It’s 1977, and Barry Sheene is choosing the eight records he’d take with him to the famous desert island
y the time Barry Sheene was famous enough to be asked onto Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs he’d already won two 500cc world championships. As usual, the long-running chat show invited him to pick eight songs to keep him going on a desert island. In between, presenter Roy Plomley asked Barry about his work, his life and how he’d manage on his own. Here we’ve selected the best bits that tell you something about the kind of guy Barry was.
The broadcast went out in October 1977, the high point of punk, but Barry’s choices show he was more of a lounge lizard than rock and roller. And obviously a bit worried about Steph (then his girlfriend of two years) clearing off.
Roy: Barry, how do you like the idea of being a Robinson Crusoe?
Barry: It sounds very good to me, especially if it’s nice and sunny, with lots of sand and palm trees.
Roy: Do you play records a lot?
Barry: Yeah, when I have enough time. I travel a lot in Europe and in the car I’ve got lots of tapes and listen to the radio.
Roy: You have to choose eight that may have to last for years. What’s the first one?
Barry: Dionne Warwick, Do you know the way to San Jose? I was at school when it first came out and it says: ‘LA is a great big freeway, put a hundred down and buy a car’. I thought, ‘Los Angeles – what a fantastic place.’ Since then I’ve been. One year I went eight times. I remember sitting on the plane thinking I always dreamed about this, and I was bored to tears on a plane.
Roy: Well, here’s that old dream back again.
Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
Roy asks Barry when he started riding (aged five, on a bike his racer dad Frank built).
Barry: We used to live in the Royal College of Surgeons. The back yard was tarmac. It was ideal – it couldn’t have been better to learn to ride.
Roy: Greatly appreciated by the neighbours in the early morning I’m sure.
Barry: I used to ride it every morning before going to school and the people always used to hang out their windows shouting.
Roy: What did you want to be as a youngster?
Barry: I wanted to be free, and get out of school.
Barry’s first job was as a race mechanic in Europe. When that ended he started at an ad agency as a messenger and general helper.
Barry: I used to bomb around London on a bike all day.
Roy: Ah, that was good practice.
Barry: Well it was good fun in the summer!
Roy: What’s your second record?
Barry: It’s by George Harrison and it’s called Crackerbox Palace. It reminds me of growing up.
Barry describes his first race in 1968, on a Bultaco donated by a friend of his dad’s who ran the factory, and becoming British 125 champion in two years. By 1971 he was runner-up 125 world champion, and had won his first GP.
Roy: So you were now in the big time; you were taken notice of presumably, and sponsored.
Barry: All of a sudden there was this young kid from London no one had ever heard of. I won a couple of GPs in ’71 and people started to sit up and take notice, thank God.
Barry won the inaugural European F750 championship in 1973, and in 1974 was sixth in the 500 world championship.
Roy: Now last year and this year world champion.
Barry: And next year, I hope!
Roy: With comfortable margins of points?
Barry: This year I won it by 20 something points, and the previous year about the same.
Roy: So you didn’t need to finish all the races?
Barry: No. It was lucky because the countries the final races were in I didn’t want to go to anyway.
Roy: Record number three.
Barry: It’s by the Eagles and it’s called New kid in town. The words at the beginning remind me of what it’s like when you first go to a country to race. They’ve heard your name and they think they know you and they’ll never forget you – until someone new comes along.
New Kid In Town
Roy: Are these road races or circuit tracks?
Barry: It varies – probably 60% on closed circuits and the other 40% on open road circuits.
Roy: What sort of distance?
Barry: It must be at least 45 minutes or a minimum of 100 miles.
Roy: What sort of speed?
Barry: This year, at the Belgian GP, on the straight we were doing 170-175mph and an average of 138.
Roy: Controlling a machine at that speed must take a lot of strength.
Barry: It’s strength and stamina. A lot of riders are strong for a couple of laps, then their stamina goes. And that’s where I come in, hopefully.
Roy: Do the tracks differ very much?
Barry: Oh, yeah. Some circuits are very smooth and very boring. And then you’ll arrive at another circuit and it’s very, very bumpy, very dangerous and very long.
Roy: A bumpy track in bad weather must be a hazard. In fact bad weather must be one of the worst things you have to face in a race.
Barry: It is. For example, in South America it was 128 degrees [53C] in the shade. It was unbelievable. You’re in leathers, and you’ve got heat coming off the radiator in front of you. The race was 45-50 minutes. I started off weighing 10 stone 4 and after the race I weighed 9 stone 10. It was sweat, and it was unbelievable.
Roy: How big a team are you?
Barry: Well, I travel with my girlfriend Stephanie. My father is my mechanic, and I have two other mechanics besides that. So all in all probably nine or ten people.
Roy: Now you’ve had your big successes on Japanese machines which seems a pity. Are they so much better than the British jobs?
Barry: They are now, but when I started racing in ’68, the British motorcycling industry was producing some fantastic racing motorcycles. But then it was the old story: instead of developing it, as the Japanese would, they just said, ‘Oh well, we’ve got the greatest thing in the world.’ And the Japanese came out with something that was so much better that they just said, ‘OK, we’ll withdraw from racing.’
Roy: The designers and manufacturers aren’t doing anything about it?
Barry: Well there’s a lot of good designers in England; it’s just the old story of money and mismanagement. It’s just lack of interest now.
Roy: That’s a great big shame.
Barry: It is, really.
Roy: Record number four.
Barry: It’s by Jose Feliciano and it’s called Don’t let the sun catch you crying. In 1971 a friend of mine was killed and the next day I was travelling from one circuit to the other. I was a bit tearful to say the least, and it came on and just the words ‘Don’t let the sun catch you crying’ stopped me from crying. Ever since then, every time it comes on, it gives me a big lump in my throat.
Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying
Roy: How do you allocate the percentage between the rider and the bike?
Barry: It’s very difficult to say. On a circuit with lots of straights a rider that’s not so good can win because he’s got the out-and-out speed. But nine cases out of ten I’d say it’s 60% rider, 40% bike.
Roy: Obviously it’s a very dangerous occupation. You’ve come off on a number of occasions.
Barry: All due to mechanical failure I hasten to add!
Roy: Of course. But there was one pretty bad one in the United States.
Barry: I was in Daytona doing about 180mph and I had a rear tyre blow out, which resulted in rather a nasty accident and rather a lot of pain.
Roy: I should think so. I know you had the bones in your legs pinned up and all sorts of other beastliness, but you were lifted back into the saddle within two months I believe.
Barry: That’s right. I had some very good doctors and physiotherapists, which helped a lot obviously.
Roy: This was at a practice ride?
Barry: Yeah, it was just setting up everything right. You know, getting the tyres right, the suspension right. And, er, the tyres weren’t right.
Roy: What about safety precautions during races? There was one track you refused to ride on.
Barry: Yeah, Salzburg. The safety precautions were inadequate, the medical facilities weren’t up to scratch and I didn’t want to risk anything. It was only a race and it was letting down a lot of people but I think life is more important.
Roy: I quite agree. In any case, you like things tidied up. There was one track where you set fire to the riders’ loos.
Barry: I sound like a right hooligan! That was a long time ago, 1971. The loos were in a disgusting state and we went to the organisers and said they should be replaced with a new block of showers with hot and cold running water. They said, ‘Yes, yes, we’ll do it.’ And I went back to one of the old riders and said, ‘They’re going to give us some new loos and showers.’ He said, ‘They’ve been telling us that for ten years.’ So I said, ‘Well why don’t we burn it down?’ It was only made from wood anyhow. He said, ‘We couldn’t do that!’ So my mechanic and I burned it down.
Roy: It was a very good way to make sure you got some new ones.
Barry: Yeah I know! Now they’re brilliant!
Roy: Record number five.
Nights On Broadway
Roy: What are your occupations when you’re not riding motorbikes?
Barry: Well, I have to work very hard for the sponsors, and over the past year I’ve been involved with various different councils putting together road safety campaigns.
Roy: Is that something very near to your heart?
Barry: I think it’s wrong that young kids should be allowed on the road that can’t ride a bike properly. I feel the government should set up some very good training schemes, all paid for.
Roy: One thing we haven’t talked about, Barry, is your career in opera.
Barry: Oh my God.
Roy: Tell us about that.
Barry: One day I was fighting with some kids in the school playground and a lady came past and asked me if I liked fighting. I told her something along the lines of, ‘It’s none of your business.’ Then she asked me if I could sing, so I said, ‘I haven’t got the faintest idea.’ So I went along for an audition at Covent Garden and got a part in Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi.
Roy: As a singing and fighting...?
Barry: Yeah, a singing and fighting hooligan!
Roy: They didn’t book you again?
Barry: No! It wasn’t a big part anyway.
Roy: Record number six.
In The Mood
Roy: Could you build a house, or a shelter?
Barry: Yeah. If it came to building a house I’m pretty sure I could get something together.
Roy: Would you try to escape?
Barry: It all depends. I’d try and work out how far I was from the nearest land, position of the sun or whatever. If it was 1000 miles away I’d just stay.
Roy: Back to music. What next?
Barry: Elkie Brookes and Sunshine after the rain.
Roy: Why did you choose this one?
Barry: I should think after the summer we’ve had, everyone wants to see a bit of sunshine.
Sunshine After The Rain
Roy: What’s your last record?
Barry: The last one is by Chicago and it’s called If you leave me now.
Roy: And what does that mean to you?
Barry: Well, it’s just really nice to listen to. I could listen to it all day long.
If You Leave Me Now
Roy: If you could take just one disc out of the eight, which would it be?
Barry: I think it would be the one by Chicago.
Roy: You’re allowed to take one luxury to the island with you. What have you chosen?
Barry: An effigy of [high-taxing chancellor] Denis Healey and some pins to stick in it.
Roy: This is a new idea altogether. Right, plenty of pins then. And one book to take with you apart from the bible, Shakespeare and encyclopedias.
Barry: If you could bind together for me a book of languages – with six or seven languages.
Roy: That’s a hobby of yours, is it?
Barry: Yeah, it really interests me.
Roy: Including Japanese?
Barry: Yeah, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, German...
Roy: Right, that shall be done. Thank you Barry Sheene for letting us hear your desert island discs. May 1978 be another world championship year for you.
Barry: Thank you very much.
Words Barry Sheene, Roy Plomley Photos Bauer Archive