A few years ago I looked at the list of all UK number ones and tried to pick out my favourites. This was surpisingly hard (you can see my list at the foot of the page - that's not the point of this post). When I’m in the car alone I often listen to Radio 4: I find it hard to work to but perfect to drive to. As well as a love of the shipping forecast I think Desert Island Discs is a national treasure. Eight tracks, a book and a luxury: what would you take to a desert island? I’ve pondered this question often and, in some ways, my end of year roundups (2009 // 2012 // 2013 // 2014 // 2017 // 2018 // 2019 // 2020) do a fairly good job of encapsulating some of my favourite tracks de jour but not always the reasons why. This post is about some music I'd take to a desert island... and why.
Here are my 8 works:
- Green Day - Nimrod - specifically Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) as it’s the first song that I learned on guitar and, in a round-about way, led to me meeting Ruth. Whilst in the high school ceilidh band (I played the very uncool recorder) we played for the school Burns supper. To keep the 20 or so band members out of the way when we weren’t performing our three tunes we were green-roomed in a history classroom upstairs and away from the main event. I think there may have been crisps and juice as payment. One of the girls from the year above me was playing a cool tune on guitar - Good Riddance - I already knew a couple of chords but not tunes so over the course of the evening whilst we waited she taught me how to play it. I got to know her and her friends a bit better from then on. A year later (ish) one of those friends asked me out... and 22 years later we’re still together.
- Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Fight. To pick one track is impossible. To say that Frightened Rabbit were my favourite band would be an understatement - I saw them live the first time in a low-ceilinged sweatbox (La Belle Angèle?) and went on to see them play a bunch of other places from in-stores to the Barrowlands to Selkirk to the Queen’s Hall and a fair few others in between. I even gave some of the band a drive up to their own gig after they’d been doing some guerilla ticket hiding around Leith - I was too late to find the ticket but they were checking it had been claimed when I got there so they jumped aboard. Good times. Every gig was phenomenal. The gig at the Queen’s Hall was one of the most perfect of my life. And then Scott was gone. His death hit hard, as it did for a lot of people. What has gone on since with the Tiny Changes charity and all of the open discussion about mental health is such a good thing to have come from such a tragedy. I can’t do justice to how inspiring and moving this band is.
- Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack is all at once brutal, industrial, instrumental (mostly) and oft-times weirdly relaxing. Nine Inch Nails has been a staple of my headphones-on working for a decade or more and whilst anything by NIN/Trent is good, this soundtrack is particularly close to my heart. I saw NIN and Foo Fighters at the only gig I ever caught at Meadowbank - the night was a total whim, tickets at the last minute from a friend of a friend of a colleague. I don’t even remember if there was a cost. I knew both bands well but there was something about the rawness of NIN’s performance that blew me away. And whilst I’m a massive fan of the vocal, live, energetic performance I’m captivated by the craft that goes into the more ambient, heavily produced soundscapes (in the same way that I love Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Sigur Ros).
- Rammstein - Mutter. As I’ve aged and been cursed by hereditary dissatisfactory memory I have wished for clearer memories of several events in my life but despite the years since seeing Rammstein perform at the Roundhouse in London in 2002 that performance is etched in my brain. The flamethrowers. The flares fired at the audience. The coat-on-fire. The voyage over the crowd in a dingy. Also, a very polite crowd (despite what it looks like on film!).
- The Proclaimers - Sunshine On Leith was the first CD that I bought. It was also the first gig that I ever went to - Hawick Town Hall (October 10th 1994? I’d have been 11 which I think is about right.) My dad and uncle David took me. We were on the main balcony. Craig’s shirt was a wonder of two-tone fashion... until we realised it was just very sweaty. Hawick Town Hall is a pretty crap gig venue but the energy, noise, smokiness, drunken singing and general excitement stay with me to this day. Songs that are oft-times very simple and are wonderfully powerful in that. Not sure if this album led me to live in Leith but perhaps. I think this is my hat-tip to the musical taste of my parents as I grew up (and possibly politics of my Great Granny!).
- Chess - The musical Chess is one of those weird things that didn’t make sense until it made sense. I’ve always loved singing. As a teen, I was more gawky, more stuttery and more awkward than I am now but still somehow persevered with being in choirs and musicals (deeply uncool in the 1990s in the Borders). Even knowing they were uncool I was drawn to the storytelling of musicals - Little Shop of Horrors (which I starred in as Seymore), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which our school music department somehow arranged a trip to in a battered yellow minibus which I duly went to with some cool folks from the year above, including Ruth, witnessing a chaotically fun audience participate-along performance in Edinburgh) and, when I was introduced to it by Ruth, Chess. Chess combines several loves - that 80s sound, the Cold War, the game chess (I’m a crap but frequent player), anthemic (excuse the pun) songs, kitsch and musical complexity that makes any good Chess performance memorable simply for the skill of the singers! Musicals cross over very cleanly with a childhood love of Meat Loaf (who, years later, I’d discover was in the Rocky Horror Picture Show and, more obvious to me at the time, one of my favourite movies of the era Fight Club), a teen love of Rammstein (again I mention the coat on fire - how can setting your coat on fire be anything other than something straight out of an ambitious Fringe show?) and an adult love of history. Chess is an amazing musical because it shows that a musical doesn’t have to be dancing cowboys (yet almost certainly is).
- Holst - The Planets Classical and orchestral music has a weird place with me. As a kid, I spent too long being brainwashed as a church chorister, too long going to weird singing lessons, too long playing recorder badly, too long attending the Hawick Music Club... many of which were probably far too not long enough and all of which were hugely educational in their many differing ways looking back. I had some amazing music teachers. With my parents I spent a lot of time with church music, liking echoing acoustics and anything with a good baritone line. At home and in the car dad often had Classic FM on and I liked listening to some pop-classical - Vanessa Mae’s album Storm, specifically the title track Vivaldi’s Summer Storm but I’ve always loved the biggest, most anthemic bits of music where choir and orchestra come together - stuff like Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana or Ride of the Valkyries from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle or Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets - through to intimate choral pieces like Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium. And since I listen to a lot of film music there’s a heavy crossover with classical - from James Bond film soundtracks (The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra recording of The Living Daylights is on point!) to Ludovico Einaudi to memories of listening to a crackly Vangelis recording of Chariots Of Fire at my Granny’s.
- Suburbia - Home. I think of this as a lost work of art... if things had been a tiny bit different then local band Suburbia would have created an album that would have bettered anything by “rivals” Radiohead (a band that obsessed over for my teenage years, collecting everything they’d recorded (or close to it) including a bootleg that I lost in a friend’s car CD player which cost me more than a day of my wage at the time)). The quality isn’t up for debate with me... Suburbia could have been one of those huge bands. But I guess since some things aren’t to be so I’ll take the three-track single of “Home”/“Mother Please”/“Plastic Lives” and listen to that on repeat. I suppose that in the world of commercial music for every Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, Chvrches’ Mother We Share, Nirvana’s Nevermind or Bon Iver’s 22, A Million there will be equal greats who didn’t make the spotlight... this slot’s for them.
And along with the given Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible my third book would be The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett was the master of creating a believable story surrounded by an impossible fantasy world through wonderfully, diversely rich characters, riffing on real-world historical events and smart dialogue. He could do political, satire, murder-mystery, romance, cold-war, historical thriller all in one book. We’ve recently been enjoying the Tiffany Aching books and being reminded that he was also a master of books for young, teen and older audiences... again often in the same book. And if my choice of music has a theme of dramatic, raw storytelling then Pratchett continues that. This book is amazing not because it’s my favourite book of all time (Stephenson’s Anathem or Seveneves or Gaiman’s American Gods would have to duel that out) but because this book is a Discworld book and the Discworld worldbuilding is so powerful and brings me so much joy.
Luxury item: a supply of paper and pens - assuming I remember enough from watching Bear Grylls episodes then I will hopefully have time to listen to music, read books and write some stories. I love writing but if ever there’s something I know about desert islands it’s that there’s not much going on other than survival. To get some time to write would be a real treat.
Bonus content - my revised list of favourite UK number 1 singles:
- Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
- The Buggles - Video Killed The Radio Star
- The Beatles - Hey Jude
- The Offspring - Pretty Fly
- Blondie - Atomic
- Ben E. King - Stand By Me
- Rage Against the Machine - Killing In The Name
- Eminem - The Real Slim Shady
- Fugees - Killing Me Softly
- The Specials - Ghost Town