Mixtape Primer: Unlikely Musical Collaborations That Worked

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Collaborations are a risky business. For every “Where the Wild Roses Grow” or “Candy,” there’s 100 abominations like “Dancing in the Streets.” It’s easy enough to make lists of musical collaborations that stink up the stereo, but occasionally, just occasionally, there’s an pairing that works against all odds. With Nick Cave & UNKLE’s “Money and Run” getting released this week, here’s a mixtape of cross-genre or otherwise unlikely combinations that produced unexpected gold.

SIDE ONE

The KLF & Tammy Wynette – “Justified and Ancient” (3:45) In which acid house mischief-makers The KLF convince veteran country singer Tammy Wynette to lend her vocals to their signature tune about a fictional cult who drive around in ice cream vans. “Mu Mu Land,” opined Tammy, “looks a lot more interesting than Tennessee”. All in all, a glorious episode in popular culture.

The Chemical Brothers & Noel Gallagher – “Setting Sun” (5:23) The Chem Bros have done plenty of excellent collaborations over the years, but for some reason, they always seem to bring out the best in Noel Gallagher. This was recorded when the older Gallagher was on a definite creative downswing – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory had been and gone, and with it his band’s best days – but he found one last flourish on this track. The collaboration’s not as strange as it might seem on paper, by the way – Gallagher was a Hacienda regular in the Manchester club institution’s heyday, and apparently dabbled in production in his earlier years.

Primal Scream & Kate Moss – “Some Velvet Morning” (3:50) No, hang on, bear with us here. If you ignore the fact that this is a cover of one of the best, strangest and most iconic songs of all time – go on, try – and just listen to it on its own merits, it’s actually pretty good. Right? Right?

Passengers – “Miss Sarajevo” (5:21) It’s not fashionable to like U2 these days, but even in the days when it wasn’t compulsory to hate on Bono for, y’know, caring about the world, plenty of people thought the whole Passengers thing was a stupid idea – including at least one of the band. “There’s a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence,” drummer Larry Mullen complained later, “[and] we crossed it on the Passengers record.” And there’s no doubt that on paper, the idea of getting king-sized opera star Luciano Pavarotti to sing the refrain on this song about a beauty pageant in war-torn Sarajevo sounds kind of ridiculous. But like all the best collaborations, somehow, against all odds, it just works – a fact that even Mullen was forced to concede. “Miss Sarajevo,” he said in 2002, “is a classic.”

Jarvis Cocker & Gonzales – “Eye of the Tiger” (4:16) Yes. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Jarvis Cocker sing “Eye of the Tiger,” then your moment has arrived.

The Ramones & Phil Spector – “Danny Says” (3:06) Wall of sound pioneer and certifiable lunatic Spector produced The Ramones’ fifth album End of the Century . As has been well-documented, the sessions were a shambles – Spector famously pulled a gun on Dee Dee and made Johnny record the opening chord to “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” for hours on end – but the results (or some of them, at least) were improbably good. This song – an uncharacteristically tender ballad about tour-bus alienation – is the album’s highlight, a song that’s without precedent (and, largely, without antecedent) in the band’s canon.

SIDE TWO

Manic Street Preachers & Traci Lords – “Little Baby Nothing” (4:59) Apparently the Manics wanted Kylie Minogue to sing the female vocals on this cheery ditty about prostitution and exploitative male sexuality. When she turned them down (she was still a decade away from being murdered by Nick Cave, remember), they turned to Plan B: porn star Traci Lords. The band and Lords hit it off a treat, with Richey Edwards later describing her as “the most intelligent American we’ve ever met.” Um, OK then.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – “Who Built the Road” (2:53) If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably be reluctant to leave Isobel Campbell alone with Mark Lanegan – the delicate Scottish cellist from twee-pop heroes Belle & Sebastian with the man who once got arrested in a kimono in Times Square after a multi-day bender? Surely not? But the unlikely duo have released three fine albums together, reinventing themselves as a sort of latter-day Nancy-and-Lee combination. “I brighten him up,” Campbell told The Guardian last year, “and he gives me weight.”

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” (3:25) In a similar vein, you’d never imagine that the hell-raising Robert Plant of the ‘70s would have entertained the idea of collaborating with bluegrass icon Alison Krauss. Again, though, the unlikely combination works a treat, and the Plant/Krauss album Raising Sand got a slew of excellent reviews when it came out a couple of years back. Tellingly, Plant seemed far more interested in it than he did in the Led Zeppelin reunion.

Fucked Up & Ezra Koenig – “Someone’s Gonna Die/Parents” (4:35) Koenig likes hardcore? Who knew?

REM & KRS-One – “Radio Song” (4:13) REM were as unlikely candidates for a hip hop crossover hit in 1990 as they would be today, 20 years later. But nevertheless, this collaboration with KRS-One – the opening track to their breakthrough album Out of Time – reached the UK charts in the warm afterglow of “Losing My Religion.” Who’d have thought they had it in them?

Aerosmith & Run-DMC – “Walk This Way” (4:04) The gold standard for the “It shouldn’t work but somehow it does” collaboration. Apparently when Rick Rubin first played the song to Run-DMC and suggested they record a version, DMC denounced it as “hillbilly gibberish.” Happily, Rubin talked them round, and the result was an early attempt at bridging the chasm between guitars and beatboxes. And, of course, there was the iconic video, loaded with symbolism of smashing down the walls between rock and rap. Decades later, it’s still a classic.

Danger Mouse & David Lynch – “Star Eyes (I Can’t Catch It)” (3:11) Despite his newfound dedication to music, David Lynch’s contribution to the Dark Night of the Soul project was largely confined to its visual aspect – Danger Mouse and the late, much-lamented Mark Linkous handled most of the sounds. But Lynch does provide vocals for the song that’s perhaps the album’s highlight, the wistful, melancholy “Star Eyes.” His nasal vocals work beautifully with the dreamy, beautiful music. It’s strange and wonderful – and a fine conclusion to our mixtape.