DESERT ISLAND DISCS
I promised Dave Shannon, whose idea this was, to come up with my nominations PDQ. In true Robinson style, I'm late - again.
It's much more difficult than it seems, as you'll know if you've tried to do it. I've enjoyed it immensely, though - so thankyou, Dave.
And let's have some more nominations, please.
Here, for what they're worth, are the eight records I would need with me on my mythical desert island...
The Darktown Poker Club - Phil Harris
Anyone who, when asked to choose music from their earliest years, cites The Nun’s Chorus and Cigareets, Whuskey, and Wild Wild Women in the same breath, was bound to grow up into an unstable and confusing maturity, and I did. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but there you go.
I don’t remember us as being a particularly musical family when I was young, although I suppose we must have been, because other melodic snatches kept drifting up from my subconscious the deeper I delved; Serutan Yob, O Sole Mio and a good half-dozen Children’s Favourites favourites like The Laughing Policeman (yes, I’m that old) and even Buckingham Palace, for heaven’s sake.
But only the dry wit and humour of Phil Harris deserves a precious place on my desert island. I can remember hearing The Darktown Poker Club on the Light Programme when I was very young indeed - it was actually released in 1947 and was one of that year’s biggest hit records (as they were called then.) It’s fast and furious - so much so that the lyrics are difficult to hear, let alone understand ( - there’s a lot of poker-playing patois in there).
Phil Harris’ utterly unmistakable vocal mannerisms re-appeared in my life many years later. His was the voice of Baloo the Bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book, from which he had a ‘twilight hit’ with The Bare Necessities.
So before I leave on my fateful voyage, I’ll print off the lyrics. Once stranded under the palms, I’ll set myself the task of trying to decipher them. That should keep my mind occupied for a while.
The Last Time I Saw Paris - Jonathan and Darlene Edwards
We’re up to the early 60s, and music was very definitely a big part of family life by now. My brothers (Barry and Deryck) grooved along to the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan, the rock’n’roll of Bill Haley (and the Comets, natch), the trad jazz of Chris Barber (and the wonderfully-named Ottilie Patterson) and the nascent British pop music scene represented by the likes of Joe Brown and Cliff Richard ( - although none of us ever formed an attachment for Elvis Presley).
We even owned a double bass, which our Deryck actually played with considerable joie-de-vivre. I don’t know where it came from or where it went, but after it disappeared, he progressed to a ‘broomstick’ bass as a member of the ‘jolly boys’ in the local pub.
I was only in my early teens, though, and - then as now - it was humour that was still catching my ear. It was at this time that I became captivated - nay, enthralled - by a duo for whom my affection has not dimmed from that day to this.
It takes considerable skill to play the piano as confusingly and as waywardly as Jonathan Edwards did; later, Les Dawson got halfway there. It’s even trickier to sing slightly - but unerringly - off-key and off-beat a la Darlene. No-one has even dared to emulate her since. Over the decades, I’ve tried to collect every track they recorded and choosing just one is iniquitous; all eight of my Desert Island Discs could easily have been theirs.
I’ve chosen The Last Time I Saw Paris because Jo Stafford (whose voice it is) won an award for the album from which it’s taken, and because Paris has played an important part in my recent history. This track keeps it in its place.
Strawberry Fields Forever - The Beatles
We move on through the 60s now, and no other band (or ‘group’, as we used to call them) comes within a thousand miles of The Beatles, and the influence they had on me.
It seems to be fashionable these days to belittle The Beatles and to treat their songs and careers with a kind of smug contempt. But, if you were there at the time - and in your teens, as I was - you will have no doubt at all of their musicality, innovation and invention or of their tireless efforts to break new ground and make sounds that pop music had never heard.
After Love Me Do, every new Beatles single was awaited with enthusiasm coupled with eager curiosity; what would they come up with next? With Strawberry Fields Forever, they hit my heights. The production values, the mix, the effects, the sheer bravado and sophistication of the song itself, took my breath away.
Of course, many other groups jostled for attention in the wonderful 60s - the Stones, the Kinks, the Searchers, the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, the Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers - and you can still buy their tracks on compilations or Greatest Hits albums. But The Beatles bestrode that revolutionary decade as if they were masterminding and inspiring the many changes that took place in the world.
I remember buying a poster of Alexander Dubcek, pinning it to the wall of my tiny bedsit in London and listening to Strawberry Fields Forever while I looked at it.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Saint-Saëns - Symphony No 3 ‘Organ’
I met my first boyfriend in 1972; he was called David and he changed my musical life forever - which is only right and proper. When I first visited his flat, I was completely overawed - and I mean ‘completely’ - by the biggest collection of LPs I’d ever seen. David had 2,000 of them - two thousand - and they were all classical.
Two walls of his living room were stacked floor-to-ceiling with records, all arranged in alphabetical order. I think that the greatest pleasure he got from our short-lived relationship lay in educating this untutored blank page of a bus driver in the delights awaiting him within the sleeves of that vast music collection.
It was a revelation. At first, he played me music he knew I knew and liked; Handel’s Largo, The Ride of the Valkyries, the 1812 - good, solid stuff like that.
But then he extended my range. I got to hear more, and less famous, music by Handel, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Then he introduced me to composers and music I’d barely or never heard of. There was Bach and Berlioz, Chopin and Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, Bizet and Debussy, Dvorak and Rossini, Sibelius and Vivaldi.
He opened a door I hadn’t even been aware of. And the music of Saint-Saëns blew the door clean off its hinges.
In a long musical career, Saint-Saëns wrote operas, ballets, overtures, ‘concert pieces’, sonatas, organ fugues, concertos. He was the first classical composer to write music specially for a film - The Assassination of the Duke of Guise - in 1908!
His ‘greatest hit’ - The Carnival of the Animals - is even more popular now than when he wrote it.
But his story does not end happily. Although he lived to a great age ( - when he was born in 1835, Beethoven had just died and Victoria wasn’t yet on the throne; when he died in 1921, the First World War had just ended - ) he was a deeply unhappy man for much of his later life. Both his children died accidentally within weeks of each other in 1878. Perhaps understandably, he never recovered from this loss.
Saint-Saëns became a wanderer, virtually living on trains and steamships for over 40 years.
Arguably (except for me) his masterpiece is his third symphony, which incorporates an organ, to unforgettable effect. It’s rattled my bones, made my hair stand on end and moved me to tears every time I’ve heard it since David introduced me to it.
It’ll do the same on my desert island - and it won’t be just Saint-Saëns I’ll be remembering.
Broken Bicycles - Bette Midler
In her heyday - in the 70s and 80s - Bette Midler was truly the Mae West of the age. Cheeky, mischievous, naughty, provocative - she paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga, both of whom are pale, attention-seeking imitations of her. Bette Midler was the queen of vamp and sleaze.
This is hardly surprising, as she started her career in the smokey, sexy bars and bath-houses of New York’s gay scene. The only thing she could do to divert her audience’s attention away from the steamy, testosterone-filled performances going on all around them in the dark, was to become the queen of camp as well.
This part of her career reached its zenith with a stage-show called Art or Bust, which is awesome. She and her ‘Harlettes’ (geddit?) performed her greatest hits, dressed for each one as characters from famous painting styles. There was cubism, impressionism, surrealism, art deco and - for Broken Bicycles - art nouveau.
She looked wonderful. Like a pre-Raphaelite model or one of those art-nouveau lamps where the bulb is being held aloft by a prancing, wrought-iron lady. And then she sang.
Broken Bicycles - which was written, and first released, by Tom Waits in 1983 - is a short and rather uncomplicated song in form and structure. And, like many of his songs, its simplicity belies its depth. The imagery is startling and its delivery by Ms Midler left me wanting to come up for air.
I had intended to reproduce the lyrics here, but that never works. Song lyrics need the singer and the music, too. That’s the whole point, after all. So, if you can, have a listen. (You can do this by downloading Spotify, for example, off the internet; it’s free.) Or better yet, watch it on YouTube.
It’s a song of longing and yearning and lost love. It will make me sad on my island but it’s a good antidote to Phil Harris or the Edwardses.
Berlioz - Requiem
Unlike Saint-Saëns, whose sensibilities were deeply rooted in the French middle-classes of the time, Berlioz was a pre-Raphaelite renegade of the first water. Like The Beatles, he consciously fought to move music forward, to experiment with new forms and new effects, to shake up the musical establishment of his era (up to about the 1850s).
He succeeded magnificently. His works, all of which are orchestrated to within an inch of their lives, bounce down the decades and still stir the hearts of his many fans today. Rousing overtures like The Corsair, Les francs-juges, King Lear or Roman Carnival were years ahead of their time. He didn’t number his symphonies like everyone else - he named them; Harold In Italy and The Fantastic Symphony (which includes a heart-stopping musical representation of a beheading by guillotine).
But he really knocked spots off people’s preconceptions with his funereal works. His Symphonie funebre includes one of the most famous and stately funeral marches ever written. And the Grande Messe des Morts - the ‘great Mass for the dead’, more usually called the Requiem - must have had its audience gibbering in the aisles when it was first performed in 1837.
With astonishing Romantic-era panache, Berlioz’ score for the Requiem requires....
*a 180-piece orchestra, including 16 kettledrums, 10 pairs of cymbals, 20 ‘cellos and 18 double-basses;
*four brass bands (placed at the corners of the auditorium) - 38 players in all -
*a choir of 210 voices, made up of 80 sopranos, 70 basses and 60 tenors; plus
*a tenor solo.
Despite the numbers involved, though, it’s not all deafeningly thunderous. Berlioz was clever enough to intersperse the volcanic eruptions with areas of wistfulness and calm. Nevertheless, it’s the deafening thunder that clinches it for most people.
It’s not often performed, of course. The cost is prohibitive, for a start. So I’m lucky to have seen it twice. Which means that I have felt that my life will never be the same again - twice.
The part of the Requiem that makes you wonder what on earth Berlioz was on when he wrote it is the Tuba mirum - the massed trumpet call to the Last Judgement of the Lord. (Even typing those words has given me goosepimples.) The whole ensemble - all 429 of them - take part. The trumpets blare at you from the four corners of the world, the whole of humanity calls to the Lord, who calls back using all those kettledrums, cymbals and double-basses.
The word ‘awesome’ is much over-used these days. I’ve used it myself already in this blogposting. I should have reserved it for now.
Samuel Barber - Adagio
Desert Island Discs is not just about choosing the famous eight records, of course. Kirsty Young (whom the Fates preserve) usually asks her guests how they would manage to survive on the island: catching and cooking fish, for example, or building some sort of shelter or being able to decide which of the island’s lush vegetation is at least digestible rather than agonisingly suicidal.
My survival skills are, of course, minimal (to say the least). They make Barbara Cartland look like Bear Grylls. I don’t want to eat it if it doesn’t come already chopped, sliced, diced, mashed or otherwise prepared and ready to shove in the microwave. If you can’t get a bus or a train there, I don’t want to go. Any fire I made would set the entire island alight in seconds and any shelter I managed to cobble together would implode under the weight of its own embarrassment.
I’m not proud of any of this. It’s unsettling to parade your own inadequacies in public, which is probably why Kirsty’s guests usually tell her that they’d have no trouble at all throwing up a fully-stocked supermarket in a matter of days then settling down to a tasty pot of sea urchin bouillabaisse. Yeah right.
She also asks them whether or not they would be lonely on their island.
I think I’d be OK for a while - for about as long as it takes to recite all I could remember of The Lady of Shalott. Then, slowly but surely, I would go berserk (if it’s possible to go berserk slowly.) I would start talking to myself (which all of us do once in a while anyway) and, not satisfied with the standard of conversation, would soon be having psychotic round-table discussions with myself.
I would present imaginary radio programmes where I always get the better of Wappat. I would walk up and down like Alan Whicker, doing ‘pieces to camera’. By the time I was rescued, I would be as incoherent as Robert Kilroy-Silk or Stanley Unwin.
Which is why my seventh record is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is the most ethereal music I have ever heard; like its competitors for slot 7, it has the power to uplift and calm at the same time; and then to intensify feelings of melancholia and yearning to almost unbearable levels.
Barber’s competition for slot 7 included Albinoni’s Adagio, Pachelbel’s Kanon, Handel’s Largo, Puccini’s Humming Chorus - and much of the music of Philip Glass or Enya.
But Barber's Adagio came out on top because it paints pictures of a mournful but desirable paradise and makes it clear that, however close we get to it, it always remains permanently just out of reach. It leaves you utterly alone with your thoughts. It is almost a dream that doesn't quite turn into a nightmare.
I would listen to it constantly and never stop crying.
Unless, of course, I played record number eight.
I Don’t Feel Like Dancing - Scissor Sisters
As well as being blamelessly and faultlessly enjoyable, I Don’t Feel Like Dancing would remind me of my high days at the BBC. When it was played, I would actually dance in the street (or, latterly, in the studio). And I know I’m not the only one. The combination of song and style is irresistible; this is a modern pop classic and fully deserves to be.
And, because so many of the band members are openly and flamboyantly gay, I guess it would also remind me of how much the world that had abandoned me on my island has changed since I was born.
But - to be honest - I think this track justifies its own inclusion without any supporting evidence from me.
So there I am - Ian Robinson Crusoe.
Except that Kirsty wouldn’t quite have finished.
She would ask me which one of the eight records I would choose above all the others, and I would say the Saint-Saëns symphony because - with its moods changing by turns from flippant and happy to melancholy and finally to thundering victory - it would have the power to reflect whatever state of mind I would be in, and to alter it if necessary.
She would also ask me to choose a book to have with me - apart from the Bible and Shakespeare (neither of which I would want anyway). I would nominate The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. It was given to me by one of the first happily and openly gay men I ever met - an Australian bus driver called Alex - and although its sentiments now have the aura of 60s idealism about them, I have never failed to find it uplifting, liberating and thought-provoking.
You’re allowed to be shipwrecked with a ‘luxury item’ too. Noel Edmonds showed an all-too-rare glimpse of wisdom when he chose a motorway service area. I can’t possibly aspire to such heights, so instead I’ve chosen to ask for an Apple Mac computer like this one - with a power supply and internet access, of course.
Macs are lovely to look at, even switched off. They’re easy to operate. And, on my island, my Mac would be the only way I had of knowing what truckshunters were saying about me on this blog in my absence.
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