Dermot O’Leary reveals the songs that have shaped him

From break-up songs to meeting his hero, X Factor and Radio 2 presenter O'Leary guides us through his music collection from the Boss to Beyoncé

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We’re used to seeing Dermot O’Leary host the X Factor, giving the judges what for and helping out the acts with some moral support. When he’s not leading us through our Saturday nights, O’Leary’s on the radio too, filling the airwaves with top tracks. 

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Now with a book to his name, O’Leary guides us through the music that has shaped his life and career…

Catch me if you can – Brendan Shine

My parents are both Irish and I’ve always felt Irish. It used to enrage me when other kids insisted I couldn’t be because I sound English.The Irish community of Colchester in Essex would often end up around our house and the vinyl would come out: all these old Irish songs that have stayed with me. My job was to pour Guinness – that really bitter, fizzy Guinness Original – for the men while the matriarchal old aunties looked on disapprovingly. My dad took the pledge because, like many Irishmen, he was on the sites when he first came over and saw a lot of older guys drinking themselves to death. Later they’d trot me out to sing a golden oldie about loss or subjugation or another tragic episode in Irish history.

My favourite song was Catch Me If You Can: a ditty by Brendan Shine about a single farmer in search of a bride. So when my parents heard he was playing in Braintree, they got tickets. I vividly remember waking up – curled up
between two orange plastic chairs – and realising I’d slept through the whole concert. I did what any self-respecting eight-year-old would: I burst into tears. Somehow my dad charmed his way backstage with me under one arm and I got to meet my hero.

Meeting across the river – Bruce Springsteen

When I was 13 I fell in love – or what I assumed was love – often. Unfortunately I was absolutely useless with girls. The scenario usually went: “I really like you. Do you want to go out with me?” “No.” “OK. I’ll go home and listen to my sad song.” Even if it were a “yes”, we never did anything as terrifying as go on a date; we’d just eye each other up at the youth club in the next village.

My break-up song, which I was much more faithful to, was this song. It’s got nothing to do with love; it’s about two small-town gangsters who have the chance of a lifetime but will probably die taking it. I’m a sucker for strings. Even at that age, it just killed me. I discovered it thanks to the Britannia Music Club: a mail-order company that was too good to be true.

For a couple of quid they sent you four albums. Then if you didn’t tick this tiny box in the small print – and none of my friends did – all these backcatalogue albums would drop through your letter box at a cost of £20 a month, which at the time was crippling. Among the mountain of music I didn’t want was Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and my break-up song.

Streams of Whiskey – the Pogues

I failed almost all my GCSEs. I was mortified because I thought I was stupid, but mostly because I’d let my mum and dad down. My dad’s never been a shouter; I got quiet disappointment, which was just the worst. “Do retakes at sixth form,” he advised, “and if the retakes don’t go well we’ll think about what else you’re going to do.” I’d done work experience at a restaurant so I fully expected to be a chef. I liked the sixth-form college in Colchester more than I had school: it was the kind of place where you were on first-name terms with your teachers.

So I knuckled down and ended up studying politics and media at Middlesex University.It was while I was at sixth form that I went to my first proper gig. My friend Tom Curry got us tickets to see the Pogues at Brixton Academy. At that time teenagers were divided into two camps: the Pogues and the Smiths. After the first song I was on
my own. I was swallowed by the throng and spat out into the mosh pit at the front. By the end I stank of fags,
I was soaked with sweat and booze, and I’d ripped my shirt. I remember thinking: this is the best night of my life.

Macarena – Los del Rio

I’d been working as a runner for two years when I got tipped off about a screen test for a pilot: a late-night Channel 4 show. To my surprise I got it. Los Del Rio were booked to be the last band and of course performed their hit, Macarena: again and again and again and again. That’s the nature of pilots. So all I remember of this incredible night, which should have been the first night of the rest of my life, is a song I don’t like. Nothing came of the pilot. I’d worked my way up to assistant producer by the time the presenting jobs started to trickle in.

You got the style – Athlete

My wife [Dee Koppang] and I met while working for the same production company over ten years ago and Athlete were the first band we saw together. I made her a mix tape so it’s a wonder we went on any dates. I bewilder her because I like sad songs and she’s a much happier soul. The boys played at our wedding – although they were at pains to point out they’re not a wedding band! You Got the Style was our first dance, which isn’t a song you slow-dance to, or even dance to, but we didn’t care.

Listen – Alexandra Burke and Beyoncé

The X Factor was a huge deal. My first one was terrifying but I loved it. To me, live is easier than doing two takes. I did a skit with Matt Smith for the NTAs a couple of years ago and was aghast when the director sauntered up after an hour and said, “Great rehearsal. We’re going to roll on a couple now.” Isn’t it time for a cup of tea? I thought we were about to wrap!

The night Beyoncé duetted with Alexandra Burke [in 2008, when Burke won The X Factor] sticks in my memory: wow, that’s a global superstar on our show. Seeing someone like that sing with a prison warden or a bus driver
or a kid with big dreams never ceases to amaze. 

The best thing about the fame that comes with presenting a show like The X Factor is being able to get a table at a trendy restaurant. But I don’t do it often. If I’m going out with my mates, for the most part I’m falling out of a pub that the paps aren’t outside. I don’t judge anyone else but it’s not really my scene. If you court it then you need it, I think.

To order Dermot O’Leary: The Soundtrack to My Life for £17 (normally £20) incl p&p, call RT Bookshop on 01326 555752 or visit radiotimes.com/dermot44

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The X Factor is on ITV tonight (25 October) at 8.00pm, and Dermot’s Radio 2 show is on Saturdays at 3.00pm