By The Landlord
In the mid-1970s I was reading my weekly comic one Saturday morning only to find, to my surprise, that two worlds were merging. Alongside the usual cast of characters - Beryl the Peril, Andy Ladd, Danny's Tranny (that was his name honestly - he had a magic transistor radio), Desert Island Dick (I kid you not), Mickey the Monkey, and Souper Boy, suddenly BBC's The Wombles were making a guest appearance on one of the strips. At first it was weird, and a bit wrong, but then I warmed to it. But I was impressed, above all, that the authors of The Topper worked out that I, as a reader, also liked The Wombles. I didn't occur to me that this was, while fun, really some kind of marketing gimmick.
But when two seemingly different music artists come together to collaborate, is it just a moneyspinner for two careers that need a boost in a clever labelmates deal, or a genuinely interesting fusion of great creative minds? This week, let's explore that one, and see ...
So how do you define side projects and unusual collaborations? First what it isn't. Well, don't suggest, for example, the Faces’ Ronnie Wood deciding to play with the Rolling Stones, or Jay-Z collaborating on Dr Dre. The artist or artists must have moved away from their usual band to work alone or with someone else on a temporary project. And bonus points will be awarded for the more unusual collaborations and unlikely combinations. David Bowie, already strange and unique on his own, for example, worked with many different artists, but can there be a more unusual or surprising recording than this oddity with Bing Crosby?
With the Bowie connection, Brian Eno has made many brilliant collaborations, so he might also come up. He said his role is very much creating a setting to inspire his co-collaborator: “With Bowie, it's different every time. I know how to create settings, unusual aural environments. That inspires him. He's very quick.”
Your choices can take a variety of formats – written songs, albums and other recordings might be the most rewarding, because they result in original material highlights the meeting of two unusual minds. However, you could also highlight one-off live appearances of work already written. But in all your suggestions, the more bizarre, or unlikely, or original, the better. And what gives any of this special joy is when you discover work by two parties who are the last you might imagine working together, the comic meeting the serious, or the makers from two seemingly incompatible genres coming together in some strange, unholy alliance. So, on the lighter side, guests on the Muppet Show could offer rich pickings, and while above you can see Jack White making a guest appearance above, for me one of the most surreal is that by the ballet great Rudolph Nureyev:
Bravo! What a performance. Collaboration can lead on the passion on and off the stage. So things go even more bizarre, indeed even steamier, in this sauna scene with Miss Piggy. Careful with that towel, Rudy:
Let’s take a civilised step back now, and ask, how does collaboration work? Actor James McAvoy describes film-making as “a miracle of collaboration”, but that doesn’t mean everything is always harmonious. As It’s a Wonderful Life director Elia Kazan said: “I think there should be collaboration, but under my thumb.” So behind every shared project there is tension and argument and sometimes physical fights. Things don’t happen by miracles, but by compromise, or someone dominating. At Glastonbury in 2013 I witnessed the extraordinary moment of Damon Albarn telling off Bobby Womack and band for not concentrating properly, though it may not be in this clip. Even more bizarre were the appearances of live guests with Gorillaz.
But the dynamics of side projects and collaborations are full of nuance. All kinds of artists are now wandering into the Song Bar to tell us about it. Norah Jones is here: “For me making music is part social, part interaction, part collaboration.” And in walks Grant-Lee Philips: “Collaboration is much like a birth. The song that springs forth resembles each one of us to a degree, but it's the kind of thing that would never be born from just one of us sitting down with a guitar.”
So what comes out? Hopefully fertile imaginations creating something more than the sum of its parts. “I like collaboration because, first of all, I'm good at writing lyrics. I don't know how to make beats. I don't play instruments. I'm not a good singer. So even when you see a solo album of mine, it's still a collaboration,” says a very honest Talib Kweli. But not everyone likes to join with others. It might be wise not to mess with Yoko Ono. Like an assassin, she likes to work alone, or at least be 100% in charge. “I'm not interested so much in collaboration. You see that from the history of my albums.” Or is this really true?
But to end, let’s enjoy one of my favourite moments of collaboration in light entertainment, with Morecambe and Wise working with the great conductor Andre Previn, who as a straight man here, is brilliantly unmatched. As Eric says, here are all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Unfortunately I can't embed this clip but you can enjoy it here.
So then, let us all collaborate together with song suggestions and create a super side-project of or own. This week’s chief collaborator is the fabulous Flatfrog. Deadline will be later on Monday, and the results of our combined efforts with be published on Wednesday. Let's work together on this ...
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.