‘The King of Cool’ is a moniker that many Hollywood actors would have loved during their time in the limelight. However, it is reserved for a figure who truly embodied the wild excess of La-La-Land, the one and only Steve McQueen. Simultaneously an iconic symbol of the golden age of cinema, and a reminder of the rampant toxic masculinity that raged throughout the industry at the time, he’s a confounding figure.
These days, he’s remembered as much for his abuse as his legendary roles. It’s safe to say that he certainly lived a life on the edge, despite what modern revisions of his persona might show us.
His work in films such as The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt confirmed McQueen as a star, but it was his presence off-camera that certified him as an icon. Never one to be cornered by the establishment, McQueen operated as a perennial rebel within Hollywood, often showing himself to be the working man’s representative in the major leagues, the fifth column of sorts.
He’d not only race motorcycles, carry a loaded magnum and try to bed as many famous actresses as he could but got up to countless other moments of ridiculousness, such as demanding bulk loads of razors or jeans when he agreed to do a picture— something, it turns out, he constructed so he could send care packages to his former school. This was the nature of the beast, often, there was a method to his madness.
Though he worked his way up to the lofty heights of Hollywood’s finest, despite being received poorly by critics for his performances, it was away from the studios that McQueen truly gained fame. Duly, for a man whose larger than life persona manages to live on to this day, over 40 years after his death, we’re listing five classic songs that mention the iconic titan of cinema.
It’s indicative of just how widespread McQueen’s effect on popular culture has been, showing that regardless of our changing attitudes on him, he’s bound to be a permanent fixture in popular culture in years to come.
Five classic songs that mention Steve McQueen:
‘Steve McQueen’ – Sheryl Crow (2002)
Where better to start than with the ‘90s queen of cool, Sheryl Crow? A swaggering number with a groove that evokes the sentiment of Bullitt, musically the song is very similar to Beck’s 1994 record ‘Loser’. Despite this, the 2002 rock anthem is perhaps the biggest and most unapologetic tribute to Steve McQueen that we’ve ever had.
The opening lyrics of the chorus belt out: “Like Steve McQueen / All I need’s a fast machine”, a simple but effective tribute to ‘The King of Cool’. It even comes with an entertaining video to boot, which sees Crow recreate some of the most famous McQueen cinematic moments, including the motorbike jump from The Great Escape.
‘Another One Bites the Dust’ – Queen (1980)
Something of a surprising number given just how funky the track is, it’s long been claimed that the opening line of one of Queen’s best-loved tracks was written specifically with the Bullitt star in mind. At the start of this Chic-inspired classic, frontman Freddie Mercury belts out: “Steve walks warily down the street / With his brim pulled way down low / Ain’t no sound but the sound of his feet / Machine guns ready to go”.
Allegedly, Mercury was inspired by the story of Steve McQueen starting to carry a gun after the Manson Family cult murdered his close friends Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring.
‘Star Star’ – The Rolling Stones (1973)
It’s a little known fact that this rocking classic, taken from The Rolling Stones record Goats Head Soup was partially inspired by Steve McQueen. The song was initially entitled ‘Starfucker’, but the head of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, said there was no chance of Goats Head Soup being released with the track, as he hated everything about it.
Wanting to keep the song on the album, the band said they’d change the name to ‘Star Star’. Regardless, Ertegun countered that he was unwilling to release it because he didn’t want to be sued by McQueen because of the lewd way he’s mentioned in the lyrics.
The song has been taken as an explicit account of a groupie with a lot of ‘experience’, and the line that mentions McQueen says: “Yeah, Ali McGraw got mad with you / for givin’ head to Steve McQueen”.
The Stones were adamant that they keep their song, so Ertegun elected to send a copy of it over to McQueen himself, to ask for his permission to release it. Unsurprisingly, the movie star was absolutely happy for it to go ahead, helping to raise his notoriety a little bit further.
‘High Plains Drifter’ – The Beastie Boys (1989)
Taken from 1989’s masterpiece Paul’s Boutique, ‘High Plains Drifter’ is one of the funkiest moments from the early period of the New York rap legends. Composed almost entirely of samples, we hear the band deliver some of their usually witty lyricism, and taking its title from the Clint Eastwood film of the same name, it’s clear where the boys were getting their inspiration from, Hollywood.
The boys sing: “I feel like Steve McQueen, a former movie star.” It’s the kind of irreverence the group were lauded for and the exact kind of icon McQueen quickly became.
‘The Revolution Will not be Televised’ – Gil Scott- Heron (1971)
The most iconic example of Steve McQueen being mentioned in song, who could forget Gil Scott-Heron’s politically charged poem, ‘The Revolution Will not be Televised’? One of the most influential songs of all time, brimming with cultural references, there’s no surprise that Heron included McQueen, as at the time he was one of the biggest stars on earth.
Managing to par both McQueen and Natalie Wood, he sings: “The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre / And will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia”.