On Feb. 25, 2013, Atoms for Peace released its first album, “Amok.” In spite of the album being a debut with zero singles registering on any significant US or UK charts, “Amok” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 5 on the UK Albums Chart. Later in the month, the group will headline a show at the Hollywood Bowl and has top billing at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. On paper, the group’s accomplishments seem unreal, but there’s something powerful lurking beneath the band’s pacific name.
Atoms for Peace has been performing since 2009, and its success is fairly simple: The band is a veritable supergroup. While Radiohead is on a casual hiatus, lead singer Thom Yorke has been working with iconic Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, Michael Balzary (better known as Flea). The two are joined by Nigel Godrich (best known for producing Beck and Radiohead albums), Joey Waronker (occasional drummer for Beck and R.E.M.), and RHCP touring percussionist, Mauro Refosco. These five talented musicians individually stand as giants; together they comprise Atoms for Peace.
With these music industry veterans collaborating, it stands to reason that the group would find a measure of success. The massive fan bases that have propelled Radiohead and Red Hot Chili Peppers to international fame have allowed this supergroup to embark on an international Atoms for Peace tour, with remaining U.S. stops still on the way for cities like Chicago (Oct. 2), Los Angeles (Oct. 16), and Santa Barbara, Calif. (Oct. 17). Atoms for Peace also will make an appearance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (Oct. 4-6 and 11-13) and will be performing at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival (Oct. 19-20) before heading overseas.
Music fans have long been infatuated with the meeting of great musical minds. One of the earliest examples of a supergroup—what would later come to be called the “Million Dollar Quartet”—formed for just a single day in 1956, but has lasted in pop culture consciousness ever since. Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all happened to be visiting Memphis’ Sun Records Studio on the same day and began an impromptu jam session. Luckily, a forward-thinking studio engineer decided to record the sessions we still have access to today. While the original four never officially released any recordings, the collaboration lives on as a meeting of mythical proportions. Today, the casual gathering is romanticized in the jukebox musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” which received three Tony Award nominations in 2010.
Over the years, a handful of major performers have formed successful supergroups, but few have been as enduring as the various iterations of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. David Crosby played with The Byrds until 1967, contributing to the band’s recordings of the chart-topping “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Graham Nash joined from the English rock band The Hollies, while Stephen Stills and Neil Young had both worked with Buffalo Springfield. Incidentally, all three of these parent bands have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as was the group Crosby, Stills, and Nash. CSNY has only won one GRAMMY Award (Best New Artist), but songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Ohio” live on as vital examples of the group’s unique songwriting and harmonies.
In the 1980s, an arguably more monumental (albeit more short-lived) supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys, combined the talents of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. The group formed after Harrison asked the others to help him record a B-side to a new single. What started as one track quickly turned into 1988’s full-length album, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” which would go on to win a GRAMMY. After the untimely passing of Roy Orbison in Dec. 1988, the group only went on to record one more album before disbanding. Interestingly enough, while various members have performed Traveling Wilburys songs at live concerts, the full group never performed any live concerts.