Download 1,500+ Episodes of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Where Famous Guests Name the Songs They Can’t Live Without (1942 to the Present)

Intro­vert, book­worm, home­body… labels I have glad­ly worn through­out my life. I believe in civic engage­ment on prin­ci­ple, but there have been many times in the past few months, indeed in life, when I’ve want­ed to strand myself on one of those prover­bial desert islands, sur­round­ed by my favorite books and records.

But sure­ly one needn’t be an intro­vert to appre­ci­ate occa­sion­al soli­tude and time well spent with one’s favorite writ­ing and music? Not in the least. As the BBC’s Desert Island Discs has shown us, many of the most out­go­ing celebri­ties, known for their con­stant pres­ence in the spot­light, have cul­ti­vat­ed their own inner cast­away.

Or at least many have been hap­py to share what they would lis­ten to and read on a the­o­ret­i­cal voy­age into soli­tude. Since 1942, Desert Island Discs has asked its famous guests to name eight record­ings (not strict­ly lim­it­ed to music), one book, and one lux­u­ry item that they couldn’t live with­out if left alone. One guest, Louis Arm­strong, con­fessed him­self mar­ried to the city and had such a long and suc­cess­ful career as a trum­pet play­er, band­leader, com­pos­er, singer, actor, and all-around per­son­al­i­ty that it’s hard to imag­ine he ever had any time to him­self.

Nev­er­the­less, Arm­strong pos­sessed a key qual­i­ty nec­es­sary for peace­ful time alone: he was a man who enjoyed his own com­pa­ny. In his 1968 appear­ance on the show, Arm­strong told the show’s cre­ator and long­time host Roy Plom­ley that one favorite track he couldn’t live with­out was his own record­ing of “Blue­ber­ry Hill.” His lux­u­ry item? His trum­pet of course. And book? His own auto­bi­og­ra­phy.

Not all the show’s guests have been as intense­ly self-focused in their answers. Kei­th Richards, who owes his sta­tus, said host Kirsty Young, to a “sin­gle-mind­ed ded­i­ca­tion to the tri­umvi­rate pur­suits of sex and drugs and rock and roll,” chose many of his heroes, like Chuck Berry and Etta James. And as a lux­u­ry item, he opt­ed not for a musi­cal instru­ment or an induce­ment to plea­sure, but for a very prac­ti­cal machete.

The long-run­ning Desert Island Discs owes its pop­u­lar­i­ty not sim­ply to famous peo­ple mak­ing lists, how­ev­er; that premise has served through­out its 75 years as scaf­fold­ing for some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing and inti­mate con­ver­sa­tions with artists, actors, politi­cians, and oth­er nota­bles.

In Kirsty Young’s 2016 inter­view with Tom Han­ks, the affa­ble actor—whose list includ­ed Dean Mar­tin, Dusty Spring­field, Talk­ing Heads and a Her­mes 3000 man­u­al typewriter—broke down in tears while telling the painful sto­ry of his lone­ly child­hood. “What have you done to me?” he said to Young, then told her he was try­ing to express “the vocab­u­lary of lone­li­ness.” In 2014, Young pro­nounced artist and 12 Years a Slave direc­tor Steve McQueen—a devo­tee of Prince, Michael Jack­son, and Kate Bush—one of her all time favorite inter­vie­wees for his can­did, engag­ing dis­cus­sion of art as his “sal­va­tion.”

But of course, no pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment suc­ceeds with­out its con­tro­ver­sies, and Desert Island Discs has had plen­ty of those moments as well. Some­times scan­dalous moments—at least for the show’s host—have popped up in the midst of oth­er­wise excel­lent inter­views. In 2009, Mor­ris­sey sat down with Young for an inter­view that includ­ed “plen­ty of pos­i­tive state­ments,” writes NME, includ­ing “his rel­a­tive ease with life.” Yet she was shocked to hear him defend sui­cide as “hon­ourable… an act of great con­trol.” Whether he meant it or not, true fans of the singer would not have raised an eye­brow.

Anoth­er exchange hard­ly out of char­ac­ter for the inter­vie­wee occurred dur­ing a much less engag­ing con­ver­sa­tion. In 1989, Lady Mosley, aris­to­crat­ic wife of British Union of Fas­cists leader Oswald Mosley, pro­claimed her admi­ra­tion for Hitler and denied the Holo­caust. Host Sue Law­ley seemed “stunned,” the BBC notes, and accused Mosley of “rewrit­ing his­to­ry.” It’s hard to know what else the host expect­ed from a woman The Guardian called “unre­pen­tant” and “Hitler’s angel” upon her death in 2003.

Such unpleas­ant inter­views as Mosley’s are few and far between in the mas­sive archive of Desert Island Discs episodes on the BBC’s web­site, which spans the years 1956–2011, with many more recent episodes on the site as well, like this con­ver­sa­tion with Bruce Spring­steen. Oth­er notable inter­views come from Bri­an Eno in 1991, Yoko Ono in 2007, Maya Angelou in 1987, and Judi Dench just last year. Want to know their picks? You’ll have to lis­ten to the episodes–all of which you can download–to find out.

All of the show’s sub­jects are accom­plished peo­ple, but not all of them have been celebri­ties. The BBC has cho­sen as one of its most mov­ing inter­views a 2016 con­ver­sa­tion with David Nott, who has vol­un­teered as a sur­geon on bat­tle­fields around the world since 1993. Not­t’s har­row­ing sto­ries of over twen­ty years of war­zone trau­ma will like­ly have you con­vinced that among the show’s hun­dreds of guests, he may be most in need of that island get­away.

Giv­en Desert Island Discs’ con­straints of eight record­ings, one book, and one lux­u­ry item, what would you, cast­away read­ers, take with you, and why? Please tell us in the com­ments below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Studs Terkel Inter­views Bob Dylan, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Maya Angelou & More in New Audio Trove

Library of Con­gress Releas­es Audio Archive of Inter­views with Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons

Mau­rice Sendak’s Emo­tion­al Last Inter­view with NPR’s Ter­ry Gross, Ani­mat­ed by Christoph Nie­mann

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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