The chances are that I will never appear on Desert Island Discs. But just in case, and like many people, I have spent odd moments over the past ten years thinking about the eight records I’d choose if I was.
I first produced a list of my 100 favourite records when I was 13. Thereafter I updated it at regular intervals. But the process has always been an illusion. There is no such thing as anyone’s 100 favourite records, so no such thing as anyone’s eight favourite records. Any list will depend on mood, circumstance and what one had for breakfast.
So, rather than repeating this process, I decided that it would be better to choose my eight favourite artists of all time – the ones that have meant the most to me over many decades – and choose my favourite track from each. Still an impossible task, but more manageable and more representative, I felt.
Now I have changed my mind again. If I was stuck on a desert island, the records I would most want to hear would be those that reminded me of the life from which I had been separated. The eight records, in other words, to which I feel the greatest emotional attachment, which is subtly different from the eight records that I like best. And they would need to come from different phases of my life so that, by playing all of them, I could be in touch with the entirety of my life.
So here are the eight pieces of music I would now choose, together with a description of the feelings they engender. As you might expect from a writer’s choice, they all have fabulous lyrics. The one drawback is that the two artists I have most listened to over my life – John Stewart and Ralph McTell – are both absent. Each has written hundreds of songs and I have loved almost all of them. But neither has made the cut on these criteria. Nor have the Beatles or Bob Dylan.
1. Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
I had an upbringing in which the Christian religion was never oppressive, but it was ever-present, particularly at school. I now seldom go to church, and never for religious reasons. Yet there are many hymns to which I feel an inexplicable attachment and which instantly take me right back to childhood. I still sing them whenever I get the chance. They still move me. I could have chosen any one of dozens, but this one means the most to me. (Emotion: Yearning)
2. Da Doo Ron Ron – The Crystals
“You said they all had fabulous lyrics,” you protest. “What’s this one doing here?” The lyrics of Da Doo Ron Ron contain 287 words, 280 of which are monosyllables. This proves that fantastic writing does not need to be complex: it comes in all shapes and forms. Everything about this record – lyrics, melody, arrangement, performance – shouts happiness and exuberance. It encapsulates teenage love in two minutes of brilliance. Thousands of other songs tried to do the same; none did it better. Even now, I want to get up and dance whenever I hear it. (Emotion: Joy)
3. We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger
I got into folk music at the age of about 14 and then spent years trawling through the racks of London record shops. This track is from the second album I bought (recorded live at Carnegie Hall); I might have bought it only because it featured several Bob Dylan songs. I can’t claim to have otherwise been much of a young radical, but something about the way that black people were treated in the southern states of America made me fanatical on the subject of civil rights. And still does. Possibly because of the contradiction with the notion of ‘land of the free’. (Emotion: Hope)
4. America – Simon & Garfunkel
The years 1967-69 were my transition from childhood to adulthood, and popular music made the same transition at the same time. It was an intensely poignant period, played out against the background of the Vietnam War. Many wonderful songs captured the wistfulness of those years and their double-edged emotions. This is narrowly my favourite. It is an astonishing feat of writing – a piece of blank verse that becomes the smoothest of songs. It simultaneously conveys both the personal and the universal through an aching longing for something that never was, briefly might have been, and now never will be. (Emotion: Loss)
5. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
I have had many debates over the years as to the difference between a rebel and an outsider. I have never been a rebel, but have always felt and always wanted (at least partly) to be an outsider. This is the ultimate outsider’s song, expressing both the euphoria and the separateness of the condition. When I first heard it played on the radio by John Peel, he called it “a supper-club version of rock ’n’ roll’s past”. Think you were wrong there, John. (Emotion: Exhilarated isolation)
6. Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits
The ultimate love-affair-that-didn’t-work song. Which is why it’s here. It doesn’t need any further explanation. (Emotion: Love)
7. Between the Wars – Billy Bragg
Whatever my rational mind tells me, I feel an overwhelming sentimental attachment to the Britain that the Labour Party once represented. So does Billy Bragg. This song portrays brilliantly one part of the world into which I was to be born. It does not represent my own experience, but it resonates with me as if it did. It may describe a partially mythical Britain, but myth can be more powerful than reality. (Emotion: Nostalgia)
8. Darkness Visible – Tom Russell
I adore Tom Russell’s songs, but this must be his least accessible. Which is its point. I have no idea what might have prompted him to write it, or what precisely it is about. It floats hypnotically on a level where it cannot quite be grasped. Darkness visible indeed. It represents everything in life that is enigmatic, which is most of it. (Emotion: Mystery)
And, when asked which one of these eight I would save, it would be We Shall Overcome. Because, of all the emotions, the one I should most need to feel if I was marooned on a desert island is hope.