Sunday 20 October 2013

Book Review: "Desert Island Discs" by Mitchell Symons

This is the theme for Desert Island Discs
(To get in the mood for this post, click on the link here and listen!)

Imagine that you have been marooned all alone on a desert island in the tropics. Imagine, too, that through some strange magic you have been able to select eight of your most favourite recordings to have with you (they could be songs, spoken-word pieces, or instrumental music), and that you have also found - in Robinson Crusoe fashion - a playback device of some sort on the mangled craft that has been smashed to bits on the island's rocky shore. And by yet some further quirk of fate, you are able to select a book and one special item (a "luxury") to lighten the burden of your lonely vigil, as you wait anxiously for a passing ship to save you. Could you survive a period of solitude in the wild? Could you find the means to provide shelter and sustenance? That situation, and these questions, are the premises of the long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs.

 Each week a celebrity, or a lesser-known person of some significant accomplishment, is invited to be the guest ("castaway") on the BBC Radio 4 programme - to reveal their list of recordings and to talk to the host about their life and achievements. Part of the fascination with the programme is the candid conversation - often delving into rather controversial topics - and part of it is the track-by-track revelation of the guest's musical taste, which is sometimes impressive, but can also be rather dreadful. Let's face it, the music people choose can be very revealing! And you never know which way it will go: you hear the profile of that week's guest, and you fear the worst, only to be pleasantly surprised; other times you are disappointed by the drab choices of a figure you really admire. You never can tell. Of all the eight or nine BBC Radio 4 podcasts that I listen to regularly now on my commute to and from work (thanks to the iPod patched into my car's audio system), Desert Island Discs is my favourite. And I'm in good company. In a survey done in the UK in 2006, the programme was chosen as Britain's second-best radio show, behind I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and ahead of Woman's Hour, The Archers and Just a Minute.


Roy Plomley devised the concept for Desert Island Discs and hosted the show from 1942-1985


It was freelance radio producer Roy Plomley who came up with the idea for Desert Island Discs. He had begun his radio career in 1936 working for IBC in France - first for Radio Normandy, and then Poste Parisien in Paris. After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Plomley moved back to England, and was living in a cottage in Bushey, Hertfordshire. It was there one evening in November 1941 that he dreamt up the concept for the programme. As Mitchell Symons points out in his book, just asking people to nominate a set of their favourite records was not a new idea; it was the desert island concept that made his programme-idea unique. He wrote to Leslie Perowne, who was in charge of popular record programmes at the BBC. Perowne liked the idea, and gave him the go-ahead. The very first edition of Desert Island Discs was recorded on 27 January 1942 in a Maida Vale studio that had recently been damaged in a bombing raid. The show was broadcast two nights later. The guest - they would soon be dubbed "castaways" - was the comedian Vic Oliver.

That debut episode was the first of eight weekly programmes. The run was successful; Plomley was a skillful interviewer and he backed up his work with meticulous research. The BBC renewed his contract and another 15 programmes were produced. Over the next 43 years Roy Plomley presented an incredible 1,791 editions of Desert Island Discs! When his run finally came to an end in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over briefly (1986-1988); he was followed by Sue Lawley (1988-2006), and then by Kirsty Young, who was been hosting the show since 2006.

Kirsty Young has been the presenter of Desert Island Discs since 2006
Desert Island Discs is now the second longest-running radio show in the world - outdone only by The Grand Ole Opry. When the programme was approaching its 70th. anniversary - in January 2012 - the BBC commissioned the broadcaster and journalist Mitchell Symons to mark the auspicious occasion by compiling a comprehensive book of facts, figures and trivia about the long-lasting series. The result of his extensive research - based on the BBC's own rich archive - is the book that is here under review: Desert Island Books Flotsam and Jetsam: Facts, figures and miscellany from one of BBC Radio 4's best-loved programmes (2012).

The fun of a book like this is that you can dip into it at any point and find lists that capture your interest. It's not a linear or sequential approach: flip backwards and forwards, from one page to the next. So let's dip now fairly randomly into the contents of this book and pull out some interesting facts and pieces of trivia.



The four main sections of Desert Island Discs Flotsam and Jetsam are called Castaways, Music, Luxuries, and Books. "Castaways" refers to the guests who have been on the programme. I tried to find out how many people altogether have been on the show - I looked in the book and also on their own website. Haven't found the answer yet. There have been about 2,800 editions of Desert Island Discs, but there has also been a large number of castaways who have been on the show more than once: two people have been on Desert Island Discs four times - the comedian and  entertainer Arthur Askey (1942, 1955, 1968, 1980), and the naturalist TV presenter David Attenborough (1957, 1979, 1998, 2012). And over the long life of the programme, the following group have been on three times: Petula Clark, Michael Crawford, David Frost, Robertson Hare, Stanley Holloway, Barry Humphries (once as Dame Edna), Celia Johnson, Charles Mackerras, John Mills, John Mortimer, Peter Ustinov, and Terry Wogan. And there have been over 200 people who have appeared twice.

Comedian Arthur Askey - a four-timer on Desert Island Discs
David Attenborough - the other four-timer

Three people agreed to be on Desert Island Discs who had refused to do the television programme This Is Your Life - Danny Blanchflower, Roger Moore, and Richard Gordon. Gordon is the English writer known best for his Doctor in the House books. When he was ambushed out in public by the host, who announced to him "This Is Your Life", Gordon replied, "Oh, balls, it's not". Classic. Actually, he changed his mind and did the show the following week.

Not all of the guests on Desert Island Discs have been individuals. Some programmes have featured very famous duos - who have been granted the comfort (or purgatory) of being marooned with their partner. Amongst this select group are some familiar teams: Flanders and Swann, Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Nina and Frederik, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews (his dummy), and Morecambe and Wise. Some of these people might live to regret their desert-island-life as a partnership. Well, they could always set themselves up on opposite sides of the island - if it turns out to be large enough.


The profile of Desert Island Discs guests looks like this: the ratio of men to women is about 70:30. And the three most common occupations of castaways have been stage, screen, and radio; writer; and musician. Other significant categories: sports, academics, politicians, and those working in the fields of art and design.


Four "castaways" have been from the Royal Family: Princess Margaret, the Duchess of Kent, Viscount Lynley, and Princess Michael of Kent - who, unbelievably, picked "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as her favourite Beatles piece. Go figure! [And James Galway picked "Octopus's Garden"!]

In 1992 John Major was on Desert Island Discs. He is the first and only serving Prime Minister to be on the show: and he showed his Englishness by selecting a John Arlett cricket commentary as one of his eight recordings. He also chose a piece by the very popular English composer Edward Elgar - who is the sixth most-favoured composer on the programme, behind Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Verdi.

Prime Minister John Major and interviewer Sue Lawley

When the Conservative Party leader David Cameron (2006) was on the show, he picked a song by The Smiths - "This Charming Man." The group's guitarist, Johnny Marr, was so angry he told Cameron later to stop saying he was a fan of the group.

Some of the castaways have made very revealing statements on Desert Island Discs. When John Cale (2004), for example, was asked what the Velvet Underground sounded like, he responded, "Painful". Debbie Harry (2011) expressed regret about not having children. Jack Lemmon, in  1989, said his mother was so keen to finish a Bridge game that she ended up giving birth to him in the elevator. Yoko Ono (2007) revealed that she asked John Lennon to decide whether or not to abort their son, Sean. "I didn't want to burden him," she said, "with something he didn't want." Yoko, by the way, chose John's "Beautiful Boy" as her Lennon track. So did Paul McCartney when he was on in 1982. And Michael Caine (2009) revealed that he makes "the best roast potatoes in the world."
Roy Plomley and Paul McCartney (1982)

Lauren Bacall (1979) became confused and difficult during her appearance. When Ray Plomley asked her near the end to pick one of her eight selections - the traditional, most favourite track of all to save from the waves (" ... if you could only save one disc ..."), she exploded, "What is this? You said I had eight records. Now you're saying I only have one?!"

Lauren Bacall was a castaway in 1979

Some people had a bit of a narcissistic edge: English concert pianist Moura Lympany (1979) chose eight pieces of music that featured herself as the pianist. Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1958) chose seven tracks featuring herself singing. The English tenor Peter Pears chose six tracks of himself singing. Norman Wisdom, Zubin Mehta, and Louis Armstrong chose five of their own recordings. And Satchmo also picked his autobiography as his book selection for the island.

 And some castaways have been real individuals: Rev. Ian Paisley chose eight records that were unique to him; and English blues musician Georgie Fame ("Yeh, Yeh"), meanwhile, chose six musical artists unique to him.

 One listener wrote in to complain about the emphasis on famous guests. He offered himself: "As a retired Post Office worker I think I qualify; and I enclose a list of my eight records. I am available most days, except Thursdays, when I go to Old Time Dancing."


The section in the book after Castaways is Music. This is the part of the work that is of most interest to me. It is fascinating to weigh the balance of choices between the predictable and the unique. One is often amazed by the bizarre choices that have been made over the years. How honest are the castaways in their choices? Do they throw in a classical track or two in order to give their list some gravitas? Do they leave out some music because they fear it will be judged as trite or light-weight?

 First, here are the favourite figures in the field of popular music: The Beatles - followed closely by Frank Sinatra; then come Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Noel Coward, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan, Paul Robeson and Judy Garland. Two British performers only in the top ten.

 The Top Five Beatles picks on Desert Island Discs? "Yesterday", "Hey Jude", "A Day in the Life", "Penny Lane", and "Eleanor Rigby". All but one by Paul. My favourite Beatles' track is 16th. in the list here - "Strawberry Fields Forever". Only six people out of about 2,500 chose it (including Kenny Everett and Douglas Fairbanks Jr).

George Martin: this castaway chose one by John; one by Paul

George Martin, who has been on Desert Island Discs twice (1982 and 1995), picked "In My Life" and "Here, There and Everywhere". One each by John and Paul. As diplomatic as ever.

 Other interesting Beatles' picks: John Cale selected "She Said, She Said" (cool!); Brian Epstein picked "She's a Woman"; Donald Sutherland preferred "Ballad of John and Yoko"; Richard Briers liked "Within You, Without You", and Roger Vadim chose "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".

Charlie Watts is the only one of the Stones to appear on Desert Island Discs

The other highly represented rock band is The Rolling Stones. The Top Five for the Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want", "Satisfaction", "Sympathy For The Devil", "Get Off My Cloud", and "Gimmie Shelter". Now how come I agree much more with the Stones' list than I do with The Beatles? By the way, the English actor Bill Nighy (2004) is the only castaway to pick two Stones tracks in his list of eight: "Gimmie Shelter" and "Winter".

 If you turn your attention away from performers and look at the list of favourite songs, here are the top ten songs (in order): "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien", "Underneath the Arches", "La Vie En Rose", "My Way", "Summertime", "Night and Day", "September Song", "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", "Over the Rainbow", and "These Foolish Things".

 It is fascinating to examine the long list of recording artists who have never been picked once on Desert Island Discs. Here are a few of the names that surprised me in this list: Buffalo Springfield, Alice Cooper, Dave Clark Five, Deep Purple, Bo Diddley, Dave Edmunds, The Faces, Fairport Convention, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, Carl Perkins, Sly and the Family Stone, Patti Smith, Ten Years After, The Troggs, and UB40.

The top ten list of favourite classical composers? The three big winners are Mozart, Beethoven and Bach - they are way ahead of the others. The rest of the group: Schubert, Verdi, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Handel and Wagner.

 The top ten pieces of classical music? The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), Messiah (Handel), Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Beethoven), The Magic Flute Mozart), Der Rosankavalier (Richard Strauss), Don Giovanni (Mozart), Tosca (Puccini), Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (Rachmaninov), St. Matthew Passion (Bach), and La Boheme (Puccini).

 Other bits of classical trivia. Some castaways stick just to classical music. And some of them have very specific tastes. The American writer James Ellroy chose works by just three composers: Beethoven (5), Bruckner (2) and Sibelius. British politician Enoch Powell also selected just three composers: Wagner (4), Beethoven (3) and Haydn. Maria Von Trapp picked only Mozart (4), Schubert (3) and Bach.

English actress Peggy Ashcroft loved Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major so much that she selected three excerpts from it!

 Lots of castaways chose a piece from Holst's The Planets - the favourite being "Jupiter" (18 people) - or a piece from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons - the most popular being "Spring" (13).

 The most popular hymn was "Ave Maria" (42 picks). The favourite Christmas carol was "In the Bleak Midwinter" (13). And the favourite national anthem: "Land of My Fathers" - Wales (17).

 Some of the castaways' eight selections were spoken word choices, instead of music. Many people chose work from a poet (Dylan Thomas was the clear favourite - selected 45 times). Some chose a reading from a favoured novel (Joyce and Dickens, for example). Some wanted an excerpt from a play (Oscar Wilde and - especially - Shakespeare). Recordings of famous speeches were also popular: Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy. Some intriguing choices featured pieces of broadcast sound:  footballer Jackie Charlton chose the BBC commentary from the last minute of extra time during the 1966 World Cup Final (England won, in case you forgot!). John Sessions picked William Faulkner's acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize for Literature (1950). Peter Ustinov chose Asquith's speech on the budget in 1909! Others favoured unique sound effects. David Attenborough picked the birdsong of the lyrebird. Alan Bennett selected 'West of Exeter' train sounds. Anthony Steel chose the sounds of Piccadilly Circus. Roger McGough - a member of the Liverpudlian group The Scaffold - chose the sound of foghorns on the Mersey. Strangest choice in this department? The English cricketer Freddie Trueman picked the sound of tables and chairs being moved at the Yorkshire County Cricket Club!

The music used as the theme for Desert Island Discs, by the way, is by Eric Coates. It's called By the Sleepy Lagoon. It has always been the theme - throughout the seventy-year run of the programme. For some added atmosphere, as the theme is running at the beginning of the show, they have added the sound of Herring Gulls. At some point, some vociferous nit-pickers pointed out that Herring Gulls would never be found at a tropical island. So they briefly changed the sound effect to the more authentic cries of Sooty Terns. It didn't work, the gulls were returned to their place, by popular demand.


After the section on Music comes Luxuries. The choice of a special luxury for the desert island was first offered to a castaway on 16 October, 1951. On this occasion, the English actress and singer Sally Ann Howes chose garlic. 

Acceptable luxury?

The rule about the choice of luxury is that it must be an inanimate object - but not one that would allow you immediately to escape the island: a rowboat, or a helicopter, for example. Lots of castaways chose an item to remind them of their family - photographs, for example, a family possession, or an heirloom. Many guests picked a practical luxury: a tool, a fishing or hunting device, vegetable seeds, an insecticide, or products to protect against the sun. A fair number picked an item of clothing. Lots selected a piece of art - a painting or sculpture. A large number of castaways asked for writing materials, or equipment required to draw or paint. Many picked their bed, a favourite pillow, a duvet, or a hammock. Some chose food - including several, I was amused to see, who wanted a jar of Marmite.

Luxury? Of course!

Hmm, nice!
And then there are drinks! Several castaways  chose tea or coffee - specific types, or special methods of presentation. But many more got into the harder stuff. The most popular selections were champagne, whisky and wine. Dedicated drinkers specified particular brands: trade unionist Jimmy Knapp chose a case of Talisker single malt whisky; Playwright Terence Rattigan wanted Dom Perignon champagne; actor and writer Julian Fellowes specified "two enormous casks of Chateau Margaux". Denholm Elliott and Clement Freud considered quantity more important than quality - they both suggested a still. Actor Dirk Bogarde took a larger view and requested a distillery!

Smokers, too, were not shy about pursuing their own particular vice. Actress Joan Greenwood simply chose cigarettes (is that how she got the husky voice?) Zoe Wanaker, another English actress, was more precise - requesting packets of Samson tobacco and Rizla liquorice papers. Staying with the thespian crowd, both Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson selected to take a pipe, and George Cole and John Houston (the American director) chose Havana cigars. And three castaways, Susan Blackmore, Hanif Kureishi and Fran Landesman decided to invest their time, energy and horticultural skill into generating their own smokable material - a bunch of cannabis seeds.

Sports equipment, not surprisingly, was popular as a luxury item: rocker David Essex wanted a cricket bat; DJ John Peel selected a football - and a wall to kick it against; Peter Ustinov asked for a tennis racket. Lots of castaways picked golf equipment - but jazz diva Sarah Vaughan has been the only female guest to choose golf clubs and balls.

 Many castaways picked an item related to hygiene or personal grooming: a bath was a popular choice, but also in this list are guests choosing a shower, toiletries, perfume, shaving kit, mirror, hair products, hairbrush or comb, and - of course - a toilet. Jazz singer Annie Ross didn't quite grasp the notion of desert-island solitude, perhaps, when she chose as her one luxury a set of false eyelashes! Will Carling wanted a flotation tank. And comedian Billy Connolly was very precise - choosing an electrical device for heating shaving foam!


Martin D28
One of the most popular categories of luxury items was musical instruments. Amongst the huge group that selected a piano are, not surprisingly, Dave Brubeck, Daniel Barenboim, Earl Hines, Liberace, Andre Previn, Randy Newman, and Stephen Sondheim. A guitar was a popular choice, too. Again, there are obvious names in this list: Julian Bream, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour (an acoustic Martin), John Lee Hooker, Cliff Richard, John Williams, and Paul McCartney (Hofner bass, or acoustic guitar? - it doesn't specify in the book). And then a wide group of other instruments - attached to some obvious names: Louis Armstrong, of course, chose a trumpet; John Dankworth and Ronnie Scott picked a saxophone; James Galway wanted his golden flute; George Formby, naturally, picked a ukulele (his first one); Jack Teagarden chose a trombone; Paddy Moloney wanted a tin whistle; and comedy-actor Jimmy Edwards selected a euphonium. In the let's-get-specific department: actors Ewan McGregor and Bill Nighy both wanted the mouth organ (harmonica), but McGregor specified  a chromatic harmonica (think Larry Adler and Stevie Wonder) - unlike Nighy, who requested a boxed set of blues harps. If you're going to be stranded alone, perhaps, for many, many years, you might as well get exactly what you want.

What? ...
And, just for fun, let's conclude this section with just a few of the strangest choices for desert-island-luxury. Alfred Hitchcock selected a Continental railway timetable. Alan Hacker suggested a Hovercraft wheelchair with capuccino machine might be useful. John Cleese thought Michael Palin stuffed would be a good luxury. Stanley Holloway wanted a parking meter and lots of change. Wilfrid Hyde-White asked for a picture of Charlie Chaplin and a model of a Rolls-Royce. Elia Kazan requested twenty tons of pine needles. And John Sessions asked for a 78rpm record of "The Laughing Policeman", so he could smash it on the rocks.

Philip Roth? Apparently not!
After the often random and quirky choices of the luxury, we focus in the final section of this book on the castaways' selections of reading material. This element of Desert Island Discs was introduced on 9 October 1951 - just one week before the choice of luxury was also added to the programme's format. All castaways were henceforth provided with a copy of The Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare - and another book of their own choosing. The first castaway given this option was the actor and director Henry Kendall. His choice was the latest edition of Who's Who in the Theatre.

The category choices here have tended to be less varied than that of the luxury. The three main choices have been poetry, novels, and practical books. Amongst poetry-lovers the most popular choice was a collection or anthology. There have also been, of course, a wide selection of individual poets chosen. Those chosen several times include Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, John Donne, and W. H. Auden. The top ten choices for novelists are Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, P. G. Wodehouse, Dante Alighieri, Kenneth Grahame (all for The Wind in the Willows), Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, and James Joyce. Coming in at #11 was Daniel Defoe. All the castaways who chose this author picked - you guessed it - Robinson Crusoe.
Just as there has been a large group of musical performers who have never been picked in any of the castaways' list of eight recordings, there has also been a number of well-known and popular writers who, surprisingly, have never been picked by a single castaway. Here are just a handful that I have chosen from this list: Martin Amis, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Truman Capote, Joseph Conrad, Alexander Dumas, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Graham Greene, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Irving, Franz Kafka, Ian McEwan, Henry Miller, Iris Murdoch, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, Hunter S. Thompson, John Updike and Edith Wharton.
J. Bronowski discusses his book with Roy Plomley
Dickens at #1, then. But what are the top five Dickens novels chosen? The Pickwick Papers is the clear favourite, followed by David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Nicholas Nickleby. The validity of this list, however, has been marred by the fact that many castaways were allowed to choose "the complete works of Dickens" - I think Simon Callow was one of these culprits. I concur with the choice, but it does seem to violate the programme's rule. The #1 book in the Jane Austen list was, not surprisingly, Pride and Prejudice - but then again the host allowed 12 of the castaways to choose the collected novels by Austen.

 Amongst the other reading material, several castaways were not afraid to go the low-brow route. Several chose a collection of cartoons or comic strips. The actor Dennis Price picked a Giles volume. The English fashion designer Paul Smith chose The Beano Annual for 1974. The historian and peace campaigner E. P. Thompson selected a collection of Pogo comic strips by Walt Kelly. And then there are the egomaniacs who want to have their own autobiographies to read: Louis Armstrong, Jim Clark, Catherine Cookson, Anton Dolin, Diana Dors, Robertson Hare, Thora Hird, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gorden Kaye, and Otto Preminger.

And then there are the practical, non-fiction books. Novelist Pat Barker chose a book on tropical fish - so that she could learn to identify them. American actor Joseph Cotten picked a boat-building book. English bird-photographer Eric Hosking requested a field guide to the island's birds. Clive James - funny man - wanted a book that explained how to build a plane out of palm fronds and coconut fibre (authored by Willy Messerscmitt!). Neil Simon got very basic - choosing How to Swim. Tommy Steele and June Whitfield asked for a Do-It-Yourself book. And J. K. Rowling got serious in her choice - an SAS survival-guide or manual.

And let's end this section with a few quirky picks: John Lee Hooker requested "a book with pictures of pretty women"; David Frost chose the London A-Z; Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) selected the Melbourne street directory ("an old version"); Robert Morley wanted a book explaining the rules of Patience (did he ask for a pack of cards as his luxury?); John Cleese asked for (bitterly?) Tammy Wynette's autobiography Stand By Your Man; Maria Von Trapp picked "true funny stories in German (sounds more like what John Cleese would have said!); Earl Wild wanted transcripts from the Watergate hearings (really?!); and smart-arse Tim Robbins asked for a book - of matches (should have been a luxury, right?).

So, is this a book then that I would recommend? Well, not for purchase - unless you are a real, ardent fan of the programme and a lover of books made up completely of lists. If you have a mild interest in the topic, you might want to check out the book from your local library - probably not a problem in the UK, but I doubt very much if any libraries in north America would acquire it for their shelves, since the programme is not broadcast over here.

Meanwhile, you could spend some idle time, perhaps, compiling your own list of eight favourite recordings!
Clive Baugh's Desert Island Discs (+ luxury and book)

Every once in a while I jot down my own list of eight recordings - should I be invited by Kirsty Young to be on the show! I'm not the only one. Mitchell Symons reports in this book that the British writer and critic A. A. Gill (2006) had been planning his list since the age of 12. The Irish comic presenter Graham Norton (2004) reeled off his list of eight records the moment he was asked. Actor Patrick Stewart was so keen to be on the programme that he carried around his list in his pocket. He was on the show in 2005. But the politician Herbert Morrison, who also kept his permanent list tucked away in a pocket, sadly never got to be on the programme.

So why only eight individual pieces on Desert Island Discs, anyway? It seems so limiting to me. And, since the late-60s, I've always been an "albums man", myself. If I were designing the programme, I'd invite guests to pick eight albums (CDs), and select one representative track for broadcast from each of those albums. In the early days of Desert Island Discs, the castaways were advised that they would get eight recordings and an endless supply of needles with which to play them with. Needles?! There's the clue. This programme began in the days of 78 shellac discs - which could be played on a wind-up gramophone, without the need of electricity. The vinyl LP - developed by Columbia Records - wasn't introduced until  1948. So, for those first five or six years of the show, the castaways really were choosing eight recordings - eight individual discs. After the era of the 78 disc was long-gone, they still kept to the original concept - eight pieces, whether songs, instrumentals, sections from multi-movement classical pieces, or spoken word recordings. And eight pieces, of course, because of the time-limitation imposed by the length of the radio programme. 
Roy Plomley: 78 rpm, gramophone and lots of needles

What about the method one uses to select the eight recordings? I think that this is important - but only original host Roy Plomley made a point of asking his guests if they had employed a specific method for coming up with their list. Many castaways just seem to pick their selections for sentimental reasons, or to represent different periods in their life. Surely, it's got to be more thought-through than that! These might be the only selections of music you'll have to while away your time on the island for many years. Choose carefully! If you're a music lover with eclectic tastes, for example, you'd want to have a list that includes a pieces from several different genres - for me, off the top of my head, that would include rock, classical, jazz and folk (or, perhaps, "singer-songwriter). You'd also want to consider having music that covers several moods; after all, you'd like to have, I think, music that would fit different times during the day - quiet and contemplative, perhaps, early in the morning, or late at night, and loud and aggressive, after you've been through several cups of fermented coconut juice.

I'm going to provide two lists (if you don't mind!): first, my version of the eight individual recordings; and then my preferred alternative to the traditional Desert Island Discs format - viz., my choice of eight albums. Oh, and if you check with me again next week, the lists will look very different!


My Eight Individual Tracks

1.      "Homeword Bound" by Simon and Garfunkel. This is my only sentimental choice on the list. When I was near the end of my time at St. Edward's College boarding school - we had moved to Liverpool by then - I was dissatisfied with the situation, angry with the man in charge, and thinking of home. My best pal and I both loved Simon and Garfunkel and this became our theme song at the time.

2.      "Strawberry Fields Forever" by The Beatles. How do you pick just one Beatles recording? It's very difficult. It has to be a Lennon piece, of course, so that does serve to narrow the choice dramatically. It's one of Lennon's more enigmatic lyrics. A strangely open-ended, inconclusive piece of music - remarkable for its unique and haunting arrangement. I never tire of listening to it.

3.      "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. Six minutes of magic. The band performed it live off the floor, no overdubs. This was not tightly arranged, and they only managed to get through the whole thing once in a perfect rendition. This would be the piece I'd listen to after a couple of glasses too many of fermented coconut juice. I'd be singing along with its angry lyric - which is full of resentment and the need for revenge. Yell along with the refrain - it'll make you feel better!

 4.      "My Funny Valentine" by Frank Sinatra. Again, how do you pick just one track from this performer? I came late to an appreciation of this guy's music. I had been long-alienated by his public image and some of his more mediocre and played-to-death recordings - think "Something Stupid", "Strangers in the Night", and "My Way". When I finally got around to listening to the many superb albums he released in the 1950s, I realized what an amazing singer he is - not just the impeccable vocal technique, but his ability to present the lyric perfectly; it's as though he is reading a short story, with every nuance highlighted and emphasized. If you're a fan of the great popular songs of the past - the standards now referred to as the "Great American Songbook" - invariably it is Sinatra's version that is best.
5.      "Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young. You listen to Neil; you feel good. There's something about the man's honesty and authenticity that shines through in nearly all his music. There is a wonderful balance in his music between the rough and the smooth, between the melodic and the noisy, between the acoustic and the electric. Like Bob Dylan, he is intelligent, endlessly creative, and completely authentic - unlike Bob, whose inscrutable attitude can often alienate his audience,  Neil is open and magnanimous. This track is a good example of sweet vocals matched to a propulsive rock beat. And it has a killer riff.

 6.      "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" by Charles Mingus. If rock music is focused on the guitar; jazz has the saxophone as its primary instrument. Must have some jazz on my desert island. And I prefer the laidback, beautiful sounds of players like Johnny Hodges, Dexter Gordon, and Lester Young. So much to choose from. I could have selected Johnny Hodges doing either of Billy Strayhorn's pieces "Isfahan" or "Blood Count" for Duke Ellington's orchestra. Instead I chose this; it's a gorgeous tribute to saxophonist Lester Young - found on Mingus's album Ah Um. 



7.      Adagietto from Symphony #5 in C# minor by Gustav Mahler. I need to have some classical orchestral music in this list. But just one movement? Here's a movement I listen to often - without hearing it in the context of the entire work. After all, the whole thing runs about 70 minutes. This exquisite slow-movement is merely 11 minutes. Gorgeous music you might be familiar with; it was used very atmospherically in Visconti's film version of Death In Venice.

8.      Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G major by J. S. Bach. This is one of three concerti in the six-concerti set which features no woodwinds - strings accompanied by harpsichord. This is baroque music at its most irresistible. If you have to choose one movement, from one work, from one period - well - how about this?  

"Yes, Clive - and what is your first choice?"
"Mr. Plomley, can I pick an album?"
"No, of course you can't pick an album; haven't you listened to my programme before?"

My Eight Albums

1.      Revolver by The Beatles. Many pundits would pick Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as their Beatles choice. But, truth be told, there are some mediocre songs on there. If you're looking for the Beatles LP which includes not only studio wizardry and musical innovation, but also the most consistently high quality of song-writing, this is it.

2.      Blonde On Blonde by Bob Dylan. Hard to choose between this and Highway 61 Revisited. But this one is just chockfull of great songs. And about twenty minutes longer. Dylan at his peak in the mid-60s.

3.      After the Gold Rush by Neil Young. This is the album that made me a Neil Young fan. It's still hard to decide, however, whether to go for this one, or Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, or Rust Never Sleeps. I seem to keep coming back to this one as my favourite. I suppose sentiment gives this a slight edge, but it also attracts because of its perfect combination of hard-edged rock and sweet vocals. And a great set of songs.


4.      In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning by Frank Sinatra. Again, hard to choose. This one - from 1955 - or Only the Lonely, which came out three years later. A wonderful selection of songs. Music arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. Brilliant singing. Melancholic ballad-singing at its most sublime.

5.      Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Features a great band: Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and John Coltrane. This innovative album is based on a different style of improvisation - built, as it is, on a set of modal sketches, rather than a group of harmonies or chord progressions. Jimmy Cobb, the drummer, called it music "made in heaven". And so it is. Moody, laid-back, understated - it insinuates itself into your consciousness. You never grow tired of it. This is the album that drew me into instrumental jazz.

6.      Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It should really be credited to Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. A mid-60s tour-de-force that still failed to dislodge in the general public's mind that this was a band delivering "surf music". Brian wrote the arrangements and produced the tracks in this suite of theme-related songs co-written (lyrics) by Tony Asher. God only knows why they included "Sloop John B" on here. Dump that and it's a perfect record.

7.      Symphony #5 in C minor & Symphony in #7 in A major by Ludwig Van Beethoven - featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kleiber. If we're agreeing that the CD is the technology we're using to deliver these eight "albums", then here's a bonus - two of Beethoven's greatest works on one CD. My father influenced me to listen to classical music; but I heard it a lot more when I was at boarding school - mostly familiar works from the Romantic or Classical period: Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, for example, or Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. But the main interest, in those early days of listening to classical music, were the great symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Schubert, and, of course, Beethoven.

8.      The Water Music by G. F. Handel. As I expanded my knowledge of classical music, I found I began to listen more and more to the Baroque and early-Classical periods. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Handel became my favourites. I began to prefer music that was not as dramatic and grandiose as the Romantics - gravitating inexorably towards the formality and delicacies of the Baroque style. A move away from the large concert hall to the intimacy of chamber music. Most fans focus on Handel's oratorios. I love his orchestral work - the concerti grossi for strings, the concerti grossi for woodwinds, The Royal Fireworks Music, and this wonderfully uplifting piece. Delightful.

My Luxury and My Book
My luxury: this is a very tough choice. My first thought would be an endless supply of some intoxicant - one of my favourite English ales, for example, or bottles of single malt scotch (Lagavulin? Talisker? Laphroaig?), or ... Then I was thinking about a large supply of paper and some writing implements. Or how about a guitar? Yes, my choice would be a high-quality acoustic guitar. I could entertain myself, create my own songs, and improve my technique. Only the birds could complain.

My book: this is difficult, too. I have it narrowed down to two choices. It only makes sense, if you are only allowed one book, to make it a very long novel. And a novel that is fascinating in its many plot-lines, entertaining in its vast cast of characters, and profoundly uplifting in its understanding and dramatic portrayal of human nature. My second choice would be Middlemarch by George Eliot. My desert island literary companion would have to be War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Very long; very involving; very inspiring.



And how about you? If you'd like to play the game, nominate your list of eight recordings. Give us your luxury and your choice of book. Leave your picks by clicking on the Comment button below and filling the box that opens. Give us your Desert Island Discs.


Desert Island Discs has its own website. You can access their vast archive of about 1,450 past programmes. You can choose to listen to them directly from the website, or you can download them to your computer and then transfer them to a portable listening device - I have been doing this via iTunes and the iPod set up semi-permanently in my car.


  1. Hi Clive. This is a difficult thing to do. I have many many more than eight tracks that I could put down, but with a push and a shove here are my eight tracks. They are there because of the memories, they conjure up, their pure creativity and the emotional response they create.
    1 I am the sea, (Quadrophenia) THE WHO
    2 Penny Lane THE BEATLES
    3 Brown Sugar THE ROLLING STONES
    4 Voodoo Chile JIMI HENDRIX
    5 Safe From Harm MASSIVE ATTACK
    7 Peer Gynt (Morning) EVARD GREIG
    8 Hallelujah Chorus HANDEL

    The book i would take with me is FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD By Thomas Hardy

    My luxury item would be a box of English Breakfast
    Tea. (If that counts as more than one item then a single tea bag of English Breakfast Tea.)

    All the best, Tony

    1. Tony: Difficult? You're telling me! I really need 8 Beatles songs, 8 pieces of classical music, 8 folk tracks, 8 favourite songs by singer-songwriters, etc., etc. As Andre Previn said, in a recent DID programme from their archive, choosing 25 tracks would make sense, or just three tracks would be easier, but 8?

  2. Okay, here it goes:

    Book: For Whom the Bell surprise there...after all, no man is an island...
    Luxury: Bug spray...I am a total sissy when it comes to mosquitos.
    8 Songs:
    1-Given to Fly by Pearl of my all-time favourites. I can listen to it over and over again.
    2-Life Wasted by Pearl Jam...a great, hard-hitting song sure to get out my frustrations.
    3-Welcome Home by Radical Face...a soothing song I listen to all the time.
    4-Across the Universe by The Beatles...I figure if I don't include a Beatles tune to this list Clive will find my island and hunt me down. This ranks among my favourites of theirs.
    5-Some Might Say by Oasis...great song.
    6-Electrolite by R.E.M....again, another song I never tire of hearing. Puts me in a good mood.
    7-Under Cover of Darkness by The Strokes...fairly new tune that quickly became one of my most listened to songs.
    8-Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues by Bob Dylan...I could use this song to give me a smile and remind me not to hop on the first boat that comes along!

  3. I agree with Tony--too hard to pick only going to cheat and offer more essentials: Redemption Song by Bob Marley. She's So Cold by the Rolling Stones. Bad by U2. It goes on and on...Does this island have internet access?...I enjoyed this post, Clive--it has got me thinking...

    1. Thanks, Jerrod. Yeah, I know - just 8 pieces of music is ridiculous! A friend on the phone just mentioned "A Lark Ascending" by Vaughan Williams. "Oh, yes," I said, "gotta have that." I think 88 pieces would be more reasonable, eh?!

  4. Hey Clive! Great blog!


    1. Thanks, Dave. So, would Phil be in your list of 8? And which track(s) from Bob?

  5. funny, I've been mulling over this topic myself recently for a possible future blog post.

    eight songs (in no particular order)

    Aria from La Wally as performed in the movie Diva
    this piece changed my opinion of opera
    Who's Been Talkin' - Howlin Wolf
    first heard this on the London Sessions album but the original blows me away
    Tomorrow Never Knows - the Beatles
    somewhat psychedelic & experimental today (and most days) it's my favourite Beatles song until the David Frost version of Revolution( an official release
    This Flight Tonight - Joni Mitchell
    I used to head bang to to Nazerth's version as a teenager, then I heard the original , WOW
    Monkey Man - the Rolling Stones
    not their best known song but it has some great guitar riffs , nice vibraphone, and great vocal
    Maggie's Farm (Live at Newport) - Bob Dylan
    a wild & out of control performance
    Shake Some Action - The Shakers
    a great song by the Flamin' Groovies covered in note perfection by the Shakers, chosen over the original because the Shakers are from Hamilton
    Waterloo Sunset - The Kinks
    Ray Davies finest, no more needs to be said


    Sell Out - The Who
    great songs, fun to listen to, and with the closing track (Rael) a taste of what was to come
    Sticky Fingers - the Rolling Stones
    the first lp I bought with my own money
    London Calling - the Clash
    my Saturday night album
    Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) - Brian Eno
    made in 1974 but could of been made in '84,'94, 2004 or 2014
    Blue - Joni Mitchell
    if there could only be one Joni Mitchell album, this would be it
    The Beatles (aka the White Album) - The Beatles
    maybe by the time I got off the island I would of distilled this down to one perfect Beatles album, maybe
    Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
    there are better Dylan albums but I could (and have) listen to Tangled Up In Blue & Simple Twist Of Fate over & over & over etc. again
    Steel City Trawler - Luke Doucet & the White Falcon
    because I should pick an album made after 1980 & because it's one of the best albums ever to be made in (and largely inspired by) the city of Hamilton

    Luxury - a swiss army knife would be practical, a solar powered pinball machine would be whimsical

    Book - a really good atlas or perhaps as John Lee Hooker chose, a book with pictures of a lot of pretty women


    1. Thanks for your detailed response. Guess what yours truly got for his birthday? Barb bought me a Swiss Army knife in Bern, Switzerland! It even has my name engraved on it.

  6. Clive, great post! I love your list. Right now I can't narrow down my favorite Beatles songs. Nobody who listed a Rolling Stones song picked either of my two faves: Miss You and Under My Thumb. Would have to have some Animals, maybe Boom Boom Boom or House of the Rising Sun. Could my one luxury item be a never-ending supply of good black tea?

    1. Thanks for your response. I didn't give all the info about The Stones - just selected the highlights. "Miss You" was chosen - only once, though - by English stand-up comedian Michael McIntyre. But nobody picked "Under My Thumb". Surprised you like that, actually - it's so misogynistic! Yes a never-ending supply of black tea is acceptable under the DID rules. A good choice.

  7. As a student in the 80s, I used to be an avid listener of the World Service on shortwave, and Desert Island Discs was a favourite. This brings back so many memories, and I am so glad to read about the dedicated website. Many thanks for this article.