These special collaborations where a superstar shows up sometimes without even a credit are rare - they take a lot of ego management, and sometimes even a 12-pack of beer. Here are some songs with surprising guest musicians, and how they came together.
It was 1982, and Jackson was working out the logistics of what would become his incredibly popular single "Beat It." Producer Quincy Jones, who was the genius in the background of all of Michael's best work, was working with Smelly (Quincy's ironic nickname for Jackson since he was always so clean) on ideas for how to bring the song to the next level. And when you're Quincy Jones, you can throw out a name like Eddie Van Halen and make it happen. Eddie was already an unrivaled superstar in the rock genre and having him solo on this R&B/Post Disco/Rock song meshed with Michael's vision: bringing disparate genres and peoples together.
Eddie agreed to do the solo as a favor for Mr. Jones, because you just don't say no to Mr. Jones unless he says she's looking at him and you know, oh no no, she's looking at me. Van Halen didn't receive payment per se for his intricate noodling, but he was given a 12 pack of beer to keep him company, and it saved him a trip to the corner store. Quincy's true skill is giving people what they want, which could be a hip new sound, a spot next to Bob Dylan at the "We Are The World" sessions, or even some brews.
The first single was the tepid "The Girl Is Mine," which touched only the easiest of listeners, and that was followed by "Billie Jean," securing the R&B crowd. But "Beat It" expanded the appeal of Thriller to the elusive Rock crowd thanks in no small part to Eddie's shredding, and 4 more Top-10 singles later, the album was on its way to becoming the best selling of all time. In a twist of fate, Thriller stayed atop the Billboard charts for years, causing Van Halen's 1984 album to never see number one status. Eddie had to wonder if the twelve pack was really worth it.
John Lennon on Fame
Lennon and Bowie met just a year earlier at a party thrown by Elizabeth Taylor. Bowie idolized Lennon, and the timing was perfect: both performers were still highly creative, but dissatisfied with the music industry and the nature of fame. Lennon had already made his last stage appearance, and Bowie was once again contemplating retirement, even announcing in April, 1975 - after recording the song but before it was released - "There will be no more rock'n'roll records or tours for me. The last thing I want to be is some useless f--king rock singer."
David and John cowrote the song with Bowie's guitarist Carlos Alomar, who came up with the guitar riff. John had the title and provided those unmistakable background vocals. The song had a spare, disaffected quality that reeked of both authenticity and indifference. It came out of just a few hours of jamming, and there wasn't much to it besides a groove. Lennon later said of the session: "This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal." Of course, "Fame," the diatribe on the perils of celebrity, was a huge hit, becoming Bowie's first #1 in America and making him far more famous.
Flea on Bust A Move
Young MC was signed to the upstart label Delicious Vinyl, whose co-founder Matt Dike used to DJ at a Los Angeles club called The Rhythm Lounge, where Anthony Kiedis and Flea played before they formed their famous band. This was circa 1982 - Madonna was often spotted there but she was still a struggling dance singer. Roughly seven years later Dike enlisted the services of Flea to funk up "Bust A Move," adding some organic bass sounds to the samples. The song became a huge hit, but all Flea got out of the deal was his $200 session fee, and as he claimed in some interviews, a bag of weed. Flea's position was that he added so much to the song that he deserved a songwriting credit, or at least a little slice of what became an enormous pie. The folks at Delicious Vinyl wouldn't budge, and Flea has told the story about his $200 shaft job any time the subject comes up.
This all happened around the time when the Red Hot Chili Peppers were gaining considerable steam and distinguishing themselves from the candy with the devil on the box. Flea not only played on the song, but also appeared in the video, adding considerable color in his shirtless way and boosting the buzz factor with his MTV friendly aggression and feather pants.
Of course, Flea can't complain too much about the shaft job considering how hot he was with the Peppers, and also considering that the track was essentially lifted from a 1970 funk tune. At least Flea got two hundred bucks - the guys getting sampled by Young MC and every other rapper around this time got a big nothing.
Flea will be OK - we're confident the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will put the Chili Peppers in now that they've made peace with Neil Diamond, and he's sure to benefit from the Beavis and Butthead revival. And while his bank account didn't benefit from his contribution to "Bust A Move," he can say that he played on one of just two songs to win a Grammy for Best Rap Performance, a category that would later be split into best Rap Solo and best Rap Duo.
Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston on Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
This was a case of the guest musicians needing the star more than he needed them. In the mid 1960s the Beach Boys were one of the few challengers to the unbeatable Beatles, thanks in large part to their harmonies and Brian Wilson's songwriting. When Wilson flamed out, so did The Beach Boys, and by 1974, when Elton was the Queen of the World, the Beach Boys were in stagnant water, cheered for their past, not their present. The '70s had no need for little deuce coupes and 409s because gas was at a premium. First gear was more than just alright; it was necessary. The Boys of Beach were dangling between former glory and has-beenism and who better to reclaim relevance with than an artist at his pinnacle. But Brian was still too busy playing in the sandbox in his living room, so it was Carl and Bruce who brought their famous voices to help Mr. John on his new little ditty.
Elton was a big fan of the Beach Boys and thought very highly of Bruce Johnston, who he tried to sign to his Rocket Records label when Bruce was exploring options like a solo career and a band with Terry Melcher. Over the years, Elton has thrived on collaborations and has been willing to work with everyone from Kiki Dee to Eminem, so it makes sense that he would get Bruce and Carl in the studio when he could.
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" was a bona fide hit and gave The Beach Boys a bump: in that same year a greatest hits album called Endless Summer was released, which helped them reclaim relevance. In 1976 Brian Wilson returned and produced The Beach Boys album 15 Big Ones, which put them back on the charts.
Mick Jagger on You're So Vain
Anyway, one of the guys the song is rumored to be about is Mick Jagger, and we do know that the Rolling Stones frontman sang backup on the track. His voice melds wonderfully with Simon's, maybe because both singers are in the 99th percentile for mouth size. Jagger was uncredited for his vocals, which made us wonder what else they were hiding from us - was he the mystery man? It makes a great urban legend, since Mick is singing on the song and would, in a way, be saying that he is vain and he does think the song is about him... because it is. But unfortunately Simon is not as meta as we all hoped. The song isn't about Mick; he's one of the few people she's ruled out in her cryptic statements about the song.
Jagger wasn't supposed to sing on the track - Harry Nilsson was. Mick happened to call when Carly was in the studio, and she asked him to come by. He showed up and delivered the goods. Nilsson heard their vocal chemistry and gracefully bowed out of the song, taking himself out of the lineup of Simon suitors the song might be about.
Simon has gotten a lot of mileage out of the "You're So Vain" mystery, which keeps interest in the song, and her career, alive - it's certainly better marketing than Starbucks could offer. What gets lost in the story of the song is the unlikely contribution of the 1972 version Mick Jagger growling out the background vocals, which is what hit songs are made of.
Duane Allman on Layla
Derek and the Dominoes formed in 1970 and released only one album, called Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Clapton wanted to record it with the producer Tom Dowd, who engineered many of the famous recordings by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and worked with Clapton in Cream. Dowd got the call when he was working on the Allman Brothers' Idlewild South album, and when Duane found out Clapton was coming, he got very excited. As luck would have it, the Allmans tour took them to the Miami Convention Centre on August 26, 1970, which was when Derek and the Dominoes were recording the album. Duane called and asked if he could come by after the gig, but Clapton had a better idea: He and the band went to the show that night. When Duane spotted Eric in the crowd, he froze, but Clapton was already suitably impressed and had the Allman Brothers come by the studio after the show, where he convinced Duane to come by again. In between Allman Brothers gigs, Duane would fly back to Miami and participate as much as he could to the sessions, first working on the cover songs and then playing on their original stuff, culminating with the final session on September 9 when he came up with the blistering riff for "Layla" and played lead on the track with Clapton. Eric said that when he started working on the song, he didn't think it was anything special. That changed once Allman stepped in.
Sadly, Duane died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, and he never saw "Layla" make its surge up the charts and dominate FM radio. That's because a castrated 2:43 version was released as the single, and it flopped. It wasn't until 1972 that the full 7 minutes and 10 seconds of "Layla," complete with that stirring piano coda - the one used in Goodfellas - was issued and became a hit. Allman died without knowing that he created what might be the most famous guitar riff in rock history.
Duane Allman wasn't eligible for the Vietnam draft because he was the oldest son and his father was dead. His brother Gregg had to shoot himself in the foot to stay out of the war.
Billy Joel on Leader of the Pack
"Leader of the Pack" was a shining example of this street tough attitude. The boy in the song (Jimmy) is "from the wrong side of town," and the girl's parents don't approve - he is dangerous, after all. Of course, a bad boy back then wasn't exactly what would pass for a bad boy today. The lyrics go, "I met him at the candy store, he turned around and smiled at me." How many punk kids do you find cruising for Pixy Stix? He must have earned his rebel image when he cheated death by eating Pop Rocks and chasing it with a soda.
It's fitting that Billy Joel's first session was on a classic song about motorcycles - he loves to ride and has a collection of about 30 vintage bikes. And while Joel didn't meet the fate of Jimmy in the song, he was involved in a serious crash when a car hit him on his motorcycle in 1982. His hands were injured and it took about 2 months to heal, but he made a full recovery and released the hit "Uptown Girl" the next year - a song musically inspired by '60s pop like "Leader of the Pack."
Dave Navarro on You Oughta Know
Alanis was a 21-year-old former child actor and dance diva, so the odds of creating a meaningful hit song were pretty slim, even with Ballard at the controls. The original version of "You Oughta Know" was bare-bones, but that was before Dave Navarro and Flea came along. Years of turning bugged out Anthony Kiedis lyrics into coherent songs for the Red Hot Chili Peppers made them the perfect choice for "You Oughta Know." They gave it the bite it needed without detracting from the scathing words. Nobody heard the song and commented on the guitar licks and bass line, but that's what punched it past the efforts of the many dismissible divas who were trying to sound confessional in the '90s.
Morissette made a trek from Ottawa to Toronto looking for the right songwriting collaborator before connecting with Ballard in Los Angeles. One advantage to recording in L.A. with a popular producer is the musical talent just a phone call away. Navarro got one of these calls, and decided to take the gig, as he said, "It's nice as an artist to be able to step outside of your comfort zone." There were other guitar and bass parts on the song when Navarro and Flea showed up, which Flea described as "some weak shit."
The song led off the album and became a huge hit, winning Grammys for Best Rock Song and Best Female Rock Vocal. Alanis got lots of press, and once we got to know her, the next singles "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic almost made sense. The album made a huge impact on the pop landscape, which was evolving past Grunge with Swing and Ska waiting their turn. Alternative music hadn't yet become mainstream music but it was on its way. "You Oughta Know", then, served as the perfect bridge. The salty language and honest, pained vocals would launch a string of imitators; women who tried to copy Alanis' angst but couldn't do it as convincingly. Meredith Brooks' "Bitch" serves as the perfect example of the inferior Alanis doppelgängers who would follow. After all, she didn't have Navarro and Flea helping create the sound that would tap in to the angsty masses.
Written by Landon McQuilkin and Carl Wiser
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