Is nobody capable of making a hit single on their own these days?  Just take a look at last week’s singles Top 50; there are 18 singles that are credited to more than 1 artist (and that’s not including Noah and the Whale).  Rewind 10 years and 8 singles are credited to more than 1 artist; go back another 10 years and it’s down to 5.  Go back another 10 years to 1981 and there are 2 (and one of those is a comedian with a brass band).  You don’t need to be a statistician to spot a trend there, do you?

It’s not as if the idea of getting together with your mates to knock out a quick track to keep your dealer off your back is a new idea, but it’s never been quite as blatant as it is at the moment.  There’s nothing wrong with a good duet when there’s a bit of sexual chemistry going on (say, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) or just old-fashioned hero worship (the whole Tom Jones “Reload” album) but the current obsession with multiple-artist songs has nothing to do with that, and I blame Rick Rubin.

Why? “Walk This Way”, that’s why.  In 1986, Rick Rubin combined Run DMC with Aerosmith and created an MTV goldmine. Hundreds of music business powder-monkeys suddenly realised that they had the answer to their prayers.  Why try to obey market segmentation rules when you can shoehorn different musical cultures together and call it a collaboration?  You also get the chance to tap in to more than 1 fanbase for any given single, so make sure your collaborators represent totally separate markets. How about Sting and Pato Banton?  Don’t forget dance music in the early 90s either; there was a legal obligation at that time to have at least 16 bars of rap 2/3 of the way through dance singles of every genre.

So there’s a chance for a bit of genuine musical creativity here, musicians collaborating across genres to produce new forms and push back musical boundaries.  Not unless you lived in Bristol apparently.  Massive Attack produced 2 timeless, essential albums and the local scene also gave us the likes of Tricky, Portishead and Martina Topley-Bird.  It should have opened the doors for all sorts of creative collaborations, but the music-buying public preferred Blur and Oasis.

So it’s 2011 and you’re putting together the package for the new Katy Perry single “ET”.  What’s the first thing you would do to make it more commercial?  How about an intro by Kanye West that sounds like it was thrown together by a 3-year old with a sampler?  Sounds about right.  The J-Lo former number 1, “On the Floor” is a huge party anthem aimed at the Ibiza dance market, so what’s the last thing you would want on there? Spot on, a rap by Pitbull smeared all over it.  It’s all about increasing market penetration and absolutely nothing else.  It wouldn’t be quite so bad if you thought that it was actually a collaboration where the artists got together and produced something from a meeting of creative minds, but the reality is something like: “Have a listen to this and can you email me a 32-bar rap for bars 256-288 by the end of the week?”

Maybe it’s a bit radical, but wouldn’t it be great if you got a good melody with some interesting chords under it, decent lyrics and a good vocal performance (preferably without Autotune) and put the whole lot together as a song?  Any chance of that catching on?

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Picture of - Brian Robertson Diamonds & DirtOne thing you can say about Robbo is that he doesn’t waste any time. After all, it’s only 33 years since he parted company with Thin Lizzy and he’s just released his first solo album. Okay, he had his own band, Wild Horses, and worked with Frankie Miller and Motorhead, but this is his first solo outing since departing from Lizzy at the height of their fame. The album happened as a result of Robbo’s friend Soren listening to some old demo cassettes and suggesting that Robbo should record them as a solo project.

The songs that made the final cut are a mixed bag; some Robertson originals, some Phil Lynott songs, some Frankie Miller songs and some collaborations with Lynott and Miller. Some have been released before and some haven’t. The only element common to all the songs is Robbo himself and the band (Ian Haughland, Nalley Pahlsson, Leif Sundin and Liny Wood) put together for the album.

The album opens with 2 Robbo compositions, the title track, and “Passion” which wouldn’t sound out of place on an 80s Don Henley album and runs through various permutations of Robertson, Miller and Lynott compositions, finishing on the Frankie Miller classic “Ain’t Got No Money”. The poppiest song ever written by Phil Lynott, “Running Back” from the “Jailbreak” album, appears in 2 versions here, a slow blues version and a mid-tempo rocker which works well apart from the jarring piano solo.

It’s obvious, even on the first listen, that Robbo is still a great guitar player. His growling and howling Les Paul/Marshall sound is as distinctive as ever and his solos still show great technique and melodic invention. Even the vocals are good and the rhythm section and production are excellent. Which tells you that there’s a big “but” on the way.

Although Robbo plays virtually everything except drums on this album, he isn’t a one-man-band. He has a talent which only functions properly with a collaborator strong enough to encourage the greatness and to know when to apply the brakes. Apart from the Celtic soul brothers Frankie Miller and Phil Lynott, and perhaps Jimmy Bain (also Scottish), Robbo hasn’t worked with anyone strong enough to bring out the best of his abilities live or on record. The best material on the album is written either by or with Lynott or Miller apart from, possibly, “Texas Wind”.

Robbo’s musical versatility also works against him at times. He’s known mainly as a melodic rock lead guitar player but he grew up playing with a band (Dream Police) which later formed the core of the Average White Band and also played on a live Graham Parker version of “Hold Back the Night”. Most fans like their heroes to stick to one predictable style and Robbo is just too good for that, which is one of the reasons why he always polarises opinion in the rock fraternity.

Brian Robertson, November 1978 (Photo by Allan McKay)

“Diamonds and Dirt” is patchy because the songs are written by a variety of people over a relatively long period of time and some songs don’t wear too well. The one constant throughout the album is the great playing which we expect from a rock hero. If you set aside the rock sectarianism and listen to this album with an open mind, it’s actually really good.