The Old Grey Whistle Test
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $24.98 // September 16, 2003
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 28, 2003
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Throughout its sixteen year run on the BBC, The Old Grey Whistle Test offered a more compelling selection of musical performances than the more charts-minded Top of the Pops. The series, which got its name from the tradition of music publishers testing possible releases by seeing if some of the locals could whistle them back after a couple of listens, ran throughout the seventies and much of the eighties, marking the British television debut of quite a few artists who would go on to become worldwide superstars. This DVD is a pared-down version of a two-disc set released in the U.K. a couple of years ago to commemorate The Old Grey Whistle Test's thirtieth anniversary. Somewhat of a "best-of-a-best-of", this single-disc release dispenses with seventeen of that set's performances, removing appearances by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Focus, John Martyn, the New York Dolls, Tim Buckley, Dr. Feelgood, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Otway and Barrett, Val Doonican, Meatloaf, Tubeway Army, PIL, The Teardrop Explodes, Nine Below Zero, Japan, Robert Wyatt, and Simply Red. Despite not boasting quite as many performances as its British counterpart, this domestic release of carries over quite a number of the more recognizable faces to appear on the series, while maintaining the eclecticism that differentiated it from similar music programs. The performances are presented chronologically, running the gamut from country to rock to new wave to funk to punk to even the second-wave of ska. This set includes the following:

  • Alice Cooper - "Under My Wheels"
  • Elton John - "Tiny Dancer"
  • Curtis Mayfield - "We Gotta Have Peace"
  • Randy Newman - "Political Science"
  • Bill Withers - "Ain't No Sunshine"
  • Rory Gallagher - "Hands Off"
  • The Wailers - "Stir It Up"
  • Roxy Music - "Do The Strand"
  • The Edgar Winter Group - "Frankenstein"
  • Captain Beefheart - "Upon the My O My"
  • Little Feat - "Rock 'n Roll Doctor"
  • John Lennon - "Stand By Me"
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Freebird"
  • Emmylou Harris - "Amarillo"
  • Bonnie Raitt - "Too Long At The Fair"
  • Tom Waits - "Tom Traubert's Blues"
  • Talking Heads - "Psycho Killer"
  • XTC - "Statue of Liberty"
  • Blondie - "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear"
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "American Girl"
  • The Police - "Can't Stand Losing You"
  • Bruce Springsteen - "Rosalita"
  • Iggy Pop - "I'm Bored"
  • The Specials - "Message to You Rudi"
  • The Damned - "Smash It Up" / "I Just Can't Be Happy Today"
  • The Ramones - "Rock 'n Roll High School"
  • U2 - "I Will Follow"
  • REM - "Moon River" / "Pretty Persuasion"

There are some stellar performances on this DVD, which captures a number of these artists before they became well-known throughout the world, particularly The Police, U2, and REM. The late Peter Tosh was still a member of the Wailers, taped before he struck out on his own as a solo act. Several of the performances are of almost epic length -- Lynyrd Skynyrd's twelve-minute take on "Freebird", Edgar Winter pounding on a whirring synthesizer and hopping from instrument to instrument in the nine-minute "Frankenstein", and an unbelievably energetic filmed performance by Bruce Springsteen. REM precedes "Pretty Persuasion" with an a capella version of "Moon River", and Elton John turns in an unaccompanied rendering of "Tiny Dancer". The biggest draw for me was XTC's "Statue of Liberty", taped in 1978 with their original line-up, which included keyboardist Barry Andrews. XTC is one of my favorite bands, and as they'd given up a life of touring some twenty years ago and rarely appear on television, this DVD marked the first time I'd seen a live performance of theirs outside of small, grainy video files downloaded off the web. Although the eclectic assortment of artists is unlikely to appeal in its entirety to all that many viewers -- I wouldn't count myself as a fan of Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, for instance -- I'd imagine that most of those who are particularly interested in one of the bands on this set will find at least a few of the other performers compelling enough to want to sit through the DVD in its entirety.

The bulk of the performances are preceded by newly-recorded introductions from some of the series' personable hosts, who provide various notes about the artists and their appearances on the series, such as John Lennon's payment in Chocolate Olivers and Sting having to wear grotesquely large, octagonal sunglasses that kept slipping perilously down his nose.

The British release of The Old Grey Whistle Test has proven popular enough that a second volume is slated to hit stores next month, with a third volume planned for release early next year. Though the selection of artists on its U.S. release isn't quite as extensive, there are enough great performances from a variety of excellent groups to make this DVD well-worth a look.

Video: This compilation of performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test is presented full-frame, just as the series aired throughout its run from 1971 to 1987. Nearly all of the footage on the DVD was shot on video, aside from the filmed performances of John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. The filmed segments exhibit modest wear and speckling, but the remainder looks much like I'd expect a decades-old TV series to appear. Crispness and clarity are respectable, though limited by the source material. Perhaps as a result of any necessary conversion from PAL to NTSC video, portions exhibit an almost rippling effect where the screen is divided into a series of bars of varying opacity. It occurs frequently enough to be noticeable, but not so often as to pose a particular nuisance, and the effect isn't terribly distracting. Scattered throughout are also a handful of small blips, and it's a safe bet that's an issue with the source tapes rather than a flaw at the authoring stage. There is also some discoloration in areas of fine detail, such as the second guitarist's shirt in the Talking Heads' performance, and some mosquito noise and slight blocking in backgrounds were spotted as well. Such concerns are exceedingly minor, and none of them have any appreciable effect on its overall appearance.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 track doesn't boast as high a bitrate as the British release, encoded at 192Kbps as opposed to the 448Kbps track on the other side of the pond. Similar to the video, the audio is comparable to what I'd expect from a performance of a vintage television show, fairly close to what I'm used to hearing from episodes of Saturday Night Live from around the same time. As these songs were recorded over the span of thirteen years, the quality varies somewhat throughout. Bass response in particular differs greatly; at times, it's flat and muddy, then fairly hefty (such as the performances by Roxy Music and Rory Gallagher), and occasionally thin and insubstantial, as was the case with Springsteen's "Rosalita". Some instruments, particularly horns and some of the keyboards, are less prominent in the mix, and the near-bootleg quality of XTC's performance sounds almost muffled. Again, unlikely to mark a significant difference from how the original broadcasts would sound piped through a modern home theater, but from an archival perspective, nothing much to complain about.

Somewhat unexpected was the inclusion of English subtitles, a transcription of both the lyrics in each song as well as the spoken portions of the various introductions.

Supplements: Producer Mike Appleton contributes an audio commentary, although it's not a screen-specific discussion and doesn't run for the entire duration of the program. Appleton speaks at length about some artists such as Bruce Springsteen, but his comments are primarily about Whistle Test as a series rather than the individual performances. The producer talks about the early hurdles getting the program off the ground and the technical limitations that had to be overcome with such scant resources on hand. He also notes how Whistle Test opened the door for music videos, provided the sort of fairly intimate interviews with artists that hadn't been seen to any appreciable extent on television before it, punk's influence on its evolution, and how they opted to retire gracefully while their star was still burning rather brightly. Appleton also notes the different ways in which he as a producer had to interact with bands, their management, and record labels, and it's interesting to hear that a British series was somewhat dominated by the presence of American bands. Interspersed throughout are some great stories from his tenure on the series. He mentions how he'd played a portion of one unlabeled record anonymously, learning later that they'd probably given the emerging Queen their first significant airplay. Among the other highlights are an interview with Brian Wilson in which he and the interviewer were hobbling around on walking sticks and swollen feet, Jimmy Carter inadvertently impaling a baby with a Whistle Test badge, and the unusual demands from Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton to get them on the program. The informative, entertaining commentary moves at an excellent pace, and there isn't a single pause throughout its nearly two-hour length. Very much worth a listen.

There are also seven interviews, which can be played individually or consecutively, running just under forty-five minutes in total. The first set is conducted by Richard Williams, who chats with Elton John and Bernie Taupin (3:22) about the critical reception to their music, as well as Mick Jagger (6:09) and his band's approach to the recording of their then-upcoming album. Bob Harris heads up the remaining four interviews, continuing where Williams left off with another member of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards (3:22). Next, Robert Plant (6:24) talks about Led Zeppelin's first double-album and an impending tour. The lengthiest and most interesting of the interviews, running over seventeen minutes, is with John Lennon. He talks about his duet with Elton John, life on the road without pudding, and his not-entirely-fruitful recording sessions with Phil Spector. Although Lennon is posed the inevitable query about a Beatles reunion, the highlight is his response to a related, but more interesting question -- "would it be a good idea?" Finally, Bruce Springsteen (7:35) talks with Harris about his musical influences, the pressure of following up on the success of "Born to Run, and the drive necessary to become such a large concert draw.

Each of the individual performances can be selected in the "Artist's Gallery", which also provide brief notes about the artists and occasionally about their appearances on Whistle Test. These entries can be selected both through the 'Bonus Features' menu and the "Enhanced Performance" mode on the DVD. The latter displays a guitar icon in the upper-righthand corner of the screen, and when selected, the related entry in the Artist's Gallery is displayed. There's also a "Random Play" feature that, as the title suggests, randomly selects a performance.

The single-sided, dual-layer disc is packaged in a keepcase, alongside a two-page set of liner notes that provides a list of the performances and a brief rundown of the series. The DVD features a set of 4x3 animated menus with a simulated sound check playing underneath.

Conclusion: The Old Grey Whistle Test is a solid collection of performances by artists that include established superstars, then-unknown bands whose popularity exploded soon thereafter, and underappreciated acts who never enjoyed the success they deserved. Available for less than twenty dollars shipped from several online retailers, this DVD is recommended as a rental or a purchase to fans of any of the talent involved.

Related Links: DVD Savant has a written a review of the British release. Selections from the DVD, including excerpts from some performances and interviews as well as a full trailer, can be streamed from Warner's Old Grey Whistle Test site.

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