This week marks the anniversary of “Ebony and Ivory” hitting the number one spot in 1982. The blessed musical union of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder may have been a huge hit at the time but clearly hasn’t made the grade for some, being judged the tenth worst song of all time by Blender magazine and, in 2007, named the worst duet in history by BBC 6 Music listeners. We think this is very harsh indeed – not only a perfectly acceptable song, there are more than a few team-ups that have been in another realm of awfulness.
Although it’s easy to point at releases like Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker’s “You’re The One That I Want”, these were knowing pastiches designed to lighten the public mood whilst paying the gas bills of those connected by riding the coattails of a successful song. The real crimes are committed by those who posture as releasing “art” or who are doing whatever they can to remain relevant by ‘connecting’ with someone from another time and place. One name is synonymous with band wagon jumping on an elephantine scale – the voice of the valleys.
Tom Jones‘ ferociously dire collaborations with Wyclef Jean essentially spanned two albums, both his own, “Mr Jones” and Wyclef’s “Masquerade”. The results are a cringe-worthy journey through Tom’s vanity, watching a superb voice shoehorned to fit what who was clearly deemed the coolest person from the modern era supplied in terms of cutting-edge beats. The fact that Wyclef would, only a few years later, struggle to get arrested, points clearly at a project that was nothing about the songs but everything about Tom elbowing in the what da kids were listening to. He continues to tarnish his musical legacy to this day, appearing at the proverbial opening of an envelope.
It could be said that the current incarnation of Queen is a collaboration beyond the pale – Adam Lambert may have a voice but it’s not a rock voice and it ain’t Freddie. Brian has a habit of making odd bedfellows – he hailed pop imp, Mika, as “a maverick”; worked with his wife Anita on her doomed pop career and released a disgraceful single with 5ive. Equally weak was his quickly forgotten team-up with Dappy, the ex-N-Dubz loon. How he felt this was a wise move is baffling – as keeper of Queen’s legacy, it seems perverse that he would lend his name to anything a consonant away from a nappy.
Though many point to David Bowie‘s Christmas single with Bing Crosby as an example of trash duos, they are again misguided – yes, Dave may have been dabbling in a spot of snow of both kinds, but it’s a lovely, heart-warming thing and shame on the naysayers. More guilty by far is Dave’s ex-partner in crime, Mick Jagger, whose lack of aging gracefully was evident as recently as last year with two tracks recorded with grime supremo, Skepta. Mick has no idea who Skepta is, for the love of God, surely? It’s just not right. Mick likes the blues. Mick does not like grime. This is absolutely fine. Water and oil, they work very well without marriage.
Perhaps the worst musical duo in recent memory has, in some ways, also been the best. By best, we, of course, don’t mean in terms of artistic quality. In 2001, the TV-friendly opera star Russell Watson released his album, The Voice, which featured a cover of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s “Barcelona”. Entirely why the idea that a suitable foil for Russell would be Happy Monday’s Shaun Ryder will perhaps never be known. All was not well in the world of Shaun at this time – drink, drugs…who knows what it was but the upshot was that barely anything he contributed was usable, such was his ‘delicate’ state. Undeterred, the decision was made that this was a mere inconvenience and that Russell was more than able to do an impression of Shaun and therefore essentially duet with himself. The notion of an opera singer being obliged to do an impression of Shaun Ryder is a tremendous thing, not least as it was quite some time after the event that the details were uncovered. Perhaps this is the real answer to the quandary of whether artists should work together – just pretend – no-one, in particular their ears, gets hurt.