With the holiday season bringing David Bowie and Bing Crosby's eternally unlikely duet back to the airwaves, Q runs down some of the most unexpected (and unexpectedly successful) musical collaborations of all time.
Meat Loaf and Cher, “Dead Ringer for Love” (1981)
This musical union between Meat Loaf and Cher was simultaneously absurd and yet somehow inevitable. The hippy-pin-up-turned-vampy-ballbuster and the handkerchief-flourishing operatic-rock monster were arguably the two most theatrical singers of their era, and that they should come together on this typically overblown Jim Steinman number only made the whole thing more perfect. The result is a storming vocal back-and-forth that manages to be at once inspiring and ridiculous but is from the very first note a cracking rock ‘n’ roll song. The video’s a thing of joy too: imagine Grease, but set in a biker’s bar, and with Danny and Sandy both living out the consequences of some very questionable life choices. -- Dominic Utton
Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (1995)
It didn’t matter that they were both Australian music stars at a time when one could count the number of Australian music stars on one hand – the collaboration between the queen of bouncy manufactured pop and the dark lord of underground art rock took everyone by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. As Cave himself later explained: “I'd wanted to write a song for Kylie for many years. I had a quiet obsession with her for about six years. I wrote several songs for her, none of which I felt was appropriate to give her. It was only when I wrote this song, which is a dialogue between a killer and his victim, that I thought finally I'd written the right song for Kylie to sing. I sent the song to her and she replied the next day.” The resulting “murder ballad” not only made #11 in the UK charts, but showed the world that Kylie too could be cool. -- D.U.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby, “The Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)” (1977)
Quite possibly the most improbable pairing on this list (and the most improbably successful), Bowie’s now-timeless duet with Crosby was forged through a series of unhappy accidents. Running the circuit of TV bookings to promote his 1977 album “Heroes,” Bowie was scheduled to sing “Little Drummer Boy” with the 74-year-old crooner for his CBS special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, only to balk at the song selection at the last minute, forcing the show’s three music supervisors to cobble together a new song, “Peace on Earth,” on the fly. Following a delightfully uncomfortable bit of canned TV banter, the two men sang both songs in counterpoint on set, and to everyone’s (eventual) surprise, history was made. Crosby died between shooting the special and its first airing, and the song wasn’t released until 1982, very much contrary to Bowie’s wishes. But it quickly climbed to No. 3 on the UK singles chart, and over the decades became a permanent part of the Christmas canon. As Bowie reminisced in a 1999 Q interview: "It's wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other." -- Andrew Barker
New Model Army with Tom Jones, “Gimme Shelter” (1993)
You know a collaboration is unlikely when one of the collaborators still can’t wrap their head around it even as it’s coming to pass, and yet the first thing you hear in the video for this song is New Model Army lead singer Justin Sullivan saying outright, “I can’t think of anything more strange than Tom Jones working with New Model Army.” This cover of the Rolling Stones classic came about through the 1993 “Putting Our House in Order” project by Food Records, with no less than 11 different versions of “Gimme Shelter” being recorded for the homeless initiative. (For the record, in reflecting on the collaboration in 2007, Jones recalled of the New Model Army session, “They were a great bunch of guys, and it was a good time.” In closing, although this version is arguably the best of the bunch, it’s worth mentioning that it’s featured on the “Alternative Version” single alongside another unexpected “Gimme Shelter” collaboration: Cud and Sandie Shaw. -- Will Harris
The KLF and Tammy Wynette, “Justified and Ancient” (1991)
Described as “delightful nonsense” by The Times, and “like the theme to a space-age spaghetti western” by Billboard, the strangest pairing in the history of pop music saw British art-terrorists and creators of irresistibly anthemic rave bangers the KLF (aka the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, furthermore known as the JAMs) put a phone call in to “Stand By Your Man” legend Wynette to see if she fancied guesting on a rework of one of their old tracks. Incredibly – and to her eternal credit – she said yes, and in November 1991, this three-and-a-half minutes of ridiculous and ridiculously-catchy pop was released, complete with lyrics about ice cream vans, a mythical realm called Mu Mu Land, and the near-perfect line, “Tammy, stand by the JAMs”. Wynette herself remained charmingly enthusiastic about the track, saying: "Mu Mu Land looks a lot more interesting than Tennessee.... But I wouldn't want to live there." -- D.U.
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, "Cheek to Cheek" / "Love for Sale" (2014/2021)
Back when Lady Gaga was still best known as America’s leading pop provocateur and connoisseur of butchery couture, the notion of her forging a lucrative and heartwarming partnership with the effortlessly classy ‘20s-born Tony Bennett might have seemed like an SNL sketch gone wrong. But then, maybe it shouldn’t have. As we would soon come to learn about Gaga, Bennett possessed a remarkable ability to avoid being constrained to any era or cultural pigeonhole, having already forged a new Gen X audience as a sixty-something in the 1990s, and Gaga had both the raw talent and the love of the Great American Songbook to match pipes with the veteran. Over two albums, a globe-spanning tour, and innumerable TV appearances, the partnership came to seem not only perfectly sensible but inspired: a wake-up-call to older audiences that there was much more to Gaga than the button-pushing theatrics, and one final chart-topping act for one of the 20th century’s greatest male vocalists. -- A.B.
Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon, “World Destruction” (1984)
Although officially credited to “Time Zone,” this was actually a remarkable collaboration between one of the founding fathers of hip-hop and the face of the British punk scene. Even more impressive is the fact that Bambaataa and the notoriously testy Lydon actually got along. “Great chap. Great fun. Very open-minded. No problems at all with Mr. Bambaataa,” Lydon told the A.V. Club. “Loved working with him. And what a delicious track we put together. You know, truly, it’s the beginning of hip-hop into rap there. It was groundbreaking. But then a year later, of course, Run-DMC and whatzit came out and claimed the laurels.” -- W.H.
Run-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk this Way” (1986)
According to legend, Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels (aka DJ Run and DMC) used to freestyle rap over the intro to Aerosmith’s 1975 rock classic at gigs without actually knowing the full song – or anything about the band who recorded it. It was only when Rick Rubin heard them doing so while producing Run-DMC’s third album Raising Hell, that he suggested rerecording the whole song with Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Joe Perry. Now regarded as a milestone in the history of hip hop, the resulting track was never intended to be released as a single, but after getting picked up on both rap and rock radio stations, ended up outselling the original, reaching #4 in the Billboard Hot 100, and #8 in the UK charts. “Walk this Way” not only brought Run-DMC into the wider consciousness, but was the catalyst for an unlikely Aerosmith revival, after years in the wilderness. -- D.U.
Garth Brooks and KISS, “Hard Luck Woman” (1994)
There always was a great country song buried in “Hard Luck Woman,” one of the stand-out tracks off of KISS’ 1976 album Rock and Roll Over. The only problem: KISS were very much not a country band, and drummer Peter Criss (to whom songwriter Paul Stanley delegated vocal duties, after initially planning to offer the song to Rod Stewart) is as New York as they come. But when the band recruited Garth Brooks, then the biggest country star on earth (and an avowed KISS fan), to perform the track alongside them for 1994’s tribute album Kiss My Ass: Classic KISS Regrooved, something clicked. The song proved a minor hit, charting in the top 30 of the U.S. singles chart, and helped prime the pump for KISS’ full-makeup reunion two years later. -- A.B.
Seal featuring Joni Mitchell, “If I Could” (1994)
From the very beginning of his interactions with the press, Seal was always quick to cite Joni Mitchell as a major influence on his work, but the pair became friends after Mitchell was invited to attend a party held for Seal. “We just hit it off,” Mitchell said in a radio interview with KCSA-FM. “We became good friends. So when our projects came up, we were mutually immediately interested in each other's work. I went over to listen to him work one night when he was just at the beginning of his project, and the collaboration just kind of fell into place as we went along.” This particular track appears on Seal’s self-titled 1994 album, but the twosome reunited for a second vocal collaboration on Mitchell’s 1996 single, “How Do You Stop,” as well as teaming up for the video. -- W.H.
Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (1987)
In which the slightly camp edge of musical theatre that had always lurked somewhere beneath the synths and deadpan vocals of the Pet Shop Boys finally broke free of its shackles and revealed itself in all its glittery glory. The song itself had originally been written three years before, but it was not until an assistant to their manager suggested Dusty Springfield as a vocalist that its true potential was realized. What begins as a fairly standardly-great PSB track is elevated to brilliance from the moment Dusty kicks loose in the second verse. As Neil Tennant later said: “Her voice was the same as ever. When she sang her solo part 'Since you went away...' everyone in the control room smiled. She sounded just like she used to. Breathy, warm, thrilling. Like Dusty Springfield." And where do you go once you’ve collaborated with Dusty? The answer came two years later, when they repeated the trick in even more outrageous style with Liza Minelli. -- D.U.
Blink-182 and Robert Smith, “All of This” (2003)
When asked by MTV why he agreed to contribute vocals to a song by Blink-182, Smith effectively admitted that this wasn’t the first time he’d had the question posed to him. “It was funny, actually, because it was quite divisive when they phoned up and I told the other people around me whose opinions I trust,” said Smith. “It really did make people jump to one side or the other and go, ‘No, no, no, no, you don’t want to do that!’ and the other group saying, ‘Yeah!’ But when I played them the song demo, most people actually changed their mind.” That said, Smith cut it close when sending the band his vocal part. “We were literally hours from having to turn [the masters] in to the factory when it showed up," Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge told The Washington Post. “It gave us all goose bumps to hear Robert's voice on our record, to hear his voice on another song, and to come to the realization that we actually wrote the music to it, because it sounds like a Cure song. We were jumping for joy when it was all said and done. -- W.H.
Warren Zevon featuring David Letterman, “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” (2002)
Granted, it’s not much of a collaboration, but in this track from Zevon’s album My Ride’s Here, you really believe Letterman as he repeatedly screams his one line, “Hit somebody!” Mind you, Letterman doesn’t feel the same way. When asked about the collaboration by Vulture in 2023, Letterman almost certainly grimaced as he revealed, “I was so self-conscious, embarrassed, and worried that I would ruin Warren’s record. When I listen to it, it reminds me of when I was a kid and we had to sing in church and I would just mouth the words because I was too embarrassed to sing. All I had to scream was ‘Hit somebody!’ It sounds so disingenuous, artificial, manipulated, and contrived that it does in fact ruin the song.” For the ultimate testament to how Letterman felt about his contribution, one need only watch Zevon performing the tune on Letterman’s own show: even with Dave sitting nearby, the line “Hit somebody!” was screamed not by Dave himself but, rather, by Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer. -- W.H.
Loretta Lynn and Jack White, “Portland Oregon” (2004)
Much like with Gaga and Bennett, this pairing of one of country music's most indomitable legends with a man then best known for his candy-colored garage rock revivalism initially seemed odd on paper, only to seem entirely rational, if not galactically pre-ordained, in retrospect. In fact, the pairing of White and Lynn on the Best Country Album Grammy-winner Van Lear Rose did much to set the stage for both artists' subsequent career paths, establishing the post-White Stripes White as one of the great advocates for classic American roots music, and exposing Lynn to an entirely new generation, with star-studded tributes, Bonnaroo performances and four more critically-acclaimed albums all arriving prior to her death in 2022. -- A.B.
Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song” (2003)
Recorded during the sessions for Cash’s The Man Comes Around album, this Bob Marley and the Wailers cover didn’t actually see the light of day until Unearthed, a collection of previously-unreleased tracks from Cash’s American Recordings sessions. In the liner notes for Unearthed, producer Rick Rubin recalled, “We were working in my house with Johnny and one day Joe just showed up – he was in L.A. on vacation and he came every day, lay down on the floor against the glass wall of the control room so he could watch Johnny sing. After he’d been there every day for ten days or so, I said to him, when Johnny wasn’t around, ‘If you can come up with a song you can do together, we’ll try it.’ And he was really afraid, so I said, ‘Choose a song you’re comfortable with.’” Fortunately, Johnny loved reggae as much as Joe did, and the rest is history. Sadly, however, Strummer never lived to see the collaboration come out, but Cash thought fondly of the experience, telling his daughter Rosanne Cash (as she recounted in the Unearthed liner notes), “He was the sweetest, gentlest man.” -- W.H.
Brian Wilson and Sebu, “Runaway Dancer” (2015)
For his 10th solo studio album, No Pier Pressure, Brian Wilson decided to embark on a variety of collaborations with more contemporary artists. A few fell apart before they ever got started, like Lana Del Rey and Frank Ocean, and there was much discussion as to whether Wilson had the slightest inking who any of his actual collaborators even were, but of the ones that came to pass, arguably the best is with Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities. Granted, it’s also the one that sounds the least like an actual Brian Wilson song, but the combination of Wilson’s vocals and Sebu’s dance beats makes for a fun song with a great chorus...and you can dance to it! -- W.H.
Sponge and Richard Butler, “I Am Anastasia” (1996)
Formed in 1992, Sponge released their debut album, Rotting Pinata, in 1994 and were promptly lumped into the extremely wide-ranging category known as “post-grunge rock,” which tells you precisely nothing about their overall sound. One might also argue that this track from their second album tells you almost as little, but it can definitely be said that this song in particular does find Sponge’s music blending startlingly well with the vocals of Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler. “I like Vinnie (Dombroski, Sponge’s frontman), and whenever we’d play Detroit, Vinnie would always come down,” Butler told NineVolt in 2001. “He said, ‘I love your voice! I’d love you do to the backing vocals on this song; would you do it?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’” -- W.H.
Marc Almond and Nico, “Your Kisses Burn” (1988)
When it comes to Marc Almond’s album The Stars We Are, if you mention the word “duet,” most people immediately lean toward thinking of Almond’s work with Gene Pitney on a duet of the latter’s hit single, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart.” But there’s another duet on the album, and it’s one that’s... Well, let’s just say it’s a little darker in tone. Famed first and foremost for being the Velvet Underground’s resident chanteuse for their debut album, Nico was someone Almond had always wanted to work with, and he’s lucky he got her when he did, since she passed away not long after the recording session. "I was so nervous to contact her and EMI were not really for it at all, as you can imagine,” Almond told The Quietus. “I wanted to make sure that she was treated like the legend and the star I felt she was. EMI balked at her demands, but I was insistent. It turned out she was lovely if fragile, and we played pool and drank tea and talked for ages. The song was a problem, it turned out to be a bit too complicated, too orchestral for her and she began to deteriorate as the day went on and the methadone took effect. She still managed to deliver that wonderful Nico voice.” -- W.H.
Culture Club and Dolly Parton, “Your Kisses Are Charity” (1999)
When Culture Club reunited and released a new studio album, you would’ve thought it would’ve been a big deal all over the world, but when Don’t Mind If I Do hit record store shelves, it only did so in Europe and Japan. Perhaps it would’ve gotten an American release if they’d included this single-only mix of “Your Kisses Are Charity” on the album, since it features Boy George dueting with a country music superstar. The duo actually performed it live during a National Lottery appearance, and one presumes that it’s that exposure which led to the single climbing to #25 in the UK, but given how remarkably well George and Dolly’s voice work together, it should’ve gone far higher. -- W.H.
Sarah McLachlan and DMC, “Just Like Me” (2006)
Surprising though it may be, the reason this collaboration came about was McLachlan’s music meant so much to Daryl “DMC” McDaniels that it literally inspired him to keep living. “I had made a decision that I’m gonna commit suicide, and one day I got in the car when we got back from Europe, and Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’ was on the radio,” DMC told Bullz-Eye in 2006. “And that record – not fortune, not fame, not my wife and kids, not being DMC, not all of those great accomplishments – that record, ‘Angel,’ made me say that day, ‘It is good to be alive!’” The song, which was inspired by DMC discovering that he’d been adopted, is based around a sample of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” with McLachlan singing the chorus of the song. In addition to DMC having told McLachlan about how her song saved his life, there was another reason she was up for the collaboration: she, too, was adopted. -- W.H.
George Jones and Elvis Costello, “Stranger in the House” (1979)
Written by Elvis Costello and originally released as a solo recording on a 7” single that was included with the first 1,000 copies of This Year’s Model, the version done by Costello with Jones was recorded in 1978 for Jones’ duets album, My Very Special Guests. As it happens, though, Costello had already written the song with Jones in mind: in the liner notes for the 2005 Legacy Records reissue of Jones’s album, Costello is quoted as saying, “George Jones was my guiding light whenever I wrote in the country idiom.” Interestingly, however, the twosome didn’t record their vocals together, even though Costello was actually in Nashville. The reason? Per Costello in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, “[George] couldn't come into the state, as one of his more famous exes was looking for alimony." -- W.H.
Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias, “To all the Girls I’ve Loved Before” (1984)
If the grizzled outlaw country icon and the slick Spanish crooner made for strange bedfellows, then their homage to, ahem, all of their previous bedfellows, not only gave Iglesias – a massive star in Spain and Latin America but little-known in the U.S. – his biggest North American hit, but did the same for Nelson in Europe. The unlikely pairing came about after Nelson heard Iglesias on the radio while holidaying in London with wife Connie. "I liked his music immediately," he later recalled. “Connie suggested I record with him, and I thought it was a good idea. Julio said, sure, he'd like to do a song with me. I didn't know Julio was selling more records at that time than anybody in the world." Iglesias’ producer, Albert Hammond, suggested a song he had written with Hal David in 1975… and the result was a #5 smash, and an award for “duo of the year” by the Country Music Association. There is yet to be a satisfactory explanation for what on earth they’re wearing on the cover of the single, however. -- D.U.
Sandie Shaw and The Smiths, “Hand in Glove” (1984)
Although she made barely a ripple on the US charts, Sandie Shaw was one of the most popular female vocalists of her era in the UK, known for such hit singles as the Bacharach/David classic “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Puppet on a String.” Both Morrissey and Johnny Marr were fans of her work and pursued her to cover one of their songs, and in the end she actually recorded three of them: “Jeanne,” “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” and “Hand in Glove.” Upon releasing “Hand in Glove” as the A-side of the subsequent single, Shaw made appearances on a few UK TV series, including Top of the Pops, with the Smiths backing her. The end result was a hit single – the song made it to #25 – and a career rebirth which led to a new studio album in 1988 (Hello Angel), one which included a song written specifically for her by Morrissey (“Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness”). -- W.H.
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, "Old Town Road" (2019)
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus have a few important things in common: both were virtual unknowns prior to releasing their debut singles, and both of those singles went on to become some of the biggest-selling songs of all time, both inspiring brief country dance crazes amongst people who might not normally have been prone to country dance crazes. But that was just about all they had in common before teaming up, with "Achy Breaky Heart" singer Cyrus best known to younger generations as Miley's dad, and Lil Nas X (38 years his junior) having previously been best known as an active Nicki Minaj stan on social media. But something about the combined forces of these two unexpected hitmakers struck a nerve, and their collaboration for the remix of "Old Town Road" went on to break records for the fastest ever diamond certification from the RIAA, as well as earning a Grammy nod for Record of the Year. -- A.B.