Desert Island Discs – pt. 1

My desert island discs – Part 1

Rock RoutesIn search of Captain Beefheart cover537 Essential Rock Albums cover

My desert island discs

I was just listening to the radio today as someone was trotting through their desert island discs and telling me why they had selected their favourite pieces of music.

What an impossibility.

How could anyone limit their selections to so few? Music has been an integral part of my life. It reflects my views and feelings. It has helped develop my whole perspective on life. Right from the early days of my youth I have poured over lyrics and immersed myself in the emotion and wonder of music. It is a universal language. If I had to choose between music and literature for which has had the biggest effect on my development I think I would be hard pushed to decide.

Anyway – you will be pleased to know that the BBC has decided to do a special three hour Desert Island Discs just to accommodate my essential choices because they felt that they were so profoundly brilliant. Unlike with everyone else they are going to play all my selections in their entirety!

How about that!

It still presented me with huge dilemmas. What did I leave out! I’d need at least a thousand hour programme.

Anyway, they weren’t about to do that, though I think they were quite keen. I was forced to make decisions.

These are they:

Bob Dylan – It’s Alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)


Bob Dylan was that fulcrum point around which Rock Music turned. He not only brought poetry, stories and a different structure into Rock Music, he brought politics, meaning, social commentary and fury.

This is a song that sums all that up. The poetic imagery of birth and death, the wide vista, the anger at the plastic society and how we were all being knocked into shape, the hypocrisy and greed he described all seared themselves into y brain.

I could have chosen a hundred Dylan songs but this is the one that used to send my adolescent, rebellious brain into paroxysms of anger as I deciphered what he was talking about.


Roy Harper – The Lord’s Prayer


Another epic thirty minute song/poem that burned with passions. A commentary on society, a glimpse into the mind of a human being from a different age, a yearning for something more.

Again I could have chosen a heap of Harpers but this one can keep you occupied for a lifetime. The repeating musical coda provided by Jimmy Page’s guitar that sounds deceptively simple but is fiendishly complex.

A song to tease the mind on many levels and music that soars.


Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device


The best of the Punk Bands. The brought the Irish troubles into perspective. Their anger was channelled into raw statements of fury. Punk was a brilliant vehicle.

What was so good was the clever use of words coupled with the searing guitars, frantic pace and social message. It moved me.


Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land


Woody was a phenomenon. He was the first major songwriter to take that social stance and tell the stories. He was so clever.

I love this song, particularly with the often missing verses about private property and dole queues. It should have been America’s anthem.

Woody is an international treasure.


Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Chile (Slight return)


And still no-one comes near to that genius of guitar prowess and excitement. I can’t help but wonder what brilliance we would have seen from him. His only limitation was his imagination. I have never seen anything so exciting.

Jimi epitomised Rock Music to me – the brash excitement, showmanship and expertise. Voodoo Chile sends shivers through me.


Nick Harper – The Magnificent G7


Nick is a brilliant song-writer who is different to his Dad. This is a beautiful, haunting, delicate song with a profound message.

Our leaders are only people. World policy is ultimately sorted by seven white men in the G7. They create the mountains of grain and countries of misery. Perhaps they could do it better?

What a clever song with such strong sentiments.


Son House – Death Letter Blues


The Blues is a favourite music of mine. I always go back to it and find it satisfying. I think I like the rawness and lack of sophistication most. It is authentic in a world of overproduced plastic. It is full of emotion and passion and tells the stories of a different life.

Son House was one of the originals. He taught Robert Johnson to play. Without him there might not be Rock Music. I was bowled over by Death Letter the first time I heard it. That was at Hammersmith Odeon on a Blues package tour – Son House was the star of the night at seventy nine years of age.


Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker


Elmore took the old acoustic bottleneck style and electrified it. What came out was a scorching sound that blistered your ears. He rocked before rocking was invented.

I would have loved to have spent an evening in one of those sweaty Chicago night-clubs bouncing to Elmore as he scattered those slide notes off the walls and decorated them with his anguished vocals.

Shake Your Moneymaker was a belter.


Captain Beefheart – Big Eyed Beans From Venus


I first saw and heard Captain Beefheart back in 1968. On that tour he blew my world apart. I had never seen or heard anything like it. He took the delta blues, dusted it with lysergic acid and created some cosmic blues that jangled your neurones.

I think you have to see it performed live to really appreciate the phenomenal synthesis of poetry, rhythms and music. The complexity and juxtapositions of guitar and vocals with that driving bass and drums plays tricks with your head. It was as exciting as Hendrix and that is saying something.

I was never the same agin!

Big Eyed Beans from Venus is one of Rock’s greatest songs.

Country Joe and the Fish – Who am I?


I think Joe McDonald has a claim to possessing the best voice in Rock Music. Not for its power but its clarity and quality. It is best heard on numbers like this introspective anthem and the anti-war dirge – Untitled Protest.

I thought this band was one of the most extreme, political and original to come out of the West Coast Acid Rock Scene. They epitomised what it was all about for me with their first three albums.

Who Am I? is a delicate song with depth and beauty. It sends me.

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16 thoughts on “Desert Island Discs – pt. 1

  1. Not Woody, but some years before – The Carter Family. They were the first to spread the word all over America. Not just from their recordings, but they had the ability to do it in person, too. Played during Prohibition and the Depression.

    1. I quite like the Carter Family but they are too religious for my tastes and don’t hold a candle to Woody. The word they spread was Jesus.

      1. ? No, you must be thinking of something else entirely.
        The Carters were American Music in Capital Letters. All the old folk ballads and their repertoire was huge.
        Where do you think Woody got it from? Were you of the belief he came up with that himself?

      2. Oh know, Woody ripped off both lyrics and melodies from the Carter Family, Will Rogers and everybody else. But his use of lyrics, humour, talking blues and social comment put him a category apart in my book. I have quite a bit of stuff by the Carter Family but I hardly ever play it. I play Woody regularly and never tire.
        By the way – Mermaid Ave was big for Billy and Wilco, a great album (or two) and a showcase for the versatility of Woody’s writing.

  2. I think I was responding to your claim that Woody was the first, which as you’ve realised isn’t the case.
    Whether you play Carter stuff or not is neither here nor there.
    What were the Carter’s stuff about – exactly the same, plight, struggle, hardship – which is the content of all these old Scottish and Irish ballads that have been handed down from generation to generation and taken across the pond. You have to visit Cecil Sharp House. These old ballads are choka with social comment and they’re about stuff from here which is somewhat more interesting than squalid life on deserted plains.
    The fact that Woody had a different style is only that, a question of style. The overall message remains the same. Whether you prefer Woody, again isn’t the point, that’s just simply preference.
    Personally, I hate hearing the Carter Family’s stuff, but I can’t dismiss what they were about.
    Woody gets a tad tiresome too after a while. Change the key Woody!
    There’s actually 3 volumes of these Bragg/Wilco albums. Unfortunately I can’t be doing with Bragg at all. Never could. I know that Mermaid Ave. got nominated for awards, but that’s got nothing to do with sales. You’ll find it in the bargain remainder bins these days.

    1. Well I certainly haven’t noticed those old songs chocker with social comment. The odd one perhaps. Not anywhere in the same vein as Woody. You exaggerate. He was an innovator precisely because of the lyrics and social stance – nobody else came close and certainly not the Carter Family. Give me a dozen songs of theirs with social lyrics. I can only think of a couple.
      I am aware that 3 volumes were released. I have the whole works. But volume two and three were outtakes and leftovers. The first album is by far the best and is still one of my favourites.

      1. That’s because you don’t know enough about real folk music from your own country. For you to say you haven’t noticed social comment suggests that you are completely stone deaf. It could be that you’re totally unfamiliar with the expressionisms used, but every single one of these songs is social comment.
        These songs are the genesis of almost everything you hear from Guthrie. All Guthrie did was Americanize it. I really can’t emphasise that any more. You either understand or you don’t. It’s like Mathematics. Some can, some can’t.
        You haven’t experienced the archives at Cecil Sharp. As I attempted to explain to you some while ago when you made claim that an American, who had sold about 50 albums in this country was responsible for the rejuvenation of the folk movement here and I laughed you out the room.
        Blimey, considering you’ve said that you’ve got loads of music books, how come I all too frequently have to do a basic educational with you?
        Why do you lack such basic intrinsic knowledge yet remain concrete convinced of your opinion?
        It’s was even on the TV recently, some documentary about the genesis of American folk roots and the Carters were up there in headlights.
        What about all the Dylan interviews you were boasting possession of, have you actually listened to what he has to say about these old songs?

      2. i’m not stone deaf. I’ve listened to lots – the Harry Smith anthology and lots more. i’m not that interested in it and I certainly did not pick up on any great social messages.
        Help me out here – name the songs I should be listening too.

  3. I think you’ve more than proved your disinterest by your lack of knowledge.

    It required a lot more than just a cursory listen – it’s not disposable pop music or She Loves You mulch. I guess you know that, but I’m flummoxed by your comments regards any great social messages which sways me to conclude that you can’t have heard very much at all, never mind knowing what it was.
    One needs a bit of knowledge of and the reasons why with regards the very existence of these songs, shanties and in reality they were the newspaper of the day. These were where common man could get a word of comment in through satire in song.

    No, I wasn’t alluding to that Harry Smith collection at all, but much older material from anything from 100 to 400 years. And definitely nothing from America, as all that Smith collection was and had more to do with who was popular in 1925-1933 or whatever it’s range of dates of recordings was. More importantly, who was lucky enough to have been recorded and by that premise, therefore, not necessarily wholly representative.

    You ask to helped out and for me to name the songs. Are you kidding? Do you think there’s a top 20 somewhere? Struth, man, that’s why they have Cecil Sharp House with all the manuscripts.
    I can only suggest you start at the letter A.

    I’ll you an example of the complexities involved. For example, the song The Roving Blade, as known stateside is thought to originate from Northern Ireland, where it is known as Newry Highwayman, because guess what, Newry is in NI. In other parts of UK it’s known as The Wild and Wicked Youth, and it’s obvious that the title has been changed for the benefit of the gentile classes whom should never be subjected to such scurrilous fair from the minstrels whilst sauntering amongst the great unwashed in the town square on market day.

    Wild Mountain Thyme – which everybody and their dog knows. All too often it’s credited as “Traditional” – what a loosely governed term that is – with a further credit as “Adapted by Francis McPeake”. Mr McPeake, what a charlatan making such ludicrous claim.
    The original poem was written by a Robert Tanahill, and later added to and rejigged at bit by a John Davies. This was then published by a Bruce, Clements & Co. and gave many the impression that they had written it. Later it was again redrafted by a William B. Moonie and latterly the tune and chorus with some rejigging of losing a few verses was plagiarised by Francis McPeake.

    1. No – not a top ten – just some of those songs which have a social message akin to what Woody was putting down. I know of a bit of Charlie Poole and songs about seafaring and things like picture from life’s other side but not a lot else.

      1. Charlie Poole is American and recorded what is termed as “popular” songs. I wasn’t to referring to any of that stuff, but only the real McCoy, that all springs from our shores. It would be false to make claims that the New City Ramblers and such were responsible for any advent of real folk music. They were the pop stars of their day, real lightweights.
        There’s also the issue where traditional tunes were used for people’s new songs, which blurs the genesis ever further. I think the NCR’s did a bit of that. So did nearly everybody, Dylan, too. To Ramona, being one, but I can’t remember off hand what was the name of the tune he pinched.
        You’ve got to realise that Woody was litterate, could write stuff down, read newspapers, listen to radio etc. Those here, the generations before didn’t have that luxury. Not only that but also they were performed a capella, or with rattling spoons, thumping foot, slapped thigh etc. The really lucky might have a Lute-like stringed instrument. Neither would they be using the King’s good name in direct terms either. That was a hanging offence. It was all coded and subliminal.
        I mentioned Roving Blade aka Newry Highwayman which Dylan has performed.
        This is where tools of navigation help and you’d already know all the oldie’s Dylan’s performed down the years, almost none of which will be found on any of his proper records. Zappa was a big sea shanty fan. And there’s definitely occasions when Beefheart went into sea shanty mode on his delivery.
        His song The Dust Blows Forward… being a prime example, albeit somewhat skewed, but the basic meter pattern is there.

        One old one I know is by Martin Parker, one of the first ballad writers around 1620. “When This Old Cap Was New” which celebrates and an imagined past time of hospitality and good manners. Or moving forward “The Miller’s Advice To Three Sons In Taking Of Toll” which expresses the age old idea of miller’s as cheats and swindlers and often cast as sexual opportunists.
        There’s loads of poaching ballads, “The Death Of Bill Brown” about an incident in 1769. “In Thorneymoor Woods” from 1840’s. “The Rufford Park Poachers” from 1851. Back then all poacher’s were sent to penal colonies in Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, if they managed to make it off the boat.

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