Judge Geoffrey Miller still isn't quite sure what an old grey whistle test is, except that it involves lots of cool music.
The U.K.'s legendary live music show!
If you aren't familiar with The Old Grey Whistle Test, you aren't alone. The British show, which ran from 1971 to 1987, might have been popular in its native land, but it was virtually unknown elsewhere. That doesn't mean you should ignore this compilation though. The Old Grey Whistle Test wasn't some teenybopper showcase for ephemeral pop hits; it was a serious show aimed squarely at music lovers. If that sounds like an enticing proposition to you, then this is a disc you'll probably enjoy.
The show prided itself on dispensing with the flash and concentrating on the music. There are no elaborate sets or big production values—just musicians playing on a barren stage. Nor was it dedicated solely to big acts; many obscure artists got their first (and sometimes only) exposure through the Whistle Test. The best performances are raw and vital, hitting the primal core that makes great live music. Curiously, though, a handful of bands use pre-recorded backing tracks and lip-synching, which pretty much defeats the purpose. Thankfully, these are kept to a minimum.
The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol. 2 collects 29 performances, arranged in rough chronological order, from throughout the show's history. Since the years the show ran cover many of rock music's most important innovations and developments, there's a lot of variety here: British Invasion survivors who thrived into the '70s (The Who), folk singer-songwriters (Loggins and Messina, Jim Croce), glam (New York Dolls), arena rock (Argent, Montrose), punk (The Adverts, The Undertones), New Wave (Squeeze, Thomas Dolby), and all points in between. The sheer breadth of music offered is the compilation's biggest strength, as well as its biggest weakness. If you have any interest at all in '70s and '80s music, you're sure to find at least a few performances you'll like here. Conversely, there are also guaranteed to be a couple to have you lunging for the chapter skip button.
The full list of performances:
• Heads, Hands & Feet, "Warming Up the Band"
Of course, not every performance is a keeper. The lip-synched ones, like The Who's "Relay" (disappointing since they're not only the biggest name here but were at the height of their powers as a live band at the time), are dispensable. There are still plenty of highlights to be found:
• Roxy Music performing their art-rock meltdown "Ladytron" in their first television appearance. The song is great, but the clip is worth seeing just to catch a glimpse of the band in embryonic form. Lead singer Bryan Ferry, still perfecting his lady-killer persona, makes awkward lovey-dovey faces into the camera. Meanwhile, Brian Eno twiddles the knobs on an analog synthesizer, decked out in full glam regalia (excessive eyeliner and a gaudy leopard-print jacket).
• A sweaty, lengthy version of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meat Loaf. With steadily increasing theatricality, Meat Loaf trades lines back and forth with his female singing partner. Their sexual tension finally explodes during the breakdown, providing what was surely the only appearance of a 300 lb. man copping a feel in The Old Grey Whistle Test's history.
• A trio of early punk rock performances by The Adverts, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and The Undertones. The Old Grey Whistle Test was a bit late to jump on the punk bandwagon—they waited until 1978, after the Sex Pistols had already imploded—but these appearances succinctly cover the genre and where it was going at the time. The Adverts were punk rock at its rawest, a bunch of kids who barely knew how to play their instruments making primitive rock'n'roll; Siouxsie & The Banshees' harsh, metallic clamor presaged the more adventurous post-punk sound of bands like Joy Division; and The Undertones were representative of the more tuneful side of punk that would drive the more commercially palatable New Wave.
• Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark doing their early, quirky song "Dancing." About as far as possible from "If You Leave," the sleek pop concoction that was their biggest American hit, "Dancing" is built on a wheezing, syncopated beat, a rubbery bassline, and whispered vocals. It highlights the more experimental, avant-garde side of synth-pop and the New Romantics.
If there's been any major remastering or restoration done to the original material, I certainly can't tell. It looks and sounds exactly how you'd expect a low-budget BBC show from over 20 years ago would, which is to say it gets the job done and little more. In addition to introductory bits from musicians and the show's staff preceding some clips, there's a full commentary track from two of the show's presenters. Some info on the artists and a bizarre Flash animation featuring squirrels dancing to the show's theme song round out the extras.
The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol. 2 will primarily appeal to a small demographic of music fans with eclectic tastes who don't mind having to dig through to find the good stuff. While some of the choices are a little puzzling, considering the deep vaults a show that ran for 15 years must have, there's enough gold here to make for a solid disc.
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