Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: The Old Grey Whistle Test

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another Fabulously Flamboyant Friday – our fortnightly frolic in the uphill garden of musical fragrance. This week we take a puddle-jumping probe into the rainbow and glitter world of a BBC televisual institution, quite possibly Sir David Attenborough’s finest hour (apart from his gorilla bothering bits) and a programme that revolutionized the attitude of UK television to live music. And so, without further ado, laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents the rockingest little TV show of the ’70s – The Old Grey Whistle Test. Not ‘arf!

The Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT) was originally commissioned by none other than Sir David Attenborough, during his (to be fair, pretty decent) tenure as controller of BBC 2. The show was actually the brainchild of two BBC television producers, Mike Appleton and Rowan Ayers (whose son, fun fact, was none other than the late, great, Kevin Ayers). The show launched on Tuesday, September 21, 1971 and was originally presented by the music journalist, Richard Williams. He did a pretty good job, but his tenure was short-lived and he was soon replaced by the legendarily laid-back and magnificently laconic “Whispering Bob Harris”

The programme’s name was derived from an old Tin Pan Alley phrase. Allegedly, songwriters tested the potential popularity of new songs by playing them to people they called the “old greys” – doormen in grey suits. Any song the doormen could whistle after just a couple of plays was deemed to have passed the old grey whistle test. The show’s unusual name was combined with its iconic ‘Star Kicker’ animation and its distinctive harmonica theme tune called “Stone Fox Chase”, originally recorded by the band Area Code 615.

The show was conceived as a replacement for the BBC’s short-lived Disco 2 programme, but Appleton and Ayers had other ideas. They were on a mission to create a show that could exploit the thriving album market to the same extent that Top of the Pops had so successfully exploited the singles market. As it happens, they really couldn’t have picked a better year to launch a music show aimed at album buyers. 1971 was quite simply a cracking year for new albums: The Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers; Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On; Led Zeppelin, Vol IV; Carole King, Tapestry; John Lennon, Imagine; Crosby Stills Nash & Young, 4 Way Street; Isaac Hayes, Shaft; The Who, Who’s Next – and that really is just scratching the surface of 1971’s magnificent album release roster; and both ’72 and ’73 were frankly just as good, with an impressive string of all-time classic albums hitting the shelves. The OGWT was the perfect programme at the perfect time.

The show had a magazine format that included interviews, live performances, single-artist specials and live concerts. Almost every genre of popular music was covered: glam, punk, prog, soul, reggae, country, funk, blues and, crucially, hard rock – a massively popular genre that was receiving almost no coverage from mainstream outlets. However, because of the musical tastes of Harris and Appleton, the show always had a warm welcome for singer-songwriters such as Carol King, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega, Ricky Lee Jones, John Martyn and many more.

Somewhat to the surprise of broadcast team, their show quickly developed substantial critical and commercial clout. So much so that by 1972, when the thoroughly eccentric Dutch group, Focus, first yodelled their way on to the show, the demand for their albums became so great their record company was forced to halt pressings of all other artists to devote ten straight days to pressing copies of Focus albums alone.

The OGWT also gave valuable early exposure to musicians such as Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Joan Armatrading and Rick Wakeman. Wakeman, in particular, has publicly credited his appearance on the show with the rapid chart success of his first album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and (another fun fact, pop pickers) Wakeman holds the record for the most appearances by any artist on the show, with a nice round half dozen appearances.

Throughout it’s run, some truly iconic live performances were captured by the show. However, originally, a significant number of the early shows featured mimed performances. Richard Williams recalled the show’s first studios as being very small, with extremely limited technical facilities. Musicians, he noted, “simply couldn’t believe now how tiny the place was” and “generally found [it] difficult to cope [and] play live in such a limited space”. Williams would also recollect that BBC budgetary constraints caused many of the early shows to be pre-recorded, simply as a way to save money. Another cash-saving wheeze was to play album tracks accompanied by royalty-free, silent-movie clips from the archives. However, unlike mimed performances, the movie clips became a much-loved feature of the show and were retained for many years.

By the time Bob Harris (a Radio Caroline veteran and the much-admired presenter of Radio 1’s progressive music programme, Sounds of the Seventies) took over from Williams in ’72, Whistle Test had become both a critical and public success. The show had moved to larger studios at Television Centre (much more suitable for live performances) and had acquired a substantially better budget. Bob Harris would front the programme for six years and became the presenter most commonly associated with the show. Harris was renowned for his distinctively laid-back and low-key approach to presenting. Not long after he joined the programme, Melody Maker published a review describing him as “Whispering Bob” and the nickname stuck. Whispering Bob Harris would quickly became something of a UK television institution, and as a result was soon being affectionately lampooned in print and in comedy sketches. Harris has written extensively about his OGWT adventures in his memoirs, Bob Harris: The Whispering Years. It’s a thoroughly entertaining tome and one that I am happy to recommended highly.

Judging by his memoirs, Bob seems particularly proud of the show’s track record of broadcasting overseas artists (particularly from North America and the Caribbean) who had never previously been seen on UK television. Artists such as Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Lee Jones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and many more, all made their first live UK TV performances on Whistle Test. However, in Bob’s opinion, the best of the overseas bunch were Bob Marley and the Wailers, who he described as “totally stoned” and “ridiculously good”. But Harris wasn’t averse to criticizing his guests, famously calling the New York Dolls a “Rolling Stones tribute band” and describing their performance as “mock-rock”. He was also critical of Roxy Music, describing them as a triumph of style over substance and noting that “with the huge exception of Brian Eno, I thought they were arrogant and dismissive of their fans”.

1971 to ’76 were, without doubt, the glory years of the show, but by ’77 critics were starting to appear. The show was very slow to latch onto the punk phenomenon and a major turning-point for Harris was the well publicised physical and verbal abuse directed at him by punk rockers, many of whom appeared to view Harris as a personification of the music establishment and their middle-class, softly-spoken enemy.

Things came to a rather nasty head in March ’77, when Bob popped into a legendary West End club called The Speakeasy for a swift nightcap or three after a hard day toiling in the studio. Unfortunately, A&M records were using the venue to celebrate their new record deal with The Sex Pistols and the place was packed with highly lubricated punks. What followed would become the stuff of music industry folklore.

Trouble kicked off almost immediately and a serious brawl broke out. Bob quickly found himself cornered by punks clutching broken bottles and glass. Bob’s mate, George Nicholson, attempted to intervene, but only succeeded in getting himself cut up a treat (including, unfortunately, well over a dozen stitches to his face and head). Bob’s memoirs detail a very heated and serious situation, with genuine fears for life and limb. Happily, for the purposes of our narrative, the cavalry, in the form of Procul Harum’s horny-handed road crew, came riding over the hill and went steaming straight into the melee. They quickly rescued Bob from his sticky situation and then proceeded to robustly demonstrate to the young punks the error of their youthfully enthusiastic but deeply misguided ways.

Sadly, this experience soured Bob’s enthusiasm for presenting music on television and not long after he decided to leave Whistle Test. His replacement was the Radio 1 broadcaster and music journalist, Anne Nightingale. In September 1978, Bob co-hosted his last studio-based Whistle Test with Annie and said his fond farewells to the show a couple of months later, presenting an OGWT new year’s eve special featuring Blondie live in Glasgow.

In sharp contrast to Harris, Nightingale adopted a light-hearted and jokey style of presentation, developed, she claimed, to encourage the often young and inexperienced bands who now featured regularly on the re-vamped show. Punk, new wave, new romantics and synth pop were all added to show’s performance roster during Nightingale’s tenure. Unfortunately, as a result of this policy change, there was now a substantial and significant overlap with programmes such as the BBC’s own Top Of The Pops. With the departure of it’s USP (i.e. it’s focus on albums rather than singles) the show’s slow but steady decline in popularity began to gather pace.

Following the departure of Nightingale in 1982, the show soon found itself fighting off fierce competition from young upstart rivals such as Channel 4’s The Tube. In a move to revamp the show, a new trio of presenters were introduced (David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Richard Skinner), the programme moved to a mid-evening slot, the title was abridged to Whistle Test and the iconic theme tune was changed. Andy Kershaw joined the presenter’s roster in 1984 and it was these same four presenters who, in 1985, co-presented and anchored the BBC’s coverage of the tedious Bob Geldof and his humongous Live Aid extravaganza.

There were some pretty decent performances during the show’s early to mid-’80s run, but sadly a fearsomely fanged nemesis was on the horizon. The BBC had appointed Janet Street-Porter as their Head of Yoof Programming and it has been suggested (possibly apocryphally) that she decided, after a long hard look at Whistle Test, that there was no room in the schedules for any music programme that would play Ry Cooder. True or not, the axe fell and the series was cancelled by the BBC in early 1987. In truth, it was a mercy killing and Street-Porter’s judgment was sound. Despite the occasional good show, the programme had become a pale shadow of its former self and it’s glory days were long in the past. A few half-hearted radio revivals would follow, but the TV series finally came to a close with one final new year’s eve special that was hosted, appropriately, by a returning Bob Harris. And that appeared to be that. After sixteen seasons, the Old Grey Whistle Test was consigned to the televisual dustbin of history.

There is, however, a happy coda to our tale: Over the last few decades the reputation of the show has been very firmly on the rise. Fuelled by the growth of video sharing websites, the pivotal role played by shows such as the OGWT (and indeed Rockpalast in Germany) in capturing and documenting some of the finest live performances and some of the most iconic artists of the late 20th century has finally begun to be appreciated – and ironically, even Janet Street-Porter now seems to be a Ry Cooder fan.

OGWT archives are now regularly raided and endlessly recycled by the BBC to produce a string of music-based programmes and documentaries, and clips from the original show have racked up many millions of views on various video sharing websites. And then, in February 2018, Whispering Bob made a triumphal return to once more host The Old Grey Whistle Test for a live, three-hour special, broadcast by the BBC to mark 30 years since the by now legendary series was last broadcast. And today, it would seem (quite rightly, in my humble opinion), that the reputation of this iconic show has never been higher – and long may this well deserved state of affairs continue.

And finally, to conclude this Friday’s proceedings, as the OGWT was such a magnificent show, hugely influential and a true legend of the music industry, it is only right and proper that we round off this evening’s entertainment with an OGWT performance by an artist of equally iconic stature, one who stands above all others, one truly worthy of this signal honour. There can, of course, be only one: Laydees and gentlebodies, I bid you goodnight with the one, the only, Mr Phil Collins. YAAAAAY!

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays.

TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Starkicker: Fair Dealing / Fair Use

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