Following The Old Grey Whistle Test’s brief return to our TV screens, Getintothis’ Andy Sunley looks back at some of the show’s highlights
Last Friday, the BBC brought one of the best and most fondly remembered music programmes back for one last trip through a classic format. Old Grey Whistle Test Live: For One Night Only was a special three-hour live celebration to mark thirty years of the seminal programme’s last broadcast.
The Old Grey Whistle Test was essentially an attempt to bring a radio programme to TV, with bands playing live in the studio and a selection of album tracks. As this was television, the album tracks were accompanied by strange visuals, such as looped segments of old black and white cartoons, which must have caused much consternation when parents wondered what their kids were watching.
Coming from its original home of Television Centre in White City, the reboot was hosted by ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, who presented the show between 1972 and 1978. The evening featured classic clips from the shows sizeable archives as well as interviews with other former presenters such as Andy Kershaw, Annie Nightingale and David Hepworth.
During its run The Old Grey Whistle Test bought a wide array of performances to late night BBC 2. Bob Marley And The Wailers, XTC and Tom Petty were some of the acts who received their UK TV debut on the show whilst more established the likes of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie turned out some classic performances.
Whilst it did receive some criticism for initially ignoring punk and new wave during Harris‘ run (he famously dismissed The New York Dolls as ‘mock rock’) it later went on to capture some impressive performances by The Damned and X-Ray Spex among others.
By 1988 it was considered well past it’s sell by date however it was an influence on many music shows that came after such as Later With Jools Holland and, perhaps more obviously From The Basement.
Here are some classic performances and some largely forgotten clips.
Probably one of the most famous Whistle Test performances ever. Classic Bowie with Mick Ronson on guitar. This would have undoubtedly been many people’s first exposure to David Bowie and is a great example of how appearing on the Whistle Test could help kick start a career.
John Martyn featured on The Old Grey Whistle Test a total of eight times during his career. This included a half hour performance in 1978 in the aftermath of his One World album. Here he performs his best known track May You Never from his 1973 album Solid Air.
This highly underrated and unfortunately named band made two appearances on the show in the 70’s. They are from the USA where their name is not considered as rude as it is over here. So stop sniggering!
Fanny were a great 70s rock band and, as shown here, could play up a storm.
The Old Grey Whistle Test‘s remit was to showcase acts who would perhaps look out of place on more mainstream shows. And you definitely would not see these guys on Top Of The Pops! Krautrockers Can perform Vernal Equinox from their supposedly ‘glam rock’ album Landed in 1975.
Half Man Half Biscuit
Wirral jokers Half Man Half Biscuit made a rare TV appearance in 1986 on the then renamed Whistle Test after scoring a hit in the indie charts with The Trumpton Riots.
As the Biscuits famously turned down an appearance on The Tube due to it clashing with Tranmere playing at home, we can only assume that the Whistle Test slot was filmed during an appropriate gap in the team’s fixtures calendar.
For many in the UK this was their first exposure to an act who would go on to be one of the biggest bands in the world. Here they perform their southern gothic masterpiece Old Man Kensey from 1985’s Fables Of The Reconstruction.
A fine performance once you are over the shock of seeing Michael Stipe with such a luxurious head of hair.
Another acknowledged Old Grey Whistle Test classic. New York poet punk queen performs the title track from her Horses album. Smith‘s performance here is a stunning rendition of one of her most iconic tracks.
Bob Harris was allegedly hostile to punk. However, after his tenure ended in 1978 punk acts began to appear regularly.
The Damned brought their usual brand of chaos to the studio, with singer Dave Vanian gaffa taping his hand to the mic minutes before they were due to start, the band playing over Annie Nightingale‘s links and , during an appropriately named Smash It Up, trashing their equipment.
It wasn’t all rock ‘n’ roll. Here Bill Withers gives a flawless and laid back performance of his classic Ain’t No Sunshine.
John Peel takes us behind the scenes of a Peel Session.
John Peel was rumoured to have been quite annoyed when mistaken for Bob Harris. Whilst never a presenter he did on occasion appear as a guest. Here he takes viewers behind the scenes at a Peel Session by Manchester experimental outfit Tools You Can Trust.
This clip also features a young Mark Radcliffe in a yellow jumper sporting a rather fetching mullet!
While the latest and last Whistle Test may be accused of playing it too safe and predictable, it was for a while essential TV viewing. It gave essential exposure to bands who would have struggled to reach an audience the size of the ones that the Whistle Test regularly attracted and, in doing so, shone a light on a part of the music scene that was often left on the fringes.
So, in these times, where music TV is near impossible to find, we can look back at The Old Grey Whistle Test and be grateful that something this left field existed for so long and left us with so many classic performances to look back on.