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
Kirsty Young has been the presenter of Desert Island Discs since 2006
|David Attenborough - the other four-timer|
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?!"
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."
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).
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".
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.
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!
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!
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.
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?).
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!
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.
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.
|"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?"
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.
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: 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.