this superb LP, they’re doing punky, surf-rock tunes while taking a break from doing rock operas. This is a great gem of a record.
- Temple of the Dog – Chris Cornell of Soundgarden uniting with most of Pearl Jam for a tribute LP for the former lead singer of Mother Lovebone, Andrew Wood. I love this record. These guys actually just reunited for a short series of concerts on the coasts. I’m hoping for a live LP document of those shows.
- Mudcrutch – Tom Petty and several Heartbreakers reunite with other original members of Mudcrutch as Petty explores his first pre-Heartbreakers band. They’ve done two full LPs, and again, unlike the normal rule, both kick ass. Petty is more laid back and jammy with Mudcrutch. These are must have LPs for any fans of Petty’s.
- The Raconteurs – Jack White’s first side project outside of The White Stripes, followed shortly by the Dead Weather project. I prefer the Raconteurs. It doesn’t matter what Jack White does, it’s typically brilliant. I actually like the second LP they did better than the first. Check out the epic “Carolina Drama.”
- The Firemen – Paul McCartney’s fabulous side project with electronica producer Youth. They’d done a full-electronica album prior to “Electric Arguments” but “Arguments” is the record to buy. Youth told McCartney, “I want chords and vocals this time” and McCartney delivered. Paul always seems to come alive when alleviated from the pressure of the McCartney name… This album brings out the best of McCartney’s experimental side. Weird, quirky – yes. Excellent, yes.
- The New Barbarians – Ronnie Wood needed a backing band after his wonderful solo LP, “I’ve Got My Own Album To Do,” and Keith Richards volunteered to go out on the road with him. I think they actually did two tours, but I’m not positive. There’s a limit to even my knowledge… They never actually released anything, but how much fun would this have been to see? Lots of white powder consumed on this tour… I think they finally did a live LP years later…
This list isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these are some of the greatest “side-projects” done by some of the greatest musicians of all time. You’ve got a couple of Beatles and a couple of Stones on the list, so it can’t be half bad! Do a little spelunking and chances are if you like a band their members have done something creative on the side! Look outside the box and you may just be rewarded!