The BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs has aired every week since 1942. The show invites celebrities to pick eight discs that they’d take with them if they were cast away on a desert island. The tracks usually form the story of their lives.
In 2019, a panel of broadcast industry experts called Desert Island Discs ‘the greatest radio show of all time’. More than 3,000 ‘castaways’ have appeared, including Princess Margaret, various UK prime ministers, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, and Yoko Ono. David Beckham appeared on the 75th anniversary show in 2017. The legendary David Attenborough (a host favourite) has appeared four times! The show has an on-air audience of 2.8 million, and has had just five presenters since it began.
I recently wrote a story on medium.com, in response to a writing challenge, about the Desert Island Discs show, and what my choices would be. As you could imagine, I don’t have the patience to wait for my call from the BBC to appear on the show. So I smashed out some words about my selections, which I have reworked and present to you below.
Firstly though, here is how the show works:
- A famous guest is ‘cast away’ on a fictional desert island each week
- They can choose eight songs, a book and a luxury item to take with them
- They are always given two items — the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible
- Guests have to choose one record they would save if a storm hit the desert island.
Picking eight songs is a frightful task! If you asked me to name my eight favourite songs, sure, I could give you a list. But that list might be completely different tomorrow! However, the idea behind the selections for the show is to help tell your life story, or be representative of certain periods of your life, rather than simply be a list of favourite songs.
So, let’s get into it.
1. Teddy Bears Picnic — Bing Crosby
A familiar song for many people and an absolute classic. I would occasionally hear it on the radio, and I remember it getting a special feature on a morning radio show on the ABC, where they played the original version of the music on an Edison cylinder.
Perhaps the most unusual use of the music recording was in an episode of The Young Ones. (One of my favourite shows ever!). Do you remember the scene, in the ‘Boring’ episode?? Goldilocks sneaks into the house, tries the three bowls of lentils, spitting back into the bowls as she goes, and finally says “ew, bloody hippy food!” and leaves. The bears return … “Someone’s been gobbing in my lentils …”
My favourite version of Teddy Bears Picnic was sung by Bing Crosby with the Victor Young Orchestra and released in 1950. I have this version on a 78 speed gramophone record, and it is absolutely brilliant, right down to the last crackle. Every now and then, I’ll get it out and play it on my 115 year old gramophone.
It’s a travel gramophone made by His Masters Voice. The tone arm folds back and is clamped into the sound hole. The crank handle fits into the clamps underneath the tone arm. Records fit in the slot in the lid. The gramophone belonged to my great grandfather. He took it apart to restore it, and it subsequently sat in pieces for many years. It was passed down to my dad, and my parents had it restored. I inherited it on my dad’s passing eight years ago. It’s a treasured object!
2. Cold, Cold Change — Midnight Oil
A chance discovery. When I was ten years old I won a copy of a record that was a compilation of popular songs at the time. That record featured the song Cold, Cold Change by Midnight Oil. I was absolutely blown away by this song, the amazing guitars and driving rhythm section were incredible. The song set me off down the path of becoming a dedicated fan. When I finally got a look at the promo clip, the singer was a strange, tall, skeletal man that looked like he was being electrocuted!
Very recently, a photo of the band was doing the rounds on social media. It featured a quote from Michael Lippold, a Midnight Oil roadie, and later, production manager, recalling his first gig with the band:
That night a gargantuan figure cavorted recklessly across the stage ducking and weaving around three manic guitarists as some lunatic at the rear was trying his hardest to destroy the drum kit I had laboriously assembled in the afternoon. Two hours later, I stood among the ruins, soaked in sweat, and still unsure of what I had just witnessed. I collected my day's pay and contemplated a safer career as a mercenary in a war zone somewhere.
I saw them live six or seven times during the 1980s. Some of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen.
Some 28 years later after discovering this song, my employment circumstances provided an opportunity to work closely with Peter Garrett. To say that that situation was surreal would be an understatement! I’ll always remember the time when I was showing some friends around my workplace, when Peter came past, said “G’day Ant”, waved at my friends, and powered off down the corridor. The shocked looks on their faces were priceless, jaws on the floor, eyes bugging out, unable to form sentences. Gold.
3. Cross-eyed Mary — Jethro Tull
I was about 12 years old when we went to visit my uncle (let’s call him Bob) and his partner for a weekend. They were living on a farm, and I had a great time hanging out with Bob, doing all sorts of things. He taught me to drive his old ute around the paddock, and showed me how to make a sling shot out of scrap steel and spear gun rubber. We spent hours in the evening and up until about 3.00am talking about stuff and listening to music in his workshop, while he smoked a few joints. It was there and then that I heard my first Jethro Tull album. Tull was one of Bob’s all time favourite bands, and I could understand why. They had this crazy, eccentric blend of bluesy rock mixed with folky acoustic guitar and flute. I loved it immediately.
Jethro Tull’s Aqualung quickly became a favourite record and I still love it to this day. Cross-eyed Mary was always a favourite from the album. I’ll always be grateful for the fun times I had with Bob and for him introducing me to Tull’s albums.
It was probably about a year later that Bob’s partner left him. They’d been together for nine years, but she’d had enough of him surviving on odd jobs, smoking dope, and essentially being directionless. Even at 12, I knew he was going nowhere fast. We too moved on, as my family and I moved interstate. Bob went on to become a born-again christian, he was some sort of preacher, did odd jobs, was occasionally unemployed, he had an alcohol problem, and, last I heard, he was essentially living as a hermit.
Interestingly, it is a song by another band that we both loved that always reminds me of him. I think the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s Time sum up his situation:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
4. Hallowed Be Thy Name — Iron Maiden
I was 13 years old, in my second year of high school, and living in a town for just twelve months due to an unusual set of circumstances (which I won’t explore here). As you could imagine, moving a long distance away from family and friends and changing schools is not ideal for a kid that age. Well, I found it enormously difficult.
Music and nature were things that I could escape to, things to keep me sane. Fortunately, there were quite a few friendly kids at my new school, but it didn’t really calm the nerves.
Then one morning, Dave walked in to class, handed me a cassette and said “Listen to this”. I took it home and played it. It was like a punch in the face! It was Iron Maiden’s third album, The Number Of The Beast.
It was striking, just incredible. The music had components of songs and styles of bands that I knew — there were lots of heavy riffs, fast playing, twin guitars reminiscent of Thin Lizzy, and a Gillan-esque wail. But all that and more was melded into a conglomerate that was greater than the sum of the parts. It was different, eye-opening, compelling, rebellious, vibrant, and totally wild! And I was totally hooked.
It is still one of the greatest heavy records of all time. And my favourite track off the album, Hallowed Be Thy Name is considered one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. In 2020, Loudwire magazine ranked all of Iron Maiden’s songs, with Hallowed taking number one. The blurb from the article:
The motherlode. The pinnacle. The greatest of them all. Steve Harris’ immortal tale of a man awaiting his fate at the gallows has passed into folklore as one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. An exquisite encapsulation of everything that made the ‘Number of the Beast’ line-up such an unstoppable force, the genius of “Hallowed” is in the relentlessness of its hooks, the band’s dizzying energy levels and the truly evocative and unsettling power of Harris’ lyrics. It’s a master class and a masterpiece. If those opening chimes don’t give you the chills, please hand in your metal license on the way out.
It’s pretty hard to argue with that!
5. Dazed And Confused — Led Zeppelin
I spent a lot of time in my early teens seeking out good music from the previous couple of decades. I became a fan of The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, etc. However, I really fell for Led Zeppelin. An incredible band that dominated the 1970s.
I was very taken with Dazed And Confused. Originally recorded by Jake Homes as a folk-rock song, Jimmy Page “borrowed” it and turned it into something, well, sinister, I guess. A slow, mysterious riff, which transforms into heaviness with a doom quality, a strange violin-bow-on-guitar-strings solo, a frantic and thunderous instrumental/solo section, and back to the riff for the breakdown. It is just brilliant. The studio version is superb, as is the vastly extended version on the double live LP The Song Remains The Same. Both got a lot of air time in my house.
However, I discovered quite by accident a live version recorded for BBC television in 1969. It was shown on a music clip show very early one morning. I couldn’t believe it, it absolutely floored me. It was raw, intense and wild! It is probably the most incredible live performance I have ever seen (that I didn’t witness in person!). The squares sitting in the audience had no idea what hit them.
The television recording was made in March 1969, between the release of Led Zeppelin in January and Led Zeppelin II in October. A prolific period of recording music for many bands of the time. I keep reminding myself that the amazing John Bonham was just 20 years old when he recorded that first album.
6. I’ve Been Waiting — Matthew Sweet
I spent the mid to late 80s getting right into all sorts of music, alternative, hardcore, indie, punk, and metal. However, I’d always been a sucker for a great pop song. I started to get back into power pop, going back to The Beatles, The Who, Big Star, Raspberries and Aussie bands like The Stems and Hoodoo Gurus. I fully immersed myself in the genre. I went in search of the perfect pop song, knowing that there wouldn’t be one perfect song, but I’d have a wonderful time trying to find it!
Then, during the music revolution that was 1991, a gift from the gods was bestowed upon us — Matthew Sweet’s album Girlfriend. An incredible record to say the least. It’s 30 years old, hasn’t aged a day, and I still can’t get past how good it is. For. So. Many. Reasons.
I honestly think that I’ve Been Waiting is one of the greatest power pop songs ever. It has all the elements, in bucket loads:
- A superb melody that is just captivating — just consider those note changes in “I didn’t think I’d find you …” Glorious!
- Sweet’s sweet harmonies — the multi-layered harmony vocals are just so warm.
- A solid rhythm section that keeps the power driving, great fills, amazing sound, nothing too flashy.
- The guitars — it’s got it all, acoustic and electric, the picking and the jangle and the power chord, wonderful tones, awesome vintage gear.
- The exquisite guitar playing, including the quirky yet tasteful solo, from the legendary Richard Lloyd.
The people that played on this album took it to the next level. And Fred Maher’s straightforward production with few modern bells and whistles made for a timeless recording.
I’m still looking for power pop perfection. But, just quietly, I think I found it in 1991. Pure genius.
7. Dry Nod — The Mike Gunn
A while back I wrote a blog post about discovering new music, and the importance of the local record store, especially before widespread use of the internet. Some time around mid to late 1994, I walked into my local record store and stopped dead in my tracks as the music playing on the hifi system hit my ears. My jaw dropped. I just stood there, glued to the spot as this incredible piece of music played out.
On its completion I headed straight to the counter and asked what it was I’d just heard. The answer: The Mike Gunn, a little known stoner/psych band from Houston. I had to have it. I promptly ordered a copy (which was a damn expensive import!), and spent the next 45 minutes listening to the whole album. I can’t even remember what it was I went into the store for. If for anything at all? Maybe I was just there for a snoop around? Who knows, and who cares, I’d just heard my new favourite record. My copy arrived a few weeks later and I played it a lot. I mean, A LOT!!
The band only existed for five years, but each member went on to create more music in the Houston psych scene. The band made a handful of records, peaking with the Almaron album released in 1993.
The song Dry Nod is a monumental piece from that album. It is ten minutes of sheer epicness. It begins with a slow groove, led by some cool bass playing, and featuring plenty of fuzzed guitars. There are some unusual vocal treatments in the verses, and the chorus is almost spoken and deep in the mix. The build up escalates into blazing fuzz solos culminating in a crunchy power chord bridge. Then the song changes tack and the pace doubles as it turns into a spectacular four minutes of rock n roll, with incredible dual guitar soloing and the most spectacular organ solo. It finally breaks down with an acoustic guitar outro. Just astounding!
8. Grudge **** — Scud Mountain Boys
A friend introduced me to the Scud Mountain Boys album Massachusetts back in 1996. There I was, swimming in an ocean of power pop, grunge, punk, metal, and still playing my Tull and Floyd albums. Then I’m handed this alt-country album. Well, I thought it was absolutely brilliant!
I’ve always recognised that there is a melancholy streak deep within me somewhere. Just quickly referring back to Matthew Sweet’s album Girlfriend, I love the sad, heartbreaking songs such as You Don’t Love Me (replete with pedal steel guitar), as much as I love the bursting with joy, upbeat power pop.
I came to develop an affinity for singers that wear their hearts on their sleeves. Elliott Smith is the obvious one in that selection. However, once I’d heard Grudge **** and the other wonderful songs on Massachusetts, I became a huge fan of Joe Pernice’s work.
Joe has recorded many albums under different guises, some with the acoustic alt-country, sad-core feel, and some with a more power/chamber/baroque-pop feel. He is a prolific songwriter, a brilliant lyricist, and possesses a refreshing wit and sense of humour. And he loves baseball. I’m very fortunate and pleased to be able to call him a friend.
OK, that’s the eight discs I want with me on a desert island. What did you think of my selections??
If a storm comes and I’m taking just one disc, it’s going to be Dry Nod. There’s just so much going on that it will always be entertaining!
As for the other things I can have …
Book — Being a total bird nerd, I’ll need the Handbook of the Birds of the World. Something interesting is bound to fly past!
Luxury — To observe said birds on and around my island, I’ll require a pair of the top of the range Swarovski binoculars please!!!
And for the two volumes that I’m given, I’m ok with reading Shakespeare. However, the pages of the bible will only be useful for helping to get a fire started!
If you’ve read this far, thank you.
Have you thought about your eight desert island discs? What would you take? What songs tell your life story or represent significant times in your existence. Please share!
[Main image: Copyright Suzi Bond; used with kind permission.]