Gerry’s Desert Island Disc Grooves

Gerry Hassan

August 10th 2010

For some reason over the last few weeks I began thinking about my Desert Island Disc choices. In part it has been listening to the show a bit more of late – usually by accident, rather than design – caused by an increase in Radio 4 listening.

Then there is my rising dissatisfaction with the conservatism and smug self-satisfaction with what modern pop culture has turned into. People going on about the Beatles. Give it a rest. The sixties. Punk and new wave which turned out to be even more insufferable and filled with aged bores and dinosaurs than the hippies. The indie scene of the 1980s. The Smiths, New Order or whoever else was at that Sex Pistols gig in Manchester they all lie about!

I used to love the Beatles. I still do, but maybe one day I will really like their music again. And it is getting that way for me for a lot of popular music which is just too over-exposed and too the received wisdom of what you are meant to like. You know the Mark Kermode/Stuart Maconie view of life: Joy Division as the central defining point of the musical universe. Then on thru the usual reference points.

All of this got myself thinking – what records would I want to take from the mainstream pop and rock culture of our times since the 1960s. Not many. I could happily live without nearly all of them. So here is my eight …. No Beatles or 1980s indie rock or lots of other things. Just an oddball list of things I think filled with something …. grace, style, affirming life and something special ….

Fred Astaire – The Astaire Story

This is by a mile my favourite album of all time. Fred in 1952 with the Oscar Peterson band cutting 38 of the tracks he made famous in his fabulous musicals. This is one of the most intimate albums I know. Fred introduces loads of the tracks – telling us which films he recorded them in, and even though he isn’t the most natural of singers, his timing and delivery make this a joy of an album. I could take so many songs from this as my one selection, ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day’ being obvious, but would probably choose, ‘I’m Putting all My Eggs in One Basket’.

Arthur Russell – The World of Arthur Russell

This is one of those albums which changed how I think of music. Russell was a NYC auteur in the 1980s who combined disco, new wave and his classical training. His best music has elements of Chic, Talking Heads and all that period in them – while sounding hypnotically different and utterly otherworldly! Track to take: Go Bang.

Duke Ellington – The Sleeping Lady and the Giant Who Watches Over Her

One of the great track titles. Late Ellington from ‘Latin American Suite’. This is reportedly about Mexico City, and it is a swirling, groovin’ piece – which is jazz, soul, and world music – all in one track.

Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim – Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

What Frank to take! What a problem! I am never fully sure what my favourite Frank album is usually dithering and changing my mind between ‘Come Fly With Me’ and his 1967 album with Antonio Carlos Jobim – which this is from. It is I would argue the last perfect Frank album – a true masterpiece as the musical sands of the 1960s were running out for him. Frank’s singing on this album – and this track – is simply stunning. Soft, tender, intimate, as far away from the Vegas Frank of this period as you could imagine.

Michael Franti – Stay Human

I love Michael Franti’s music and his whole spirit. Political, principled, affirming positivity, and an amazing force for good and captivating spirit live. This is the title track from his ‘Stay Human’ 2001 album – which I cant even begin to put into words how fantastic I think it is. This is music which has authenticity, integrity and engages with the real world – without being preaching – and which has the most uplifting feel to it and dancebeat. ‘Stay Human’ as an album is about really serious things – politics, the lies politicians tell, corruption and the death penalty – and yet it is one of the most joyous musical things I know – which can get you grooving or listening attentively to the lyrics.

Talk Talk – I Believe in You

I could easily choose practically any track from ‘Spirit of Eden’. This is music from another place, almost another dimension, and certainly not pop or rock music. Some would see a prog influence in here, others jazz, but I feel this is close to sacred music. The fact that these have stopped becoming songs, but are soundscapes – which build in all sorts of ways – utilising silence and Mark Hollis’s vulnerable, hesitant voice. This has some similarities to the Blue Nile’s ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’ in its utter uniqueness. The Blue Nile to me got less interesting as they got older, sounding more mainstream and cluttered in their sound, whereas Talk Talk went the other way – culminating in this.

Drive-By Truckers – The Three Great Alabama Icons

The great, rockin’ and rolling DBTs, hard rockers and captivating storytellers. This is from their breakthrough album and classic ‘concept’ album ‘Southern Rock Opera’. Unbelievably for a breakthrough album made with no money or resources – with the group I imagine at the end of its tether – this album addresses – completely plausibly  – race, class, boys growing into men, the allure of rock, the Deep South – and if that weren’t all – the idiocies of the ‘concept album’ in the 1970s – thru’ a concept album. Brilliant, and it works! If anybody loves Neil Young – and hard rock with intelligence and honesty this is an album for them. ‘Three Great Alabama Icons’ is about George Wallace, the populist demagogue and how he aided the caricaturing of the South, all from a very human angle.

Michael Marra – True Love

The unique talent of Michael Marra. A wonderful, gentle man and a true talent. This is a stunning track about the power of love and trying to put into words the transcendental essence of a kiss. Marra writes and sings here in his understated way beautifully and movingly as a Dundee man about emotions, love and life. In a parallel universe, Marra would be rightly seen as a rare national treasure, but here most of his albums are criminally out of print! This is from ‘Candy Philosophy’, which along with ‘Turned Sober’, are my favourite Michael albums.

That’s my eight. I have just realised after composing and writing this up that all eight are male artists. Oh my god! No place for Laura Nyro (Angel in the Dark) or even Joni Mitchell (have played my favourite Hejira too many times), Ella (the stunning Gershwin Songbook), the Cocteau Twins or many more.

Then there’s no Lewis Taylor (so many to choose from), Stereolab (the same), and sadly, no Brazilian music. I really wanted to get a Caetano Veloso track in, but he was edged out because I don’t have a single favourite Caetano track. I suppose his London exile album ‘A Little More Blue’ would be my top choice, and something like ‘Maria Bethania’, his letter home to his sister. In a similar vein no Miles and Mingus – despite their importance to me.

And again – I only realise this at the conclusion of this no Beach Boys or Brian Wilson. I love the Beach Boys – the late 60s albums, Sunflower, the Smile bootlegs, and the innocence of the early years. Then there is Brian’s unlikely Indian Summer – which like many Brian fans means a lot to me. But I suppose none of this can be captured in one song.

And no Splodgenessabounds – even though their stunning ‘Anarchy Chaos Stanley Ogden’ captures a slice of English life!