Friday, 6 November 2015

The Old Grey Whistle Test: 70s Gold . . . but Some Gloom

The Old Grey Whistle Test opening titles (Courtesy: Rockpeaks)

This evening’s televisual entertainment was mostly taken up by Yesterday’s The Old Grey Whistle Test: 70s Gold, a 2011 compilation by BBC 4 of clips from a live music show which began in September 1971. The Old Grey Whistle Test was a late-night, weekday show concerned with rock bands playing live in a bare studio, famously presented by ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris. Seeing the OGWT forty years later one can trace the signs of a decline in popular music, from exemplary classic rock bands to punk and new wave:

1. Tiny Dancer by Elton John (1971). Although from Pinner, Elton John sings with a pronounced American accent, in his first OGWT appearance, on a song released as a single from Madman Across the Water in 1972. It was not a hit in the UK or US, but became well-known anyway. It is now over familiar as the soundtrack to a John Lewis Premier Home Insurance TV advertisement.

2. Fog on the Tyne by Lindisfarne (1971). The eccentric folk rock band take turns to share vocals on the title track of their breakthrough album. Fog on the Tyne was not a hit single, but became Lindisfarne’s signature tune. We are reminded in the 70s Gold captions, at the bottom of the screen, that the media, not unrealistically, labelled the band as ‘The 1970s Beatles’.

3. Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf (1972). John Kay, dressed in a black outfit with a wide belt and a picture of Saturn on his chest, and the band give a performance which is not a million miles from the 1968 original.

4. We Got to Have Peace by Curtis Mayfield (1972). Curtis Mayfield was tragically injured by a falling lighting rig in 1990 and died in 1999.

5. Queen Bitch by David Bowie (1972). David Bowie, pre-Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, plays acoustic guitar, clad in an outfit with a print of printed circuitry. Was he being ironic? Trevor Bolder provides his usual melodic, but unfortunately underrated, bass lines to the Bowie composition.

6. Every Beat of My Heart by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1972) is interesting for being a live performance of their first single from 1961.

7. Proud to be a Honky Woman by Vinegar Joe (1973), with Elkie Brooks on lead vocals and Robert Palmer on backing vocals and guitar. It seems odd now to see Brooks with OTT eye makeup, an Elvis T-shirt, mini-skirt and fishnet tights, considering the sophistication of her later solo ‘ballgown’ image. In this clip, the young Brooks really belts out the song, accompanied with some excellent guitar work from her husband Pete Gage.

8. Surrender to the Rhythm by Brinsley Schwartz (1973), with Nick Lowe on lead vocals. They were regarded as pub rock, but this is jaunty country rock with some memorable organ playing.

9. Jet Boy by New York Dolls (1973). New York Dolls were a band who looked more daring than they sounded. They bridged the gap between Rolling Stones glam rock and punk, but fell into neither camp. Here David Johansen looks and sounds too much like Jagger, with the band playing too efficiently to be anything other than mainstream rock.

10. Do the Strand by Roxy Music (1973). Brian Eno is present on keyboards and Bryan Ferry switches between standing at the microphone and turning to his left to play piano. The diverse instruments, space-age costumes and exotic lyrics are a beguiling mix.

11. God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll To You by Argent (1973) with Russ Ballard, a competent crooner who always seemed to wear sunglasses indoors at night. This rendition is replete with reference to Cliff Richard, later removed from the Kiss cover.

12. Concrete Jungle by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973). A soulful performance from the band before they became ‘reggae superstars’.

13. Upon the My-O-My by Captain Beefheart (1974). An unspectacular song from Unconditionally Guaranteed, but with some good guitar playing from, possibly, Dean Smith.

14. Jumpin’ Jack Flash by Johnny Winter (1974). An energetic performance of a wearisome song. However, the sparring guitars from Winter, Rick Derringer and bassist Randy Jo Hobbs are nothing short of amazing.

15. Roxette by Dr Feelgood (1975). It would be difficult today to overestimate the impact of this band’s live TV performances and radio sessions in the mid-seventies. Wilko Johnson’s staring eyes and jerky movements, Lee Brilleaux’s intense stage presence and John B. Sparks steadying influence combined with staccato playing and great songs was irresistible. Unfortunately, Feelgood’s albums did not match up to their live recordings and punk rock was around the corner.

14. Horses by Patti Smith (1976). The intro is spoken word in an attempt to be poetic and the singing, when it appears, is not great.

15. Johannesburg by Gil Scott-Heron (1976). Scott-Heron was known for his spoken word material, but sings capably on this repetitive, if not catchy, song. He was later credited with inspiring hip hop and rap.

16. Love Me by Gregg Allman and Cher (1977). The ill-fated couple made an album, Two the Hard Way, which they toured in Europe until Allman’s drinking returned, driving Cher to pack her bags and return to the US with their children. The album was credited to Allman and Woman and the OGWT performance is equally uninspired.

17. Listen to Her Heart by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1977). Unmemorable, like much of their material. Petty’s later collaborations with The Traveling Wilburys(2) was more interesting.

18. Psycho Killer by Talking Heads (1977). Dominated by Tina Wymouth’s metronomic bass and full of tuneless singing and guitar playing from David Byrne.

19. A Bomb in Wardour Street by The Jam (1978). Paul Weller chews gum with his mouth open and copies the bands he fashionably criticised. At least Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton had more energy than the technical musicians with which Weller later surrounded himself. If the New York Dolls looked better than they sounded, Weller’s lyrics appear more meaningful than is the case. Rumour has it that when he travelled to sign the record contract with Polydor, the head office was on Wardour Street. As Weller arrived, the street was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded World War 2 bomb. This inspired him to write the song.

20. (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear (1978) by Blondie. Blondie appeared to be one of the better punk rock groups of the late seventies, but Deborah Harry and Chris Stein’s treatment of their bandmates has somehow tarnished their music.

21. I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy Pop (1978). Punk rockers cited Iggy and the Stooges as an influence, leading to a comeback for the front man. Iggy Pop wears eyeliner and leaves off his shirt in a solo performance of The Stooges’ song from 1969.

22. Too Much Too Young by The Specials (1979). In the same way that the sight of The Jam in suits and ties was dispiriting on OGWT, the presence of a rude boys in pork pie hats is even more so. Mark Braxton, for the Radio Times, wrote of the OGWT as ‘this gimmick-free music show’ but contradictorily went on to describe ‘a hilariously surly Terry Hall leading his pogo-ing Specials through Too Much Too Young'(1). Even given the benefit of hindsight he could not see that the full decline was imminent with the onset of eighties synth-pop and rap.

(2) Their spelling of ‘traveling’, not mine, like that of America’s Harbor album in the previous post (Sarah).


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