Friday, December 15, 2006

Desert Island Discs

Aaaaaaaaah, Desert Island Discs! As English as gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn - the Sunday morning sound of plummy voices and scratchy records, sandwiched between The Archers omnibus and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, with the rich kitchen aroma of lamb roasting and the imminent promise of slipping down the local for a pre-lunch bitter, back for grub, then a solid afternoon’s dozing in front of the football. Unbeatable.

Desert Island Discs, born in 1942, is the longest running music programme in the history of radio, proving that the deep, geeky pleasure of compiling personal Top 10 type lists, of categorizing your cultural make-up, was merely taken to its logical conclusion (and then way, way beyond) by Nick Hornby, not invented by him.

D.I.D is the mother of all List shows. Virtually every famous or worthy Briton has appeared at some point, including Noel Coward, Rowan Williams and all the last five Prime Ministers. The format is simple enough – you get to choose your eight favourite records to take on a desert island and between justifying your selections you talk about the triumphs and disasters of your long and fascinating life.

Over the years I have identified three different approaches taken by the guests to the problem of choosing just eight tunes from the billions available.

The first approach is just to pick your eight bestest songs. Thus Tory MP Ken Clarke had eight swing jazz records. The second is to pick the eight tracks that are least likely to drive you mad after endless repetitive playing in the isolation of a desert island. Though sensible if you were actually about to be packed off to a life of interminable solitude and boredom, this method seems to me to be taking the thing rather too seriously.

The third ­– and I suppose the most suitable method for the programme – is to take an autobiographical approach, selecting tunes that represent important stages or moments in your life.

The fourth method – which I will call the Politician’s Method – is to pick (or get your PR team to pick) music that you think will make you appear cool.

My two penn’oth (as at 15 December 2006)
In truth, most castaways take a line mixing all four approaches, and so will I. But since it is much more fun to agonisingly whittle down your own list than to read those of others, I will whistle through my selection tolerably quickly. (It is agony by the way, because after a while you start getting really quite upset about leaving things out. I’ve had to jettison the Beatles, Beethoven, Bob Dylan – and that’s just the B’s).

(By the way, you also get to choose a luxury and one book (in addition to the complete Shakespeare and the Bible). Those are easy enough. A life without Test Match Special is not worth the living, so Radio 4 Longwave is the obvious luxury, and the book will of course be the Aubrey-Maturin series in one huge volume.) So on to the records:

First up is Buddy Holly’s Rave On, which the Brit Pater Familias had on an LP and which was the first piece of music to make me spontaneously jump on the spot. As soon I was old enough to work the record player, I would play it repeatedly, leaping about the furniture like the miniature rock 'n roll monkey I was. That introductory “We-a- -he-he-he hell” is still the best thing in rock music.

The next four selections can be hurdled at a relative gallop, being all classical and all heartbreakingly maudlin. I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah is a burst of Catholic beauty; then Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto; followed by Chopin’s Nocturne No 7 in C sharp minor; and Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid (which is a cello/violin piece used recently in the Master and Commander film and thus the perfect accompaniment to my reading).

Number Six is Cemetry Gates by the Smiths. I have to have some pop music, since so much of my time and money has been frittered away on it, and this song’s Englishness would help keep me sane. Number Seven is Gerry and the Pacemakers’ version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, for obvious sentimental and tribal reasons.

You are also required to rescue one of your eight records in an imaginary tidal wave. This is straightforward enough, since record number eight is O Mio Babbino Caro, from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

This two minutes of sublime light shone on our world of petty woes is here channeled through Angela Gheorghiu. Get your tear-pricking and spine-tingling apparatus ready:

(YouTube also has renditions by Kiri te Kanawa and even Maria Callas. O brave new world!)

Since none of us will ever get on the actual programme, please feel free to use the comments section as an outlet for your own Desert Island Disc compiling urges.


Susan's Husband said...

Your list is complete musica incognita for me — I don't think I have ever heard any of those. I do recognize a few of the artists.

Also, by "disc" do you mean albums (physical discs) or songs?

Brit said...

Buddy Holly is too obscure for you?

It's songs (or single pieces of classical music).

David said...

Here is my greatest personal failing: I just don't care very much about music. I'm no Hornblower; I can recognize music and I have likes and dislikes and I can make the emotional connection (the chills and tingling equipment works) but I just don't have any appreciation for it. I never set time aside for it, I really don't know anything about it and I find it fairly distracting if I'm trying to do something.

Pretty awful, I know.

Oroborous said...

I'm absolutely an "approach #2" person. While I love pop music, I can't think of any piece that I'd want to live with forever. My music would be all classical, jazz, and showtunes.

Peter Burnet said...

Pretty good selection, Brit. I'd certainly go with "O Mio Babbino Caro" and I'd add "Che Gelida Manina" by Pavarotti. If you include concertos, that means more than one movement is permitted, so I'd want a Brandenburg (can't remember which one at the moment--3rd I think) and Mozart's 40th symphony--the perfect music for building thatched roof huts by.

Then one of my favourites from the Red Army Chorus, Fred Astaire doing "The Way You Look Tonight" (tough on a desert island, though), either "Puttin' on the Ritz" or a Joplin favourite and a classic Irish tenor doing "The Last Rose of Summer" to cover the many maudlin moments ahead.

Rock would be tough for me because I can't think of one I'd want to hear repeatedly. I can also think of a few Broadway soundtracks I would substitute (I'd probably settle on My Fair Lady), but again, no one song.

Then I'd probably spend hours on the beach kicking myself for not choosing Pachelbel's Canon instead of that damn Irish tenor.

Peter Burnet said...

BTW, let's put the word out and tell everybody we're looking for a CD for David entitled "Music to Study Torah By".

Hey Skipper said...

Considering I can fit a solid week's worth of music in less space than six discs, the whole notion of actually having to choose seems a bit, oh, last century.

Although I have failings much greater than David's, I do share partially share his. While I do very much like listening to slightly off the beaten track rock, I am apparently completely immune to all the genres of which my betters are so fond.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit, I just got home and I have no speakers at the office. That Gheorghiu clip is absolutely astounding. Thanks. One good turn deserves another.

Peter Burnet said...

Skipper, David:

Try this.

Hey Skipper said...


Thanks for the suggestion.

The artistic brilliance is readily apparent -- no wonder people find that kind of music so enthralling.

Unfortunately, and this is my own failing, it passes through me as if I'm not even there.

Hey Skipper said...

Anyway, here are my DIDs:

Jethro Tull -- Thick as a Brick. If we are limited to songs, and are going to be stuck on an island for a long time, size matters.

The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo -- Just Another Day Fitting theme for being stuck on an island.

Aaron English -- The Lullaby of Loneliness Fitting follow-on to Just Another Day

The Chemical Brothers & Flaming Lips -- The Golden Path. On account of that's what the beach looks like on a desert island.

The Counting Crows -- Einstein on a Beach Because I'd be spending a lot of time on the beach, and would need to be an Einstein to figure out how to get off the island.

Gordon Lightfoot -- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald After all, something like that must be why I'm stuck on this desert island.

Approach number five: thematic.

I'll follow Brit's lead on the book.

Luxury? Famous Grouse.

Brit said...

Peter: Thanks, and three cheers for YouTube. I spent hours the other night cruising for sopranos...

I actually think the Te Kanawa rendition is the best, but her frankly shocking dress put me off posting the video.

David and Skipper:

Classical music is a bit like Famous Grouse and olives. Even if you don't immediately have the taste, you have to keep plugging away until you finally give in.

But maybe we should have a Desert Island Books thread.

Peter Burnet said...

Even if you don't immediately have the taste, you have to keep plugging away until you finally give in.

Heh, heh. Say, Brit....oh never mind, I'll save it for the Daily Duck.

Brit said...

Yes, probably best.

Here's one it was painful to leave out: the Soave sia il vento trio from Cosi Fan Tutte.

Those last few bars, "Ai nostri desir" - spine-crunchingly beautiful.

Hey Skipper said...


No, I don't think it is that.

It is more of a neutrino thing. The music passes through me without any interaction whatsoever.

Peter Burnet said...

Oh, this is fun. Do we get to take the YouTube clips to the desert island with us? If so, I'm taking this one, sound or no sound.


Are you talking about music or light beer?

Brit said...

I was at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when Katherine Jenkins sang Abide with Me in front of 60,000 rugby supporters.

That was something.

martpol said...


Classical music is a bit like Famous Grouse and olives. Even if you don't immediately have the taste, you have to keep plugging away until you finally give in.

Unfortunately I haven't, hence my current selection (essentially the Ken Clarke approach) is all rock 'n' pop. I am, of course, culturally barren.

Lullaby by James, a ghost story which makes my spine tingle.

Winter by Tori Amos, because it's so beautiful it's made me cry.

You're a Big Girl Now by Bob Dylan. I don't think that relationship lyrics get any better than this.

Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield. After the misery of my first three, it would make get up, run around my island and punch the air.

Words by Doves. Ditto.

Five Years by David Bowie, for apocalyptic musing.

The Air That I Breathe by The Hollies, for karaoke practice.

Far From Me by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for a literal-minded tale of yearning.

And Catch-22 and a case of 10-year-old Ardbeg would do me fine.

Brit said...


How about this?

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, here are the 10 most played songs on my iTunes, although this also includes what my 14 yo and 11 yo play.

Bohemian Rhapsody Queen
Ain't No Sunshine Bill Withers No Woman, No Cry Bob Marley Put a Little Love in Your Heart Al Green & Annie Lennox
Lean on Me Bill Withers
Boulevard of Broken Dreams Green Day
I Second That Emotion Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
American Pie Don McLean
We Will Rock You Queen
Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Hey Skipper said...



Are you talking about music or light beer?

Come to think of it, yes.

Hey Skipper said...


You are making me feel autistic.

Hey Skipper said...

Now, if you want a piece that evocatively expresses emotional depths, this is the piece de resistance.

Peter Burnet said...

I had this horrible dream last night where Skipper and I divided up the desert island and all the right discs ended up on the wrong side.

Brit said...

What a very good website that is, Peter.

Sadly, this revolution is still in its infancy.

Susan's Husband said...

I recognized the name Buddy Holly, but the song mentioned is unknown to me (I don't think I could name any Buddy Holly songs, actually, although surely I must have heard some).

I listen mainly to YES, The Alan Parsons' Project, and Weird Al Yankovich, and sometimes Genesis, Melissa Etheridge, and Talking Heads.

Duck said...

Well, I already composed a top ten list, but that was a specialized list of videos by attractive babes, and not chosen specially for the music.

Clasically, I second Mi Babbino Caro. As my daughter has been involved with the school choir the last 6 years, I've listened to a wide variety of choral pieces. She had the benefit of one of the state's best music directors, and their concerts were of very high quality. In her junior year she was in the women's chorale, which won awards at the state meet.

Anyhow, at that year's Christmas concert the women's chorale did a rendition of Ave Maria that brought tears to my eyes. I would definitely bring that with me. I have a recording, and will upload it to the Daily Duck if I can figure out how.

Being stranded on an island would necessitate a lot of heavy labor building huts and such, and one would need some loud, inspiring motivational music. "Gona Fly Now" fits that bill as well as any theme song I've heard.

My aforementioned pop favorite "More Than This" by Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music would make the cut.

For sheer ethereal moodiness I'd choose the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony.

For nostalgia's sake I'd include one of my father's favorite songs, "Fly Me to the Moon" by Tony Bennett.

Beethoven's 5th symphony, the Pastorale, would be a fitting theme for the natural wilderness of an island.

For eight I'll go with something offbeat and fun, "Rock the Casbah" by the Clash.