Metallica and Lou Reed
Hailed by many as the worst album ever made, Lulu – the album that Metallica pieced together, for no good reason, with Lou Reed – is such a peculiar collaboration that it is still hard to fathom why anyone thought it was a good idea. A gruelling 95-minute double album jumble of droning freeform metal which featured a then 70-year old codger grumbling and groaning his way over the top of it was perhaps not the initial idea behind the project, but that’s what was delivered. As sheer, unadulterated idiocy, perhaps it deserves some respect. But as a musical venture, it is up there with some of the most nonsensical albums ever made.
“Who cares?” said Reed when told of the critical reaction. “I never wrote for them [the critics] then, I don’t write for them now. I have no interest in what they have to say about anything. I’m interested in whether I like it. I write for me.”
Which is just as well, because hardly anyone else was having it. The idea stemmed from what was a pretty odd meeting of minds in the first place. Metallica – who had never previously shown much interest in Reed’s music – somehow ended up playing Sweet Jane and White Light/White Heat with Reed at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame bash at Madison Square Garden. Thrilled at the power of Metallica, Reed approached the band in the parking lot afterwards and said that they should do something else together. The original idea was to record cover versions of lesser known parts of the Reed back catalogue. But then the plan shifted radically.
Ten days before Metallica and Reed started work together, the singer decided that actually they might be better off recording the utterly baffling story of Lulu – a sex and morality play featuring characters called Mr Glockenspiel and Mr Weingold which had been written by a German expressionist playwright at the turn of the 20th century. Better still, it was an idea that came to Reed via an avant-garde stage director. Why wouldn’t Metallica – the noted intellectuals behind lyrics like “What don’t kill you make you more strong” – be the right band for this?
Recorded in 10 days, Metallica provided a creaking metal backdrop to Reed’s disjointed monotone about incest and vomit, blood and sex over the top. Metallica say they found it liberating to have someone else do the words for once, though having someone other than Reed sing them might have helped too.
“They use different words,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich pointed out. “[Metallica frontman James] Hetfield has never yet used the word ‘armpit’ [in a lyric] but it’s one of my favourite words on the record.”
The results were as bad as expected. More hilarious, though, were the rare critics who fawned over it. One review noted that it was “extraordinary, passionate and just plain brilliant”, but that was somewhat out of keeping with prevailing winds: everyone else thought it was crap.
Skrillex and The Doors
The two headline acts here are strange enough – Skrillex and The Doors – but the third peculiar collaborator was the project’s sponsor, the South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai who had partnered The Grammys in order to allow DJs to “interpret and put a new spin on traditional styles of music”. Quite what a car manufacturer was getting out of conjoining a half-haircutted, former emo singer-turned mainstream dubstep act and one of the 60s’ most notoriously acid-addled psychedelicists was anyone’s guess.
As a child, Skrillex – or Sonny Moore, to give him his real name – had grown up in a house where The Doors’ music was played frequently by his parents and his reverence and anxiety at working with them was clear. “I never thought I would ever do anything with them,” he said the day before the session, “But tomorrow, I’m going to be working with The Doors. It’s crazy.”
Certainly, things got off to a peculiar start. Nervous and polite, Skrillex greeted keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger by playing them the rough beats he had made as a framework for their session. As a pounding four-four blared from the speakers, with Moore virtually dancing in the studio, Manzarek simply stared nonplussed as the wall of drums, sub-bass and car-alarm noises that made up the bones of the Skrillex dubstep track.
“Uh huh,” said Manzarek, nodding uncomfortably. “Uh huh. OK. Let’s go back to square one.”
“What speed is that,” asked Krieger. “130?”
“We’re at 175,” said Skrillex.
“Uh huh. OK, wait a minute, give me a tempo like this,” added Manzarek, slowing down the pace of Skrillex’s track dramatically as he took to his organ. Things did not look good.
But slowly, the track began to come together. Manzarek began to nod his head to the bass, Krieger settled into a groove, and that old Doors fairground organ sound and jazz guitar combined to conjure memories of old. Skrillex started dancing in the sound booth a bit more convincingly. “They weren’t looking at each other, they were just jamming over this beat I made,” he said, working their jam into his electronic framework. “It was crazy.”
The following day, Doors drummer John Densmore arrived. He was not in the mood to embrace the future. “Drummers are not terribly partial to electronic music,” he said on arrival. “It’s worrisome to me that cultures prefer dancing to a machine. So we’ll see what happens.”
He followed that by telling Skrillex: “I’ve never heard of you. But my son wants your autograph.”
Skrillex quickly countered: “Well I’ve heard of you. The only difference is that my dad would probably ask for your autograph.”
The tension was pretty special.
“Our singer [Jim Morrison] said that maybe in the future that music would be made by one guy with a bunch of machines,” continued Densmore. “And I think you’re it.”
As Skrillex looked ever more uncomfortable, Densmore rammed his point home: “I’m partial to humanity and real musicians.”
Skrillex floundered for a while, before saying. “I don’t want to do this if you don’t want to do this.” So Densmore said he needed to listen to the music his two Doors colleagues had made the previous day.
Fortunately, after listening, he emerged in a happier mood. Happier, but armed with a bongo.
“That sounds gnarly,” cheered Skrillex, perhaps looking for positives as Densmore tapped away on the thing. But by the end of the session, the drummer was onside and delightedly waving his hands in the air as Skrillex worked the percussion tracks the drummer had laid down into the song. An uneasy truce had been reached.
The resulting track – Breakn’ A Sweat has divided opinion – Doors fans hate it, some dubstep fans hate it, but live it went down a storm when Skrillex aired it: a banging, swirling, mystical mash-up of psychedelic organ and sub bass. Oddly enough, it was the first song the three (then) surviving members of the Doors had made in 30 years. And it took a dubstep producer and a South Korean car manufacturer to reunite one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Obviously.
My Chemical Romance and Liza Minnelli
She’s only on there for a minute, a stagey and crackling voice deep into the song, but when the Broadway legend Liza Minnelli makes her brief cameo on the rock band My Chemical Romance’s Mama, there is eyebrow-raising but nonetheless perfect logic about her appearance on an album of high camp, drama and grand ambition.
Mama itself was a song that My Chemical Romance had written, initially, as a bit of a joke. While writing tracks for their Black Parade album months before recording it, My Chemical Romance’s guitarist Ray Toro had been bet that he couldn’t write a polka and, intrigued, he set about working on a Russian dance. Something about it appealed to the band’s singer Gerard Way, who set a melody and words to it that were both fun but also cinematic. As the song evolved, it became flamboyant and over-the-top – a signal to the band that they were heading into some uncharted waters with their third album.
It wasn’t until months later, when they were recording in LA, that they thought seriously about it again. The Black Parade was a concept album riddled with characters, many of which required Way to adopt personas as he recorded. On Mama, he tried to sing one small part in a female voice to bring the album’s Mother War character to life. But he just couldn’t quite manage it. He would attempt to do an impression of the Broadway singer Judy Garland and would fall short, prompting producer Rob Cavallo to ask him just what it was he was trying to do. Way told him, and said, as a joke, that perhaps they’d be better calling Garland’s daughter Minnelli instead.
And so, when Cavallo reached for the studio phone, had a short conversation with someone, replaced the receiver and said simply “I love Liza Minnelli”, the band were stunned. In a matter of moments, he had convinced Minnelli’s publicist Liz Rosenberg that her client should sing the short few lines. Way was thrilled.
“The reason Liza Minnelli ended up on Black Parade was because I was thinking about who my grandmother would have wanted on it,’” said Way. “A lot of my decisions were based on me thinking, ‘What would my grandmother do?’”
Minnelli’s brilliant cameo – recorded in New York as the band listened in LA – made the song and set My Chemical Romance on course to make the rest of it: the album that made them superstars.
About halfway through the record we started to say, “Hey, this pretty good. There’s some really epic stuff on here ,” said guitarist Frank Iero. “When songs like Mama started to finish, we were excited.”
Mikee Goodman and Adrian Smith
In 2012, Mikee Goodman was not doing very much of anything. He had been the singer in the avant garde mathcore band Sikth but they had then broken up (but have since reformed) and he was known for screaming, ranting and barking over their gloriously experimental, yet decidedly niche, lithe, angular progressive metal. Thin, wiry, with dreadlocks hanging low down his face, he generally gave off the impression of someone who had either not been out of bed for long or who was about to get into one. Low key and faintly absent, were two ways to describe him.
But, for reasons best known to themselves, he had somehow found himself working on a project with the Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith: a man with writing credits on some of Maiden and metal’s biggest hits – Can I Play With Madness, 2 Minutes To Midnight and more. A couple of decades older than Goodman, Smith was the Sikth man’s polar opposite: an arena rock dinosaur who it seems hard to imagine ever hanging out in the underground clubs haunted by Sikth. Yet the pair released a record together as a project called Primal Rock Rebellion.
They met back when Sikth were still together and Smith’s son wanted the tech-metallers to play his birthday party.
“I’d never seen them before and I thought they were great,” said Smith. “There was so much power. What Mikee was doing was very original. I rang him the next day, I was probably still drunk, and I asked if he fancied doing some writing. I fancied branching out and he had just triggered something.”
Always the most experimental of Maiden’s members, Smith had a reputation for heading off on tangents and he worked on several solo projects away from his main band during the ‘90s. But still: working with the screaming, ranting and raving frontman of a tech-metal band while he was aged 50-odd was a strange one.
“What he’s asking,” Smith told Goodman when this was put to him, “is ‘What are you working with that old bastard for?’”
But Goodman had enjoyed himself: “It was very inspiring. He wasn’t promising anything, we were just seeing how it went. And it went well. We were both bringing each other out of our comfort zones.”
It took six years before any actual music surfaced, the pair of them working sporadically in Smith’s home studio. And when a record came out – Awoken Broken – in 2012, they both said they would never do any live shows nor, in all probability, repeat the exercise. And so the album was simply put out and left to do its thing. Remarkably, it was reasonably good too: powerful, experimental and intricate. Not that anyone cared, particularly. The record died a death, its creators more or less abandoning it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an experiment worth taking.
“Anyone can play it safe,” said Smith of the unlikely collaboration. “But if you do that, you just get more of the same.”
“Actually,” countered Goodman, “it’s not. What you get is tiresome shit.”
Weezer and Lil Wayne
Weezer’s seventh album was called Raditude, but it could just as easily have been called WTF. The band’s frontman Rivers Cuomo went into the record having recently worked with pop singer Katy Perry and the inspiration was clear: “Yeah, girl pop,” he said happily.
The band, on Cuomo’s bidding, teamed up with a host of teen-friendly pop producers and, as a consequence, made a lot of songs that sounded like teen-friendly pop. First single (If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To sounded like a Jonas Brothers song and was co-written with Avril Lavigne’s producer.
While the title to I’m Your Daddy was strange enough, it’s content was odder still. Cuomo said it was written about his daughter being in hospital – a reasonably distressing theme, then – so it was a little incongruous that Weezer coupled it to the breeziest and brightest of melodies to suggest the opposite. But its lyrics were plain weird: ‘you got the brains, the body, and the beauty’ and ‘I swear I ain’t like those other boys, I’m a special kind’. Which, in a song that was at least initially about his daughter, caused a certain amount of head scratching.
But it was the liaison with the rapper Lil Wayne on Can’t Stop Partying that marked the record’s oddest moment – a song co-written with Jermaine Dupri, the man who put the rap group Kriss Kross together (gimmick: wearing their clothes back to front). The song itself is odd – featuring synth bass and dance beats, Weezer’s weirdest but catchiest of all lurches into mainstream pop – and initially appears to be extolling the virtues of going out clubbing, while actually saying the opposite. But then the rapper – nicknamed Weezy – arrives like a streaker at a wake, incongruously crashing the party over a hip hop sub-bass. “Okay bitches, it’s Weezer and it’s Weezy,” he announces, before, as if waking from a bad dream, Weezer cut him off soon after he starts rapping.
Still Cuomo liked it. “I really worked on that song for a long time,” he said. “I tried all these things and it just wasn’t working. Then we got the idea to have Lil Wayne try something on it; he totally nailed it.”
If you say so Rivers.
Eddie Van Halen/Slash and Michael Jackson
Beat It might be regarded as a classic now, but back in 1982 there wasn’t much precedent for a pop star roping in a guitar hero to beef up a stab at a crossover hit. Michael Jackson was not entirely convinced of the value of writing rock songs, and so when his producer Quincy Jones suggested a song in a similar vein to The Knack’s My Sharona for his Thriller album he was initially a little wary. But the producer insisted and so they pressed ahead. But Jackson wanted to do things his way.
“I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song,” he said. “That is how I approached it and I wanted the children to really enjoy it – the school children as well as the college students.”
The results were Beat It, Jacko’s first stab at rock. But, after listening to a rough mix, Jones thought it needed something else – something to make it a little more authentic. And so they called Eddie Van Halen and asked him if he’d like to record a solo on it. The rest of Van Halen thought he was an idiot for saying yes – especially as he did it for free.
“I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else,” he said. “I knew what I was doing – I don’t do something unless I want to do it.”
When he came to the studio to lay the track down, he asked Jones if he could improvise and the producer told him to do anything he wanted. “I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out’,” he said. “Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.”
Jackson loved the changes, by all accounts, and so Eddie Van Halen made his strange leap into pop music. When the song was released, the guitarist recalls standing in Tower Records in LA as a group of kids listened along. “The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, ‘Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen’,” he remembered. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘That is me!’ That was hilarious.”
It was perhaps the success of this venture that convinced Jackson to turn to Slash in 1991 – a period when, Guns N’ Roses were falling apart in the midst of making Use Your Illusion. It seemed an odd call for Jackson: to turn to a heroin-and-booze-bombed guitarist but, then again, what happened later to the singer makes Slash’s substance abuse seem like a vicar’s tea party. Slash appeared on Give In To Me for Jackson’s Dangerous album – performing on the song’s video in full-on wind-machine stadium rock mode – and later on a handful of Jackson tracks and seemed to have struck up a bond with the singer. When, however, it was rumoured that Slash had also played the guitar riff on Black And White, he was quick to deny it: “If you listen to [the hook], that’s gay. I’d never play that.”