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Desert Island Discs – Dos

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Ahmed Arafa

Ahmed Arafa

First of all, a big thank you to this week’s guest contributors who sent in their Desert Island Discs, and who impressed me with their ability to actually come up with a list—I’m still having trouble as I write this. We’ll get there, God willing.

“Show me yours, then I’ll show you mine” goes the timeless adage. So in that vein, I’ll start with some of the suggestions sent in, and then move on to my own list.

One contributor sent me the beautiful Asmahan singing, with that delicious voice of hers (the aural equivalent of melted chocolate), “I have no father, no mother, no uncle to tell my woe to… Nar houbak! (“your love’s fire!”), on My Love, Come and Rescue Me.

Another, Rosemary Sabet, sent in Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You, because “she has such a rich voice and also every woman wants to put a spell on men!  I love her also because she was a civil rights activist, something that we all need in Egypt at the moment!”

My sister chose Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, that “three minute symphony”. Lead singer Brian Wilson supposedly spent a whole decade in bed, addled with drugs and bipolar disorder. “I think I saw God” he told his wife once after an LSD trip. “God is in the details,” so the saying goes, and I think this former denizen of my list sounds so heavenly you can almost hear God speaking to us through the music.

Here are mine.

Rhymin and Stealin – The Beastie Boys

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso The Beastie Boys

Three white Jewish kids from Brooklyn, New York—Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, and the recently-deceased Adam “MCA” Yauch—decide to form a hip-hop act in the late 1980s. Unlikely, but true.

This is the first track on their debut album Licensed to Ill (the original title was Don’t be a Faggot; one which the record company refused, unfortunately). It is the first hip-hop album in history to top the Billboard charts, and also topped Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest debut albums of all time. Hits from this album like (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!), No Sleep ‘till Brooklyn, and Brass Monkey are perhaps more famous, but it’s this track that, for me, distills the essence of what the group is truly all about: “Mutiny on the Bounty’s what we’re all about,” is the first line.

Anyway, announcing what “they’re all about”, the Beasties sample (steal?) three 1970s rock songs on this track: the guitar riff is from Black Sabbath’s Sweet Leaf, a former denizen of this list and perhaps the greatest song ever written about marijuana; the drum beat is from Led Zeppelin’s dinosaur When the Levee Breaks; and there’s also a short sample from I Fought the Law by The Clash.

Try and ignore the somewhat sexist nature of the lyrics (“We got wenches on the benches and bitties with titties”); they were young and stupid, and boys will be boys, after all (think of Morsi meeting the Australian prime minister, for example). And, after all, they later recanted these views on the brilliant Sure Shot (“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be do / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end”).

It was the Wu-Tang Clan that turned me on to hip-hop, but the Beasties elevated it to the status of art for me. Never has there been a statement of intent in music such as this. “I am most ill and I’m rhymin and stealin”. Indeed.

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (1st movement) — Ludwig van Beethoven

“Everything will pass, and the world will perish but the Ninth Symphony will remain,” said Anarchist philosopher Michael Bakunin. The NASA voyager spacecraft, currently swimming through space, waiting to be discovered by extraterrestrial beings, is carrying this piece of music, as well as other artifacts of humanity chosen by NASA scientists, who deemed “the glorious ninth of Ludwig van” the most powerful piece of music ever written, and one worthy to make first contact with other beings.

The “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement is now the chosen theme for the European Union. And when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, this piece, “This kiss is for the whole world!” as Schiller’s poem says, was chosen to be played by an orchestra composed of musicians from around the world and conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, in one of the final performances of his career.

The fourth movement of this symphony is also the most chosen piece in Desert Island Discs history, but I’ve chosen the first. The quivering tremolo of the strings that begins it, seems to rise imperceptibly out of pure silence, so when listening to it, you almost can’t tell when the silence ends and where the music begins. And, then, out of nowhere… bang! Listening to this for the first time, I felt like I was hearing a musical echo of God’s act of creating the cosmos ex nihilo (“big bang” is a misnomer; “big orgasm” is more appropriate, I think).

Out of all the pieces I’ve selected, this is easily my favourite.

The Ninth cast an intimidating shadow over the rest of nineteenth century music, even spawning a curse. Nothing was the same after it. During the premiere in 1824, the now stone-deaf Beethoven was keeping time with the orchestra (badly) from the pit. When the performance was over, he was a little behind and didn’t realise the orchestra had stopped playing. One of the performers then turned him around, so he could see the audience giving him and this astonishing piece of music a standing ovation.

Gyms are my idea of hell. So to exercise, I would often use the Ninth. Rearrange the furniture of your living room to match an imaginary orchestra, appropriate a pen for a makeshift baton, close your eyes, imagine you’re Herbert von Karajan or Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, press play… and let rip. It’s great fun and a fantastic way to exercise (conductors, who spend a lifetime exercising both body and mind as part of their glorious profession, often live very long lives… masha’allah).

Stairway to Heaven — Led Zeppelin

“Here’s to my sweet Satan”

This is what you’ll hear (apparently) if you listen to this song backwards. Legends seem to attach themselves to any great piece of music (see the curse of the Ninth, above). And Stairway is no different. Lead singer Robert Plant seems to have bought in to all this hoo-ha, and refuses to perform the song, believing it carries a curse. Legends abound that Led Zeppelin, especially occult-obsessed virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Page, sold their soul to Satan in order to become the biggest rock band on the planet, spending an entire decade recording ridiculously good music, travelling the world touring on their own airplane, and banging more groupies than you could shake a Fender Stratocaster at.

One thing about the song that always gets me: It starts off with no drums; they only appear midway through. And no matter how many times you’ve played it, you can never tell when drummer John Bonham is going to whack that poor drum-kit of his.

Franz Schubert — Piano Trio in E flat, op. 100 (Second movement)

No point in trying to describe this piece of music in words. Words fail most egregiously here.

I first heard this on Stanley Kubrick’s gorgeous period drama Barry Lyndon (a miracle on celluloid, filmed entirely in natural light), and like the three-hour long film, I did not want it to end.

Schubert died at the tender age of 32, supposedly after contracting Syphilis due to his habit of frequenting Vienna’s many bordellos (Vienna in the 19th century sounds like a hoot: rich, fattening cakes, great music, brothels; note to self: this is your next visit on the DeLorean).

What you’re doing The Beatles

Not the most famous Beatles song, but definitely one that showcases their remarkable songwriting talents. Paul McCartney’s voice is at its most velvet-like here, with the melody so sweet that it belies the heartache expressed in the lyrics (“I’m feeling blue and lonely / Would it be too much / To ask of you / What you’re doing / To me”).

Of all the songs I have heard, this is the one that captures the bittersweet heartache of being in love with someone who perhaps does not even acknowledge your existence. Next time that happens, I’ll send her a link to this song. No words; just the song. If she doesn’t get, I may have to resort to other methods.

A History of Now — Asian Dub Foundation  

I’m slapping myself silly now for never having seen this London-based group during my 21 years in “the big fog”.

This song came out during the 25 January Revolution, and someone deemed it appropriate (and it is) to create a video of it splicing footage and audio of the revolutions breaking out in Tunisia and Egypt.

I was on holiday in Egypt at the time; my flight back to London was scheduled for 2 February, but I was stuck in Alexandria and unable to get to Cairo. I would not have left, in any case. I was in the middle of history in the making (“a history of now”), and I played this song again and again during the Eighteen Days.

Watch the video, listen to this AK47 of a track, and drink in the explosive images. If this doesn’t want to make you hit the streets again, there’s something wrong with you.

“Gotta get back to the desert / Gotta get back to my soul” the song says. A few months later, I packed my bags for Egypt, left “England’s green and pleasant land”, and got back to my own soul.

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

“The White Knight is talking backwards / And the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head!’ / Remember / What the dormouse said / ‘Feed your head!’”

I love bands fronted by women: Blondie, Elastica, Siouxsie and the Banshees. There’s something undeniably sexy about it. And there’s no sexier frontwoman than the Airplane’s Grace Slick, with her powerful, Om Kalthoum-like operatic voice, and her piercing, hypnotic eyes.

Hypnotic. A good word to describe this song; a veritable time machine taking you back to 1967’s “summer of love”, when free drugs, free love, and flower power reigned supreme—and it seemed that the young had inherited the Earth (note to self: your second visit on the DeLorean).

This song, inspired by Ravel’s Bolero and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, had to make the list. Listening to it for the first time I was truly headwormed, and spent days playing it on loop. I even played it to my own rabbits to watch their reaction (they reacted the same way they did to those countless Echo and the Bunnymen songs I played them—with sheer indifference).

Money – Pink Floyd

Upon discovering Dark Side of the Moon at sixteen, from which this song is taken, I developed an obsession, and I could no longer sleep unless I listened to this album in bed in the dark on the headphones (lights off; headphones on; press play; float away).

Not one, but two, Dave Gilmour guitar solos grace us with their presence here.

Get a DVD of The Wizard of Oz, put on your Dark Side CD (“If you only knew the power of the Dark Side”), press play on the CD after the third roar of the MGM lion, then mute the film… and watch what happens. The album and the film seem to be miraculously synchronised at various points: When Gilmour sings “and balanced on the biggest wave”, Dorothy is balancing on a fence on her family’s farm; when the clocks chime at the beginning of Time, Auntie Em comes riding in on her bicycle (you can almost hear her ringing the bell on her bike!); and when Money starts playing, the film switches from black-and-white to colour—this is the point in the LP version of the album when you switch from side one to side two.

Far out.

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