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Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol. 3, The

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // August 29, 2006
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted September 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
In a time before MTV and VH1 there were very few venues in which to visually enjoy music on television; America had several piecemeal sources for such viewing, all of which left something to be desired; this reviewer can remember watching many a broadcast of "The Midnight Special" on Friday nights late, as well as the syndicated program "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert", both of which gave us live performances by a variety of acts, the former being fairly tame and top 40 oriented, the latter closer to running the gamut of rock and roll. Predating and likely influencing both, Great Britain had The Old Grey Whistle Test- premiering on the BBC2 channel in September of 1971, the show went on to become one of the most influential music shows of its time.

The show had a budget of 500 pounds per show, not much production money even at that time. The budget looks even smaller given the fact that the performers had to be paid from that allotment. In spite of this it was still quite successful, with bands' album sales soaring after making an appearance. Music was performed live, and this was before the days of lip-syncing. Being the last aired programming on Tuesdays, it had a degree of flexibility; some shows might only last 25 minutes while others would go as long as 90 minutes, depending on how well things were going. "Grey Whistle" is notable for breaking new ground in broadcasting, the first ever simulcast of radio and television, first live transatlantic broadcast of a rock concert, and television coverage of Live Aid were all achievements of the Grey Whistle team. The show saw a number of changes throughout its run- having several different hosts throughout the years, changing its title credits and music, seeing its name shortened to "Whistle Test" and being moved to a mid-evening live time slot. It ended its run in 1987, having delivered some wonderful live music to its audiences. As for the rather low pay the acts received for their appearance, it is said that a performers' record sales would soar after being on the show.

Reportedly the show got its name from a Tin Pan Alley phrase from years ago; when they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to the "old greys", translated, the office cleaners who usually started work when the office staff was leaving. Tunes they could remember and whistle having heard once or twice were those that had successfully passed "the old grey whistle test".

Here is a list of the performances-

1. Meet Me On The Corner - Lindisfarne
2. Oh You Pretty Things - David Bowie
3. Jamaica Say You Will - Jackson Browne
4. Born To Be Wild - Steppenwolf
5. I Get By - Stealers Wheel
6. Giving It All Away - Roger Daltrey
7. Black Coffee - Humble Pie
8. Brilliancy Medley - Fairport Convention
9. Boogie Funk - Freddie King
10. Surrender To The Rhythm - Brinsley Schwarz
11. A Little Bit Of Sympathy - Robin Trower
12. Dreamer - Supertramp
13. Jumping Jack Flash - Johnny Winter
14. A Heart Needs A Home - Richard and Linda Thompson
15. At Seventeen - Janis Ian
16. Year Of The Cat - Al Stewart
17. Couldn't Love You More - John Martyn & Danny Thompson
18. Fires Of Spring - Chris Rea
19. 'A' Bomb In Wardour Street - The Jam
20. When It All Comes Down/Hold On - BB King
21. I Don't Want To Be Nice - John Cooper Clarke
22. Sunday Papers - Joe Jackson
23. Chelsea Girl - Simple Minds
24. Frame By Frame - King Crimson
25. Rip It Up - Orange Juice
26. No-One Is To Blame - Howard Jones
27. Is It A Crime - Sade
28. In A Hole - The Jesus & Mary Chain
29. Sweet, Sweet Baby (I'm Falling) - Lone Justice
30. All I Want For Xmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit - Half Man Half Biscuit
31. Walk Like An Egyptian - Bangles

This is the third and presumably last compilation from the series, which has been available on disc in Europe for a few years now. In truth it feels alot like the old syndicated Don Kirschner's Rock Concert in regards to its layout, with Bob Harris, one of the original Old Grey Whistle Test MC's sitting in and doing his old job for the DVD assemblage. He reminisces about all manner of things Whistle Test, giving insight into its conception, their intentions and goals set for the program.

Clocking in at over 2 hours in length, the focus of the disc is all the individual performances; this in itself makes the compilation well worth owning, to see and hear these many artists mostly during their peak years, usually with no audience in the studio to cloud the performances. (Check out the flapping red sleeves on Johnny Winter's'll swear the guy has a cape behind him!) There are occasional clunkers in the mix but more often than not there is alot of great music to check out. Expect plenty of early techno offerings here as well as a share of blistering rockers and Top 40 songs. Even growing up in an era when many of these artists were current, I've never seen several of them on any performance stage before, such as Richard and Linda Thompson, which makes this compilation a real treat. As one interviewee points out, where else was one going to see B.B. King on television in those days? Janis Ian one week, Johnny Rotten another? There simply weren't any venues for music as diverse as this other than Whistle Test at the time the show was introduced.


Aspect ratio is 1.33:1 fullscreen. Picture quality here is very fine, with colors aptly rendered and a good degree of sharpness overall. Picture quality is strong enough that I can make the statement should "Midnight Special" or "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" compilations make it to DVD I hope they look this good.


While not mentioned on the case I believe the audio track given here is 2.0 stereo. Clear, clean and very listenable considering the age of the material.


Commentary by presenters Mark Ellen, David Hepworth, and Andy Kershaw- Some rather amusing comments and insights given by the aforementioned, their commentary can be turned on in the extras menu. I prefer listening to the disc verbatim.
Reminiscences by Roger Daltrey, Jools Holland, Rick Wakeman, Bob Geldof, Roddy Frame- Guest spots with various performers giving the viewer their own takes on the show; Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Bob Geldof (the BBC used the Whistle Test team for televising Live Aid) give extended opinions on the allure and uniqueness of the Whistle Test show, how music has become denigrated as an art form with the advent of the cold, lifeless CD format, and the lack of musical diversity being aired on both TV and radio in the present.

Final Thoughts-

All in all its a shame there aren't more volumes of this series on the market and from what I gather no more on the foreseeable horizon to look forward to. What with the show having a 42 week schedule (with 10 weeks spent in America taping performances for later installments) there is likely several discs worth of great music still in the BBC vaults. The Old Grey Whistle Test Vol. 3 makes no bones about blowing its horn, and rightfully so. The show was innovative and well filmed, touting solid, quite listenable audio tracks given the period from which it comes, and is about as diverse as rock and roll programming could get. Some bands weren't together for any notable length of time, so their performances here are in many cases the only place one is likely to see studio-quality takes on their material. This reviewer already owns the previous Whistle Test discs; all three volumes bring to light some fantastic live gems, and while some will point to the previous two releases as including the cream of the crop, volume three certainly has plenty going for it as well. Recommended.
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