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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/14/03

The Old Grey Whistle Test
2003 (2003) - BBC Video (Warner Bros.)

review by Matt Rowe of The Digital Bits

The Old Grey Whistle Test

Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/C-

Specs and Features
190 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray packaging, program themed menu screens, song access via artists gallery (28 chapters), artists gallery, "random play" feature, languages: English (DD 2.0 stereo), subtitles: English

As far as I'm concerned, Britain is now, and always has been, the forefront of rock music in its many forms. As nurturer of many forms of rock music, Britain has churned out some of the world's finest performers - performers who understood the formative changes and exploited them to create newer and more interesting variations of music. The world's musical repository is the richer for their contributions. So it's easy to see why a program the likes of The Old Grey Whistle Test was immensely popular but, more importantly, how it became essential to the record buying public for it's immersion into the education and acceptance of evolutionary rock.

I say evolutionary, because many of the bands featured on Whistle Test, many which are not featured on this DVD, were often the next step in music. Whistle Test was there to showcase them and thus helped to shape the depth of musical acceptance and understanding.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was to British TV audiences a revelation of all that was embedded in the musical landscape of the 70s and 80s, and yet was not popular enough to gain a strong foothold on the radio. Despite this, the acts showcased on the series went on to lasting stardom far beyond that of the radio fodder of the day.

Born in late 1971, The Old Grey Whistle Test's audience grew fast and rabidly, despite its late hour of presentation. It was broadcast from a small studio - so small that many of the performers found themselves playing in cramped conditions. Still, they almost invariably delivered performances that have become classic and even legendary.

This DVD is a shameful joy. Shameful, in that this single disc is a distillation of the previously released, 2-disc U.K. version released by the BBC. The U.S. version features only some of the best of Whistle Test, with an obvious mixture of talent chosen to represent the U.S. tastes. The 2001 U.K. release contained a much wider, and therefore more satisfying, collection of bands. That said, the joy of this release from Warner Bros. is that it brings to U.S. music fans a still essential collection of the great performances of The Old Grey Whistle Test despite the omissions.

The performances on this DVD are nothing short of fantastic for the music lover. Spanning a timespace of almost two decades, the institution known as Whistle Test held on long enough to amass a vast library of shows - enough to fill many DVDs. Maybe someday we'll see them in their entirety.

Filled with commentaries from the show's variety of hosts, VJs like Mark Ellen; Bob Harris, who was affectionately known as "Whispering Bob Harris" (largely the best known presenter and who is still a radio DJ); David Hepworth, a later addition for the 80s as was Mark Ellen; the hyperkinetic Andy Kershaw, another 80s presenter; Annie Nightengale, the British equivalent of MTV's Martha Quinn (whose tenure spanned 1978 through 1982); and Richard Williams, the show's earliest host. These personalities do a stupendous job of introducing each song and performer, as well as explaining the nuances that made up the uniqueness of the show. Bob Harris' anecdotes are by far the most revealing, and the most anticipated, as you move from song to song.

The program is complete with an opening intro segment that you'll see occasionally mixed throughout the disc's contents, as well as the jingle that represented Whistle Test. 16 years of show material is not an easy thing to sift through in order to cull the best and most representative performances. Fortunately, the U.K. edition of this DVD pulls 45 very well chosen and era definitive performances, while the US version filters that down to 28. Since this review is centered upon the U.S. version, we'll keep our focus in that direction. Toward the end, we'll tease you with some of the material that could have made the cut (and did, in fact, make the cut on the U.K. version). I do this with the express hope that the BBC will eventually release more here in the States.

This collection showcases a young Alice Cooper (from the Killer years) singing Under My Wheels, a pre-fame Elton Young just prior to his big breakout with Tiny Dancer, an incendiary and underrated Rory Gallagher singing Hands Off (and who was the 70s equivalent of more recent guitar heroes Steve Vai and Joe Satriani), a beautiful Stir it Up by Reggae's reigning pope, Bob Marley, and personal performances by Bill Withers with Ain't No Sunshine and Curtis Mayfield's We Gotta Have Peace.

There is a song by Roxy Music, Do the Strand, which features a flamboyant Brian Eno (who went on to extraordinary prominence in his production work as well as his creative work in ambient music with looping and electronic manipulation that inspired the 80s). The Edgar Winter Group has Rick Derringer on guitar for the band's performance of their popular Frankenstein. There is a great performance of Upon the My O My from FM radio favorite and Zappa's Straight/Bizarre labelmate, Captain Beefheart. John Lennon performs a taped song, Stand By Me especially filmed for Whistle Test that is combined with an interesting anecdote about the payment method that Lennon accepted. There are more from the 70s as well, include turns by Randy Newman, Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, EmmyLou Harris, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt.

The DVD then moves chronologically forward in time to the Talking Heads who perform a stunning Psycho Killer, and a fascinating XTC performing a Rita Coolidge cover of Statue of Liberty that makes for a rare treat (especially for fans of XTC). There's a performance by Blondie, one by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers of their early hit American Girl, and an Annie Nightengale introduced turn by The Police with Can't Stand Losing You. The Police segment contains an interesting story and explanation of the shades that Sting wears on this performance.

The disc progresses to a taped performance of a Bruce Springsteen's crowd favorite Rosalita, and then moves on to one by Iggy Pop, who is strangely contained given his penchant for losing himself in his shows. Wrapping it all up are performances by the ska definitive The Specials, the destructive The Damned (one of the fathers of today's popular punk scene but with a ton more charm), the legendary Ramones, U2 naturally, and finally a youthful Michael Stipe with REM performing a two song seague.

This DVD package also contains a batch of very good interviews with Lennon, Keith Richards, Springsteen, Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. There's even an audio commentary by Mike Appleton, the show's original producer, that can be turned on for discussion about the Whistle Test and the show's importance to the scene until its demise. There's a small bit of charm to the way the commentary overlays the performances. But while it's informative, it doesn't contribute to the performances that it overlays. Also available here is an artists' gallery that can be selected via the Extras menu. The gallery supplies a single photo of the band with an anecdotal piece of text about the performance. You can then choose to play the performance - note that this serves as the ONLY way to choose individual performances on at a time. The main menu does not offer you a chance to select showcases that you want to hear, providing instead a "random play" feature. Choosing the artists gallery lets you get around this, but not without its flaws as well. If you have the audio commentary option on and you pick individual songs through the gallery, the commentary will spill over into the selected performance. What should have happened is an automatic shutoff of the commentary if the performance is selected via this menu. Finally, there's an "enhanced performance" feature that inserts a guitar icon on the screen during the beginning of the band's song. Pressing 'enter' or 'select' on your remote will take you directly to the artists' gallery for this band.

I promised earlier that I'd drop a few names of the bands eliminated from the U.S. release of this DVD. These include performances by Focus, the New York Dolls, Tim Buckley, Dr Feelgood, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, The Teardrop Explodes and more. You get the idea of the omissions.

The Old Grey Whistle Test, U.S. release, is an essential to your DVD music library... unless you're lucky enough to be able to enjoy the BBC U.K. release. Sadly, the real omissions are not found on either release. There is plenty of Whistle Test material yet to be released, including a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and an Easter-era Patti Smith. Let's hope that the BBC will eventually fill in all the gaps with more discs. The show deserves it and, as music fans, so do we.

Matt Rowe
Visit Matt Rowe's MusicTAP ------ Music Flows There!

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