The British institution Desert Island Discs is one that far outweighs even the heaviest of credentials. It even gave The Beatles’ own starring singer, Paul McCartney, a run for his money. So when the iconic radio show reached its landmark 40th year, it invited the Liverpudlian star to take part and create one of the series’ most cherished moments. It remains one of the moments we are offered a real insight into McCartney’s life more directly after the split of the Fab Four.
Taking a dive into the 1982 episode of Desert Island Discs, they welcome the famous Beatle to pick eight songs he simply couldn’t live without. His list of tracks pays homage to his musical development, the influence of those songs and the prominent figures of his life, all as he and longtime host Roy Plomley investigate the Beatles’ very beginning. It’s quite possibly the closest one can get to Macca, especially when in the throes of his shining solo career.
The show sees original host Roy Plomley, who had taken charge of all four decades worth of shows at this point, as he asks his guests to pick eight songs to take with them, should they ever be stranded on an inescapable desert island. It has seen everyone from iconic rock stars to world leaders take on the challenge and, in 1982, it was the turn of the great Paul McCartney to open himself up to the public like never before, using music to tell his story.
As well as the eight songs in their luggage, guests are also asked to pack one book and one luxury item. As his book selection, McCartney picked his wife’s photography book Linda’s Pictures. After Macca picked his luxury item, which was, of course, a guitar, it’s fair to assume from his selections he was planning on playing a lot of rock and roll—as would his musical selections.
After questions on his ability to survive on a desert island including being able to deal with loneliness and what he would enjoy escaping from in his own life—not that much, it turns out. Attention then quickly turns to The Beatles with McCartney admitting that he (at least then) held no copies of his records with the Fab Four. But soon enough, the first song to be picked is coming up and it was a choice very dear to McCartney’s heart.
“The first one is Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’,” selects McCartney, “To me, it sorta takes me back to when I was first buying records. Up until that point it had been sorta Billy Cotton, and ‘swing’, and ‘bee-bop’ and stuff. Suddenly rock and roll burst on the scene and Elvis was one of the first people who really made me take an interest. I remember being at school when this record came out.” Presley has often been cited as a key figure in The Beatles development.
It’s a remark which is followed up with the story of how his wife Linda McCartney had tracked down the original bass from the recording and bought it for McCartney as a gift. While Macca admits he can’t quite play the stand-up traditional instrument, it’s a sincere mark of pride for the music enthusiast. It’s just one of many personal tidbits that McCartney shares with Plomley, who acts, to all intents and purposes, as a guiding figure throughout the interview.
Plomley then takes McCartney back to his childhood in Liverpool, reflecting on his working-class upbringing and parentage. His mother, who tragically passed away when Paul was his early teens was a nurse and his father was a “cotton salesman” and, more importantly, a wonderful musician who taught McCartney in his own way. “He used to tell me the old thing of, if you go to a party it’s handy to be able to play piano because you get all the drinks bought for you,” remembers McCartney lovingly.
The bassist then reveals that, in actual fact, his first instrument was not a guitar of any sort but was his father’s old trumpet. Out of use following his dad’s newly acquired false teeth, McCartney jumped at the chance to get his hand on his own instrument. It was something he soon gave up when he realised he couldn’t both sing and play the trumpet. “Brilliant thinking,” remarks Plomley as McCartney shares his early woes with trying to handle his new instrument.
The next disc to be packed in McCartney’s survival bag was Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ which the singer admitted encapsulated Berry as an artist. In fact, Macca suggests the eight songs he was picking were a reflection of the artist as a whole. He was keen to select songs which represented the artist’s entire collection, “With Chuck Berry, I chose ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ because it just sums him up really.”
McCartney then takes Plomley through The Beatles’ very early beginnings, from The Quarrymen to Johnny and The Moondogs to The Silver Beetles and onwards to stardom which we’ve never witnessed since. It’s a touchingly candid walk through history as McCartney retells the heights and pitfalls of Beatlemania to Plomley as one might their father about a local football game. A few names and a few places will ring out for Beatles fans but otherwise, it is a beautiful gentle journey down the history of rock and roll.
The next selection from The Beatle can’t quite be classed as that, but Benjamin Britten’s iconic ‘Courtly Dances’ shows McCartney’s ever-widening musical gaze. After talking Plomley through the Hamburg years, the next choice sees a return to rock and roll with Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, which was the first record McCartney ever bought: “So it’s a special record for me. Big impression,” he explained.
The next point in the conversation is the writing partnership between John Lennon and himself. McCartney reveals that while starting out in school smoking pipefuls of Typhoo tea, the pair had always had an organic relationship and one that was best served without rules and restrictions. They were a partnership who thrived on enthusiasm and respect for one another.
It’s a precursor to Paul’s fifth and probably most poignant selection as only two years after his murder he picks as his favourite song to be castaway with as John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’. He says, “I haven’t chosen any Beatles records but if we had more than eight I probably would have. I haven’t chosen any of my records so to sum up the whole thing I have chosen one of John Lennon’s from Double Fantasy which I think is a beautiful song very moving to me. So, I’d like to sum the whole thing by playing ‘Beautiful Boy’.”
McCartney then discusses the sensationalism of The Beatles and played down the idea of being frightened by Beatlemania and jokes: “Even when we were getting death threats and stuff on American tours, we used to just take it with a pinch of salt. Mind you, it was Ringo that actually got the death threats and I don’t think he took it with a pinch of salt.”
The next selections focus McCartney’s adoration for the forefathers of rock and roll as he picks up The Coasters effort ‘Searchin”—a song the band picked up “in The Cavern days”—and the undeniably influential ‘Tutti Frutti’ from Little Richard. “Again, I’ve chosen just one to sum him up. But I like a lot of stuff he does and he’s a friend of mine from the Hamburg days.”
Plomley then discusses his Boy Scout credentials to survive on the desert island as well as his abilities to have the figurative island cultivated “within a year or two.” He then asks a vital question of if McCartney would try to explain his fate: “Probably,” he replies, resigned to his creativity, “I’d give it a go, I’m sure.”
The final record choice is one rooted in his home life: “This one is a song that was written by my Dad, he only ever wrote one song to my knowledge and erm I once said to him, ‘Dad, you know that song you wrote?’, He said ‘I didn’t write a song, Son’,” McCartney recalls. “I said, ‘You did, remember ‘Walking in the Park with Eloise’?
“He said “Oh I didn’t write it, son. I made it up.” McCartney then goes on to explain how he and some friends of his (AKA Country Ham) made a little recording of the song to share with his Dad.
It’s a selection and a sentiment that completes one of the most personal and genuinely touching moments of both Desert Island Discs and Paul McCartney’s astonishing careers.
Paul McCartney’s 8 favourite songs ever:
- ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ – Elvis Presley
- ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ – Chuck Berry
- ‘Courtly Dances’ – Benjamin Britten
- ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ – Gene Vincent
- ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ – John Lennon
- ‘Searchin” – The Coasters
- ‘Tutti Frutti’ – Little Richard
- ‘Walking In The Park With Eloise’ – Country Ham
You can listen to the full episode below and here. You can find a complete playlist of Paul McCartney’s favourite songs below.