Sound and fury: Listen to war reporter John Simpson’s danger years playlist

When conflict's your career, music is a vital escape. Veteran war reporter John Simpson talks Malcolm Jack through the tunes that've shaped his conflict correspondence

From dodging bullets in war zones across the continents to infiltrating despotic regimes and ingesting mad hallucinogenics with rainforest tribes, which exotic, far-flung and risky pursuit might a phone call to veteran BBC correspondent and renowned man of action and danger John Simpson interrupt today?

“I’m in an Argos shop in Oxford trying to buy a Fitbit watch for my wife,” the 74-year-old admits. Oh well.

It’s the only disappointment of a conversation in which the music-loving newsman shares some of the songs that have soundtracked his life on the front lines of reporting for soon half a century – an eclectic mix as wild as some of the experiences through which he has lived, spanning everything from classical, jazz and early rock’n’roll to obscure Slovakian folk and American hair metal.

“I’ve never had a strict limit to what I like,” says Simpson. “I’ve still got a rather antique iPod. Bastards have stopped making the ones with the big memories, but mine has 160GB. And it’s got absolutely everything.”

Goodnight Sweetheart  – Al Bowlly

First one should be from my slightly weird childhood. My mother quite sensibly left my father when I was six years old, walked out on him because he was really, really difficult. But I took the decision to stay with him. So my father brought me up on his own. The first music I can really remember was an ancient 78rpm record of Al Bowlly. Lovely singer but slightly warbly for later tastes.

Dido’s Lament – Purcell

I was pretty ignorant of the ways of classical music when I went to university. But I instantly made friends with a chap called Nicholas Snowman. He later became the head of Glyndebourne and the South Bank and the Strasbourg Opera House. He taught me just about everything that I know about music. He ran an opera in Cambridge when I was there. I played a non-speaking part in Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. I really loved all the stuff from that. It’s stuck in my head, I’ve listened to it lots and lots, really beautiful.

Round the House and Mind the Dresser – The Chieftains

I went to Ireland as the BBC correspondent there. I was the youngest correspondent I think they’d ever had. It was really quite dangerous during the Troubles, which was interesting to me. My then wife, who came from Southern California, told me one evening that she had tickets to an Irish band called The Chieftains. And they were absolutely magnificent. I just absolutely adored them, all that lovely sort of life and excitement that you get in Irish pubs.

Runnin’ Wild – Duke Ellington

Driving is of course the biggest danger of what I do, especially in what we used to call Third World countries – that’s where most people get killed. Best thing is to jam your earphones in, play music as loudly as you can and if possible close your eyes. Then if it happens it’ll happen so quickly you won’t even know it. The driving song I play is Runnin’ Wild. It seems to sum up that feeling of being where you shouldn’t be, that place where your head of department and your mum alike would say, “Don’t even think about going there.”

Miscellaneous recordings – Slovakian fujara music

I went underground behind the Iron Curtain. I had to go through what was then Czechoslovakia and climb over the mountains to get into southern Poland. It was all a little bit risky. In what’s now Slovakia they have there an incredibly loony instrument that’s about as tall as me, and I’m six foot two, and it’s a pipe – it looks like a rocket launcher, or a very big bassoon – called a fujara. It’s got a deep rippling sound that goes right through you. It’s like the Andean pipes, only three or four octaves deeper. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Symphony No. 7, Leningrad – Shostakovich

Shostakovich is kind of my big hero. I’ve always picked the Seventh Symphony, about the siege of Leningrad, which Shostakovich lived through. Absolutely horrifying, people were reduced to cannibalism. They tried to escape the city, hundreds of people at a time would fall through ice and drown. This isn’t Walt Disney music, you know? I haven’t covered anything as dreadful as that, but I did cover the Siege of Sarajevo. It was horrifying, with people shot and killed every day and starving hungry in winter. Terrifying and awful. But not even as bad as what the Germans did to Leningrad.

Welcome to the Jungle – Guns N’ Roses

Travelling around as I did with the US army in Iraq, there were some quite hairy experiences. I got to like the music of Guns N’ Roses. I don’t know why, because every time I listen I think “this is not me”. But it takes me back to driving through hostile territory, sitting in armoured vehicles waiting for the bomb to drop. I listen to it quite often. If I play it I’m right back in one of those Humvees going through Fallujah or somewhere.

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