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Late Night Line-Up‘s coverage of progressive rock outfits – alongside the expected jazz and classical ensembles – had proved so popular that a spin-off appeared in 1968: Colour Me Pop, giving bands such as Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Small Faces the chance to play full live sets.
This was followed in 1970 by Disco 2 (or Lineup’s Disco 2 as it was initially billed), similar in approach but this time based around a magazine format, featuring reports on and performances by several bands.
Finally came The Old Grey Whistle Test on 21 September 1971. The new BBC2 show was essentially a compilation of performances by several bands with the odd feature thrown in for good measure.
Most of the artists performed live in the studio, but some overseas-based or otherwise unavailable acts were represented either by promotional films or collections of archive clips compiled by Philip Jenkinson, which for some reason tended to feature a disturbingly high concentration of animated mice driving cars!
Early shows were broadcast from a continuity studio (on the fourth floor of BBC Television Centre) designed not to hold musical icons-in-the-making but one man and a desk. The original budget for the show was a miserly £500.
The space and budget limitations accounted for the stripped-back look of the show. With space at a premium, there was no room for a cyclorama – a curtain backdrop – leaving the studio walls bare and exposed, but the team decided to embrace this visual austerity and use it to their advantage.
The first year of Whistle Test saw guests such as Lindisfarne, Wishbone Ash, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Poco, David Bowie and Randy Newman establish the show as a must-see among discerning music fans. The late-night timeslot on Tuesdays was no deterrent.
Once the success of the show had led to a move downstairs to one of Television Centre’s larger studios, the show became an essential appointment-to-view on Tuesday nights – a mellow, respectful wallow in the top musicianship of the era, enhanced by measured and intelligent introductions from the laid-back host Bob Harris, who soon gained the nickname “Whispering Bob”.
The first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test was Richard Williams – the assistant editor of Melody Maker. Harris took over from Williams and presented the show through the seventies. With the changing musical landscape came new presenters, including Annie Nightingale, Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw.
In its time, the show introduced many new or seldom-seen bands to a British audience.
In 1976 something happened that could easily have put paid to the programme’s credibility for good – punk rock. As bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Jam began to attract huge followings, they remained notably absent from Whistle Test, which sailed serenely onwards, still wedded to Nils Lofgren, Dr Hook, Joan Armatrading and the like.
The fact that the nation’s #1 music programme seemed to be ignoring what was happening in the clubs and charts did not go unnoticed. Followers of the new music were incensed, and their outcry grew louder and louder until it exploded in a brutal act of violence against the host.
In March 1977, Bob Harris and his friend George Nicholson called into a West End club called The Speakeasy for a nightcap after a day in the recording studio. It was an unfortunate move as The Sex Pistols and their entourage were in the building, celebrating their new record deal with A&M.
Trouble kicked off when one of their hangers-on challenged Bob, demanding to know when they would be on Whistle Test. A brawl broke out and Bob found himself cornered by punks clutching broken glass.
Only the intervention of the Procul Harum road crew and some other guys saved him from grievous injury, but George Nicholson was not so lucky, being glassed in the head and requiring 14 stitches.
Punk bands had not featured to date on the show due to the “albums only” rule of the show. The new bands – to that point – had not issued any albums, with the punk and new wave scenes happening predominantly through singles and independent labels.
That condition was met in February 1978 when The Adverts became the first British punk band to appear on the show. After that, new wave bands raced through the doors – including XTC, Radio Stars, The Jam, The Only Ones, Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees.
But the punk experience had diminished Whispering Bob’s enthusiasm for presenting music on television and, reluctantly, he decided to leave Whistle Test, and a replacement was found in Radio 1 broadcaster-journalist Anne Nightingale.
Harris’s last show was the 1979 New Year’s Eve Blondie concert in Glasgow.
In 1981, Anne was joined by Smash Hits editor David Hepworth, who had been contributing reports to the programme, and the duo oversaw the show’s move to Riverside Studios in November that year, the programme having temporarily relocated from Television Centre to Shepperton Studios.
In 1982, Hepworth’s Smash Hits colleague Mark Ellen took over from Nightingale. The pair were joined later by Andy Kershaw, a young lad from Rochdale (via Leeds University) who had been working as a roadie for Billy Bragg.
Ro Newton and Radio 1’s Richard Skinner were added to the line-up in the mid-80s, by which time the name of the programme had been truncated to Whistle Test.
The show embraced reggae, ska, post-punk and early indie, and continued to present the same unexpected combinations of acts – one early 1980s show saw Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark appear alongside ZZ Top – right through to its demise in March 1987.
The show encompassed many styles that often seemed diametrically opposed, but from a historical perspective, stands as a great collection of non-mainstream sounds from an unfairly neglected decade or so in music.
As if to underline this, the programme’s longstanding theme tune – the harmonica-driven blues Stone Fox Chase by American band Area Code 615 – seemed to fit perfectly alongside whatever music it chose to champion.
To this day, The Old Grey Whistle Test is semi-fondly remembered as a show that was never more than five minutes away from a very hairy man playing a very long guitar solo.
“The old grey whistle test” was originally a phrase coined by New York songwriters back in the Tin Pan Alley days, and was basically their litmus test when composing. The songwriters would play new songs to the (old, grey-haired) doormen of their building, and if the doormen could whistle the tune, the song had passed the test.
It was actually “Whispering Bob” Harris’s policeman dad who arrested PJ Proby when he split his trousers onstage at the Northampton ABC.