This Musings of the Past revisits a post about the British television music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. It was originally published in July 2017. In case you haven’t seen any previous installments, Musings of the Past is a recurring feature in which I republish posts that first appeared when the blog got less traffic or content I feel otherwise deserves a second exposure.
A key reason for me to republish this post is what I feel are great clips of artists like Neil Young, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. It was fun to revisit this content. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
The Venues: The Old Grey Whistle Test
The British television music show featured an impressive array of artists
This post and the related new category I’m introducing to the blog was inspired by a dear friend from Germany, who earlier today suggested searching YouTube for “Old Grey Whistle Test,” just for fun! Since he shares my passion for music and always gives me great tips, I checked it out right away and instantly liked the clips that came up. This triggered the idea to start writing about places where rock & roll has been performed throughout the decades.
At this time, I envisage The Venues to include famous concert halls and TV shows. Many come to mind: The Fillmore, The Beacon Theater, The Apollo, The Hollywood Bowl, Candlestick Park, Winterland Ballroom, The Ed Sullivan Show, Rockpalast – the list goes on and on! Given it was my dear friend who inspired me, it feels right to start with The Old Grey Whistle Test.
I admit that until earlier today, I had never heard about The Old Grey Whistle Test. According to Wikipedia, the British television show aired on the BBC between September 1971 and January 1988. The late night rock show was commissioned by British veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and conceived by BBC TV producer Rowan Ayers.
The show aimed to emphasize “serious” rock music, less whether it was chart-topping or not – a deliberate contrast to Top of the Pops, another BBC show that was chart-driven, as the name suggests. Based on the YouTube clips I’ve seen, apparently, this was more the case in the show’s early days than in the ’80s when the music seems to have become more commercial. Unlike other TV music shows, the sets on The Old Grey Whistle lacked showbiz glitter – again, probably more true for the ’70s than the ’80s period.
During the show’s early years, performing bands oftentimes recorded the instrumental tracks the day before the show aired. The vocals were performed live most of the time. After 1973, the show changed to an all-live format. In 1983, the title was abridged to Whistle Test. The last episode was a live 1987/88 New Year’s Eve special, including a 1977 live performance of Hotel California by The Eagles and Meat Loaf’sBat Out of Hell.
So what kind of music did the show feature? Let’s take a look at some of these YouTube clips.
Neil Young/Heart of Gold (1971)
Steppenwolf/Born to Be Wild (1972)
David Bowie/Oh, You Pretty Things (1972; not broadcast until 1982)
Rory Gallagher/Hands Off (1973)
Joni Mitchell/Big Yellow Taxi (1974)
John Lennon/Slippin’ & Slidin’ (1975)
Bonnie Raitt/Angel From Montgomery (1976)
Emmylou Harris/C’est La Vie (1977)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/American Girl (1978)
Joe Jackson/Sunday Papers (1979)
Ramones/Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?
Los Lobos/Don’t Worry Baby (1984)
Simply Red/Holding Back the Years (1985)
U2/In God’s Country (1987)
This post was originally published on July 1, 2017.The original clip of Ooh Las Vegas by Emmylou Harris has been replaced with C’est La View since the original clip was no longer available on YouTube.
The Sunday Six has become my favorite recurring feature of the blog. Highlighting six tunes from any genre and any time gives me plenty of flexibility. I think this has led to pretty diverse sets of tracks, which I like. There’s really only one self-imposed condition: I have to truly dig the music I include in these posts. With that being said, let’s get to this week’s picks.
Lonnie Smith/Lonnie’s Blues
Let’s get in the mood with some sweet Hammond B-3 organ-driven jazz by Lonnie Smith. If you’re a jazz expert, I imagine you’re aware of the man who at some point decided to add a Dr. title to his name and start wearing a traditional Sikh turban. Until Friday when I spotted the new album by now 78-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith, I hadn’t heard of him. If you missed it and are curious, I included a tune featuring Iggy Pop in yesterday’s Best of What’s Newinstallment. Smith initially gained popularity in the mid-60s as a member of the George Benson Quartet. In 1967, he released Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ, the first album under his name, which then still was Lonnie Smith. Altogether, he has appeared on more than 70 records as a leader or a sideman, and played with numerous other prominent jazz artists who in addition to Benson included the likes of Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, King Curtis, Terry Bradds, Joey DeFrancesco and Norah Jones. Here’s Lonnie’s Blues, an original from his above mentioned solo debut. Among the musicians on the album were guitarist George Benson and baritone sax player Ronnie Cuber, both members of the Benson quartet. The record was produced by heavyweight John Hammond, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name some.
John Hiatt/Have a Little Faith in Me
Singer-songwriter John Hiatt’s songs are perhaps best known for having been covered by numerous other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe. While his albums received positive reviews from critics, it took eight records and more than 10 years until Hiatt finally had an album that made the Billboard 200: Bring the Family, from May 1987, which reached no. 107. The successor Slow Turning was his first to crack the top 100, peaking at no 98. If I see this correctly, his highest scoring album on the U.S. mainstream chart to date is Mystic Pinball from 2012, which climbed to no. 39. Hiatt did much better on Billboard’s Independent Chart where most of his albums charted since 2000, primarily in the top 10. Fans can look forward to Leftover Feelings, a new album Hiatt recorded during the pandemic with the Jerry Douglas Band, scheduled for May 21. Meanwhile, here’s Have a Little Faith in Me, a true gem from the above noted Bring the Family, which I first knew because of Joe Cocker’s 1994 cover. Hiatt recorded the album together with Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), who four years later formed the short-lived Little Village and released an eponymous album in 1992.
Robbie Robertson/Go Back to Your Woods
Canadian artist Robbie Robertson is of course best known as lead guitarist and songwriter of The Band. Between their July 1968 debut Music from Big Pink and The Last Waltz from April 1978, Robertson recorded seven studio and two live albums with the group. Since 1970, he had also done session and production work outside of The Band, something he continued after The Last Waltz. Between 1980 and 1986, he collaborated on various film scores with Martin Scorsese who had directed The Last Waltz. In October 1987, Robertson’s eponymous debut appeared. He has since released four additional studio albums, one film score and various compilations. Go Back to Your Woods, co-written by Robertson and Bruce Hornsby, is a track from Robertson’s second solo album Storyville from September 1991. I like the tune’s cool soul vibe.
Joni Mitchell/Refuge of the Roads
Joni Mitchell possibly is the greatest songwriter of our time I’ve yet to truly explore. Some of her songs have very high vocals that have always sounded a bit pitchy to my ears. But I realize that’s mostly the case on her early recordings, so it’s not a great excuse. Plus, there are tunes like Big Yellow Taxi, Chinese Café/Unchained Melody and Both Sides Now I’ve dug for a long time. I think Graham from Aphoristic Album Reviews probably hit the nail on the head when recently told me, “One day you’ll finally love Joni Mitchell.” In part, his comment led me to include the Canadian singer-songwriter in this post. Since her debut Song to a Seagull from March 1968, Mitchell has released 18 additional studio records, three studio albums and multiple compilations. Since I’m mostly familiar with Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, this meansbthere’s lots of other music to explore! Refuge of the Roads is from Mitchell’s eighth studio album Hejira that came out in November 1976. By that time, she had left her folkie period behind and started to embrace a more jazz oriented sound. The amazing bass work is by fretless bass guru Jaco Pastorius. Sadly, he died from a brain hemorrhage in September 1987 at the age of 35, a consequence from severe head injuries inflicted during a bar fight he had provoked.
Los Lobos/I Got to Let You Know
Los Lobos, a unique band blending rock & roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues and soul with traditional Spanish music like cumbia, bolero and norteño, have been around for 48 years. They were founded in East Los Angeles in 1973 by vocalist and guitarist David Hildago and drummer Louis Pérez who met in high school and liked the same artists, such as Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Later they asked their fellow students Frank Gonzalez (vocals, mandolin, arpa jarocha), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, bajo sexto) and Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals) to join them, completing band’s first line-up. Amazingly, Hidalgo, Pérez, Rosas and Lozano continue to be members of the current formation, which also includes Steve Berlin (keyboards, woodwinds) who joined in 1984. Their Spanish debut album Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles was self-released in early 1978 when the band was still known as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles. By the time of sophomore album How Will the Wolf Survive?, their first major label release from October 1984, the band had shortened their name to Los Lobos and started to write songs in English. In 1987, Los Lobos recorded some covers of Ritchie Valens tunes for the soundtrack of the motion picture La Bamba, including the title track, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in the summer of the same year. To date, Los Lobos have released more than 20 albums, including three compilations and four live records. I Got to Let You Know, written by Rosas, is from the band’s aforementioned second album How Will the Wolf Survive? This rocks!
Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions
Let’s finish where this post started, with the seductive sound of a Hammond B-3. Once I decided on that approach, picking Booker T. & the M.G.’s wasn’t much of a leap. Neither was Green Onions, though I explored other tunes, given it’s the “obvious track.” In the end, I couldn’t resist featuring what is one of the coolest instrumentals I know. Initially, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were formed in 1962 in Memphis, Tenn. as the house band of Stax Records. The original members included Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They played on hundreds of recordings by Stax artists during the ’60s, such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Albert King. In 1962 during downtime for recording sessions with Billy Lee Riley, the band started improvising around a bluesy organ riff 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had come up with. It became Green Onions and was initially released as a B-side in May 1962 on Stax subsidiary Volt. In August of the same year, the tune was reissued as an A-side. It also became the title track of Booker T. & the M.G.’s debut album that appeared in October of the same year. In 1970, Jones left Stax, frustrated about the label’s treatment of the M.G.’s as employees rather than as musicians. The final Stax album by Booker T. & the M.G.s was Melting Pot from January 1971. Two additional albums appeared under the band’s name: Universal Language (1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (1994). Al Jackson Jr. and Lewie Steinberg passed away in October 1975 and July 2016, respectively. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper remain active to this day. Cropper has a new album, Fire It Up, scheduled for April 23. Two tunes are already out and sound amazing!