Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Old Grey Whistle Test

The Old Grey Whistle Test
By Pete Clemons

Nowadays, music channels seem to be all over the place but going back to the early 1970s there were very few music programmes on TV to watch. Top of the Pops was an obvious exception, along with the odd late night arts programme. To watch music live you needed to go out and not sit in front of a screen. Nobody was catering for the growing progressive elements of the music business.

Then slipping in during 1971, almost unnoticed, came a TV programme called The Old Grey Whistle Test. Initially it was presented by Richard Williams, who had been a journalist for Melody Maker and who was keen to promote the importance of the serious music out there at that time.

From 1972, and at the invitation of Richard Williams, fellow journalist and radio presenter Bob Harris took over the show and, with his laid back style and nature, made it his own.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was ground breaking and experimental. It was also an educating programme for serious fans of music that had enquiring minds. The show played a wide variety of eclectic music, so diverse that it was rare when, I for one, fully enjoyed a whole episode. Artists such as Billy Joel and Bob Marley were given early exposure by the programme.

For the bands that played on the OGWT, they got the freedom to play live in an empty studio with no audience. And played back it was a simple, yet effective, visual style. None of the flashing lights or the crazy angle shots of Top of the Pops. Bands that played also received a ‘starkicker’ badge that they, almost all, wore proudly.

Not everyone played on the programme. You rarely saw the ‘major bands’ of the time. To promote, for example, the Led Zeppelin release of the Physical Graffiti album during 1975 you were treated to an obscure black and white dance sequence synced to the music of ‘Trampled Underfoot’ instead.

As the popularity of the OGWT grew it did have the odd special where they would devote a whole episode to a live gig in front of a studio audience. In addition, Bob Harris also took the show on the road for a few tours.

The mid 1970s explosion in the music scene that was known as ‘punk rock’ was initially
ignored by the OGWT, as it was by a lot of the media. And for that, the punk fraternity hated the OGWT. This hatred culminated on the day that the Sex Pistols signed for A+M records. Afterwards the band went to the Speakeasy Club where Bob Harris also happened to be. Bob was approached by the band and asked when he was going to have the Pistols on the OGWT. It was reported that Sid Vicious took a swing at Bob and that broken bottles had been involved. Apparently it was only for the intervention of the Procol Harum road crew that prevented the incident from getting any worse.

Soon after this incident Bob Harris stepped away from the OGWT and Annie Nightingale took over where she remained till 1982. Bob had been honest in his opinions but this fresh presenter suddenly brought the OGWT into line with what was really happening in the music world.

Suddenly the show had attitude and more classic performances followed but now by ands like The Adverts and Ramones. Famously, The Damned played ‘Smash it Up’ and did just that. Lots of the bands that had arrived with punk got exposure through the show such as Squeeze and The Police.

Annie Nightingale took the show into 1980s until she left to be replaced by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen.

New music shows like The Tube, and of course MTV, had begun to appear and the OGWT struggled to compete. Even a change of name to simply the Whistle Test failed to revive it. The show had lost its magic. Despite several changes of presenters the show was axed towards the end of the 1980s.

The legacy of the OGWT is legendary. It was original and, to this day, remains remembered with fondness. Although not complete its library of archive footage remains priceless. And it is the go to place when browsing for classic performances.


  1. Early to mid 70s, after a night out at the Lanch, the Airport Lounge at Warwick Uni, or meeting friends at the Golden Cross - then rushing to catch the last bus home in time to watch OGWT. The parents would be in bed by that time, and so you could have the telly all to yourself and watch bands and listen to music that was so different from TOTP. As someone once said 'It felt like being a member of a private late night club, open exclusively to those with a very good taste in music!' As I sat in the front room with the lights off and the sound low so as not to wake anyone, I felt like a member of that club and it was thrilling. Sue Long

    1. Yes, that's a good description Sue. I'll show Pete Clemons your comment - he likes feedback. Trev.