Stuart Maconie: Your Desert Island Discs proves that music can offer the ultimate comfort in challenging times

As Desert Island Discs breaks from its usual format this week, Stuart Maconie considers how music has filled the gaps in everyday life and provided some solace during lockdown.

Stuart Maconie

Late one night in 1941, as he padded in his pyjamas around his cottage in Bushey, Hertfordshire, stirring his cocoa and desperately thinking of new work avenues, jobbing actor and recently out of work commercial radio presenter Roy Plomley had an idea for a radio programme.

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In those gentler times – before “commissioning rounds”, “pilots” or “focus groups” – all it took was a couple of letters to Broadcasting House and Desert Island Discs, one of the UK’s longest-running radio programmes, was born. (Interestingly, the longest-running radio show in the US is country and western stalwart Grand Ole Opry, which also has music at its heart, but rather more Stetsons.)

We’ve all been castaways of late, marooned on our own desert islands – albeit ones where it’s rather easier to get the essentials of life as well as the luxuries. Plomley’s island has always assumed “a gramophone and an inexhaustible supply of needles” and, in 1951, when the show introduced the idea of allowing guests to take a luxury with them, the first chosen (by actress Sally Ann Howes) was, surprisingly, garlic.

We can have both gramophone needles and garlic delivered to our desert islands within hours of course, as well as all the music we could ever wish to hear, not just on eight gramophone records but plucked from the air at will, like magic. Thanks to Spotify, Amazon, YouTube and DAB, as Caliban in The Tempest said, our “isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not… sometimes a thousand twangling instruments… and sometimes voices”.

This week — Friday 5 June — Desert Island Discs breaks from its usual format of celebrity castaways to ask Radio 4 listeners which one piece of music they have turned to for solace or uplift during lockdown. We have all been realising that, to borrow from poet William Congreve, “music has charms to soothe the savage breast”.

From the singing balconies of Rome to the Hacienda club’s 12-hour online raves, it’s been music – more, it seems, than comedy, drama or certainly the news – that we’ve used to give shape to things and fill the gaps in everyday life. There has surely been a palpable sigh of relief this week when Radio 3 began broadcasting live music from Wigmore Hall in London (Monday-Friday, 1pm), albeit to a Bundesliga-style empty auditorium, and in solo and duo recitals only.

Wigmore Hall – BBC Radio 3's Lunchtime Concert
Wigmore Hall, site of BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert

Even if your breast hasn’t felt particularly savage these past two months, you’ve probably felt anxious, unsettled, possibly bored, and there will have been times when not even the amiably studious face of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Oficer for England, has provided enough distraction and reassurance.

The work of another professor points up the subjectivity in all this. Rupert Till, professor of music at Huddersfield University, a global leader in the study of pop music who DJs as “Professor Chill” (I know, but let it pass), has drawn up a series of playlists that aim to “lighten the lockdown and soothe self-isolation”.

That one man’s balm is another’s bane is clearly evidenced by the fact that at least two of the tracks, John Lennon’s glutinous Imagine and the meaninglessly shouty Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen (or, as I like to think of them, “The One Show Led Zeppelin””, would have me begging to be locked in the shed in darkness and silence until October. Containing also Pharrell Williams’s Happy and Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, Prof Till’s list is determinedly literal, but I’ve found that I’m eschewing songs with positive “messages”, preferring chamber music, jazz and, naturally, 1970s Turkish psychedelia.

But many people seem to be finding comfort in the familiar. At the risk of letting light in on magic, I can confirm that even the hippest radio stations have relaxed their usual playlists to allow for more “bangers”. Gold Soundz from noon on 6 Music is an uninterrupted daily hour of indie, dance and alternative rock classics.

Desert Island Discs – Lauren Laverne
Desert Island Discs host Lauren Laverne
BBC

On Radio 2, Ken Bruce’s PopMaster (9:30am Monday-Friday) is now, for some of us, a more crucial and unmissable daily appointment than the Downing Street Covid-19 briefing. Patterns are beginning to emerge – there’s always a Steely Dan track at the end of it. (PopMaster, not the briefing, although I’d like to see Dominic Raab walking off to Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.)

When Desert Island Discs tried this before, asking for the nation’s castaway choices in 2011, the results were fairly predictable — Beethoven’s Fifth, Elgar, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Vaughan Williams’s two biggies, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending. Weirdly though, Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was also in the top ten, a grim dirge about a medicated rock star’s feelings of self-loathing and isolation. It’ll be interesting to see whether the nation has turned to such suddenly topical choices or prefers to “push pineapple, shake a tree” with those crazy bon vivants, Black Lace.

Finally, here comes the science bit. Studies show that music has a direct effect on mood. Bradt & Dileo (US sociologists, not a ’70s soft rock duo) cite 26 studies covering almost 1,500 heart patients, which found that listening to music reduced heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. And a 2009 study found that a short blast of happy music made participants perceive other’s faces as happier; the opposite being true for a snippet of sad music. The biggest effect was seen when people looked at faces with a neutral expression. In other words: people projected the mood of the music they were listening to on to other people’s faces.

So, next time you think that Matt Hancock looks unnervingly like a man who thinks he might have left the gas on, try blasting out Black Lace’s Agadoo and imagine that he’s just psyching himself up for the dance moves.

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Listen to Your Desert Island Discs from 9am on Friday 5th June on Radio 4. Stuart Maconie presents The Freak Zone on Sundays at 8pm on 6 Music. He co-presents Radcliffe and Maconie on Saturdays and Sundays at 8am on 6 Music, and the quiz show My Generation at 3pm on Mondays (repeated 11pm Saturdays) on Radio 4.