Though thoughts of playing silly music games with your friends in the pub still feel like a distant dream, the news on the wire says that pulled pints are only a hair’s breadth over the horizon, and we will soon be sat across from our friends and waxing lyrical about the inane fodder of our record collections. For many, a game that will always be played or perhaps, more importantly, a question that will always be asked is: what song could you not live without? For Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, and one of Britain’s finest songwriters, it’s a question he answered in front of the nation.
In truth, Desert Island Discs has been posing the above pub interrogation for nearly eight decades. Starting in 1942 with host Roy Plomley, the BBC Radio 4 show has consistently asked a range of musicians, actors, business leaders and politicians to pick eight songs to take with them to an inescapable desert island. But while reducing one’s record collection to eight songs is difficult enough, what often the show’s guests forget is that it goes one step further and asks for a ‘Castaway’s favourite’ too. Another victim of this forgettable addition was Thom Yorke.
Across the show, which took place in September 2019, Yorke is his usual charming self. Though often maligned as a snob for his discerning taste, Yorke shows himself as not only a supremely intelligent and affable chap but also as someone who has kept music beating throughout his life. The interview revealed plenty of interesting moments, including that he once made himself a guitar that “sort of worked.” The singer said of the rudimentary instrument, “It was literally rough cut out with a saw, you know – it was terrible. And then shortly after that, my dad felt sorry for me and eventually bought me one.”
Another more curious moment from the conversation came when Yorke admitted that the song that finally confirmed that he was to be a musician was Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Yorke said of the eureka moment: “I was obsessed with Queen when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came out. I lay down in front of these big speakers in my friend’s house, and we just listened to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and at that point, I decided, ‘Yep, this is what I’m doing’.” Considering Yorke was only “seven or eight” at the time, this is some clear vision of the future.
He was steadfast in his choices for the eight permitted discs too. He selected music by Ravel, Scott Walker’s song ‘It’s Raining Today’ as well as numbers from Nina Simone, Neil Young and R.E.M. But the fun part always comes when after selecting their songs, and their permitted luxury item (Yorke somehow manages to wangle an entire recording studio as his), the Radiohead singer is then asked to pick his ‘Castaway’s favourite’.
As we’ve mentioned, the reality of having to select just one song out of the eight mentioned is always a surprise to the guest. Yorke was no different: “Oh God. Well, much as I like to be emotional and everything, I think I would end up with Talking Heads’ ‘Born Under Punches'”. It’s a valiant selection, and it comes with a somewhat unexpected reason, “because, I’m going to need to dance”. It catches our host in a giggle and leaves us dreaming of Thom Yorke having a boogie on some sandy shores as the sun goes down.
Talking Heads were a huge factor in Yorke’s professional life. Not only did the band help spawn Radiohead’s band name (they were previously known as On A Friday because they rehearse on that weekday), but the album Remain In Light changed the way Yorke looked at music; he even tried to take the whole album with him to the deserted island. “It was like a bomb going off in my head; I’d literally never heard anything like it,” he said of the 1980 album. “Talking Heads did something with a studio that had never been done before. And even at a young age, I could see that.” Eventually, Yorke settles on the album’s opening track, ‘Born Under Punches’, concluding, “I’ll just have to imagine the rest of the record, won’t I?”
We’re sure that with his recording studio and ‘Born Under Punches’ Thom Yorke would emerge from his desert island experience with a brand new calypso album for the ages. In fact, we’d quite like to hear it.