Here’s the game. Most people in the UK will have heard of the radio show Desert Island Discs. If you haven’t, the basic premise is this. A well known person is asked the question, if they were be to castaway alone on a desert island, what 8 records would they choose to take with them. (They would also have for company, the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, another book of their choice and another luxury item)
This is a modified version of the above concept conceived by a friend of mine and is a great way to while away long car journeys.
Unlike the radio show this version of the game is somewhat more generous with the amount of music you can take with you, but the basic question is the same. If you were only allowed to listen to a limited number of musical artists for the rest of your life, who and what would you choose?
In this version of the game you are allowed the complete works (everything written and/or recorded) by your top 10 favourite pop/rock artists and your 10 top classical composers. To start you off you also get thrown in the complete JS Bach and the complete Beatles.
Why Pop/Rock & Classical and how do you define the genres?
Yes, there are countless other genres of music out there. To be frank, these are the two I have most knowledge of and most interest in – but you are welcome to use whatever categories you like. Also feel free to argue the toss over which category you think jazz, metal, dance, folk etc etc fit best into. My very loose definition of the categories is this: Pop and Rock, I define as short form music – ie the musical and lyrical ideas can be distilled down to a single 3 minute piece of music. The classical category favours music where the ideas are developed over a long timescale, a symphony or an opera etc. The classical category tends to be exclusively composer led as it is almost certain that the ideas will have been intricately worked out and written down in advance. Pop and Rock tends to be more performer led and often the ideas can be better communicated aurally.
So, for example – (spoiler alert), I have both a musical theatre composer and a jazz composer/performer in my list, Stephen Sondheim and Miles Davis – and there is possibly an argument for both to fall into both the classical and the pop list. However, Sondheim’s whole ethos and attitude to writing is based on meticulous planning and attention to detail prior to performance. Not a single word is left to chance. Also, his themes and ideas are developed over the length of a 2 hour theatrical show. Miles Davis, on the other hand, is all about taking great performers, freeing them from the shackles of composer led music and living in the moment with them. Whole albums are improvised and constructed instantly out of the barest of initial ideas. So, very clearly Sondheim has to fall into the classical list and Davis into the pop/rock list. Ironically Sondheim (despite his probable protestations – “I’d like to perform a medley of my greatest hit”) has probably had more hit singles than Davis.
I don’t like Bach or the Beatles?
You don’t have to listen them just like you don’t have to read the Bible or the complete works of Shakespeare. They are there as the most significant originators of the two genres of music we’re looking at. Also, feel free to argue the case for someone else if you wish!
A bit of history and geography
“I’ve got a broad taste in music, from the Britpop bands UB40, Def Leppard right back to classic rock like Wings. They’re only the band The Beatles could have been. [Favourite Beatles album?] I think I’d have to say The Best of The Beatles.” – Alan Partridge.
Like Alan, I pride myself on a pretty broad taste in music so – before I put my cards on the table and humiliate myself with my achingly uncool/mediocre/ignorant music choices I thought I’d do a very rough and ready study. If we look at the fact that we have access to musical ideas going back approximately 1000 years across six different continents where does my breadth of taste fit in with all of that?
Well, looking at birthdates of the artists concerned and city of birth, my classical choices span 117 years (1813 – 1930) and 3 continents (although I’m not entirely sure that St Petersburg in any way represents Asia). On top of that there’s a definite cluster around Germany/Central Europe and 1860ish. The Pop list spans 68 years (1915 – 1983) and only 2 countries (no prizes for guessing which) with a cluster of artists born round about 1950 in or around New Jersey.
Not a bad spread – but pretty tiny compared to the history of the world. And that’s okay – if I’m going to be stuck on that desert island I want it to be stuff I want to listen to – not stuff I ought to listen to.
Which means none of those artists or composers you see in lists of people you’re supposed to listen to:
i.e. (for Classical) no Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Purcell, etc
and for Pop (or it’s allegedly more credible big brother, Rock) no Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, The Jam etc – or countless other white male rock bands that a certain type of (white, male, over 40) music journalist like to worship and put in their all time greatest lists…
Not, I hasten to add, that I have any problems with any of the above – indeed I do rather like a lot of it – but as I discussed in my previous post, popular stuff tends to be popular because it’s popular, and I rather think that critically acclaimed stuff (a different type of popularity – another discussion) often ends up going the same way. (Not that I’m going to set the world alight with my own choices either…)
After that ridiculously long preamble here goes – (for no particular reason) in geographical order – East to West.
C1. Igor Stravinsky – born St Petersburg, Russia (1882 – 1971)
Our most easterly point for the classical world is St Petersburg and Stravinsky. And my first entry might straight away make it as my number one favourite classical choice. Did he create modern music and the sound of the twentieth century and beyond with masterpieces such as the Rite of Spring? Very probably. But don’t just listen to those lavish early ballet scores. There is so much variety and reinvention in this one composer’s output, and I never tire of listening to any of it. His ballet music alone is a history of twentieth century musical form, from the lavish romanticism of The Firebird (1910), Les Noces (1914) – minimalism 50 years early, Apollo (1928) – neoclassical elegance, Agon (1957) – 12 tone music 50 years late! Then there are theatrical works such as The Soldier’s Tale (1918) and Oedipus Rex (1927) using innovative ways of integrating music and storytelling. And countless orchestral, vocal, solo and chamber works – all unique, all utterly compelling, all Stravinsky.
P1. Kate Bush – born Kent, UK (1958 – )
The furthest east we go for the pop category is Kent, UK. If you’re a lover of Europop or Indipop, sorry! And straightaway, we see how wonderfully restrictive terminology like pop and classical are. Kate is undeniably a pop artist – she has hit albums, number 1 singles, sell out concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo. Most of her songs are the statutory 3 1/2 minutes in length. But she sounds like no other pop (or classical) artist I’ve ever heard. Her songs (cliché alert) really do defy categorization. I think she writes tiny operas in miniature.
My favourite Kate Bush album, “The Dreaming” was the first album she produced on her own. It’s an eclectic soundscape of musical and vocal styles alongside experimental synthesizer, sampler and drum machine techniques. Where this crazy collage of sounds comes to the fore is when you start to listen to the stories the songs tell and the characters that Kate becomes. In one song she’s an East End bankrobber. In another, she’s an Australian bushman. In another, wonderfully and heartbreakingly, she’s Harry Houdini’s wife standing by the side of the stage watching the escapology trick that kills her husband.
There’s something wonderfully British about Kate Bush – that strange world of the eccentric inventor merged with English woodlands, Edwardian fairy stories, bookish studiousness and wistful daydreaming. Are we unique in the world that we live somewhere where an 18 year old can conceive of a song like Wuthering Heights which can then make it to number 1? Probably not, but it’s a romantic notion.
C2. Dmitri Shostkovitch – born St Petersburg, Russia (1906 – 1975)
My second choice to come out of St Petersburg. Unlike Stravinsky who got the hell out of the country following the revolution, Shostakvitch remained in the USSR his whole life. I have mentioned before, that his music is inextricably linked with the history and fortunes of that country throughout the twentieth century. In particular, an understanding of the frankly bizarre relationship Shostakovitch had with the tyrannical dictator and amateur music critic Joseph Stalin provides an extraordinary background to many of his compositions. It never fails to amaze me how much, time and time again, the powerful and influential fear and try to manipulate the arts to their own ends – even music, opaque in meaning, with it’s lack of words and pictures.
And of course, shostakovitch’s music stands on it’s on too. This music has real emotional depth, humour, anger, pathos, romance, despair.
A towering figure.
P2. Amy Winehouse – born London (1983 – 2011)
Such a tiny output of music before her untimely death, but what a compelling artist. I never grow tired of listening to her 2 (only 2!) albums or her many live performances you can find on youtube. Her vocal skills and musicianship are undisputable but I’m also blown away by her lyric writing (usually a secondary concern for me). Particularly on that first album, before she became stratospherically and destructively famous, there’s a wisdom and sophistication of ideas mixed with sheer naked emotion and honesty. And a self aware sense of humour. And a youthful optimism and love of life.
I was lucky enough to hear her in a small venue in Manchester just before she became huge. Flawless performance. And she invited everyone in the audience out clubbing after the gig!
C.3 Jean Sibelius – born Hameenlinna, Finland (1865 – 1957)
Chances are I’ll never visit Finland, but I feel I already know the country intimately; it’s political history, climate, it’s myths and legends. Sibelius is to Finland what Shakespeare is to England and Burns is to Scotland. Except even more so. This chilly northern land is Sibelius and Sibelius is Finland. And the music, beautiful and melodic, is so unlike any other composer – particularly when you look at his contemporaries – spanning the end of lush indulgent romanticism through to the spiky violent rhythms of twentieth century modernism. Sibelius’ music on the other hand is expansive yet intimate, simple yet endlessly complex. Outside Finland we tend to only really hear his symphonies performed – like in the recent triumphant visit to the Barbican of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. But there are loads of tone poems and songs based on Finnish legends, seldom performed outside the country. My triple CD boxset containing many of them arrived today – lots of new stuff to get to know!
P3. Steely Dan / Donald Fagen – Fagen born Passaic, New Jersey, USA (1948 – )
A few quotes taken from Telegraph journalist Neil McCormick from his very entertaining liner notes from the 2009 album “The Very Best of Steely Dan”.
“Steely Dan, a group who exist outside of pop culture”
“Steely Dan existed in an entirely different musical dimension to all of their contemporaries, a parallel universe where pop music was actually a form of Blue Note Jazz. Imagine if Miles Davis and John Coltrane got together and wanted to make hits, blending uber cool 50s noir jazz with southern boogie, and topping it over with wry super-smart lyrics”…..”a sinuous blend of groove, harmonic structure and frankly outrageous playing”
“Sadly Steely Dan was far too ahead of our time to make itself properly understood. In the course of eight increasingly desperate years, Steely Dan’s attempts to establish whether there was intelligent musical life on earth drove some of the greatest session musicians in the world to the brink of despair and insnity in a quest for perfection beyond human comprehension, the cosmic search for the universal chord.”
I’m sure the rules of the game allow me all the material those despairing session musicans produced too, so that includes the great Michael McDonald (keyboards/vocals) and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar) from the Doobie Brothers, Michael and Randy Brecker (sax and trumpet) and a whole load of America’s finest.
And Steely Dan is named after a giant steam powered vibrator from a William Burroughs novel – you’ve gotta love that…
Right, that’s well over 2000 words and I’m off on holiday tomorrow – so I’ll finish the list in the next post.
In the meantime I’d love to hear about your own lists, or suggestions for me, or predictions for what’s on the rest of my list. If you’ve read my other posts a lot of the choices should be fairly easy to work out…
Till next time – Happy Easter!