Old Grey Whistle Test (2003)





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Movie Info

Musical & Performing Arts , Television


Critic Reviews for Old Grey Whistle Test

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Audience Reviews for Old Grey Whistle Test

Highlights of a British Television Tradition Alas, another British television tradition is wiping the tapes--or just not really recording things in the first place. I've heard complaints about it for years, because that's what happens when you have friends who know of any Doctor before David Tennant. In many cases, my friends can list them all, and they will whether you want them to or not. I don't know which performances were lost to time because of that. I imagine I could probably find a list, but it would just depress me. One of the songs included on this collection is probably my favourite Elton John song, and I have no doubt that I will find that another artist I like performed their favourite song for this show and that the performance is lost, and I really feel that I'm better off not having known that it existed in the first place. There's no way of retrieving it short of a time machine anyway--and I supposed the Doctor would have other priorities. From 1971 to 1987, a live music show called [i]The Old Grey Whistle Test[/i] aired on BBC2. It took its name from an old Tin Pan Alley saying--that if you could get doormen--old men in grey suits--to whistle your tune, it would be a hit. Starting when glam rock was big, it instead focused on the music. The acts performed in an essentially bare studio, just the musicians and their instruments. (And, according to some of the people interviewed on the disc, old BBC executives in cardigans, smoking pipes.) Many of the performances were the first major exposure the artists were given to the British public. Just on this collection, we have Bob Marley, the Talking Heads, XTC, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many others. Admittedly, it includes a few acts I've never heard of, but still. It's a time capsule of musical history, even with those lost performances taken into consideration. The Elton John performance is Elton alone with a piano, singing his then-new song, "Tiny Dancer." Elton knows a thing or two himself about flashy performances, and yet he did this instead. Or as well, really; it's not as though he never did another flashy performance again. However, the great appeal of the show to me is the same as [i]Unplugged[/i], which I suppose is my generation's American equivalent. Oh, goodness knows, this show wasn't entirely acoustic or even mostly acoustic--there is an honest-to-Gods keytar at one point. One of the groups I've never heard of, as I recall, and not only is it a keytar but it's a keytar that gets explosions noises programmed into it. This is not the kind of thing that we'd get on [i]Unplugged[/i]--this is exactly the opposite of the point of [i]Unplugged[/i]. However, they both shared the idea that stripping away the trappings left you with, hopefully, just a really great performance. It didn't work every time, but the idea was worth trying both times. Not that I know much about the times when it didn't work for this show. After all, they condensed years of programming into, what, two hours or so. Performances that didn't work doubtless didn't make it onto the disc. If you have John Lennon singing, "Stand by Me," why would you waste the disc space on a group that sank without a trace six weeks after their performance and turned out to be lousy on the night anyway? A lot of British television from this era or earlier appears mostly as highlight discs, and I think this leaves us Americans who never saw it in its initial release with no way of knowing how good it really was. I mean, pick the worst ten seasons of [i]Saturday Night Live[/i]--even a year here and a year there, not in a row--and you can still put together a disc this long of really great moments. Especially because, no matter how painfully unfunny the sketches, there's still the chance that you'll accidentally hit on a really great musical number. I must also admit that the 1970s are not my favourite era in popular music. Watching this disc may well have been the first time I ever actually heard Captain Beefheart. Heck, it was only within the last year or so that I became aware that there was once a guy who went by the name of Captain Beefheart. For that reason, I can do without about half the performances we have here. Oh, I'm glad to have heard them the once, at least, but I'm also pretty sure this is the first time I've actually heard "Freebird." I don't really like Bob Marley very much. I would have traded the lengthy and tedious number that ended with explosions for a good Elvis Costello number. Or even a bad one. I found the REM number astonishing, because I'd forgotten that Michael Stipe once had hair like that. (He probably wishes we all would.) I was born in the '70s, but my musical tastes really started to develop in the '80s. My friends with younger parents would probably get more out of this than I did--or else my friends who are a few years older than I am.

Edith Nelson
Edith Nelson

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