From John Lennon to David Bowie: 8 of the best performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test
Credit: BBC

From John Lennon to David Bowie: 8 of the best performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test

We’re taking you back in time to look at eight of the best performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test, one of the most legendary music shows of all time. Look out for features from John Lennon, David Bowie, Patti Smith and 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.

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 8 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 few for appearing on the show. Due to BBC regulations, the corporation insisted he was compensated.

Lennon devised a cunning plan and instead of taking 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’.

‘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.

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.

Watch the video below.

‘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 in 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.

‘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.

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 *OGWT8 and the legendary singer did not disappoint.

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