The Venues: The Old Grey Whistle Test

The British television music show featured an impressive array of artists

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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 BallroomThe Ed Sullivan Sow, 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.

The Old Whiste Test Logo

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’s Bat 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/Ooh Las Vegas (1977)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/American Girl (1978)

Joe Jackson/Sunday Papers (1979)

Ramones/Rock & Roll High School & Rock ‘N Roll Radio (1980)

Los Lobos/Don’t Worry Baby (1984)

Simply Red/Holding Back the Years & I Won’t Feel Bad (1985)

U2/In God’s County (1987)

 

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Joe Jackson/I’m the Man

After recently rediscovering this 1979 gem from Joe Jackson, I decided “I’m the Man” is definitely worth a post.

The first time I listened to I’m the Man was when I got it as a surprise present for my 14th birthday many moons ago. While I liked the music, I didn’t appreciate how brilliant this record is. At the time, I was primarily into mainstream pop and oldies. Today, I consider Joe Jackson’s second studio album to be one of the jewels in my vinyl collection.

When I listened to the album again recently, I was asking myself which genre best describes Jackson’s music. Undoubtedly, there are traces of punk throughout I’m the Man, though the catchy melodies are not what you typically associate with punk. And if you look at Jackson’s later releases, his music is all over the place, including new wave, jazz and R&B – he has even composed some classical music. This guy is one of the most versatile contemporary music artists!

Reportedly, after the release of his debut album Look Sharp!, Jackson told Rolling Stone, “I think people always want to put a label on what you do, so I thought I’d be one step ahead and invent one myself – spiv rock.” I think he was spot on. It really doesn’t matter whether music fits any genre. The only thing that matters is whether it’s great music, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to I’m the Man and pretty much all of Jackson’s other work I’m aware of.

When it comes to I’m the Man, the thing that stands out to me is how tight the band sounds. The first musician I have to mention here is bassist Graham Maby. Combining an edgy punk-like sound with great melodic runs, he is driving much of the music’s groove. As a former bassist, I think I fully appreciate Maby’s brilliant playing – and, yes, I’m probably also a bit biased! David Haughton (drums) and Gary Sanford (guitar) round out the band’s sound, together with Jackson’s piano, harmonica and melodica.

The album is full of energy, with the majority of songs being mid and uptempo tunes. Things kick off furiously with On Your Radio, both in terms of its fast and pumping beat, and Jackson’s lyrics telling ex-friends, ex-lovers and enemies that unlike him who’s on the radio they’re nowhere – no wonder some people called him “an angry young man!” The second song, Geraldine and John, is one of two slower numbers. It’s also one of the best examples on the album of Maby’s great melodic bass lines. The second slow tune is Amateur Hour, which also has a great bass track. Okay, I guess it’s abundantly clear I’m a big fan of Maby’s bass playing!

From a lyrics perspective, It’s Different for Girls is the album’s most outstanding song. In a twist, Jackson reverses the cliche that all men want is sex, while women are longing for love. In this case, it’s the woman who tells the man, “who said anything about love…don’t you know that it’s different for girls.” In an interview with Songfacts in 2012, Jackson explained, “It was something that I had heard somewhere that stuck me as a cliche…And maybe the idea was to turn it on its head and have a conversation between a man and a woman and what you’d expect to be the typical roles are reversed.”

It’s Different for Girls was the second single from the album. It became Jackson’s highest charting single in the U.K. where it climbed to no. 5 on the singles chart. U.S. audiences apparently were less receptive. The song just missed cracking the top 100 on the Billboard charts, peaking at no. 101. The album’s other single was the title track, I’m the Man. It’s similar in musical style and “angry young man” lyrics to On Your Radio. Unlike It’s Different for Girls, it did not chart in the U.K. and the U.S.

Released in October 1979, I’m the Man peaked at no. 12 on the U.K. Albums Chart and no. 22 on the U.S. Billboard 200 – a remarkable success for a sophomore album. It was produced by David Kershenbaum, who has also worked with many other well known music artists, such as Duran Duran, Tracy Chapman, Bryan Adams, Supertramp and Cat Stevens. Kershenbaum had signed Jackson to A&M Records in 1978 and also produced three of his other albums: Look Sharp! (1979), Body and Soul (1984) and Night and Day (1982), Jackson’s most successful album.

Here’s a great clip of a stripped down version of It’s Different for Girls, featuring Jackson on piano only. Apparently, it was recorded during his 2016 Fast Forward Tour.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Songfacts, YouTube