"It brings back lots of memories and takes me back to a place instantly of heartbreak but also teen rebellion, great times, intense times": This is the soundtrack of Bill Bailey's life

Bill Bailey holding a ukulele
(Image credit: Gillian Robertson)

One of the best and most-loved comedians in the UK, Bill Bailey has pedigree when it comes to music. His live shows are centred on hilarious musical skits, whether he’s turning the BBC News theme tune into a rave banger or playing classical music on car horns. 

As you’ll see below, his music listening is just as wide-ranging as his stand-up routines; a Talking Heads diehard who is also a Nordic metal fanatic, the punk who wells up when he hears the Cocteau Twins. For Bailey, music is a way of tapping back into your past. “Music plugs you into a whole bunch of emotions that you’re suddenly experiencing again,” he says.


The first music I remember hearing

I suppose it was the radio, because my mum used to like having the radio on in the house. She loved to sing along to crooners like Perry Como and she used to love the song Magic Moments, which is a great song, really quite catchy.

The greatest album of all time

My favourite album is Remain In Light by Talking Heads. It’s one of those that keeps coming round and round. I was in my teens when it came out in 1980. I’d heard [1981 single] Once In A Lifetime and that was it, I got the album, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

The guitar hero

The one who made the biggest impression on me when I was in a band was The Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott. He was the first rock’n’roll death that really affected me. A brilliant and quite innovative guitarist and he made this distinctive sound. If you listen to those early Pretenders singles, it’s so apparent that his guitar sound is what gives the band this unique sound, this jangling rhythmic powerhouse.

The song I listen to before I go on stage

In recent times, it’s been The Pretender by Foo Fighters. It’s got attitude and it gets the blood pumping and gets you jumping about. I often play that, and bits of loud metal as well. 

The singer

Siouxsie Sioux. I went to see Siouxsie And The Banshees and thought she was fantastic. Amazing presence and voice, and unlike anything else at the time. There was lots of punk bands around but nothing quite like that.

The songwriter

It’s a toss-up between Elvis Costello and David Byrne. More and more these days I love the poetry of David Bryne that comes across in his songs. In that song (Nothing But) Flowers, which is all about how everything has been devastated and we’re in a postindustrial dystopia and nature has taken over and it’s incredibly prophetic, there’s the line: ‘And as things fell apart, nobody pays much attention.’ It’s so true of now; there’s fires, storms, mass extinctions and everyone is just: [shrugs] “Yeah.” The songs are great and playful and funny and strange, but sometimes incredibly prophetic as well.

The best cover version

All Along The Watchtower by Hendrix. The way it’s recorded with lots of echo and reverb, I always imagine him playing it in a storm, like they’re holed up in an old hall somewhere and there’s a hurricane coming and rain lashing. It’s peak Hendrix for me.

My guilty pleasure

It’s never something I’ve really prescribed to, the idea of a guilty pleasure – it’s all pleasure! I’ve never felt guilty about listening to disco or listening to Turn The Music Up! by the Players Association. Sometimes you want to listen to stuff like that, it’s all about the moves. 

The best live album

I love Nirvana Live At Reading. It’s absolutely brilliant. Partly because I was there. It was extraordinary. It was a very wet Reading, a mudfest. I did the comedy tent on the Saturday, and I went back on the Sunday to see the bands. It was chucking down and the wind was blowing, and I think that added to the whole atmosphere for Nirvana. It was not long after that that Kurt Cobain died, so it felt like we were lucky to see that.

The most underrated band ever

The thing is, the bands that I used to think were underrated are now hugely popular, massively rated! Bands I’ve been to see recently are all Norse pagan metal bands, like Heilung and Wardruna. They’re terrific live. I went to see Heilung at Hammersmith Apollo, it’s exactly the kind of thing I love now, a great hybrid between ancient and modern, using old instruments and old runic texts, and there’s a bit of electronics and they’re playing with bones and they’re wearing capes and there’s a shaman. It’s a spectacle. 

The song that makes me cry

Song To The Siren by the Cocteau Twins [the Tim Buckley cover was actually recorded by This Mortal Coil, who included Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie] was a song of my youth and it reminds me of those times. It brings back lots of memories and takes me back to a place instantly of heartbreak but also teen rebellion, great times, intense times.

The song I want played at my funeral

Once In A Lifetime by Talking Heads. That song has accompanied me since I was a teenager and it’s meant different things to me over the years. It’s been a constant companion. And Once In A Lifetime – you’re only going to die once!

Bill Bailey’s Thoughtifier live tour runs until from now until May. Dates and tickets. 

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.