Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Desert Island Discs

Most countries have some sort of "honours" system, a way of rewarding prominent citizens for being prominent. Britain has a long-established hierarchy of official gongs, from the humble MBE, through various grades of knighthood, all the way up to peerages. But, as we know, this system is mainly operated by political patronage and down-payments disguised as charitable donations, and is hopelessly corrupt. Sir Mick Jagger?  Puh-lease....

But we also have an alternative, more honourable institution, which is no less sought-after. It is a radio programme called Desert Island Discs, first broadcast in 1942. The programme's simple but brilliant formula is that someone has to pretend they have been shipwrecked onto a desert island, and can rescue just eight records from the sea. Yes, records. Look, never mind why they're saving records rather than, say, food. It's just a conceit, yes? Plus Desert Island Survival Snacks would not make good radio. And, yes, obviously, the programme was conceived in the days before LPs, let alone CDs; by "record" they mean "single coherent work", whether it be an Abba single or a Beethoven late quartet.

Anyway, every week, some notable is chosen to nominate their eight recordings, as well as a book (other than Shakespeare or the Bible, which due to their natural buoyancy have washed up already) and a luxury. The idea is that the eight records are a way of talking us through the stages of the guest's life, in conversation with the host, currently Kirsty Young.  If this venerable programme has taught us anything, it is that few modern lives are very eventful, and that eminence in, say, astrophysics or athletics does not guarantee good taste in music; very far from it.

Now, there comes a "Ballad of Lucy Jordan" moment in everyone's life, when you accept, finally, reluctantly, that you will never, ever be invited to select your eight discs and flirt outrageously with Kirsty. Oh, well. But, hey, given that I'm still glowing with a post-birthday sense of entitled narcissism, that doesn't mean we can't put the show on right here!

Cue music and seagulls... Da da da-da dah ...

"My guest this morning is..." No, no, never mind all that, Kirsty, let's accept that I am both Everyman and Nobody incarnate, Cohort of 1954, and get straight to the records. Really, no-one wants to know where I come from, how I left there, ended up here, and what I thought the point of it all was. Ask me again in twenty years. What they want is a chance to bask in the exquisite sunlight of my immaculate taste.

Although, I had not anticipated how difficult this exercise is, for anyone who actually likes their music. Just eight records? EIGHT?? Entire performers and genres, whole phases of my life, all slipped beneath the waves! You could drown several times over in the time it would take you to flip through all those discs, hundreds of them, floating around in the tide. So, in the end, I divided up my life-so-far into phases that were both biographical and musical; oddly, these did seem to coincide quite neatly. But, after much agonising, I also decided to confine myself to a "pop" selection, 1954-2000. After all, no-one really wants to hear the Goldberg Variations or Spem in Alium or a Bach cello suite yet again on DID, do they?  We can always do Part Two – The Serious Stuff – another time... So:

1. 1954-61
Lonnie Donegan - Puttin' On the Style
What can I say? Lonnie was the kingpin (hey, there's another song, but from another life-phase!), and I was a five-year old pioneer of the skiffle air-guitar. Together, we rocked!
Runners up:
Ronald Binge - Elizabethan Serenade (A staple of the BBC Home Service.  The feeling it invokes matches something inside that I can't name but still treasure).
Little Richard -Tutti Frutti (My Mum and I used to walk out to go shopping, and stop off in a cafe for her to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  There was a juke box!).
George Shearing - Lullaby of Birdland (Dad was a jazz fan, and owned the EP with the photo-montage of the Quintet carried in a basket by a stork.  Photo-montage?  I wonder...).

2.  1961-68
Ike & Tina Turner - River Deep Mountain High
Crikey! Oo-wee, baby! And check that video! Wow! What riches! What years!  I more or less stuck in a pin, but this track is the business, isn't it?  In fact, all of these take me back instantly to Saturday teatimes in front of a black and white TV. Six-Five Special, Ready Steady Go, Juke Box Jury, Top of the Pops... As kids, we had no real idea of how new all this was, but couldn't wait for it to be our turn. 1968 marked the advent of colour into our lives, what you might call Sixties 2.0.
Runners up:
Manfred Mann - 5-4-3-2-1 (This one always brings it all back. Uh-huh, it was the Man-freds...).
Rolling Stones - Get off of  My Cloud (Hey! McCloud! Get offa my ewe!)
Procol Harum - Whiter Shade of Pale (Eternally perfect: Bach meets sixth-form poetry. Shame about the video).

3 & 4. 1968-72
Fairport Convention - A Sailor's Life
Those teen years... Finally, it was our turn. I was a huge fan of these pioneers of electric folk, and this track was the first spine-tingling indication of where things were heading. Best listened to in a darkened room with a single candle, deep in a torrid imaginary affair with Joni Mitchell.
Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
WHOAH! Those opening bars still give me the chills, every time.  Inside, in the secret place where we are superheros, this is who I am. If I don't see you no more in this world, I'll see you in the next one, and don't be late...
Runners up:
Joni Mitchell - Case of You (Joni, Joni, it's not you, it's me... Which bar did you mean, btw?)
Led Zeppelin - Rock and Roll (Yes! Yes! Oh, yes! Flailing about, looking like a prat, feeling like an immortal... Really got that air-guitar down now!).

5.  1972-77
Steely Dan - Bodhisattva
University... If I knew then what I know now, I'd have done some work.  Instead, I had fun, which I felt I'd earned by getting to university (first in the family, etc.).  A temple ball, a fresh two-ounce tin of Golden Virginia, some new friends from new strange worlds, and Steely Dan on the stereo. Add a shoe-box full of salted pistachios, straight from Iran, and this, my friends, is heaven, and I have been there.
Runners up:
Bob Marley -- Lively Up Yourself ('cos reggae is another bag).
Michael Hurley - Twilight Zone (Everything is weird...).
Weather Report - Black Market (My introduction to jazz fusion, a much maligned genre).

6. 1977-84
Ijahman Levi - Are We A Warrior? 
Emphatically not! Do we 'ave to 'ave a war? Sweet long summer nights in St. Paul's, Bristol. Bloody Thatcher, though, managed to get me out on the streets, holding up one end of a trade union banner. Babylon!
Runners up:
Police - Walking on the Moon  (Never fails to remind me of walking from a friend's squat off the Caledonian Road, through Islington and Hackney, back to our squat in Dalston at 2 a.m. London was eerily quiet at night in those days, and the pavements were oddly cushioned, too, which made walking difficult).
Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime (Rarely off the turntable when we lived in Bristol. Still feels as Zeitgeisty as it did then).
Graham Parker & the Rumour - Hey Lord Don't Ask Me Questions (Ditto.  Saw him live twice. Awesome).
7 & 8.  1984-2000
Jackson Browne - Sky Blue and Black
Finally, Dad Rock!  I listened to early Jackson Browne a lot in my college years, and then kind of forgot about him. Some of these later tracks are brilliant, though: what better evocation of the bitter-sweet memories of a hedonistic youth is there than The Barricades of Heaven? I know exactly where the Barricades of Heaven are located. But Sky Blue and Black...  If you have tears, and have ever loved and lost, prepare to shed them now. You're the hidden cost, and the thing that's lost in everything I do. I'll never stop looking for you. That's the way love is...
Paul Simon - The Cool, Cool River
I absolutely love this track (in fact, I love this whole album, Rhythm of the Saints). It always brings tears to my eyes when the rhythm changes: "I believe in the future we shall suffer no more.  Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours, I feel sure..."  It says there is hope, and that the future will belong to the humblest, now living in resilient poverty at the margins of the First World feast. Hard times? I'm used to them! A good note to end on, Kirsty!
Runners up:
Joni Mitchell - Night Ride Home (It would never have worked, Joni. I'm glad you found happiness... Me, too! Yes, two kids! Who'd have thought it?)
Van Morrison & The Chieftains - Raglan Road (Let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day).

Which ONE record would I take? Do you know, I think I'd rather have none of them than one of them? As the man said, "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter". Oh, all right, probably Steely Dan.

Book:  Oh, God. This is worse than the music. Let's say the complete Oxford English Dictionary. That's about as close to inexhaustible as you can get.
Luxury:  An enormous box of HB pencils and unlined A5 notebooks.

Cue music... Da da da-da dah ...

Phew. I think that went rather well, though, didn't you, Kirsty? It's been an honour.


Zouk Delors said...

Funny how no-one ever chooses a record-player as their luxury item...

There seems to be a tendency -- in view of the fact that guests are not in fact leaving for a desert island after the show, but more likely returning home to their spouse (or similar) -- to ensure at least one selection reminds them of the most-important-person-in-the-world (typically the first dance from their wedding) and to select that disk as the one they would save from the waves should they all be washed away by the tide ( why the hell did you keep your precious disks right by the shore, dummy? What was wrong with that nice dry cave on high ground you were going to look for?)

Dave Leeke said...

Well done for even attempting a choice! I'm really not sure if I could ever come up with just eight songs as a definitive list. There are certain songs that I know would be on the list - the songs already chosen for the funeral. Obviously it doesn't really matter as I will never appear on the show. Still, I did like Danny Baker's take on it. He chose eight songs from a particular time in his life.

I'm assuming that he couldn't really choose a collection of only eight that would sum him up. By choosing them from his early years it meant he only had to think of some formative 50s/60s favourites.

As for a book, I'm even more hopelessly lost. Perhaps a collection of the History of Art. A guitar would have to be my luxury item. At least then I could use the book to inspire songs.

Mike C. said...

Of course, I've pretty much changed my mind on every track by now...