There have been combinations of artists that have delighted and confounded in equal measure. I’m talking about the kinds of combinations that make you go “huh? Where did that come from?”. The best of them pleasantly surprise. But others keep you wondering. So, in honour of the collaborations which confound, the mixtures which mystify, the blends that baffle, here are ten unlikely musical combinations. Some seem like punchlines, and others are famous for providing a basis for the old adage that opposites attract.
There are two distinct strains of unexpected collaborations: the pleasant surprise through contrast, and the downright weird, from the Bizzaro World variety. Let’s ease into it to start off with.
Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl
There is something about Christmas perhaps that make the coming together of completely disparate musical figures more possible than for any other occasion. Look at Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Who saw that coming? But another favourite is the Christmas standard that isn’t exactly about Christmas yet is firmly associated with it is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues, with legendary frontman Shane McGowan. Perhaps the addition of Kirsty MacColl on this track as Shane’s foil isn’t such a stretch – both were clearly interested in folk tales of common people struggling through hard times. MacColl had quite a pedigree, being the daughter of British folk legend Ewan MacColl. But the two voices – one clear and strong, the other more slovenly yet distinct created a contrast, and a compelling dramatic and comedic element, that make the song a classic at any time of year. Despite Kirsty MacColl’s own impressive output, its this song with which she is most associated for many, proving it to be a centrepiece of the late singer’s legacy.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
This may be the least surprising combination on this list, just because these two artists are giants in the same field; jazz interpretation. Yet like the above example, it’s the contrast which is created which makes their two albums together – Ella & Louis, and Ella & Louis Again – so compelling. Before these albums were recorded, I’m sure no one could have thought of two more different singers in terms of texture. Yet it’s the rough and the smooth which set these recordings apart from so manty others, including those within the respective solo works of each. Of course, the songs and the band help too. One of my favourite interpretations of one of my favourite tin pan alley songs is Ella and Louis’ take on ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, which is the one of the most bittersweet songs ever written. And the recently late Oscar Peterson‘s piano on the date is a marvel.
Michael Bolton and Bob Dylan
Now we’re entering weird country, folks. One is a legend in popular music, changing the role of songwriting, of singing, and the perception of pop music as an art form forever. And the other is Michael Bolton. Although they didn’t exactly duet, they certainly wrote a song together, which gained some radio play – ‘Steel Bars’, which appeared on Bolton’s 1991 disc Time, Love, and Tenderness. I often struggle to figure out how this unholy union came about, and why someone somewhere couldn’t have stopped it. But, I suppose it must have been a thrill for Bolton. And a nice little earner for Dylan who was in a career slump (and how!) at the time. Eventually, the universe would settle again. Dylan would enjoy an artistic rebirth starting with his supremely sombre and eloquent Time Out of Mind album in 1997. And Bolton would be sued by the Isley Brothers. Everything worked out fine.
Pat Boone and the Heavy Metal Genre
Further into the country of weird is Pat Boone’s exploration of the heavy metal form, culminating in his 1997 album In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. For younger readers who may not be familiar with Mr. Boone’s oeuvre, Boone was a crooner who began his career in the mid-1950s, at the same time rock n’ roll was entering on the scene as a cultural phenomenon. He was known for his ballads, like ‘Love Letters in the Sand’ and the like. But another dubious aspect of his career was his role in singing on unlikely cover versions of R&B standards in order for record companies to sell popular songs by black artists to white audiences without causing so much social upheaval. His take on Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ has to be heard to be believed. So, a precedent had been set for weird covers from way back. But despite his past role as rock n’ roll tofu, no listener can be fully prepared for the depths of weirdness to be found in his cover of Metalica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ done as it is in a uber-white bread stylee. Paul Anka would follow suit even more successfulyl with his recent album, Rock Swings.
Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus
Joni Mitchell was not exactly a stranger to the world of jazz, evident by the run of albums in the mid-70s she made including Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira, all of which betrayed a love for jazz structures. She was also no stranger to odd tunings and intricate arrangements, which may or may not have been the reason that legendary bassist and arranger Charles Mingus insisted that they work together, initially on a musical version of T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets of all things. When Mitchell balked, Mingus wrote six pieces, all entitled Joni numbers one through six. This initiated a full-blown collaboration, even though Mingus was stricken with the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). The resulting album was the soulful and celebratory Mingus, recorded just before the jazz giant’s death in 1979. Even though Mitchell and Mingus couldn’t continue together, Mitchell made a friend in contributing saxophonist, and legend in his own right, Wayne Shorter, who would become a frequent sideman on her subsequent albums.
Crystal Gayle and Tom Waits
Crystal Gayle was the Shania Twain or Carrie Underwood of her day, with crossover country-pop hits like “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “Just You and I”. Tom Waits was a throwback to the sounds of 50s cool jazz and beat poetry, a grizzled, gin-soaked storyteller of late night diners and second-rate strip clubs, as evidenced by albums like Small Change and Nighthawks at the Diner, among others. Who knew that Francis Ford Coppola would think to bring their two voices together for his movie One From the Heart? Much like MacColl and McGowan, the real beauty of their collaboration is in the contrast between their two voices infused with the sounds of both innocence as well as hard-earned experience. It’s almost as if their contribution was a part of the emotional landscape of the film which featured the music. Or something.
Chet Atkins, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits
This is one which might be best filed under ‘kinda weird, but not if you think about it’. Chet Atkins had made a name for himself in Nashville as a shit-hot guitar player, gracing records by other artists as well as his own instrumental work. In fact, it was Atkins who helped to define what became known as the Nashville sound; smooth, slick, and pristine country that removed itself from the backwoods and made it a more modern, and city-oriented affair. Knopfler was a fan. The North East of England, where Knopfler grew up, is where country music in many ways has its roots, along with Scotland and Ireland, and where it has always enjoyed popularity. And when you really listen, the music of Knopler’s band Dire Straits draws very heavily on country sounds; intricate guitar picking and on-the-beat drive. Even though many wouldn’t have predicted it, the two guitar heroes were fans of each other’s work. So a collaboration made sense. The resulting album is a relaxed and self-referential album called Neck and Neck. Note Knofpler’s beaming grin on the cover, like a kid meeting Santa Claus.
O.D.B and Phil Collins
Where it’s not exactly a direct collaboration, the late ODB’s cover of Collins’ 1985 hit ‘Sussudio’ is as bizarre as it is uncalled for. There are many mysteries to be unraveled in the world; where is Jimmy Hoffa? Who built the Pyramids and Stonehenge? What killed the Dinosaurs? Surely Collins’ street cred among the hip-hop community is another of these.
Burt Bacharach and Dr. Dre
Burt Bacharach is a collaboration veteran, not only when referring to his incredibly fruitful work with lyricist Hal David in the 1960s, but also with artists ranging from Dionne Warwick to Elvis Costello as well. Bacharach is known for smooth pop songs, sophistication, and lush, organic arrangements, often featuring full orchestras. His compositions are some of the most famous songs in the world of classic pop – ‘Walk on By’, ‘Always Something There to Remind Me’, ‘Say A Little Prayer’, and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ only among a few. But if you think his musical interest doesn’t include hip-hop, you’d be wrong. If anything else, Bacharach knows how to spot experts in their field which is most likely why Bacharach met Dr. Dre in LA, interested in utilizing Dre’s skills in creating beats and bass lines. The results can be found on Bacharach’s recent At This Time album.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
This is a collaboration which has blossomed in the shadow of a larger event – the Led Zeppelin reunion show, with the inevitable rumours of a full tour. In many ways, this is a testament to the quality of the material that makes up the record Raising Sand. Also, it is a prime example of just how few barriers there really are between musical styles. Sure, Robert Plant fronted a pioneering hard rock band in the mighty Led Zeppelin, with wailing blues-soaked vocals which would inspire a number of, in my opinon, lesser followers. And true that Alison Krauss is a bluegrass musician, making her own brand of accessible, rootsy country music which seems very far removed from the bluster and licentious strains of ‘Lemon Song’ or ‘Custard Pie’. But Zeppelin had as much a foot in the world of folk music as it did in the blues. ‘The Battle of Evermore‘ is not a million miles away from bluegrass. And Plant himself in recent years has shown a tendency to explore the folk musics of the world with his outfit the Strange Sensation. As a result, Raising Sand sounds like he’s returning home to the American South, stylistically anyway. Yet, not many people would have called this collaboration. Perhaps fewer would have called Plant to avoid the obvious Zeppelin tour for a tour with Krauss.
There are so many other examples I could have cited here: Jack White & Loretta Lynn, Ben Folds and William Shatner, Elvis Costello and, well, just name them and he’s collaborated with them – Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, Sofie Von Otter, to name a few. What remains when all is said and done is this. Music is as mysterious as it is vital. Perhaps it is because of its mystery to some degree that it is so vital. The right combinations of notes on a page, instruments played, voices blended, and lyrics sung is like alchemy – or refuse. Why is this? No one knows. It’s a mystery.