Double trouble when pop stars come together

With the current top three singles a lock-out for pop collaborations, Donald MacInnes offers a brief history of notable musical collisions

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The Independent Culture

Pardon the cynic in me, but I would suggest that collaborations between musicians are now nothing more than ticked boxes in bi-annual marketing strategies for whichever Uni-Sony-EMI contract both parties have their feet cemented into. As with those "love affairs" between a Saturday girl and a wanna-Bieber, they seem to have been concocted solely to make money.

The top three singles in this week's Top 40 chart are all collaborations – at No 1 is Professor Green's "Read All About It" featuring rising star Emeli Sandé, followed by Labrinth's "Earthquake" featuring Tinie Tempah, and Rihanna's "We Found Love", starring Calvin Harris. It is evidence of a lot of collaborations being more to do with flow charts than pop charts. The Rihanna/Harris track, in particular, is slick and bouncy, but it's far from what you would call a genuine duet. It's only Harris's way with a groove that is much in evidence. Nevertheless, it IS a collaboration, although I would doubt it came about in a recognisably organic way; the Bajan songthrush stood in a Ladbroke Grove sandwich shop, idly staring at her foot, when Calvin lolloped over and suggested they make a hit record. No, surely more like this: in the blue-lit basement of record label headquarters, as plummy, Battle of Britain-type ladies pushed Lego figures around a map of the world, an elegant, sub-Stephen Fry voice crackled out of the wall speaker: "Tzzzt... This is Control. Aspect 15 in effect. Rihanna... Calvin Harris... combine. Target European market. Expected sales: optimum. Predicted synergy: acceptable. Proceed."

Is it just in the mainstream where this happens? Are indie collaborations, such as the fusing of Editors' Tom Smith and ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows on an upcoming Christmas album, inherently noble and organic because they germinated over two pints of Strongbow in a Dalston boozer? Lauren Laverne and indie-rock lovers everywhere will be arching their backs in pleasure at the prospect of such a melding of minds. But can we say that Smith and Burrows's motives are any nobler than squillionaire pop stars?

The current collaboration between Ash managing director Tim Wheeler and cardigan-wearing, alt-folk female Emmy the Great would appear to be real, given that the two are a couple, and they've pencilled in a Christmas show together.

Of course, rather than bolstering the reputations of both artists, some collaborations can produce music less than the sum of its parts. Witness the current, Jay Z and Kanye West new pals' act, which culminated in their oddly deflating Watch the Throne album earlier this year. Considering that both are rap royalty, the expectation had been high for their collaboration.

This "disappointing tag-team" tag can also be hung on Michael Jackson. Two lame duets bookended his solo career. He recorded "The Girl is Mine" with Paul McCartney in 1982. Now that really was bad; the possible cellar of McCartney's career, during which he drawls: "I told you, Michael: I'm a lover, not a fighter!" But, dreadful as this song was, it was still chosen as the first single release from Thriller, which of course remains the biggest-selling album of all time. Would the album have sold as many if the track had remained unreleased? Probably. Was its release therefore more to do with showing off that Jackson was a big enough star to do a duet with his Beatle friend and that McCartney (whose solo album, Pipes of Peace, was imminent) was still a relevant voice in music? According to Jackson, the reason it was chosen over more obvious singles such as "Billie Jean" or the title track is that, "when you've got a collaboration with a name as big as McCartney's you should get that one out of the way first..."

Then there is Jackson's collaboration with his sister, Janet. "Scream", again, is a rotten song, but they slapped a $7m video on it and hoped for the best. Reason? Both siblings' careers were fading, so like drunks leaning on each other on a street corner, they could stop each other falling over. So did it work? Well, can you hum the tune? Me neither.

One Plus One: Sometimes it adds up, sometimes it doesn't

Two Bad...

Lou Reed and Metallica

The View (2011)

Coming off like a cross between a sixth-form Battle of the Bands and freestyle dental surgery, the cattle-frightening current album is genuinely hard to tolerate.

Samantha Fox and Hawkwind

Gimme Shelter (1993)

Who cares if it was a charity record? Smamfa and Lemmy's old band gouged the eyes out of perhaps the Stones' finest moment. With a spoon.

Insane Clown Posse and Jack White

Leck Mich Im Arsch (2011)

Sniggering title aside... actually, no, I can't leave the sniggering title aside, because I speak German and the possible element of mickey-taking in a Mozart-themed collaboration doesn't make it okay.

Russell Watson and Shaun Ryder

Barcelona (2001)

The fly in the opera singer's debut-album ointment. At least the Freddie Mercury/Montserrat Caballé original was as camp as a marshmallow overcoat. The one blessing here is that Shaun no doubt has no recollection of doing this. Fortunate Manc.

Jedward featuring Vanilla Ice

Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby) (2010)

Even the fictional two-word review for Spinal Tap's 'Shark Sandwich' album ('sh** sandwich') would be overpraising,if it were directed at this. There are insufficient words to adequately encapsulate its abjectness.

And Two Good...

Professor Green featuring Lily Allen

Just Be Good To Green (2010)

Conceived during a chat on Facebook, this version of the SOS Band's 1983 soul masterpiece leapfrogged masterfully over the early Fatboy-birthed Beats International effort.

Beyoncé and Shakira

Beautiful Liar (2007)

Yes, probably agreed upon and facilitated by sniffing, overly chatty men on a Bel Air balcony, but this spiky gem managed to rise above the fact that it was co-written by Amanda Ghost, who also co-wrote James Blunt's 'You're Beautiful'.

Run DMC and Aerosmith

Walk This Way (1986)

There was a time when the idea of hip-hop working perfectly with heavy rock was as weird as a camera in a phone, but this was the first – and it probably remains the best – example.

Gorillaz featuring De La Soul

Feel Good Inc (2005)

While De La Soul may not have been entirely counted out of pop's big prize-fight, they were certainly not in the first flush, so thank goodness for Damon, who handed them a mic and a Grammy win.

Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx

Gold Digger (2005)

Collaborations between musicians and actors usually bode ill, but given that Foxx had won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles in a biopic, who else could provide the "She gives me money" line from the soul legend's 1954 stomper 'I Got A Woman'? Of course, West could have sampled the line, but collaboration is much more fun!