Monday, 24 November 2008

[82] Top 5 Beatles Collaborations [It Came From Youtube]

With the imminent release (out today, in fact) of Paul McCartney's third release in collaboration with Youth, as The Fireman, the usual hype machine has kick-started. Paul McCartney is in the process of trying to remind everyone that he was the first Beatle turned on to Stockhausen, that he was the primary tape-loop experimenter, that he should, by all rights, be the 'cool' Beatle. Trying to erase every mawkish, sentimental moment of the last 38 years at the same time. To prove his point, he even threatens to make a high-profile release of an 'off-piste' recording made in 1967, called 'Carnival of Light', that has been refused official release at least 2 times in the past (most recently as part of the Beatles Anthology series). Drawing such attention to what is essentially an off-cut is quite desperate; the only audience who will be interested in, or will take pleasure from the release of 'Carnival of Light' are the die-hards and the curious, not the music-buying public.

Anyway, this is a debate for another day. Nevertheless, this scrambling for a semblance of integrity got me thinking about career trajectories, and what constitutes a consistent, dignified reputation for older musicians. This is especially interesting in terms of The Beatles after the break-up. Of course, solo albums and public persona go a long way to cementing a certain 'character', and the binary between Lennon and McCartney is prime evidence of this. However, in the case of The Fireman's Electric Arguments (which is not all bad), the collaborative atmosphere has been stressed.

I believe that with The Beatles, especially in their solo careers, collaborations with other artists are integral. For example, Paul McCartney's embarrassing and infamous early 80s duets with Michael Jackson ('Say Say Say' and 'The Girl Is Mine', one of the tracks that prevent Thriller from being a true classic) and Stevie Wonder ('Ebony and Ivory') were some of his most popular moments in his long career, and have helped perpetuate the 'thumbs-up' caricature that no amount of Stockhausen-referencing will overturn.

The other Beatles were more intelligent, and a lot more artistically successful in their collaborations. I've decided to compile a list of my favourite five. Of course, my prejudices are entirely evident. I've added a couple of 'honourable mentions' to redress the balance.


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Cream - 'Badge', from Goodbye (George Harrison)





George Harrison may not have had the musical chops to rival the Lennon/McCartney dictatorship in the Beatles, but he has certainly made a mark for himself both as part of the band's output, and as a solo artist. One of his major moves was the decision to invite his musical buddies to contribute to late Beatles albums, such as Eric Clapton or Billy Preston (on Abbey Road and Let It Be). Clapton originally guested on lead guitar on The White Album's 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', and this started a long, rocky friendship between Harrison and the guitarist. Recorded for Cream's final album, Goodbye, and released as a single in 1969, 'Badge' was co-written by Harrison and Clapton. It is easily one of Cream's best songs, and despite its tightly-economical structure still exhibits Clapton, Bruce and Baker's strong musical identities. Harrison plays rhythm guitar on the track, which features a wonderful bridge section, built around an arpeggiated guitar figure similar to other Harrison songs at the time (such as 'Here Comes the Sun').


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Bob Dylan - 'If Not For You', from The Bootleg Series vols. 1-3 (George Harrison)




Around the same time, Harrison also collaborated with Bob Dylan. 'If Not For You' was originally written by Dylan, and recorded for his 1970 album New Morning (video). Harrison had played on an early demo of the song, adding in a characteristic slide guitar melody line. A month after Dylan's album was released, Harrison's solo triple-album All Things Must Pass came out, and featured a cover of the song (as well as 'I'd Have You Anytime', co-written with Dylan). Neither versions are ideal, Harrison's lacks Dylan's rough-edged vocals and dynamic harmonica, yet the New Morning version was too polished, and missed the lead guitar hook. Thankfully, in 1991, Dylan included the demo on the first release of The Bootleg Series.


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The Traveling Wilburys - 'Handle With Care' (George Harrison)





Originally intended to be a b-side, 'Handle With Care' is the song that spawned a supergroup. The legend goes that George Harrison had to write a b-side to his 1988 single 'This is Love', and arranged an informal jam with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. The best venue they could come up with was Bob Dylan's home studio, and on the way Harrison stopped off at Tom Petty's house to borrow a guitar, and invited him along in the process. The resulting song, written by the gathered musicians, is a pure slice of homespun pop. The communion of such distinctive voices makes 'Handle With Care', and the album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, essential listening. It also helps that it is one of the best songs by any of the artists involved. This era spawned many collaborations for Harrison, including guesting on Petty's solo album Full Moon Fever, providing backing vocals and acoustic guitar to the hit 'Won't Back Down'.


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David Bowie - 'Fame' (John Lennon)





Of course, John Lennon's most infamous and close collaborations were with his second wife Yoko Ono. However, he achieved some of his most popular successes in collaboration with other established musicians. 'Fame' was recorded with David Bowie in New York in 1975, during his dramatic shift towards soul and funk on the Young Americans album. Built around a killer groove laid down by Carlos Alomar, the song features a great vocal performance from Bowie with backing and extra guitar from Lennon. It was Bowie's first #1 hit in the United States, and Lennon's second. Ironically his first number one was 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night', in collaboration with Elton John the previous year.


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Well (Baby Please Don't Go) - Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono






Allow me to geek out for the moment. In 1971, John and Yoko joined Zappa and the Mothers during a concert at the Fillmore East, and proceeded to jam through a couple of standards and so on, including a version of 'Well (Baby Please Don't Go)', originally written by Walter Ward. Admittedly, this isn't a collaboration in the sense that the others in this list are - Zappa and Lennon did not sit down and write together - but it is still quite a revelation nonetheless. It is great to hear Lennon's vocals in a blues context backed by a heavy, dirty, yet incredibly talented backing band (this is early 70s Zappa, after all, with Aynesley Dunbar and Ian Underwood). It is truly thrilling to hear the ex-Beatle shout 'Zappa!', before the lead guitarist bursts into a prime Hot Rats-era blistering solo. Sadly, the video I linked to gets cut off, but it is the best in terms of sound quality. The live jam was issued both on the vinyl version of Lennon and Ono's Some Time in New York City (deleted on the recent reissue) and Zappa's otherwise fans-only compilation Playground Psychotics.


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Honourable Mentions


Ok, I do realise I have done McCartney and Ringo Starr a disservice. However, I believe that I have good reason for this.

McCartney's collaborations, except those already mentioned, are mostly of the back-room variety. The earliest of which include the production of Beatles off-cut 'Come and Get It' for tragic power poppers (and Apple label band) Badfinger. It is a good song, and exhibits McCartney's love of repeating a melody to almost kamikaze levels, but his identity is not strictly present in the recording (and, well, his own demo of the song is just as good, if not better). Equally, his collaboration with Elvis Costello on the composition and recording of the excellent 1989 single 'Veronica' is evident only to those reading the track credits.

On the flip-side, almost all of Ringo Starr's solo work is collaborative. He was never a songwriter, so his albums are usually filled with covers, or songs written by friends. He also had to call in sessions musicians and other players (including Beatles members). This gives almost every Ringo song a different collaborative identity, and can present some interesting examples. One of my favourites is 'Have You Seen My Baby', originally written by Randy Newman, which was on the 1973 album Ringo. This version has Marc Bolan on guitar, who gives the track a very T-Rex glam rock flavour, and James Booker on piano. I'll let Ringo have the last word.

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