According to their Twitter feeds, the collaboration between The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and Newly Weds’ Jessica Simpson is going well. The two are showbiz’s most unlikely romantic item, with one half a bastion of musical credibility, and the other, the lead singer of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Only cynics would doubt the longevity of the relationship between the serial celebrity-dater and Courtney Love’s ex, however all Pumpkins’ fans are asking ‘why the musical collaboration? What will it add to music’s rich tapestry?’ – the same questions triggered by many of pop music’s strange coalitions.
Collaborative works have been ample – some brilliant, some hideous, and some, frankly, bizarre – but what makes a musical union work? Surprisingly, it is often the most unlikely combinations that produce the best results.
But first, more partnerships in the Simpson/Corgan vein. Why, I wonder, did Ozzy Osbourne, the man famed for ingesting more illegal substances than Mr Doherty and Miss Winehouse combined, and who reputedly bit off a live bat’s head on stage, join forces with Miss Piggy? Could anything reduce his credibility more? Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with a heavy metal godfather appearing on The Muppets, but somehow it just doesn’t feel right having ‘The Prince of Darkness’ releasing a single with an anthromorphic pig. The song, released in 2005, is a parody of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’, in which Miss Piggy, looking for Kermit, stumbles across Ozzy who insists she stay and listen. Of co
urse, the song is supposed to be ironic but few find it funny. Not only does the union cheapen the legacy of the original song, it also lessens the reputation of a musical great.
The same bewilderment is conjured by the rework of fabled anthem ‘We Will Rock You’ by two of Queen’s original members, and boy band Five. This version took the top spot of the British singles chart in 2000, to the dismay of music fans the nation over. The song, audaciously credited to ‘Five featuring Queen’, reworks the epic that caught the world’s attention at the original Live Aid, and features some of the wettest rapping one is likely to hear: ‘Watch your back, we got Queen on this track’. Profound eh? Freddie would have turned in his grave. Again, the collaboration achieves nothing; it makes Brian May look silly and Five, sillier.
Of course, joint projects have spawned great music. One of the masters of the musical collaboration is crooner-composer Burt Bacharach. Not only does he have an instinct for lush orchestration and catchy choruses, but he also knows how to select compatible work-mates (maybe the falling point of post-Mercury Queen and Billy Corgan). He’s created enduring sounds with a plethora of great acts since the ‘60s, including The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Dionne Warwick; but perhaps most unusual is his 2005 work with rapper-producer Dr. Dre. The album At This Time is a work that fuses the best attributes of both its creators: Dre’s synthetic beats supplement Bacharach’s orchestral arrangements and gentle vocals in an unexpectedly gimmick-free and cohesive fashion. Perhaps there is hope for Corgan and Simpson.
Unsurprisingly Thom Yorke’s work with Bjork is quite sublime. Yorke has mentioned in the past that he finds working with the right collaborators invigorating, and is noticeably picky when it comes to choosing his sparring partners (he recently turned down an offer of joint work from Paul McCartney). His effort with Bjork produced the number ‘I’ve Seen it All’. Its sound is one you’d expect from such a partnership, though this predictability fails to detract from its beauty. Sparsely orchestrated strings and sporadic percussive beats define the aesthetic, which is glossed with an ethereal and melancholic tone.
It seems that when different artists join forces a reaction of sorts occurs, skewing the output quality in one of two directions – towards the desperate or the exquisite. And it’s this that makes collaborations intriguing. Despite some joint projects representing the woeful, they can appeal in their own way, even if purely for the wince factor. So as long as Bob Dylan doesn’t announce a joint effort with Joe McElderry, I’m happy to listen to any collaborative work that comes my way.