Some music TV shows can work as a perfect background to your normal life. Providing a lilting score to whatever you happened to be up to that day. Some music TV shows, however, demand your attention to be drawn away from society — others define culture as we know it. The Old Grey Whistle Test which first aired 50 years ago today, is most certainly the latter.
We’re taking you back in time to look at ten of the best performances from the iconic BBC programme, one of the most legendary music shows of all time. Look out for features from John Lennon, David Bowie, Patti Smith and so many more.
The Old Grey Whistle Test remains to this day as one of the most iconic music TV shows Britain has ever produced. As famed for its presenter, Whispering Bob Harris, as it was for its esteemed guests, during the 1970s, TOGWT was the only place to get your dose of rock and roll, alternative music and definitive cultural exploration.
Richard Williams, the show’s original presenter said of the series unusual name: “Before a new record is released, a rough mix is played to the grey-haired doorman. If he can whistle the tune after hearing it once, it passes ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and is released.” It was a sentiment that would typify the show.
The music played on the show was soften a little edgier than most television channels would pursue. It was for the underbelly of society, not the establishment, it was a place for rock and roll to reach the masses and the leading lights of music grace the stage for those at home. The guest list for the show is truly astounding. As well as some behemoths of the music business, the show also blooded new talent too.
Below, we’re taking you through ten of our favourite performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
The 10 performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test:
‘Queen Bitch’ – David Bowie (1972)
Bowie took to the programme to perform some Hunky Dory staples, ‘Five Years’, ‘Queen Bitch’ and ‘Oh You Pretty Things’. It marks a moment of transcendence for the singer as the performance, big red boots and all, was taped just two days before the start of the very first Ziggy Stardust UK tour.
During the evening transmission, only the first two tracks are aired. There have subsequently been several opportunities to see the recording of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’, but it was on the performance of ‘Queen Bitch’ that a generation paid attention. The Hunky Dory cut was written in homage to the psychedelic innovators The Velvet Underground, with whom Bowie enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship.
But on the first series of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bowie became a rock icon.
‘Stand By Me’ – John Lennon (1975)
First airing in 1971 and running for 17 years, The Old Grey Whistle Test never really caught the wave for The Beatles—but the show would welcome John Lennon to the stage for a canny performance in 1975.
With Lennon already a bonafide superstar, he refused to accept his fee for appearing on the show. Due to BBC regulations, the corporation insisted he was compensated and an impasse looked to stifle the Beatle’s appearance on the show.
Lennon devised a cunning plan and instead of taking a nominal fee he asked to be paid in Chocolate Olivers—a sweet biscuit only available in England—and everyone left happy. Especially the audience at home who got to see Harris interview Lennon at his New York home as well as the performance of ‘Stand By Me’ which goes down as one of the finest moments in the show’s impressive history.
‘Tiny Dancer’ – Elton John (1971)
Much of The Old Grey Whistle Test was devoted to the cutting edge of music but sometimes they let in the odd pop star too. Back in 1971, the show welcomed Elton John… but not as we knew him.
The clip reveals a decidedly different image of Elton, a man tense and subdued, and it plays more like an audition than a performance from a legend. It’s a perfect window into his raw talent and offers a vision of the artist behind the costuming.
This stark performance is a far cry from the downright vaudevillian persona that follows in the years to come. His sequined jacket and rectangular sunglasses are tame by comparison to the grandiose image we have of him today. It’s just Elton, a piano, and a stripped-down version of ‘Tiny Dancer’, the song that rocketed him to superstardom.
‘Horses’ – Patti Smith (1974)
The iconic Patti Smith takes to the legendary OGWT studios to perform not only the title track from her then-current and now-influential album Horses but also a TV outing for her 1974 song ‘Hey Joe’.
It has to go down as one of the greatest performances ever transmitted by the show and is a testament to Smith’s inability to back down as she delivers a raw and powerful showing of both her own track and the legendary Hendrix cover.
Watch the video below and get a dose of what made Patti Smith such a show-stopping performer either under the spotlight or away from it.
‘Ladytron’ – Roxy Music (1972)
This may not be high on many people’s lists as one of the greatest TV moments but, for us, when Roxy Music made show host Whisperin’ Bob Harris eat his words it is a legendary moment indeed.
Shortly before the band’s performance, Harris accused the Bryan Ferry-led group of being “style over substance.” Harris, delivering his intro, then motions to the camera who focuses on Ferry singing at his keyboard with a tiger-striped shiny suit jacket and a severe glint in his eye.
What happens next is TV gold as the group deliver not only a vibrant and vivacious showing but a vision of the future too.
‘A Message To You Rudi’ – The Specials (1979)
When The Specials arrived on the scene shortly after the punk explosion there was something truly, well, special about them. The band were at the epicentre of the much-renowned 2-Tone movement and alongside their compatriots, Madness and Selecter, they championed racial unity and understanding.
In 1979, they took their message to national TV as they appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It’s the kind of performance that confirms TOGWT as the foreword in youth subculture of the time.
When we look at this video the power of Neville Staples character is clearly defined, the beat produced by the band is infectious, and the sentiment of the performance is effortlessly preserved.
‘Rhiannon’ / ‘Go Your Own Way’ – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Performing a track from their self-titled 1975 record Fleetwood Mac’s appearance on OGWT could have been left at their rendition of ‘Rhiannon’. The song is given an extra tone of quality with Nicks’ ever-impressive vocal, as well as a short anecdote on how she wrote it. The footage below is actually of a rehearsal the group conducted, something someone neglected to tell Nicks who gives a rousing performance.
There was also the debut of their new single, the Lindsey Buckingham-penned song ‘Go Your Own Way’. The track would go on to become not only synonymous with the band’s huge talent and success but also of the increasingly fractious relationships of Fleetwood Mac.
It’s unsurprising then that in the opening moments of ‘Go Your Own Way’ you can see the scowl of Stevie Nicks even with the 1970s-quality film. The singer clearly troubled by the sentiment of the song still manages to give a thunderous performance when needed and shows why Nicks would go on to become a double rock and roll hall of famer.
‘Concrete Jungle’ – Bob Marley & The Wailers (1973)
Before he became the icon of weed smokers everywhere and the subject of terrible college dorm room posters across the globe, Bob Marley was a brand new type of musician.
Providing feel-good rhythms with his band the Wailers, he gained a reputation in London very quickly. That reputation was given its first shot on TV by TOGWT and the legendary singer did not disappoint.
Delivering a few different reggae renditions, Marley started a brand new revolution of sound and sentiment. His performance of ‘Stir It Up’ is particularly brilliant.
‘Careering’ – Public Image Ltd. (1980)
Public Image Ltd. are an entirely underrated band. While John Lydon’s project following the Sex Pistols was always going to be a difficult transition, PiL made an undeniable impact on music. Much of their influence can be traced back to this performance on the legendary British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a stage where Lydon and his band delivered a game-changing performance of ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’ in 1980.
The band’s second performance was another moment from the new album and another taste of the experimental electronic sound that was to come in the decade ahead. PiL performs ‘Careering’ another noise-tastic poetic performance that sees Lydon even reading the lyrics directly from the album sleeve (he’s always a master marketeer).
Ann Nightingale who introduces the appearance describes it as “the most powerful performance I’ve ever saw on Whistle Test” and it’s hard to argue. Prior to this performance, though the music may have been highly charged and fast-paced, nothing ever felt this menacing or foreboding. No performance had felt so entirely captivating and transporting at the same time.
It sent a shockwave through the scene.
‘In Between Days’ – The Cure (1985)
‘In Between Days’ would be the match needed to light The Cure’s relationship with America that has been more than kind to the band over the last 35 years. The iconic British group received the ultimate accolade for any band in 2019 when Trent Reznor inducted them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — which is the pinnacle for any band in the States.
In the UK, the band were already loved with ‘In Between Days’ becoming the band’s ninth chart single and their fourth consecutive Top 20 hit. There was something special about The Cure that made them feel like relatable outsiders from a small town that gave the band that connection with their fans that was unlike anything that American bands could offer.
The Cure’s look and their sound were a juxtaposition with their beautiful tones being the opposite of what you would expect to come from the gothic Robert Smith led group — we are all walking contradictions however which made the band even more relatable. ‘In Between Days’ is one of their definitive songs and is almost impossible to listen to without raising a smile, this live version from the Old Grey Whistle Test is the perfect way to immediately lift your mood.