I’ve recently been working my way through the archives of BBC Radio 4’s seminal Desert Island Discs. When I started listening I was nervous it would involve a lot of well-off people talking about their comfortable lives (kind of like I’m about to). I like to think of myself as a bit of a ‘muso’, so I’m also very cautious about listening to people I might otherwise respect make musical choices of which I disapprove!
Luckily this only happens occasionally. Lawrence Dallaglio was a fabulous England rugby international and is a decent TV pundit now who has a very interesting and moving family history, but when he described how “this one will remind me of my mum Eileen”, my heart sank. But then I’ve listened to Cath Kidston talk with searing honesty about why she hadn’t ever had children, Martin Clunes about his childhood bed-wetting and Danny Baker about surviving cancer. This last week Mark Gatiss spoke beautifully about the loss of both his mother and sister in barely 18 months.
All of this prompted me to consider what I would choose… If I could only listen to 8 discs for the rest of my life, which would I choose? What aspects of my life do I want to remember in my isolated island paradise? After barely a few minutes thinking off the top of my head I had almost 20 titles written down. The idea of never hearing all of these again almost caused me physical pain. Narrowing this down to a favourite 8 seemed nigh-on impossible, like asking me to choose my favourite film.
But I have had a go.
Within hours of posting this post last week, I was plagued with doubts about my choices. New ideas sprang to mind, and one particular omission kept coming back to me. The truly difficult thing here is what to leave behind, not what to pick. I started thinking about spoken word pieces, like Eddie Izzard’s priceless ‘Death Star Canteen’. But in the end I have chosen to leave out the band who have influenced my music possibly more than anything.
When I was a child, the music in our house had two distinct flavours. Mum had a ‘pop’ sensibility, especially anything she could sing along to. I remember Ed Stewart and Alan Freeman on Radio 2 playing the hits of the 1960s and 1970s, and have an uncanny ability to remember the lyrics of songs I haven’t heard for decades. Dad has a large classical collection which only rarely got played, but he was also a Queen fan, which meant that I soon became a Queen fan, poring over the gatefold sleeves of A Night at The Opera and A Day at The Races. Queen weren’t like other pop bands. They looked weird, definitely not cool. Their music was weird too, wonderfully played and intensely complicated, layers of arrangements and vocal harmonies. Most of the time they rocked.
Queen were the reason I have liked ELO, heavy and prog-rock in various guises, the dense orchestral textures of symphonies, Muse and Radiohead (among others)… but they have no place on my island, because their influence is clear in many of these other tracks, and because I realised I needed a space for a track specifically dedicated to my two daughters.
1. Elizabeth Mitchell – You are my Sunshine
When Hannah was born, I already knew that I wanted her to enjoy singing, so I sang. Quite a bit. A common favourite was Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, and she had a cot-mobile that played this version of Brahms’ Lullaby, which was apparently meant to help her fall asleep, but I remember is sitting up with her for what felt like days, listening to this or humming it myself, willing her to succumb…
But we first heard this version of this song on a compilation CD by Putumayo World Music, which introduced us to all sorts of world music folk tunes and arrangements. These have proved wonderful lullabys for our girls, and they especially love this one. Whenever I listen to this one I will hear their voices singing it, and I shall probably be in floods of tears.
2. Led Zeppelin – Since I’ve Been Loving You
It was a relatively simple step into my teenage years from Queen to ‘proper’ heavy rock, but it wasn’t until I spent 6 months in the US that I discovered Led Zeppelin. I’ve written before about the majesty and musicianship in this; vocals, guitars, drums. It doesn’t get much better.
3. Mahler – Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
My main ‘activity’ at university was playing in the orchestra. One day after my 23rd birthday, Wednesday 11th March 1992, was probably my finest hour. We tackled this massive work, I was playing 1st Horn and pretty much nailed it. It’s a genuine test of endurance with enormous climaxes but also sections of limpid beauty (like just after 2’00” here). After 4½ movements and over an hour, the huge choir finally makes its entrance, astonishingly quietly…
…and then the final sections: after so much playing and concentration, these are an ordeal in themselves. But I will never forget that final chord and being overwhelmed by the cheers of our audience.
4. Deee-Lite – Groove is in the Heart
There were a huge number of what I think of as dancefloor classics from my time at university, from Primal Scream to The Happy Mondays to The Stone Roses. Mostly indie / guitar-based rock with extra bite, beats and groove. The wonderful exception to prove this rule for me is this infectious piece of kitsch, over-the-top, uplifting magic. This will never grow old. I would dance to this even if I could barely stand.
5. Debussy – Clair de Lune
Many of these choices are richly layered pieces. I can listen to the Mahler over and over for different parts, but this is a complete contrast. This will remind me of my wife Rachel: I’ve listened to her playing it for 20 years, and I wouldn’t want to stop now. I could lie on the beach, gaze at the moon and listen to this.
6. Saint-Saens – Symphony No.3 “Organ”
Another seriously big orchestral work that thrilled me when I was lucky enough to play it with an amateur orchestra from Cheltenham in a seriously large church in Cherbourg. The organ was mighty and we made a pretty fantastic sound. It is most famous for the final movement and the massive role of the organ, but the beautiful 2nd movement is the heart and soul for me.
7. Radiohead – Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
Radiohead are the antithesis of X-Factor-manufactured-pop bands. They seemingly don’t care whether their music has tunes, verses or choruses. I vaguely knew Thom Yorke in my first year at university, and I have a demo tape of On A Friday from 1989. Just when people started thinking of them as a coruscating guitar band, they went all trippy and electronic. This ethereal track seems perfect for swimming the reefs around my island, although I don’t have any intentions of being ‘picked over by the worms’…
8. Sinead O’Connor – In This Heart
We had this sung at our wedding – although we did alter some of the words to be less about loss and death! Another piece I could play at nights, when I’m about to sleep, to remind me of Rachel, Hannah and Ella. I’d probably weep buckets listening to many of these, but I suppose that would be a way of remembering how blessed I have been, that I’m alive, and that I still mean something.
As I said, there are many, many tracks that I’ve had to exclude. If Kirsty Young asked me to choose one from these, I’d probably pick the Led Zeppelin. My luxury would probably be a French Horn with a comprehensive collection of music – both solo music and orchestral parts, so I could recreate the symphonies at least in part.
For my book I’m torn between three.
- A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth). I read this in The Maldives, and as it’s 1400 pages it would offer great value for money
- Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell). Possibly a bit bleak in its view of humanity, but the brilliant writing, rich texture and structure of six thematically linked novellas would again offer great repeat potential
- The Road (Cormac McCarthy). The poetic beauty of the prose would give me endless pleasure to read it out loud to whatever animals might be around to listen, despite the terrors of the story. The Father-Son relationship is among the most amazing things in prose.
And so, dear readers, what do you think? What would you take?