This article is my love letter to what I consider to be one of the finest entertainment series about music ever made: Radio 4’s Add to Playlist which returns for a new series on Friday 9 June. A bold claim I know, but anyone who has been listening to its modular genius and celebration of everything musical since the first episode in October 2021 will no doubt be nodding their agreement right now.
It’s presented by musician and broadcaster Cerys Matthews and writer, educator and broadcaster Jeffrey Boakye, and the simplest description of the show – from their website – is to “create a playlist that no computer could”. A true enough statement but the show achieves so much more. Even the most eclectic radio station would be hard pushed to include in its programming pop, rap, classical, opera, swing, folk, reggae, indie, jazz, electronic, film scores, ragtime, bossa nova, flamenco, funk, soul, African and fado alongside a weekly guest list of musical luminaries such as David Arnold, Hannah French, Nitin Sawney, Anne Dudley, Brian Eno, Johnny Marr plus those repeat guests including Joe Stilgoe, Neil Brand, and one of my favourites, Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton who is technically knowledgeable and always infectiously exuberant. Martialling all of this, Cerys Matthews and Jeffrey Boakye often come across as much like fans as presenters, and and the atmosphere in the studio is always buzzing with the shared joy that the songs and connections bring.
Each week Matthews, Boakye and their guests have a starting point: a track chosen by one of the presenters. The next person takes their inspiration from this, drawing from the melody or a motif, the emotional feeling, lyrics, or musical or rhythmic similarities. To give you an example of how perfect the format was from the very beginning here’s a precis of the first ever episode from 2021. It starts with Cerys choosing ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus. They break down its composition and explain its connection to ’34 Ghosts IV’ by Nine Inch Nails. This leads Jeffrey to choose ‘Hoedown’ by Aaron Copeland which involves special guest, violinist Tamsin Little, talking about the use of 5th intervals in ‘American’ music such as ‘The Last Post’, ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ and the themes to Star Wars and Superman). This inspires musical director Kojo Samuel to choose ‘Walk This Way’ by Run DMC and Aerosmith (picked for the guitar line’s country influence), which leads to Jeffrey to choose ‘Walk On By’ by Dionne Warwick, considered a classic now (and covered by over 200 artists) but as the show points out, it was originally a B-side, as was Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’. Finally, Cerys chooses ‘Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry’ by Ottilie Patterson with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. With every episode and each series it just gets better and better as the presenters and guests find their literal and metaphorical grooves.
Mixed in with the tracks are explanations that help appreciate the series more as they seek to explain the mechanics and terminology of music. For example, you will learn about tritones, the various musical scales (i.e. diatonic, pentatonic, chromatic etc.), Lydian mode, double-stopping, drum machines, looping, time signatures from the simple such as 3/4 (Waltz time), 5/4 time (‘Take 5’ by Dave Brubeck) and the more difficult polyrhythms of Indian and African music. There are also tons of insights and informational asides in the programme, for example there is an interview with Phil Thornalley, one of the writers of ‘Torn’ a hit for Danish singer Lis Sørensen, later to become a global hit for Natalia Imbruglia, and Tom Jones who talks about the myth that he passed out holding the ear-busting final note during the recording session for ‘Thunderball’.
I have included the episodes I refer to but don’t for a minute think these are my favourites. For this celebration of Add to Playlist I went back to the beginning to listen to the episodes again and discovered, for the second time, that they are ALL my favourites. If you’re on the Joyzine website, then I know you’re a music lover and if you have not heard Add To Playlist then I envy you being able to discover it all for the first time. This is entertainment and information so beautifully presented, so utterly uplifting it’s like finding the Bellagio fountains in the middle of a desert.
Presenter Jeffrey Boakye was kind enough to answer my questions about Add To Playlist for Joyzine:
How did you come to be involved in ‘Add to Playlist’?
As far as I can work out, a producer had the idea for the show long before I was on the scene. I think she came across my work via something I did on Radio 4 about the movie Dirty Dancing. Then she saw one of my pieces in the Guardian. She must have seen potential for me and Cerys to join up as hosts, wheels were out in motion, and here we are.
What are some of your favourite moments from the series (mine was the revelation that Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ shares the same chords as ‘Hotel California’ – and the mash-up that gets played to demonstrate it)?
So many to choose from! The concert pianist Dinara Klinton playing Stormzy on the piano and then interrupting herself with a “Shut Up!” was classic, that always makes me smile. Or when we fell into an impromptu round of ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys, led by Joe Stilgoe on piano. I could have cried. Or finding out that one of the guests actually owns the upright piano played by Winifred Atwell, after discussing one of her tracks.
To be honest I just love it when unexpected links and connections suddenly shine through. Everyone kinds of looks at each other with genuine wonder and surprise. That happens a lot – way more than I might have thought it would. The jumps we make between tracks are exhilarating, to go from Baroque to modern RnB or whatever, but it all makes sense. Every moment like that is remarkable to me.
How much time can you spend down the rabbit hole researching the track when it’s your turn?
How much time have you got? You can keep looking forever, exploring tiny details and new angles. Personally, that’s one of the best things about the show – the opportunity and invitation to spend time exploring music. I have so many discoveries when looking for a new pick and it broadens the horizons.
That said, we’re on a tight turnaround so you have to choose quickly. Cerys and I are on a countdown as soon as the previous track comes through. It makes the heart rate increase, I’m telling you.
How much more is recorded than we hear on the show (this is my pitch for an Add to Playlist XL on 4Extra)?
Well, each episode is edited down to 42 minutes, but we can spend in excess of two hours talking and listening. It’s a zippy pace but we also relax into the conversations. I lose track of time. Time sort of flies by and you forget how long you’ve spent on a section.
I’m proud to report that we record more or less as live and last year at the Hay Festival we had a live audience. That episode was special, partly because we didn’t know if it could be done!
You have had an amazing set of guests on the show but you’ve rubbed the magic lamp and can choose 3 guests dead or alive, stars or personal heroes, who do you choose?
Impossible to answer that one. One thing I will say is that the show is spotlighting such a brilliant selection of musicians who deserve a platform, familiar and less familiar faces alike. Meeting people who live and love music is a joy; Add To Playlist creates a space for musicians and listeners to really revel in music. But to attempt to answer your question, I’d love to have an amazing songwriter like Dolly Parton on. Maybe a huge cultural figure like Fela Kuti, just to see what his energy was like in person. And there’s a young boy on Instagram who produces music and plays multiple instruments, called Miles the Music Kid. He fascinates me. At six he’s already a properly skilled production wizard. I’d love to hear what someone like that has to say about a tune or two.
Do you have a favourite music series or documentary?
Apart from Add to Playlist? : ) I love the Dissect series, where they do long form detailed analysis of individual songs and whole albums. It’s super geeky, and fascinating. Recommended.
What music are you currently listening to, and would recommend to the Joyzine readers?
I’ve recently been exploring a sub-genre called City Pop, which is like a Japanese fusion of RnB, Disco, Pop and Funk, from the mid 1980s. That stuff resonates with my soul. My playlists keep expanding because of working on the show, so I’m listening to a lot more pan global music, from across history too. To pick a few names: Cesária Evora, Ana Moura, Warda Al Jazairia … and some old favourites of mine including the Hawaiian megastar Israel Kamakwiwo’ole. My heart is always with Hiphop and Soul too, as well as a soft spot for 80s pop. I could go on…
Other music series/docs I would recommend (sadly not currently available): Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music (1976), Rock Family Trees (1995-), a series based on the meticulously hand drawn work of music journalist and historian Pete Frame, The Britannia series (2005-), (including ‘Pop’, ‘Prog’, ‘Soul’, and ‘Synth’), The 7 Ages of Rock (2007), Guitar, Drum and Bass (2019), Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America(2019), Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World, and the audio programmes such as Radio 4’s Soul Music and podcasts like Song Exploder, Why We Bleep,
Notable one-off documentaries: Amy (2015), Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2008), 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), Sisters With Transistors (2021), Summer Of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021) and Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time (2020), The podcast episode Lost Notes Presents: Bent By Nature and their insightful and hugely entertaining episode ‘Louie Louie: The Strange Journey of the Dirtiest Song Never Written’
Review by Paul F Cook