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The 8 songs Steve McQueen couldn’t live without

With movies such as 12 Years a SlaveShame and Hunger, Steve McQueen has established himself as the moral compass of modern cinema. “I need a have a reason why I’m doing something,” he says, “Otherwise I’m lost.” It is this approach that has placed him in the world of slavery, the Irish troubles and sex addiction, where the big question of why is already answered. 

His approach to making movies that he deems “essential” is similar to how many artists approach social commentary in their music. This made his choices very notable when he appeared on Desert Island Discs, to be cast away with only eight single songs. 

The BBC radio show is a British institution. Since its first broadcast in 1942, it has hosted world leaders, dignitaries, global megastars and more, making Turner-prize winner and director McQueen just one of a long and expanding line of notable guests. 

His poetic view of the world is self-apparent from the off when he declares, “It’s as if James Brown and the Beatles had a baby,” as Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’ kicks in. “It’s joy,” he says about the song, “I was a huge fan of Prince growing up… This song is sexy, it’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s all about being young.”

Naturally, as McQueen was born in Britain in 1969 it meant that during his coming-of-age years, he was exposed to the boom of British Ska. Arguably the leaders of that movement were The Specials hailing from Coventry. He describes the band “as the first people he really looked up to”.

Adding, “I remember seeing them on Top of the Pops and the way they looked with Terry Hall looking like Buster Keaton and these two black guys jumping around and having fun. It was just so cool.” His choice of song from The Specials is of course their classic defining single ‘Too Much Too Young’.

Perhaps the most profound record in his life, however, was Miles Davis’ ‘Blue in Green’. “Wow,” he says almost flummoxed at a mere recollection of the otherworldly jazz masterpiece, “I remember being given a cassette of Kind of Blue [Miles Davis’s 24th appearance on record, for many his most quintessential as he offers up modal jazz with John Coltrane, Jimmy Cobb and the likes] by a guy called Adam Thorpe.”

“I said ‘I don’t really know jazz very well,’ and he said, ‘Well, take this, this is kind of like an introduction to it’. I listened to this album,” he says, pausing for a second clearly full of admiration. Adding, “It’s just stayed in my heart. Not to be morbid or anything but when I die this is going to be played at my funeral. It’s just beautiful.”

The director and artist has ventured into the realm of music himself, having worked with Kanye West directing music videos. “He went to a show of mine in Basel. And he called me and we got on very, very, well. He is someone who I would say is misunderstood. I think he’s fearless and experimenting and finding things out and pushing the medium. This song is not just about the muscularity of it but the beauty, there’s vulnerability to it.” 

You can check out the full list of tracks that Steve Rodney McQueen chose to be cast away with below.

Steve McQueen’s 8 favourite songs:

  • ‘Rock With You’ by Michael Jackson
  • ‘Raspberry Beret’ by Prince
  • ‘Too Much Too Young’ by The Specials 
  • ‘Blue in Green’ by Miles Davis
  • ‘Hell is Round the Corner’ by Tricky
  • ‘Aria’ by Johann Sebastian Bach
  • ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush
  • ‘Power’ by Kanye West

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