Thirty-eight tracks that serve to summarise the OGWT ethos.
Mike Diver 2010
Compiled by Bob Harris, Radio 2 DJ and presenter of the show it celebrates, The Old Grey Whistle Test features 38 tracks spanning both years (it was first broadcast in 1971) and genres, with one significant fact connecting the myriad dots: all appeared on the ‘other’ music television show of the 70s and 80s, the one that went against the Top of the Pops grain.
Not that there weren’t plenty of parallels between the artists the two BBC-broadcast shows would cover, but the assembled cast on this release does paint a not-wholly-accurate picture of an era dominated by album artists, one-hit wonders the preserve of the chart-following crowd. Here Tom Waits can be heard croaking from the depths of his alcoholism on the achingly beautiful Tom Traubert’s Blues, immediately before prog-rock titans Yes settle their bombast down for the four minutes of synthesised tootles and mystical warbles that is Wonderous Stories. Contrasts like this illustrate what The Old Grey Whistle Test was about: putting the best music, whatever its form, into the living rooms of the limited-to-three-channels public.
Presented as the first part of a series of OGWT collections, this double-disc release does slip up in not featuring more recordings from the show itself. Only two tracks – Patti Smith’s Because the Night (a co-write with Bruce Springsteen, originally appearing on 1978’s Easter) and Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat – are presented as live-on-the-BBC versions. Hopefully further sets will include more like these, assembled in a manner akin to the various Later… compilations. Also, despite press release mention of the likes of Led Zeppelin, Curtis Mayfield and The Eagles appearing on the OGWT, not one of them does here. But perhaps it’s good to keep a few big guns in reserve, in line for volume two.
It’s sad – really, really sad – that there is no obvious equivalent to The Old Grey Whistle Test on television today. But perhaps a contemporary take on the show could yet present itself. Fingers crossed, or else what will this generation’s children rely upon for their televised musical education? Have you watched any of the freely broadcast music channels lately? Terrifying.