What would you take on Desert Island Discs?

Jonathan Richman
Image by GregPC via Flickr

Discs or Disks?

I don’t know and I can’t be bothered to look it up.

I will never be invited to appear on Desert Island Discs or Disks. I have resigned myself to that. I will never be famous, not even in my home town. Anyway, that programme has always annoyed me by cutting the tracks short when played. What if I were to choose something with a great guitar solo and they faded it out before? I know the programme is supposed to be about the interesting person being interviewed, but let’s face it: the songs are usually the most interesting thing.

I find it hard to choose just 8 tracks. I would be one of those people who could get invited on multiple times, and I’d choose something different each time.

1. “Jessica” – The Allman Brothers. There needs to be something that reaches back to my formative years. This is one of what I think of as the Radio Caroline tracks. To everyone else, it’s the Top Gear theme. To me it’s Dickey Betts‘ finest hour. I especially love the bit in the middle that you would never hear on Top Gear. I also love the 70s sound mix. Two drummers, and you can barely hear either of them. This track reminds me of late nights under the bedsheets, fine tuning the radio to pick up the faint Caroline signal from the North Sea.

2. “Rich Girl” – Hall and Oates. I’ve tried listening to other Hall and Oates songs, and they’re hateful, and the 80s production values are simply terrible. But “Rich Girl” is a great song and at just over 2 minutes it’s the antidote to the 7-minute “Jessica”. I think this is probably another Radio Caroline track. but I can’t be sure. Surely this would have been played on mainstream radio, too? Anyway, it represents adulthood to me. By which I mean, how it’s easy to forget sometimes that you don’t need permission to like something, and that if you’ve always wanted something, ever since you were young, there’s very little to stand in your way. I used to sing this to myself on my teenage bike rides. And here we are, I’m nearly fifty and I play this to myself from my phone on my bike rides.

3. “Just About Seventeen” – Jonathan Richman. Someone once said to me that, like him, I would always fall in love with women at the same age. I think about this a lot, but I’ve come to realise that we all – to a certain extent – suffer from arrested development. For various reasons, I still feel exactly the same as I did when I was seventeen. Oh, I can put on the world weariness for effect, and I can view some things as used up and over with, but when I’m out on my bike, I still feel exactly the same (and exactly as unfit and weedy) as I did when I was seventeen. Life can be unresolved sometimes, and that’s how it is for me. On the positive side, I think that being “young at heart” is a good thing. Jonathan Richman is like an ideal mirror self. I love how this sounds, this doo wop, late fifties poppy rock and roll vibe.

4. “Up to Me” – Bob Dylan. One my my favourite Bob Dylan songs, and one that – for most of the world – was unheard until it was dig up for one of his many boxed sets. You can puzzle for hours as to why he left this off Blood on the Tracks, or you can just be grateful that they at least kept the tape. This comes from the first thoroughly documented and recorded century, the 20th, and it’s an object lesson in how the artist is sometimes not best qualified to judge their own work.

5. “South of Cincinatti” – Dwight Yoakam. If there’s a moment in my life that change the course of it, it’s the night I got drunk and listened to a mix tape of what was then called “New Country” made by a work colleague. I’d tried to listen to it in the car when sober, but it didn’t make sense to me until, late on a Saturday night and drunk on whiskey, I listened to the tape with my then-girlfriend and then-best friend. We phoned to guy up at about 1 a.m. to tell him how great it was. I don’t think he appreciated the call at the time, but I expect he did later. Discovering proper country music meant that my musical tastes – from Beatles for Sale, Nashville Skyline and The Band, started to make sense.

6. “Lay it Down” – Kim Richey. Most of the time, these days, I prefer to listen to female vocals. Kim Richey is a fine songwriter, and when Trisha Yearwood sings one of her songs it’s a great combination. This particular song is representative of a particular strand of music. It’ll never trouble the charts, and the name will mean nothing to almost everyone, but when you hear a song like this you have to wonder why that might be.

7. “Wait it Out” – Tift Merritt. For a little while it seemed as if Tift Merritt might make it big. Her first album got good reviews, and then she teamed up with Producer George Drakoulis for her second record, Tambourine. And it was great, got airplay on Radio 2, and included corking songs and great musicianship. When you’re playing with two of the Heartbreakers, you’re onto a good thing. This, for me, is guitarist Mike Campbell’s finest hour. But like Maria McKee before her (who also worked with Drakoulis), Ms Merritt went in a less commercial direction, and she contents herself with regular touring of small venues and album sales to a select audience. I can understand that. It seems like a more sustainable life, and makes being a travelling musician more like a proper job. On the other hand, “Wait it Out” is still stunningly visceral, and a taste of what might have been.

8. “Learning to Fly” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. F-C-Am-G. I love the way songwriters like Petty can write classic songs using the chords everybody knows. And I love the way the chorus and the verses of this have the same chords. He did the same on “Free Fallin'”. I’m hard pushed at times to pick a favourite of an artist who has achieved so much, but I think this is it. Very simple, but depending on your mood, this can be one of the most uplifting songs ever.

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