There is a very good reason why Desert Island Discs has been going strong since 1942, and why a panel of broadcasting industry figures recently selected it as the greatest radio programme of all time … that reason being that the mix of music and life stories is a perfect format, pure and simple. Roy Plomley Resting In Peace, but with quite a legacy, dying in 1985 without knowing what a podcast was, let alone that future generations would be able to go for long runs while listening to his creation, past and present.
No surprise then, that the new radio station aimed at baby boomers, Boom Radio, has its own version of that mix, Still Busy Living, and as someone who loves all sorts of different music, I was very happy to be asked on. As with any kind of musical selection programme, the fun – and the angst – is in choosing the tracks. Though there are some constants in my musical choices, there is also a lot of churn and change.
I did an Australian version of Desert Island Discs, for example, and was annoyed to be told I could only have one Jacques Brel song, because at the time I wanted six. My approach was partly inspired by an old Daily Mirror colleague, Frank Palmer, (also RIP), who did a Radio Nottingham version in which he chose only songs by ‘King of the Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan. But actually, since then, my all time favourite Brel song has changed, from Ne Me Quitte Pas, to Quand on n’a que l’amour, and Amsterdam gets close too.
Any Desert Island Discs spin off has to be careful not merely to imitate – for creative reasons as well as copyright – and what I like about Still Busy Living, is that they ask for six pieces of music, ‘preferably pop,’ but related to specific parts of life’s passage.
- A current track you are enjoying.
- Your first song (or album).
- Career highlight song.
- Your personal favourite.
- A song that is inter-generational – you’ve influenced your kids to like or vice versa.
- Your ”exit stage left” song as they are wheeling you out in the casket… (I was surprised at that one, thinking the last thing a new radio station aimed at 14million baby boomers would want to do was remind us of how much closer we are to the casket than the cradle).
I recommend you give it a go, even for your own amusement. If it takes you as long to decide your six as it took me to decide mine when I was asked to be a guest on the show, you will have a very nice time rooting around your memory, and playing your favourites to decide which to choose. I can hardly believe Elvis hasn’t made it, or Johnny Cash, or Diana Ross, or indeed any Motown, or ABBA, or Frankie Valli, or France Gall, or the soundtrack of my nervous breakdown (a long story), Simply Red’s Money Too Tight to Mention, or … I could go on and on and on … with apologies to all of the above and more.
Here goes with the six I decided on.
- Current track … Die Achterbahn, by Helene Fischer. I am massively into German at the moment, my partner Fiona having bought me a Goethe Institute course as a birthday present to refresh my once near fluent German in lockdown, and being an obsessive, I have totally thrown myself into it, which means watching German news, listening to German podcasts, reading German books and papers, listening to German music. Helene Fischer is pretty mega in Germany, and this is my favourite track. Check out her Hamburg Live concert version ‘Achterbahn’ means ‘Rollercoaster’ by the way.
- First song … He Ain’t Heavy, he’s my brother, by the Hollies. Not technically the first record I ever bought (that was Mamas and the Papas, Dedicated to the one I love,) but I got this when I was 12, and it later became the juke box favourite of my youth in pubs. Also, I wanted something that specifically reminded me of my childhood, and of my two brothers Donald and Graeme, who both died aged 62 in recent years. I am 63! We played it at Graeme’s funeral, to a montage of photos of his life.
- Career highlight song … this was the easiest, and the cheesiest choice. D Ream … Things Can Only Get Better, the campaign song for New Labour in 1997, and whatever anyone ever says, I will go to my grave knowing that things DID get better as a result of what Labour did with three terms in power. It’s a wonderful optimistic piece of music, and it can always transport me back to that time.
- Inter-generational song. I found this the hardest choice. But then I remembered driving through France on holiday, when our three children were growing up, and trying to find music that we all liked, and could all sing along to happily. The Beach Boys got close, but I think in the end Oasis nicked it, and I am going with All Around The World.
- Personal favourite … has to be Brel. And at the moment, it is Quand on n’a que l’amour (I find that version a bit too pacy from the off, but I wanted to show you him live, but you might prefer this version, which starts more slowly, and also has lyrics in French and English on the screen. Check him out though. The best.
- Funeral song. Piper to the End. This is a wonderful song written by Mark Knopfler, in honour of his uncle Freddie who was a piper with the Royal Highland Regiment. He carried his pipes into action in the Second World War, and was killed in Northern France in May 1940, aged just 20. My brother Donald was a piper in the Scots Guards until he was invalided out with schizophrenia in the 19070s, but the pipes remained utterly central to his life as a player, teacher, composer, competitor and for many years as Glasgow University’s official piper. He and I both learned the pipes from our Dad, also Donald, and since their deaths, my own passion for the pipes has grown. I hope Mark Knopfler won’t mind that I chose this version by Skipinnish, a Scottish folk band with three brilliant pipers. I said in my book on depression, Living Better, that I want the band to play at my funeral, so they better outlive me …
Meanwhile, I have also been asked to make a similar selection for the Radio 3 programme, Private Passions, but the choices have to be classical. More fun, more angst, ahead … but more listening to music not news, which right now is a big bonus.
- Alastair Campbell will be the guest on Still Busy Living 8p.m Sunday, playing the above songs, discussing life and times, including the new volume of his diaries, Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit. Boom Radio is available on DAB