The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC)
As a wee kiddie, I remember reading a comment, if memory serves in a circa 1988 review of an album by a never-remembered band called Wire Train in "What Hi-Fi?" to the effect that the world was a better place following the demise of "The Old Grey Whistle Test" and its obsession with guitar-based forms of music. After auditioning this luxurious double DVD box of delights (when the BBC get something right, they get it absolutely right!) it's difficult to determine exactly how life has improved without the programme.
This "30th Anniversary Special Edition", which had a counterpart in a few episodes of late-night highlights on BBC2 in September, contains 45 performances from artists ranging from household names (Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon) to cult deities (Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Tom Waits, Robert Wyatt) and the frankly bizarre (Val Doonican & Charlie McCoy, Otway & Barrett). The presenters introduce their favourite clips, there's copious interview footage (there's something clumsily endearing about the way Whispering Bob Harris strains to get his subject's Christian name into every sentence!) and a commentary by founding producer Mike Appleton on the first disc, which, as it fails completely to relate to the on-screen visuals at any time, would be better described as an audio essay.
Specifics over: why should you be interested in this package? Because, given the enviable task facing the compilers, with the usual caveats about performances and shows missing, believed wiped, the final cut is bound to contain at least something to entertain just about anybody who holds an interest in late 20th century popular music. There might be a few holes in its coverage - heavy metal barely scrapes in with a Robert Plant interview, prog is almost completely ignored save for a Focus medley (a fine performance, featuring a maniacally nodding keyboard player, which resulted in Polydor's British pressing plant churning out nothing but Focus records for the next week to satisfy the demand generated) - but otherwise the selection is impeccable. Elton offers a magical, unplugged (generations before the term would be coined) rendition of "Tiny Dancer", the song returned to its rightful prominence after being used in Cameron Crowe's marvellous beardy rock fairy tale "Almost Famous". Tim Buckley delivers "Dolphins" backed by a pick-up band that includes Charlie Whitney of Family; apparently it's his only surviving television appearance (which quarrels slightly with the fact that the episode of "The Monkees" that he featured on is also available on DVD). The good Captain and his Tragic Band sleepwalk through the swamp-blues-by-numbers that is "Upon The My O My", and you don't care a jot, because Captain Beefheart has infected your television like the lizards on "Jam", and it's wonderful. Little Feat lock into some telepathic syncopation during "Rock 'N' Roll Doctor", heroically belying the fact that their performance was taped at 9:30 in the morning, not, one would assume, a time that normally registered on their body clocks. Lynyrd Skynyrd play "Freebird" - what more could you ask? Tom Waits scares a nation of insomniacs by growling through "Tom Traubert's Blues" as if he was chewing a beehive. Over on the punk and thereafter disc two, PiL unleash sheets of white noise terror on "Careering", to the obvious shock and amazement of presenter Annie Nightingale, and The Damned smash the system with a medley of some of their greatest hits during one of the most riveting performances of live music on television that side of At The Drive-In's demolition derby on "Later" last year. Promising unknowns R.E.M. rip into "Pretty Persuasion" - they have a drummer, and Michael Stipe has hair! And Robert Wyatt croons a heartbreakingly poignant "Shipbuilding", which means as much now as it did then.
Wow. And that's just the performances that touched me the most - chances are any broadminded music fan would be able to compile a similarly well-stocked wants list from the contents of these DVDs. And around the fringes of the songs you'll learn, if, like me, you were too young or too not born at the time, or be reminded of if you weren't, just what "The Old Grey Whistle Test" contributed to the furtherance of album-based music in this country. The presenters were all selected because they were journalists and music lovers first - nobody would be using the programme as a passport to fame and fortune, no one person would be allowed to become bigger than the music. (At no point does David Hepworth attempt to barge in to a performance with a boogie-woogie piano solo, for example.) "The Old Grey Whistle Test" pioneered: the programme was responsible for the first simulcast (a process that, in pre-NICAM times, meant stereo soundtracks broadcast on Radio One - which, at the time, was only granted the use of Radio Two's FM frequency on very special occasions - whilst the accompanying visuals went out on television), a recording of Van Morrison live at the Rainbow (and how much would I want to own a DVD of that?!), and frequently featured whole concerts recorded by bands in the BBC's own theatre. It all makes the legacy that is "Later" appear depressingly pedestrian.
What to conclude? If you have both a DVD player and fond memories of "Whistle Test" you'll love this lovingly assembled retrospective - it's as fine as you could ask. And if you didn't catch these almost uniformly impressive performances first time around, the reality as fantastic as the track listing promises. The only slight caveat I can level is that not every band or every performance featured during BBC2's anniversary week of programmes makes it onto the finished product - and by extension the fact that my feverish curiosity won't be completely sated until every last scrap of the "Whistle Test" archives has been transferred to DVD. Until that happy day arrives, start here.