From Dylan & Cash to Bowie & Jagger: 10 of rock music’s greatest duets of all time
A great duet is not only hard to come by but extremely hard to pull off. The delicate balancing act of sounds, vocal tones and styles is one thing but the potentially treacherous seesaw of egos is far more frightening. However, when it is done correctly and pulled off without a hitch, then there is perhaps nothing sweeter than a perfect duet. Here, we’ve pulled together 10 of our favourite rock duets featuring some esteemed artists and bands.
Duets may feel like the kind of thing that only works well within the manufactured pop space but, in fact, we’d argue that some of the best duets have been born in rock music. So, whether it is an anthemic fist-pumping good time or a power ballad for the ages, we’ve got you covered. Not only does the list below include some of the music world’s best and brightest but it has them teamed up with somebody equally impressive. That’s the kind of combo we want to see.
We will let you in on one secret here, a few artists are better at this than others. Both Stevie Nicks and David Bowie are the only two singers to have two entries on our list and there’s a good reason. Bowie’s singular sound and unique vision ironically make him a prime candidate for a duet as he provides such a crystalline vision of his path that many people can work alongside him. Equally, Nicks’ vocal talents mean she is always a dream candidate too.
It’s actually a theme that runs throughout our selections. These aren’t collaborations from people who fall in the background of their bands or acts, these are the stars combining for one special moment. For that reason alone, we hold duets in the highest regard and hope, for the future, that they continued to be used as effectively.
Below, we’re bringing you 10 of rock music’s best duets and it is quite some list. One final thing to note is that we haven’t included any off the cuff duets. These usually include live performances together as, for the most part, we could literally make a list of the top 100 and still not capture all of our favourites. So while we squirrel away on that one, for now, take a look at these perfect pairings.
Rock music’s best duets of all time:
10. ‘Dancing in the Street’ – David Bowie & Mick Jagger
Easily the most recognisable of David Bowie’s duets, it has become a sore point for diehard fans. It’s fair to say the track isn’t the most artistically gifted but it does allow for some irreverence in Bowie’s extensive back catalogue. Looking back it may seem a bit trite, but there are bundles of joy in this duet.
Released in 1985, the song is really hinged on the fantastical eighties video for the song. The fact that we can look back at this meeting of minds in such brightly coloured and billowing shirts just makes sure this song will live on forever.
If you’re in the mood for a bit of a laugh, listening to the isolated track of this video is just about the best thing you could do with your day.
9. ‘Walk This Way’ – Aerosmith and Run DMC
This song, unlike any other on this list, can boast being a genuine lifesaver or, should we more accurately say, a career-saver. There’s no point in denying that before Aerosmith teamed up with Run DMC for this now-iconic song, that they were on the way out.
The band’s ability to craft sexy rock had begun to wane and it would take an injection of style and panache from some of hip-hop’s founding fathers to reignite their career. When Run DMC took on the Aerosmith track ‘Walk’ they couldn’t have known how potent the track would be.
Ever since its release it has been a mainstay of the party DJ playlist and should, in our minds, stay there for eternity.
8. ‘Good Times’ – INXS and Jimmy Barnes
Some songs just need the volume cranked way up and the collaboration between Aussie rockers INXS and Jimmy Barnes is a bonafide foot-stomper. The kind of song that can light up an entire bar room, Jimmy Barnes’ voice is p[particularly brilliant.
“I’ve had a problem playing ‘Good Times’ live since Michael died,” reflected Barnes about INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence tragic and unexpected death. “It’s driven me nuts. Everyone loves it, they want me to play it and I didn’t want to play it any f—ing more because it’s not the same without Michael.”
Barnes and Hutchence were great friends and you can hear their connection permeate every single note of this iconic song. A part of The Lost Boys soundtrack, the music of Michael Hutchence is now more potent than ever.
7. ‘Hunger Strike’ – Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell shared a brotherly friendship for the majority of their careers. It was a bond that was formed back in 1990 when tragic events led to the formation of a band by the name of Temple of the Dog. The band was a mechanism for Cornell to pay tribute to his late friend Andrew Wood and blessings would come out of that project, however, with not only a great record being produced but a friendship which would last for decades.
‘Hunger Strike’ would be the final song that was recorded for the album and was only pulled together at the last minute because the group only had only nine songs and Cornell has a compulsive distaste for odd numbers. Describing the song in the Pearl Jam Twenty collection, he said, “I was wanting to express the gratitude for my life but also disdain for people where that’s not enough, where they want more. There’s no way to really have a whole lot more than you need usually without taking from somebody else that can’t really afford to give it to you. It’s sort of about taking advantage of a person or people who really don’t have anything.”
6. ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ – Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty
Arguably the reason that her debut LP Bella Donna became a solo success for Stevie Nicks was ironically her duet with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. After Jimmy Iovine had been working with both artists he suggested that Nicks lay some vocals on Petty’s album Hard Promises and Petty give the singer his track ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’. It was a genius move.
Iovine had suspected Bella Donna was lacking a big hit single and his choice to grab this Petty number proved a fruitful one. The track shot up to number three on the Billboard 100 chart and boosted the album to number one as it did.
Nicks and Petty shared an incredible friendship from this moment on and his contribution to the album is undeniable. Their friendship is perfectly preserved in the brilliant duet on this track.
5. ‘When Love Comes to Town’ – U2 and B.B. King
B.B. King is undoubtedly one of the forefathers of modern rock music and the idea of him duetting with anybody feels like a bum deal for King’s counterpart. But when that opposing force for the same goal is U2 and Bono, then we think there was perhaps an equal measure on both sides.
Bono and King trading lyrics is such a perfect fit, it feels odd that they didn’t make more music together. Despite whether you like or loathe Bono, as a singer, he has a velvety vocal which is hard to beat. It makes the perfect partner for King’s guitar playing and the duo interplay with one another throughout the song.
‘When Love Comes to Town’ also helped to introduce B.B. King to a brand new generation and that, in our books, is always a good thing.
4. ‘Leather & Lace’ – Stevie Nicks and Don Henley
“I wrote ‘Leather and Lace’ for Waylon (Jennings) because he called and asked me to write a song called ‘Leather and Lace,’” recalls Nicks on her website. “I had never written a song for somebody especially for somebody that had given me a title.” Nicks continued “I was under a lot of pressure to finish this song whereas in…usually if I don’t want to finish something, I don’t finish it.”
Dating Don Henley at the time, he and Nicks would work on the song from time to time, trying to perfect it. By the time Bella Donna came around, Nicks knew what she had to do, she had to get Henley on record. “I said ‘Don, I can’t do this song without you. So if Waylon doesn’t do it and you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done ’cause I wrote this song for a man and a woman in the music business that are trying to work out their problems together. You know, your spirit and my spirit is greatly in it.”
Nicks shared the fact that he even appeared on the album is all the reward she needs for the LP. “He’s a hard one to get to, even for me,” reflected Nicks. “And he would do anything for me, but he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t think it was good. So that was probably the greatest compliment of all that he is even on this record because he wouldn’t have put his voice on this record if he didn’t think it was up to his standards.”
3. ‘The Girl From North Country’ – Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
Bob Dylan first recorded his song ‘The Girl From North County’ back in 1963 but when he was invited on to the Johnny Cash Show six years later there was only one song they would sing together. Dylan had remained close friends with Cash since they first met at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, a bond that remained strong up until Cash’s death in 2003.
There was a great deal of mutual respect between the two icons with Cash recalling in Cash: The Autobiography: “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road, and I’d put on [The] Freewheelin’ [Bob Dylan] backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off. After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”
“In plain terms, Cash was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats then and now,” Dylan wrote upon Cash’s passing in 2003. “Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.”
There’s perhaps no better example of their mutual appreciation for one another than in their touching duet below.
2. ‘Don’t Give Up’ – Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush
This is Kate Bush at her best and it’s only not made the list because it’s a duet with her long-time friend Pete Gabriel but we thought it needed an honourable mention as it’s Bush’s manipulation of light and dark at its finest.
Written for Gabriel’s 1986 album So, the song deals with a relationship moving in two different ways. It had initially been slated as a duet with Dolly Parton, “Because there was a reference of America roots music in it when I first wrote it,” remembered Gabriel, “it was suggested that Dolly Parton sing on it. But Dolly turned it down… and I’m glad that she did because what Kate did on it is… brilliant.”
Gabriel’s verses are downbeat, downtrodden and desperate as he portrays an unemployed man at the end of his tether. While Bush provides a genuinely hopeful and caring chorus of light to Gabriel’s dark—it’s stunning.
With their friendship, we are served an intimacy that not many could match and now have one fo the finer call and response songs of all time.
1. ‘Under Pressure’ – Queen and David Bowie
The notorious session Freddie Mercury and David Bowie shared before, during and after the recording of Queen’s iconic hit will go down in history. It also may well be the reason for the shared intensity of the track.
Bowie happened to be recording an LP around the corner from Queen’s studio when he humbled in and ended up challenging Mercury to a sing-off. What transpired thereafter turned into one of Bowie’s finest tracks and one of Queen’s undying anthems. “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically,” recalls Brian May.
Fuelled by cocaine, wine and a hefty dose of big bruising ego, Bowie and Freddie Mercury went toe to toe on this track and somehow both came out as champions.