Credit Where Credit's Due
In 2018, we’re all used to seeing song titles that end with the letters ‘ft.’ and a list of artist names (sometimes ludicrously long). These featured artists make big money, often for relatively small contributions – I mean, just look at rapper Nicki Minaj, who charges £100k plus to perform one verse! But in pop history terms, crediting all of the guest artists is a relatively new thing; a trend ushered in by the collaborative nature of hip hop, RnB and dance music.
Despite this fact, artists have featured on each other’s songs since time immemorial – it’s just how this is portrayed to the listener that has changed over the years. If you wind the clock back to a world pre-hip hop, you find that featured artists – no matter how famous – often went uncredited. They may have been mates with the artist they were helping out, but that didn’t mean they got to steal the limelight! If they were lucky, they gained a mention in the liner notes; if they were a session musician or newcomer, no mention at all. Furthermore, with no ‘ft.’ to tell the listener who was on the track (and no Google, either) music fans had to figure it out by listening; picking out the vocal style of a singer in the background or the unique tone of a guitar solo.
With this in mind, I thought I’d do a little bit of digging to unearth ten of music’s best guest appearances, ranging from the 1960s up to the 1990s. Enjoy!
Elton John – ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ 
Well, we might as well start with something star-studded. Stevie Wonder was a child-prodigy and Motown legend famed for his piano playing and vocals, but it turns out he’s also pretty nifty on a harmonica too. While Elton’s album Too Low for Zero wasn’t a huge critical success, it did spawn some hit singles – including this modern pop standard. A piano-led blues shuffle with lyrics reminiscent of the Tin Pan Alley tunes of old, Wonder’s distinctive harmonica solo took this bittersweet love song to the next level – and straight into the Top Ten.
David Bowie – ‘Fame’ 
This David Bowie classic – described by him as “nasty, angry” and written “with a degree of malice” – was an unexpected Top 20 UK hit, its lyrics baiting his problematic management company. But ‘Fame’ nearly wasn’t a song at all, being written only after Bowie told his guitarist that the main riff (intended for a cover song) was too good to waste. Allegedly, John Lennon – in the studio for just one day – shouted “Aim!” over the guitar riff, prompting Bowie to write the lyrics for ‘Fame’ instead. Lennon’s distinctive gravelly voice can be heard repeating the song’s title every few bars on the studio version. Not bad for a day’s work…
The Beatles – ‘Get Back’ 
A worldwide number one, this classic Beatles single was the only ever song by the Fab Four to credit anybody outside the band. If this track was released today, it would most certainly have been titled ‘Get Back ft. Billy Preston’ but, instead, the legendary session keyboardist had to make do with a liner notes credit, leading to him being dubbed the Fifth Beatle [a moniker that has also been bestowed on numerous others who were associated with the legendary band]. Needless to say, he deserved it: this straightforward rock ‘n’ roll track plods along with a solid blues stomp but it’s Preston’s exemplary organ playing that gives the song its true magic.
Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’ 
Well, this is one of the better-known guest appearances on the list, so it might not come as too much of a shock. Continuing Jackson’s mission to break new musical ground by combining dancefloor-friendly pop with funk and rock sensibilities, the Thriller album made good use of guitar with plenty of power chords and some searing solos. Built around a killer riff, ‘Beat It’ – widely considered one of the best songs of all time – sees the King of Pop on top form, delivering a flawless vocal performance. Guest guitarist Eddie Van Halen elevates things even further with a blistering solo – arguably one of the greatest ever committed to record.
The Shangri-Las – ‘Leader of the Pack’ 
‘Teen tragedy’ was a musical genre for a while, back in the 1960s when girl groups like The Supremes and The Ronettes ruled the airwaves. The most famous track of this short-lived trend is perhaps ‘Leader of the Pack’ by the Shangri-Las, whose bad-girl image and infectious harmonies took this tale of rebellious young love to the top of the US charts. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that legendary singer-songwriter Billy Joel allegedly provided the piano part. He wasn’t credited, but Joel would come to call on this style of early-sixties pop when writing ‘Uptown Girl’ – a UK number one that most definitely did pay – almost two decades later.
Carly Simon – ‘You’re So Vain’ 
Speculation over who this tongue-in-cheek classic is actually about has persisted for years. Who did walk into the party like they were walking onto a yacht? James Taylor? Warren Beatty? David Cassidy? Mick Jagger? One thing we do know for sure is that the Rolling Stones frontman sang on the track – which suggests that Simon didn’t have Jagger in mind when writing the song (if she did, the laugh’s on him). Listen carefully and you’ll hear Mick’s unmistakable voice providing backing from the second chorus onwards, adding a male counterpoint to Simon’s melody. Like so many of these examples, the contribution goes uncredited.
Alanis Morissette – ‘You Oughta Know’ 
Combining the confessional lyrics of the singer-songwriter with the anger and frustration of grunge, the lead single from Alanis Morissette’s debut album shocked the nineties mainstream and generated a slew of copycat female artists. Finding this winning formula, however, was no easy feat, with the producer eventually calling on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Dave Navarro to get the job done. Because they were used to working with a fast-paced vocalist, the pair added structure to Morissette’s odd lyrical creations, with Flea laying down some seriously funky bass on the verses. Angry, explosive… the track still packs a punch today.
Dire Straits – ‘Money for Nothing’ 
Love it or hate it, ‘Money for Nothing’ was a huge success upon its release, partly due to the early video animation used in its promo video and the song’s subsequent heavy rotation on MTV. For the most part, the track was a radio-friendly rock staple featuring a meaty guitar riff and Mark Knopfler’s lyrics (written from the point of view of envious workers watching rock stars on TV). The song’s opening, however, was ethereal and atmospheric, with pulsing synths and a distant voice singing “I want my MTV…”. The owner of that voice is none other than Sting, who stopped by the studio and decided to add a memorable vocal that followed the melody of his own hit, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’.
Davie Bowie – ‘Life on Mars?’ 
David Bowie makes the list twice, probably because he had a good eye for upcoming talent and worked with a seemingly endless list of legends. Before he formed progressive rock band Yes and became famous for wearing capes, keyboardist Rick Wakeman was a top session musician. In the early seventies, he worked with Bowie on his breakthrough 1971 album, Hunky Dory, which featured now-classics like ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh, You Pretty Things!’. But it was Wakeman’s contribution to later single ‘Life on Mars?’ that is perhaps most incredible; the elaborate, sweeping piano parts gave this otherworldly track the grandeur and melancholy that Bowie intended and secured its reputation as one of the greatest songs in the pop-music canon.
Deee-Lite – ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ 
Oddball US trio Deee-Lite loved a good sample, fusing dance and hip-hop elements to create a unique sound that became popular during the rave era of the early nineties. In this feel-good track – their biggest hit and a UK number one – the trio turned to funk legend Bootsy Collins and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip for cameos, with Collins providing humorous backing vocals and Q-Tip a trademark laid-back rap. The result is one of the most memorable and best-loved tracks of the 1990s, capturing the vibrancy, fun and genre-bending experimentation of the decade. If you want a nostalgia trip, jump on YouTube and watch the video…
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