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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

The hit team: looking at enduring music collaborations in pop

Elton John and Bernie Taupin are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their unique collaboration this year, a feat commemorated by an epic compilation album, Diamonds

Elton John with lyricist Bernie Taupin, 1973. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Elton John with lyricist Bernie Taupin, 1973. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

When Sir Elton John makes his Dubai debut on Friday, as his Wonderful Crazy Night Tour reaches the Autism Rocks Arena, the man who co-wrote most of those songs is likely to be at home, painting.

John and Bernie Taupin are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their unique collaboration this year, a feat commemorated by an epic compilation album, Diamonds. Curiously, though, the celebratory box-set actually features several non-Taupin compositions. Can You Feel the Love Tonight, for example, was written for The Lion King soundtrack with Tim Rice. It gained Elton his only Oscar to date.

That might have signalled a natural, possibly bitter end for many partnerships, but John and Taupin endure. “Our relationship is healthier than it’s ever been,” said John, while publicising that compilation. There were times “when we’ve written with other people, but it still didn’t stop the love”.

So why is this alliance still standing, when most eventually collapse? In truth, it was only by chance that they ever discovered each other, in 1967. Both answered a magazine advert for new record company songwriters, and both failed the audition, but John left with some lyrics that Taupin had mailed in. Their correspondence has continued in a similar vein ever since.

Many of pop music’s most successful partnerships began in those hit factories, most famously New York’s Brill Building, which was home to hundreds of labels and publicists in the 1950s and ‘60s. Songwriters were actively encouraged to team up, and that arranged-marriage approach sometimes led to actual weddings.

The great songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Hound Dog, Stand By Me) found themselves creating pop hits and partnerships at the Brill, having started out writing blues songs. They mentored some impressive names, notably the producer Phil Spector, and writers Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, who gelled so well that they married in 1962.

Greenwich and Barry then resolved to write exclusively together, to the chagrin of their previous collaborators, but the results were impressive: Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron, Baby, I Love You. The marriage only lasted three years, but they continued to collaborate, having discovered a promising singer-songwriter called Neil Diamond.

The marital home could be a fertile creative environment, while it lasted. The best-known Brill Building couple were the lyricist Gerry Goffin and composer Carole King, who produced dozens of hits: Up On the Roof, One Fine Day, Will You Love Me Tomorrow. They split in 1968, after which King enjoyed a successful solo career, but their influence was significant. Becoming the British Goffin and King was an early goal for John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

The Beatles’ frontmen would eventually become rather fraught too, but this tension proved productive: where pop tends to emerge from harmonious relationships, guitar music thrives on rockier dynamics. McCartney was renowned for melody, Lennon for more abrasive experimentation, and most of their co-credited compositions were largely written alone. Had they written together, those tensions may have finished the band much earlier.

Their early work was more collaborative, though, and actively inspired famous rivals. The Rolling Stones were ostensibly a fine blues covers band until – according to Lennon – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards saw the Beatles duo scribble down a song in a nightclub, and decided to try it too. Fifity-five years on, Jagger/Richards remains a going concern, which is perhaps surprising given their wildly different personalities, and frequent feuds. But then their talents only really peaked when working together.

Opposites clearly attract, and John and Taupin were a shining example, having first hit the charts with Your Song in 1970. Well, Elton shines; Taupin has always shunned the limelight, quietly writing lyrics which his partner then puts to music.

Perhaps the most unlikely rock dynamic emerged in the 1980s: Johnny Marr and Morrissey, of Manchester quartet The Smiths. Morrissey’s wordy showmanship provided a striking counterpoint to Marr’s studious guitar pyrotechnics, until the latter quit to pursue different sounds. They eventually reconvened, in court, when the drummer Mike Joyce successfully sued for extra royalties, much to Morrissey’s chagrin.

Litigation is an occupational hazard for successful songwriters, and it looms large over Led Zeppelin’s front two, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. They made groundbreaking heavy rock in the early 1970s, but also borrowed from earlier acts, and last year were (unsuccessfully) sued regarding Stairway to Heaven. "I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used," said Page, in 2012. "Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn't always do that, which is what brought on most of the grief." They reformed as Page and Plant in the 1990s, then again drifted apart as Plant tired of regular rock. But a shared new direction can reinvigorate lengthy partnerships.

Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus could have split when ABBA did, in 1982; instead they wrote the musical Chess - with Tim Rice - then the ABBA show Mamma Mia, and the film version. They are currently writing the sequel, having celebrated their own 50th anniversary last year.

Pick the right project, though. Arguably the Brill Building’s greatest duo, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, penned numerous standards – Walk on By, Close to You – but wound up suing each other over a disastrous movie, Lost Horizon, in 1973. Bacharach’s subsequent collaborator was his wife, Carole Bayer Sager.

Taupin/John have avoided such dramas, as Sir Elton looks elsewhere for lyricists when pursuing more diverse projects. Diamonds also features his song Electricity - written for Billy Elliot: The Musical with the playwright Lee Hall - and another track with Rice, Written in the Stars, from their version of Aida. John’s next major project: reworking those Lion King songs for the forthcoming live-action movie, starring Beyonce.

Meanwhile, Taupin has other artistic interests. He now describes himself as a painter first, songwriter second, and his sheer remoteness is probably the main reason for their longevity. The duo have apparently never argued, chiefly because “you have to see each other for that to happen,” said Taupin, in 2015. Had they worked more closely, he said: “I think there probably would have been a more acrimonious kind of thing between the two of us.”

Sorry may be the hardest word, but 50 years on, they still steer well clear.

Elton John performs at the Autism Rocks Arena, Dubai, on Friday. Tickets start from Dh295, at www.platinumlist.net

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