A colleague recently asked for suggestions for music which got me thinking that everyone should at least have a rough idea of what to play were they ever to be invited onto Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. Now, it’s a vanity to even momentarily entertain the idea that one is of sufficient public interest to be invited onto this great British Radio programme, but that didn’t stop me preparing my list. Here it is.
The rules of being cast away on the imaginary island might seem a little anachronistic in this digital age but they boil down to these: you’re allowed 8 discs – tracks, in the modern vernacular – and the means to play them, presumably mechanical as there is no source of power for electronic devices. Concessions are that you can take with you a holy or philosophical book, the complete works of Shakespeare and one other book, plus one luxury item, provided that it doesn’t aid your escape from the island.
First two discs
The first disc sent me back to Letchworth, where I grew up in a house full of music. My mother sang all her life until age overtook her vocal cords. She still has the same passion for music, particularly Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2, which would often play as I took my weekly bath on a Sunday evening. Mum is and always was a girl who liked fun, however, and was as likely to be found lost in a boogie-woogie – her favourite being Down the road a piece. My first two discs reflect my mother’s influence, therefore: the first, a classical masterpiece rendered by Isao Tomita electronically to great effect, especially from about 5 min 30 sec, where the effect of percussion leading in a sweeping chorus still moves me as much now as when I first heard it 35 years ago.
The second of my desert island discs is possibly the best blues track I ever heard. I played this as a teenager, over and over again, and have never tired of hearing it. From Fleetwood Mac’s early years, it was the B side to Albatross, another instrumental that showed the expressive power of the electric guitar in the hands of a master – in this case, Peter Green, and on my second disc, Danny Kirwan. Catch the contrast between the blue notes and the happy middle eight.
The guitar is an instrument I have been playing for almost fifty years. I’m still pretty mediocre, despite a period as a professional bass player.
Guitars, voices and songs
I wondered if I might take a guitar with me to the island. In the interests of not driving myself crazy with frustration and rage at my own inability to play as well as I’d like, it will be better that I don’t. Instead, a track featuring one of my favourite guitarists of all time, Ritchie Blackmore. The band Deep Purple produced the most incredible quality music, not least due to the influence of Jon Lord. In my time as a bass player, I owned a Rickenbacker that was supposed to have belonged to Roger Glover of the same band. The vocalist Ian Gillan is most closely associated with Deep Purple, but for me, the greatest voice for Blackmore’s guitar belonged to David Coverdale. Here they both are, doing what they both do best.
My work took me around the world, where I would often be working shifts in the air-conditioned sterility of the computer room, waiting for code to compile and link. In the splendid isolation of those places, I often listened to cassette tapes through headphones, loud. One artist that accompanied me in that place during an extended trip to Seattle was Joni Mitchell, whose album Blue was played end to end, stopping only half way through to turn the tape around. My island disc from that album features the delicious sound of the Appalachian Dulcimer.
Songs of significance
I have never hung on to my career at all costs, preferring to recognise that a point has been reached where further progress is impossible, further contribution wasted and that a new path beckons. These points have often featured significant songs or music and the next track is an example. I used it as the introduction to a corporate presentation shortly before I left the corporation.
In a similar way, I found the music of Omar Faruk Tekbilek to be significant, drawn as I was at the time to Islam. As Muhammad Bilal, I spent a number of years with that faith and as part of that community, the Ummah. The imam at my local mosque had a beautiful singing voice and would often lead the singing of a naat, a poem in praise of the Prophet. One in particular, I still sometimes catch myself singing the chorus of: Mustafa Jaan-e-Rehmat Pe Laakhon Salaam.
“Islam” means “peace” and I found a peace here that I hadn’t experienced before, in the prayer and the respect for all, men and women, “sons of Abraham”, for nature, for knowledge and science. It breaks my heart to see how the great religion that Islam is, can be so sullied by the actions of lunatics, dead cultural habits and the ignorant. Here, the music and lyrics of Omar Faruk Tekbilek are evocative of a place of peace for the Muslim, particularly the spiritual Sufi, a garden.
I have now spent a significant part of my adult life in Scotland. I consider it to be my home, with all of its strange cultures and heritages, most of which are imports. The pipes, originating as they did in Egypt, are perhaps iconic for Scottish culture and there is nothing so stirring as hearing the massed pipes and drums of a decent rendering of Highland Cathedral. The tune is, of course, written by a couple of Germans, which I think is funny. I don’t want any of that on the island. What I will have is a single track by Matt Rach, a young French guitarist whose talent I am insanely jealous of and whose music, whether covers or his own material, is quite exceptionally, furiously, good. This one will do: it’s his cover of the theme from Rosemary’s Baby.
My final track seems to the perfect synthesis of the music I have loved the most, crossing cultural, religious and national boundaries in a way that digs deep into my psyche. I can do nothing when I hear this but close my eyes and listen to it. It was written by the cellist Joceyln Pook for Akram Khan’s DESH, a full-length contemporary dance solo. I have never seen the dance. I like to think that this unresolved rift in the balance of harmony in my life makes me immortal.
I am free of God now but recognise the value of values and the power of prayer. There is no peace like the peace of the mosque; no hope so vain as the hope of salvation; no service but that which is given unconditionally and without recognition. That said, I have no need of the religious or philosophical Book: neither the Bible nor Qu’ran are any use to me now. If I need fiction, I have the complete works of Shakespeare, altogether more credible a read.
I was thinking that I might take for my own choice Sun Tzu’s Art of War. If I have nobody to fight a war with but myself it may offer a route to greater self-awareness. However, I have settled on a brilliant little book that will keep me occupied and mentally stimulated until I am rescued from the island: The Chicken from Minsk: And 99 Other Infuriating Brainteasers. I was recommended this book several years ago and finally bought one, second-hand, for a penny. To give you a flavour of the book, from the back cover:
Besides chess playing and problem solving, drinking is and always has been the most common form of recreation in Russia. Vassily has acquired a 12 litre bucket of vodka and wishes to share it with Pyotr. However, all Pyotr has is an empty 8 litre bottle and an empty 5 litre bottle. How can the vodka be divided evenly?
The Luxury item and the One Disc I’d Save
I was considering an Appalachian Dulcimer, so that I could learn to play “A Case of You” – the one disc I would save from the waves if I had to – but realised that I would probably break the strings quite quickly. A longer-lasting luxury, depending on how much I am permitted to have of this, would be writing and sketching materials. Writing is the one thing I have never tired of: and when I do, I tend to sketch. Not very well, but like the guitar playing, well enough for my own entertainment.
Which is probably good news for the other inhabitants of the island.