Judge Bill Gibron enjoyed this DVD's collection of classic musical performances from the UK's preeminent live showcase, which covers two decades of divergent musical styles.
Kick the stars!
For nearly 16 years (1971–1987) it stood as Britain's, and the BBC's, testament to the power of live musical performance. Unlike other offerings on the UK airwaves, it mandated musicianship over media, avoiding such aesthetically unacceptable ideas as lip-synching and the burgeoning video format. Though it was eventually undone by the MTV-ing of the industry, which emphasized camera-friendly faces over concert chops, it remains a viable time capsule of the ever-changing notion of rock's revolving elements of style, stardom, and substance. While an Internet version of the show today features unsigned bands looking to get noticed, the DVD department of England's stalwart broadcasting empire has decided to release three decade-spanning collections of The Old Grey Whistle Test, featuring highlights from the show's entire run. With two previous volumes already available, this final installment might be misconstrued as a kind of catchall compilation. In fact, it's a fascinating walk down an amazing aural memory lane, as the obscure meet the ageless for a lesson in changing attitudes and approaches to live performing.
Included in this volume are acts as divergent as Tubeway Army's synth-pop robotics, Lindisfarne's post-hippy peace-and-love folk rock, and King Crimson's arcane mid-'80s prog. We witness blues legends like Freddie King, the Mod militancy of The Jam, Chris Rea's pub-friendly posing, and The Bangles' baffling attempt at performing a pure studio creation before a live audience. Overall, more than two hours of music and memories (from both hosts/producers and famous fans of the show) are presented, each artist given one song out of their longer set list to represent their stint on the show. Specifically, here are the bands and the titles they contribute:
• Lindisfarne: "Meet Me on the Corner"
For longtime fans of the series, there will be no doubt about the value of this considered compilation. There are moments of great musical genius on hand, as well as examples of forced fad gadgetry that just don't translate beyond their limited pop cultural borders. To its credit, The Old Grey Whistle Test tended to avoid the trendy and the superficial, instead looking toward established artists (B.B. King, Jackson Browne) over the occasional flash in the pan (Orange Juice, Lone Justice). Still, there is a dated quality to much of this material, a look across the ever-shifting landscape of rock and roll that reminds us where we've been without providing the context that helps ensure that all-important element of perspective. When the former Mr. Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon, shows up with his post–Sex Pistols No Wave wonder PIL (as in Public Image, Ltd.) it's a significant performance on many levels. It signaled the death of punk in the UK, it marked Lydon's move into the realm of the pure artist, and it was one of the rare instances where the band stopped their aggravating antagonism toward the media and just played their stunning, disturbing dub funk noise. Sadly, none of that is mentioned here. Instead, we get a one shot look at every act, and then the disc moves on to another sonic segment.
While no one is asking for a full-blown documentary on The Old Grey Whistle Test, or an artist's bio with each performance, a compilation like this seems to require a great deal of the pop culture version of judicial notice. If you didn't know that Richard Thompson was once a part of Fairport Convention, then the appearance of both acts on this collection means nothing. But if you are privy to such information, the lack of acknowledgement is troubling. Similarly, one of Britain's most popular bands ever, The Jam, is randomly stuck into the middle of things with little or no fanfare. In fact, artists like Chris Rea (who gets a mention for his US hit "Fool If You Think It's Over") and Janis Ian get chatted up over groups that have more importance in the overall development of British rock. When we eventually learn that each video will have a commentary track by Old Grey Whistle Test presenters (read: hosts) Mark Ellen, David Hapsworth, and Andy Kershaw, we smile, hoping that they will provide the backstory necessary to appreciate these people today. Instead, our trio snip and snipe, focusing on fashion faux pas, musical missteps, and the occasional purposeful denouncement. Victims include Howard Jones (whose vegetarian dog gets a diss), Supertramp (whose falsetto-featuring "Dreamer" receives a thorough slamming by the guys), and King Crimson (the trio marvel over Tony Levin's choice of instrument). It turns a genial, if rather generic, presentation into a pissing match between the stereotypical self-righteous rock critics.
Still, if you keep the commentary in perspective and ignore the frequent jolting juxtapositions and rare bad performances (Gary Numan and Tubeway Army just can't get it together here), you will truly enjoy this careful and considered presentation. The tech specs are outstanding, with even the oldest videotape looking transcendent in the 1.33:1 full-screen format. There is limited bleeding, no flaring whatsoever, and lots of depth, detail, and dimension. The colors are consistently good, and the new interview material (in which individuals like The Who's Roger Daltrey and Orange Juice's Edwin Collins discuss their tenure on the show) matches perfectly. On the sound side, some will be disappointed in the standard Dolby Digital stereo, especially in light of how other companies like Eagle Rock and Sanctuary manage to manipulate a 5.1 or DTS track out of even the most moldy old mix. Still, the aural elements are clean and crisp, capable of highlighting sonic sublimity (PIL) or hack work (The Bangles).
As for extras, there is the aforementioned commentary. While it doesn't cover all the acts (Numan, Japan, and PIL are omitted, for some reason), it does deal with the behind-the-scenes workings of the show, including its connection to Melody Maker and its "live-only" dynamic. Interviews, some of which are included as part of the presentation, are also very engaging. While the menu configuration is quite confusing (you have to look for the contributor's bio and then click on the "more information" button to access the discussions), sorting it out provides some nice moments of clarity and crystallization. There is also an enhanced feature that, when activated, allows you to access a small artist's bio. A white guitar icon appears during the performance, and clicking it takes you to a text screen. It's novel, if slightly unnecessary.
In fact, that's a good way to categorize this entire release. For fans outside the UK who've only heard of The Old Grey Whistle Test via fandom and random clips on VH-1 Classic, this is a chance to see one of the premiere showcases for live music. If you are looking for definitive performances from your favorite band, you may find it sonic salvation. But for the most part, this is a pleasant if perfunctory clip collection that lacks a linear strategy to keep it together as a cohesive whole. Those interested in experiencing an engaging overview of the show will find this DVD series a wonderful sonic souvenir. If you're looking for a little more profundity, you'll be greatly disappointed.
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• Commentary by Old Grey Whistle Test Presenters Mark Ellen, David Hapsworth, and Andy Kershaw
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