This week marks the anniversary of the first broadcast of The Old Grey Whistle Test – the music TV show with a USP no more complicated than “good bands playing good songs well”. Over its 17-year run (from 1971 to 1988), the Whistle Test was presented by a series of credible types including celebrated music journalist and broadcaster Annie Nightingale and former Melody Maker writer Richard Williams. Like a precursor to Later… With Jools Holland, it was the go-to place for music fans to see more leftfield and alternative acts on screen and gave many seminal artists their first TV slot. In celebration of the iconic show, here are the five best performances from the programme’s history.
John Lennon, ‘Stand By Me’ (1975)
The Old Grey Whistle Test may have come along just that little bit too late for The Beatles, but they did manage to get John Lennon to do a couple of tracks for them in 1975. The BBC were legally required to pay a performance fee to Lennon despite the singer’s protestations that he didn’t need one, so in lieu of actual money, John was paid in Chocolate Olivers – a type of English biscuit that he couldn’t get in New York.
Bob Marley and The Wailers, ‘Concrete Jungle’ (1973)
Before Bob Marley went on to have the biggest selling album of all time in greatest hits CD ‘Legend’, The Old Grey Whistle Test gave the singer his first ever UK TV performance. Marley and his band The Wailers played ‘Concrete Jungle’ from 1973 LP ‘Catch A Fire’, adding a new British audience to his rapidly growing fanbase.
New York Dolls, ‘Jet Boy’ (1973)
Glam rock pioneers the New York Dolls also had their inaugural TV break on the show, appearing in 1973 to perform ‘Jet Boy’. The aesthetic sledgehammer of the Dolls’ tight, androgynous look was a bold move for the BBC, but a great one – not least for a young Steven Patrick Morrissey, who recalls watching the performance as a 14-year-old in 2013 memoir Autobiography.
Patti Smith, ‘Horses’ (1976)
In ’76, meanwhile, the program hosted a sunglasses-clad and snarling Patti Smith, performing the title track from her seminal ’75 debut ‘Horses’. Though the record is now regularly voted into the upper leagues of music’s greatest albums of all time and Patti’s earned her place as a bona fide punk legend, at the time Smith was still very much a niche concern – especially in the UK. Patti was a bold booking.
Elton John, ‘Tiny Dancer’ (1971)
And while many of the program’s choices showed their alternative values, some performances had a little more commercial appeal. In 1971, Elton John appeared on the show for the first time to play new track ‘Tiny Dancer’; fresh-faced and youthful, it’s a brilliant piece of footage of one of the world’s most famous musicians unveiling a future classic.