From page 48 of Classic Rock Magazine October 2001
Thirty years ago, British late-night rock show The Old Grey Whistle Test broke new ground, introducing dozens of new acts — some great, plenty less so — in its almost two-decade run. Classic Rock gets Bob Harris to look back at a unique music programme — one without which the history of rock might read very differently today. Star kicker: Hugh Fielder
DEA CODE 615 IS NOT A BAND THAT TROUBLES THE compilers of rock reference books; and mentioning the title of their song 'Stone Fox Chase' to someone is unlikely to elicit any response other than a look of blank bemusement. But play the first two bars of it to anyone over the age of 35 and that look will instantly change to one of recognition; whether you get a grin or a grimace to go with it is likely to depend on which side of 40 they are.
The bluesy harmonica-led 'Stone Fox Chase' was the theme tune to The Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC2's home-grown ground-breaking weekly late-night rock show that ran throughout the 70s and much of the 80s. Meat Loaf can trace his success back to the screening of his 'Bat Out Of Hell' video on Whistle Test early in 1978 just about everyone who saw that clip went out and bought the album, and then told their friends about it.
Area Code 615 never got the chance to plug their song live on the show. A - loose-knit collection of top-grade Nashville session musicians, they'd disbanded by the time Whistle Test went on the air. But in 1978, harmonica player Charlie McCoy turned up as a guest on the Val Doonican Show, and the pair of them jammed 'Stone Fox Chase' briefly on their harps. Whistle Test later gleefully reran the clip, but sales of Val Doonican records remained remarkably unaffected.
The Old Grey Whistle Tesrs laid-back style epitomised by 'Whispering' Bob Harris, who presented the show through most of the 70s produced a series of memorable rock'n'roll moments: Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge having trouble keeping their hands off each other as they duetted on 'Help Me Make It Through The Night'; Roxy Music sashaying into style with 'Do The Strand'; the Wailers defining the art of Jamaican cool with 'Stir It Up'; Little Feat defining the groove with 'Rock 'N' Roll Dodo r'; and the New York Dolls putting the sex and drugs back into rock'n'roll with 'Jet Boy'.
Up until now, with the long-overdue release on DVD of The Best Of The Old Grey Whistle Test (see Reelin' in the years' panel on page 51), these and many other potent indelible images have lingered without the benefit of repeats or videos of the programme nobody had video recorders back then. Whistle Test's reputation spread by word of mouth, and people started to make a point of leaving the pub early on Tuesday nights to get home and watch it. Back in the 70s there wasn't much in the way of music on TV, and precious little coverage of rock, or indeed of artists outside the charts. In those days, Whistle Test was pretty much the only place on TV you got a chance to see the acts 40.
you'd read about in the music press or heard on a Radio 1 evening show. Rare glimpses of faraway legends such as Bill Withers, Tim Buckley, Ry Cooder and Tom Waits the kind of artists you simply couldn't find anywhere else on TV in Britain simply added to the programme's mystique. In the case of Tim Buckley, not only is his Whistle Test slot about the only piece of live footage
that exits of him, it's also a mesmerising performance of Fred Neil's 'Dolphins: "That clip still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," says Mike Appleton, the show's producer from start to - finish. But these days even he has difficulty getting his head round the primitive TV nation into which Whistle Test was born back in 1971, when the UK had only three channels and no sign of a remote control.
Meat Loafs famous 'Bat Out Of Hell' video, which kick-started his career, had the same impact on Mike Appleton the first time he saw it as it did on Whistle Test viewers when it was first screened. "I was walking through the MIDEM trade festival in the south of France," Appleton recalls, "and saw this bunch of people crowded around one of the stands. I pushed my way through, and there was the 'Bat Out Of Hell' video playing. I decided there and then that I had to have it, so I hassled until I found somebody with a transmission copy, came back with it in my bag, and played it on the next show."
BBC2 was committed to covering the arts but, despite the cultural revolution of the late 60s, the prevailing feeling in the rarefied atmosphere of the BBC was that rock music scarcely constituted art. However, when Appleton rounded off one edition of the his review programme Late Night Line Up with Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll playing 'This Wheel's On Fire', it began to dawn on some of the BBC management that there might be more to this rock malarkey than was being covered by Top Of The Pops.
Appleton was encouraged to devise a programme that would cater for the album market, which had become bigger and far more diverse than the one for singles. "I wanted to make a magazine programme something a bit like
the NME or Melody Maker of the air which included interviews, objective
reports, music and visuals," he recalls. "I thought that there were an awful lot of people in rock'n'roll who took themselves seriously people for whom it was more than just pop music and that this wasn't being reflected on television."
Crucial to Appleton's concept for the new programme was that its presenter
' should be a journalist rather than a TV professional. The first presenter he chose was Richard Williams, then an assistant editor at Melody Maker, who established the programme's tradition for softly spoken presenters right from the start. Appleton opted for the Tuesday late-night slot "because we figured it was the least likely day of the week that people would go out to gigs". Only afterwards did he discover that Whistle Test was following BBC2's Tuesday night Learning Zone, a programme almost as exciting as it sounds.
All was set for the first show, when Williams suddenly remembered that he was going to be away on his honeymoon. "That was a bit of a shock," Appleton recalls, with a rueful smile. "But we'd pre-recorded enough things with Richard, and we had a co-presenter, Ian Whitcomb, who would provide the links and interview the bands. So it looked as though we could get away with the fact that Richard wasn't actually there."
Except that during the afternoon rehearsal, Whitcomb suddenly developed a stutter not a good omen for a show that was going out live. "By now I was starting to think we were jinxed, but Ian assured me that his stutter would disappear as soon as he got on air," says Appleton. "But instead it got worse, and with two hours to go I decided I couldn't take the risk. We changed the whole schedule around, and I ended up speaking the links from under a blanket in a corner of the studio. Apparently most people thought it was Richard speaking anyway. Ian did his interviews, and he didn't stutter at all."
Once the first-night nerves were out of the way and Williams was back from his honeymoon, Whistle Test quickly started to flourish, despite the small, broom cupboard of a studio they were operating from. As word of the programme spread, the rock fraternity soon began to show an interest, and among the early guests were Elton John and Mick Jagger. "Mick just turned up at reception, and somebody came down from the production office to collect him," Appleton remembers. "There was no entourage. It was all very laid-back and easy-going. But we tried to make it like that. We had bare walls in the studio, partly because it was so small that I wanted to maximise the amount of space we had, and also because if you made it look like a rehearsal studio then the musicians might feel more relaxed. A lot of them had very little television experience, and it could be intimidating to go in there and have lots of cameras whizzing around in front of you."
Richard Williams may have pioneered the art of Whistle Test soft-speak, but that didn't mean his questions were soft. Without ever getting confrontational, he would often take a critical approach, but the relaxed, conversational style of the show meant that guests like Elton or Jagger we able
to respond positively. "Once people like Elton and Mick had been on the 2)-0 33)-! show, the others all wanted to be on as well," says Appleton. "It's like all creative things: once you get a couple of the leaders doing it, then the others will follow. It was the stroke of luck the programme needed."
What the programme didn't necessarily need, however, was for Williams to decide that he didn't feel sufficiently comfortable as a presenter to continue doing it. Fortunately, help was at hand in the shape of Bob Harris (the 'Whispering' middle name would come later).
Harris had arrived in London in 1966, and cofounded London listings magazine Time Out two years later. In 1970 he started his radio career, sitting in for John Peel. Not surprisingly, Harris was an avid watcher of the first series of Whistle Test: "I thought it was fantastic. I loved the atmosphere of the programmes. It was very relaxed, but at the same time the interviews were quite forthright."
Harris's credentials fitted Appleton's criteria for a presenter, although the role wasn't quite what Harris had expected. "I was already used to building my own shows on Radio 1," he explains, "and I assumed I would be doing the same thing at the Whistle Test. So I arrived at the first production meeting with my shoulder bag full of albums and notes and stuff. And Mike hands me a piece of paper and says: 'Here's the running order: I was like: 'What do you mean here's the running order? Maybe we should have talked about this before I started: Eventually it got to a point where it simply wasn't an issue any more, because we were both talking and comparing music the whole time. So I found myself more and more comfortable with the rhythm of the show. And I could say to Mike, as I did when we in Los Angeles once: 'Look, this new band Tom Petty It The Heartbreakers are playing at the Whiskey tomorrow. Why don't we get a crew and go and film him?' It was so thrilling to know that I could feed my favourite bands into a show that was going to give them exposure."
The laid-back atmosphere of the programme was conducive to getting good performances out of bands; there was nobody running around asking them to cut a verse in order to keep things running on schedule. During the early years, Whistle Test was the last show to go out before BBC2 shut down for the night, so nobody was watching the clock too closely.
The fact that Whistle Test remained the only UK TV show for albumoriented rock throughout the 70s meant that bands needed little persuading to appear. And record companies, mindful of the show's influence, would do whatever it took to get their acts on. Like shoving Little Feat into a Manchester studio at 9.30 in the morning, for example, which was the only time available to record them. "That has to be a tribute to somebody at Warner Brothers," Appleton laughs. "I can't imagine Lowell George even knew that time of day existed; or maybe he was still on American time and nobody told him."
When the Wailers went in to perform on the show in 1973, they brought record company boss Chris Blackwell along with them to translate. "Most of the time I had no idea what was happening, because they were talking in this patois, and I couldn't understand a word," says Appleton. "I'd wait for bits of translation from Chris. But it all went really smoothly. It was very early days for the Wailers, of course, and Bob Marley had only just started growing his dreads. In fact it was Peter Tosh who was the most striking person in the group."
The only band who ever pulled out of a show was Bad Company. Appleton: "They wanted to get a sound that required them to distort their amplifiers. This meant that they were playing so loudly that the cameramen said: 'We can't go on with this. We're being physically nauseated by the volume of the sound and the sound waves: We had a discussion about it with the band, and I accepted that in order to get their sound live they had to do this, and there was no way they could do it at a lower level. So we just had to part company."
The most tragic loss was definitely Steely Dan, who'd agreed to perform on Whistle Test during their UK tour in the spring of 1974. As fate would have it, there was a strike at the BBC that day and Steely Dan arrived at the studios to be greeted by a picket line that their driver refused to cross. Appleton explains: "We were standing on one side of the gate and they were standing on the other, and they were saying: 'Isn't there any way we can get in?' And I was explaining that if they crossed the line, then everyone else in the studio would come out and they still wouldn't be able to do anything. And because there's so little footage of Steely Dan just that one clip of 'Reelin' In The Years' that everybody uses that's a real loss."
LIKE HIS PREDECESSOR ON THE PROGRAMME, 'WHISPERING' BOB HARRIS'S soft-voiced style camouflaged a surprisingly direct interviewing technique. "I remember talking to George Harrison just after he'd set up Dark Horse Records," says Harris. I was saying that I'd been really disappointed with the last couple of albums, which just hadn't felt right, but this one was much more positive. But he didn't take offence. He took the point, and explained that he'd had a lot of distractions the court case over his 'My Sweet Lord', for example. I think a lot of the interviews were more frank than you'd get today."
That was assuming the rock star had anything of interest to say, of course. The interview with a clearly out-of-it Paul Kossoff was excruciating for everyone involved including the viewers; while the sight of Keith Richards rambling on about some great session musicians he'd found in New York, while Harris becomes almost animated in his attempts to move the conversation along, is at least amusing. Harris remembers going on to a restaurant in Kensington afterwards with Richards: "There was this big circular table reserved for us. After we'd sat down, Keith reached into his pocket and emptied this huge envelope of cocaine onto the table in full view of everyone!" One of Harris's more surreal interviews was with Terry Reid (the man who turned down the singer's job in Led Zeppelin before it was offered to Robert Plant) while strolling together down a beach, their murmured conversation drowned out by the crashing surf. "We went to Terry's house which he'd just bought, up the road from Malibu," he remembers. "But this house, which was on the beach, didn't actually have a view of the sea, so in frustration he'd knocked a hole in the wall. When we came to do the interview, we just climbed through the hole and started walking, followed by the film crew."
Not surprisingly, Harris's favourite interview is one he did with John Lennon, in New York in 1975, which he believes typifies the whole Whistle Test ethos: "It's just one camera on John for 25 minutes, apart from a couple of cutaways of me added afterwards. We talked about quite intimate subjects: his relationship with Paul, whether he regretted 'How Do You Sleep', how he feels about waking up in the newspapers every morning, the problems over his green card, and being followed by the FBI everywhere he goes. A lot of the stuff he was saying, if it was done now you'd have publicists running around going: 'You can't say that: It was so loose and free and frank, and a really interesting interview. You learn a lot more from somebody who's sitting back, relaxed, and just talking without being inhibited, than if you're in a tight, tense atmosphere and they're very defensive." In fact, Lennon was so uninhibited that he demanded that his appearance fee be paid in chocolate Bath Oliver biscuits.
T HE ONSET OF PUNK IN 1976 WAS THE START OF A DIFFICULT period for The Old Grey Whistle Test and a traumatic time for Harris. The problem was that the criteria for someone appearing on the programme was that they had an album out. But punk was more of a singles phenomenon, at least early on, and by the time a band had an album out the 'moment' had often gone. "We were hoisted with our own petard to a certain degree," says Appleton. "Viewers had started to look to us for the new stuff that was around. And that's what we did if it was in our area. But this was out of our area. It was a difficult period. But I wasn't prepared to sacrifice the format."
For Harris, punk took on a more sinister dimension: "Symbolically, I was a fantastic target for punk when it arrived. There I was, sitting in that screen every week, with a whole swathe of people waving two fingers at me, absolutely hating the guts out of me an ex-hippie, long-haired son of a policeman, middle-class BBC2 stadium rocker. I was the perfect target. It began to create problems in my day-to-day life. It became increasingly difficult to go out and see a band play, because there would be so much hostility to me from certain sections of the audience. And if I went to a club where one of the new wave bands was playing it could be explosively hostile. It became very unpleasant and it built up, first of all to a non-physical confrontation with the Clash at Dingwalls, and then five days later a fight at the Speakeasy with the Sex Pistols, which put my friend George Nicholson in hospital with 14 stitches in his head."
In retrospect, Harris can understand why he was the object of so much animosity, and why the music scene needed the jolt that the new wave gave it. "Did we need it? Yes we did," he affirms. "It had become very self-indulgent in so many ways. I remember seeing the Stones at Earls Court in 1976 and they really didn't care, they were just going through the motions. Certainly that newwave blast knocked all the complacency out of things. And the whole idea of it coming through on indie labels, being done quickly in small studios... that remains the template by which so much good music is made now."
But Harris also believes that there's another, more damning legacy of punk: "If you draw a line in 1977, and look at how many British bands have come through since then and commanded world popularity, you can probably count them on the fingers of one hand. Before that there's a whole swathe of them: Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Free... If we sat and thought about it, we'd quickly come up with a list of 30 or 40. What happened when punk arrived was that British music lost its credibility around the rest of the world. I remember the reaction in America with people saying to me: 'What on earth are you guys doing over there?' Then the New Romantics followed that, and the Americans were saying 'What's going on?'
"THIS IS NOT A QUALITATIVE JUDGEMENT ON THE MUSIC, PARTICULARLY through the 90s. I remember thinking when the first Oasis album came out: 'At last, we've got a band here that is maybe even capable of rivalling the Beatles: And the second album comes out and I'm thinking: 'Yes!' And what do they do? They just trash everything again. In America there's a work ethic that drives young bands, they expect to work at it. And their experience is growing as fast as their popularity hopefully is. So if and when they break big they're much better equipped to deal with it."
Such hindsight was not available to Harris at the end of the 70s, however. He left Whistle Test in 1979. "It was getting pretty pressured. And you're reading all this stuff in the press about yourself. I mean, I got slammed. And eventually you can start to doubt yourself. I just thought to hell with it. I wanted to go back to myself and to radio, which I did."
Harris now has two shows on Radio Two, which has repositioned itself towards an audience that includes the older Whistle Test generation. The Old Grey Whistle Test itself carried on with Annie Nightingale as presenter. As the 80s settled in, David Hepworth, Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw each had their time in the presenter's chair. Then, in 1987, Whistle Test was gone, not so much Old and Grey as a victim of political machinations within the BBC designed to appease whingeing politicians.
The ghost of Whistle Test now resides in Later With Jools Holland. Ironically, Holland's television career took off when he was a presenter of The Tube back in the early 80s, a programme which deliberately set out to be the antithesis of everything about the Old Grey Whistle Test. •
• The Whistle Test Years, a six-part series featuring many artists who were among the programme's stalwarts, runs on Radio 2 on Wednesdays, 10-10.30pm, from Sept 19 to October 24. Also look out for The Old Grey Whistle Test At 30, a series of TV programmes on BBC 2 featuring many of the of the programme's studio performances, due in September.