Desert Island Discs

I’m attempting to get back to posting content regularly. However, as you may have noticed, politics and current affairs is a bit of a mess at the moment. With that in mind, I’ve decided instead to put together my Desert Island Discs as the BBC continue to snub me.

For those of you who don’t know, Desert Island Discs is a BBC Radio programme first broadcast in 1942. Guests, or ‘castaways’, are invited to choose eight recordings, a book and a luxury item to take with them to a desert island. People love to reveal a bit of themselves through their musical choices and I’m no different. Where the Radio 4 show may differ to my little project is that audiences also love to learn a little about the guests through their selections. However, I’ve decided I’m going to plough on and publish it regardless!

So, here we go…..

Adagio For Strings, Op.11 – Samuel Barber

The best music is evocative. I can’t even say what Adagio for Strings is evocative of but it is so powerful it is almost euphoric. I’m not aware of any particular association that I have with this piece so I just put it down to a composer so skilled that he found a formula that has immediate resonance.

I wanted to choose one classical work and there were a few options, but this was a clear winner. I find it inspiring, moving and calming in equal measure. This is first on my playlist as I like to imagine I’ll listen to it over breakfast every day I’m on the island.

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The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel

For my money, Paul Simon is right up there with the very best songwriters of the 20th century. His songs are beautiful and The Boxer is so poignant. I love the way the song builds to a crescendo – a theme I’ll return to – before a gentle, folksy ending. Seeing Paul Simon perform The Boxer in Glasgow earlier this year confirmed it as the first song on my list for the island.

Some tracks in this collection represent a particular period in my life, but Simon and Garfunkel just seem to have been a feature since I discovered my parents record collection as a child. As such, I find listening to this track extremely comforting and familiar and that has to be a good thing in a piece of music.

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Dream Angus – Alastair McDonald

Anybody who knows me will immediately understand the significance of this choice. I first heard this song the day my son, Angus, was born in 2014. For the next few days, when I wasn’t at the hospital, I listened to it over and over again. I found several versions but this quickly became my favourite as a beautiful arrangement and the only one to give Daddy a mention!

This lullaby is based on a Celtic myth. Angus is the god of dreams; a beautiful youth, who goes about the world delivering sweet dreams of love to everyone he meets.

This is the first of two songs on this list that I sing regularly to Angus at bedtime – he’s even been known to specifically request it!

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Workers’ Song – Dick Gaughan

Many of my favourite folk songs are those that tell the story of ordinary people. There are so many brilliant examples I could have chosen – The Song of The Lower Classes or The Old Man’s Tale to name just a couple that came close – but I’ve gone for Workers’ Song which, like those and many others, highlights the way the working man is treated during war in particular. What I love about folk music is that listening to a song like this angers me but also fills me with hope that something can be done to even things up a little and inspires me to try to make a difference.

Written by Ed Pickford, I discovered Workers’ Song through the brilliant Dick Gaughan and it’s his version that I’ll be taking with me to my desert island, largely because of his wonderful guitar playing.

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Faith – The Cure

Everybody, I’m sure, can pinpoint an artist or two who they were listening to in their teens and with whom they became an adult. For me that was unquestionably The Cure. I no longer obsess with them, or listen as frequently, as I once did but there was never any question that I’d be taking them to my desert island.

If including a track from The Cure was one of the easiest decisions when making my selections, choosing that track was probably the most difficult. The Cure have such a varied discography, from the three member punky stuff of their early days to the anthems of the 1990’s. I finally settled on Faith, which has all the classic characteristics of a Cure song; melody driven by the bassline, haunting lyrics and a steady rhythmic trajectory. It takes me instantly back to my bedroom as a 15 year old, which will be a comfort when I’m stranded.

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Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division

Unlike most of the artists in this collection, Joy Division don’t carry any great significance for me. I think their music was decent, although in general I prefer New Order – is that heresy? – but there’s no escaping the fact that this is simply a brilliant song. A perfect combination of rock and pop, hearing the opening bars makes me feel like I’ve bumped into an old friend.

It’s almost a little clichéd to declare a love for this song but I like to be predictable occasionally. When the BBC asked listeners to send in their choices in 2011, Love Will Year Us Apart was the 63rd most popular choice. Barber’s Adagio For Strings was 24th. Dream Angus wasn’t placed.

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Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards – Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg was another inevitable inclusion on this list. Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards is not only my favourite of his songs but right up there on my all time list. The political message in many of his songs appeals to me but, despite himself describing it as a “maoist pop song”, that’s not what sets this track apart for me. I just think it’s a great song.

The Bard of Barking was an inevitable inclusion in this list.

This is the original album version. Billy Bragg has varied the song in live performances over the years, putting a contemporary slant on the lyrics, and I’ve liked some of those changes. However, as a single piece I think I still prefer this. It’s got some great lines, such as ‘If you’ve got a blacklist, I wanna be on it’ and of course ‘The revolution is just a t-shirt away’.

Putting this list together has helped me realise what features I like in a song and this is another that has a lovely rhythm steadily building to a crescendo, making it a brilliant one to see performed live.

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The Ghost Of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen (featuring Tom Morello)

Tom Joad is the main protagonist in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Upon leaving prison, he finds that his family are having to leave their Oklahoma farm and travel to California in order to find work. Over the course of the novel he discovers that the American Dream is simply not going to be kind to folk like him. This culminates in a wonderful speech where he tells his mother that he’s leaving the family. When she asks where he’s going, he tells her “I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” 

Bruce Springsteen echos this speech in the final verse of The Ghost of Tom Joad, a song that transposes the troubles of the Joad family and the Okies to modern America. I love the novel, I love Springsteen and I love this song. The original, from the album of the same name, is a beautiful, quiet folk song but here I have chosen a live version featuring Rage Against The Machine’s Tome Morello. For me, this rockier version really captures the passion of the story and is another track that builds to a magnificent crescendo. This is the second of these songs that I sing to Angus at bedtime.

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So, there we have it, that’s the music I’ll have with me as a castaway. There’s some glaring omissions; no room for Barenaked Ladies, The Beatles, The Housemartins or James who were among many artists who nearly made it. I’ll just have to make more music with my luxury. I’m going to take my guitar in the hope that I can finally learn to play it properly. If all else fails I can use the strings as fishing line and the rest for firewood.

All that’s left is for me to choose a book. I’ll be given a copy of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, and although I’d probably take neither of those given a choice, I would read them. The choice of book is possibly more difficult than choosing my tracks. Arguably my favourite novel is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and is certainly in the running. I love anything by George Bernard Shaw and John Steinbeck and may try to persuade the powers that be to permit me to take an anthology of either of these. If forced to take a single work, I think I’d opt for Steinbeck’s East Of Eden. There’s so many different strands to the story, straddling generations, families and locations and, given time to read and re-read at leisure, I may enjoy it even more if I could remember the links between those strands.

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