Reviewed by Lee Broughton
When it became clear in 1964 that pop music was here to stay, the BBC gave young British
music fans the TV show that they had been clamouring for: Top of the Pops. A weekly
look at the UK's top forty selling 45rpm 7 inch singles, the show's hosts would
enthusiastically count down the singles chart to the all-important number one slot,
introducing performances of the week's fastest moving and biggest breaking sounds along
the way. A simple but effective format that has ensured the continued survival of the
show to this day.
But when rock broke away from pop in the summer of 1967, and the long playing 12 inch
album format came into its own as a serious medium for artistic expression, the BBC
recognised the need for an altogether different type of TV music programme. They
eventually hit upon the right formula with the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971.
Airing late at night on BBC2, the nation's arts channel, Whistle Test was a weekly
music 'magazine' that featured live studio performances of (mainly) album tracks by
serious musicians as well as in-depth interviews, concert reports and film and book
reviews of a musical nature. And the show's presenters were, by and large, real music
journalists who were knowledgeable and passionate about their subject matter. Bob Harris,
whose quietly spoken introductions and links earned him the moniker 'Whispering Bob',
became the show's main presenter in 1972: a position that he held until 1979 when the
chaotic nature of the burgeoning punk/new wave scene demanded a new lead presenter
in the form of rock chick Annie Nightingale. The show itself came to an end in the mid 1980s.
Whistle Test was initially filmed in a small studio at the BBC Television Centre
and the space restrictions resulted in some uniquely intimate performances being
captured. This intimate feel, along with a loose air of informality, remained with the
show even when it eventually moved to larger studios or staged proper 'in concert'
performances at the BBC's Television Theatre in Shepherds Bush.
To celebrate the show's 30th anniversary, BBC Worldwide and members of the original
Whistle Test team have trawled the show's vast and varied archive and have
compiled over four hours worth of exclusive footage for inclusion on this special two
disc set. Six of the show's original presenters have filmed new introductions for
most of the musical selections, in which they recount anecdotes about their chosen
artist and their particular performance. Also included are some of the cosmic
animated links that became synonymous with the show's name.
Disc one boasts some simply breathtaking performances that have to be seen to be believed.
And, often, it's the obscure and the forgotten that impress the most. The Edgar
Winter Group's Frankenstein is a tour de force of instrumental virtuosity, with
Winter busying himself playing, in quick succession, a strap-on keyboard, a saxophone, an
auxiliary drum kit and a synthesiser. Sylvia/Hocus Pocus by Focus is another
virtuoso performance: a lead guitar/Hammond organ-led instrumental suite topped with some
falsetto/yodel-like vocalising. John Lennon appears in some specially commissioned footage
which shows him performing Stand By Me from his Rock n Roll album while
reggae legends Bob Marley and the Wailers provide a fantastically vibrant performance
of Stir It Up. Tom Waits turns in a beautiful yet plaintive interpretation of
Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda) while the enigmatic Sensational
Alex Harvey Band indulge in some theatrical fun with their Give My Compliments To The
Chef. Art school rockers Roxy Music show us how to Do The Strand while the
inimitable Captain Beefheart growls and (literally) claws his way through Upon The My O
My. Lynyrd Skynyrd provide an impassioned version of their rock anthem/lead guitar-fest
Free Bird while soul legend Curtis Mayfield, and his band, perform an intimate version
of We Gotta Have Peace.
But that's only half of the story. There's also a great (pre-School's Out) performance
by Alice Cooper, piano led pieces by Elton John and Randy Newman, singer-songwriter turns
from Bill Withers and John Martyn, a slice of glam-punk from the New York Dolls, a bit
of boogie courtesy of Little Feat, soft rock from Tim Buckley and Bonnie Raitt, fringe
country courtesy of Emmylou Harris, no-nonsense hard blues from Rory Gallagher, pub-rock
blues from Dr Feelgood, an intimate duet from Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge and some
prime British eccentricity from John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett. This disc also includes
interview footage featuring John Lennon, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Mick Jagger, Keith
Richards and Robert Plant.
It's always a pleasure to be reminded of just how good Debbie Harry & Blondie were and
their fast-paced and raucous take of (I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear
doesn't disappoint. The Damned perform an equally raucous version of their punk anthem
Smash It Up while Public Image Limited, John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols outfit, provide
the disturbingly intense and sub avant-garde Careering. Meat Loaf gives a theatrical
rock n roll presentation of Paradise By The Dashboard Light and Julian Cope & the
Teardrop Explodes deliver their Reward, a trumpet-driven update of British psychedelic
pop. Former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt sings a heartfelt interpretation of Elvis
Costello's poignant Shipbuilding while easy listening legend Val Doonican teams up
with Charlie McCoy for a bluesy harmonica duet version of Area Code 615's
Stone Fox Chase, the show's intro theme: Nine Below Zero, stalwarts of the British
underground R & B scene, also provide their own energetic version of Stone Fox Chase.
Arty electronic rock is represented by Gary Numan & Tubeway Army performing the
mysterious Are 'Friends' Electric and Japan performing their ethereal Ghosts.
Other performances include some funky but punky new wave sounds from the Talking Heads, XTC
and the Police, West Coast rock from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, East Coast rock from
punky turns from Iggy Pop and the Ramones, authentic ska revival sounds from the Specials,
some jangly pop sounds from REM, some British soul from Simply Red and some early pomp pop
from U2. This disc also includes interview footage featuring Bruce Springsteen.
Disc one features an audio commentary by producer Mike Appleton, in which he tells the story
of the show's development, and subsequent history, and explains how the show came to have
such a strange name. The Artists' Gallery includes a brief summary of each of the
featured acts' involvement with Whistle Test: Alice Cooper's reads "BBC policy in
the 70s was to put male and female artists in different dressing rooms in opposite ends of
the building. As this was Alice Cooper's first ever visit to the UK you can guess the
rest." The OGWT Museum features profiles of the show's presenters, and other key personnel,
along with details of the various awards that the show won over the years and other
Whistle Test-related bits and pieces. The animated menus are a fun attempt at
recreating the chaotic ambience of a live television production.
Given the vintage and rarity of some of these performances, the picture and sound
quality is excellent and there's literally something for everybody amongst the track
selections. A really essential release, whether you're looking to take a trip down memory
lane or simply fancy experiencing an alternate take of the history of rock. In keeping
with the worldwide appeal of the featured sounds, these PAL DVDs have been encoded with
Region Code 0. With the Whistle Test archives housing many, many more exclusive
musical gems it is to be hoped that a follow up to this outstanding set appears before too long.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Old Grey Whistle Test rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Mike Appleton, sleeve notes by Jill Sinclair, Artists'
Gallery, OGWT Museum, various track selection/programme options, subtitles.
Packaging: Fold out digi-pack housed in a card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 31, 2002
Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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