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Music Review: The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol.3

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Spanning from 1971 – 1987, The Old Grey Whistle Test was the perfect platform for the album rock period when commercial pop was overshadowed by good ol’ fashioned musicianship, innovation, and albums you could listen to and enjoy from the first groove on Side A to the last groove on Side B. It premiered on BBC2, and up to that point, the standard for weekly musical performance television was Top of the Pops in the UK, and American Bandstand here in the states. What The Old Grey Whistle Test offered was something new, something different. 

Top of the Pops and American Bandstand, for the most part, promoted both big and small acts performing their current hit via canned music, smiles, and lip syncThe Old Grey Whistle Test gave these same artists (focusing more on the up-and-comer rather than the tried-and-true) the opportunity to play their songs completely live (with the occasional live vocal over a pre-recorded audio track) and, in many cases, were encouraged to play deep album cuts in place of their current hit. This paved the way for such 1970s American staples as The Midnight Special and Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert, both of which prided themselves on their all the way “live” performances.

On August 29th, BBC Video, in conjunction with Warner Home Video, will release The Old Grey Whistle Test Vol. 3 on DVD, both separately, and as part of a limited edition box set, compiling this new offering with two previously released editions of this legendary live performance show.  In contrast to the first two volumes, which featured familiar hits and artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”, Vol. 3 focuses more on the lesser-known songs and acts in a catalogue that spans 16 innovative years, offering an even more eclectic, and almost overtly British group of performances. All of which have since gone on to become record shop darlings on either side of the pond. Had Yo La Tango, !!! (chk-chk-chk), or Le Tigre been around circa ’71-’87, they more than likely would have made it on this installment.

Some performances certainly stick with you over others, and with a collection like this, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. Memorable performances include Stealers Wheel shedding their signature, Dylan-esque vocals, for a grittier, more Paul Rogers and Bad Co., rendition of “I Get By” from 1972Freddy King’s “Boogie Funk” is a stellar offering from 1973 of traditional blues with just a touch of ‘70s funk, dripping with all things Chicago. In the same vein, B.B. King also delivers a strait shot of Chicago blues with his rendition of “When It All Comes Down/Hold On”. 

A 1976 performance from Janis Ian reminds us what a perfect song can be with her signature, and sweetly haunting, song “At Seventeen,” including an introduction dedication to the real life cheerleaders who inspired it. The Jam’s “A Bomb in Wardour Street” captures a seminal Brit band as they embark on their prime, while “Chelsea Girl” gives us a rare look at an alt rocking, pre-Breakfast Club, Simple Minds in 1979. Finally, King Crimson’s “Frame By Frame”, from 1982, is a rare look at Fripp, Bruford, Levin, and Belew, at their best. Also of note are stand out performances by Jackson Brown, P.I.L., and a rare look at Japan that would make any Radiohead fan proud to know their hero’s heroes.

The Old Grey Whistle Test Vol. 3 runs the gamut from traditional blues and rock, to singer songwriter pop, to punk and new wave, to traditional and contemporary folk. Many of which, are debuting their sound for the very first time. Sadly, for some the first would also be their last.   On its own, it may prove a little to schizophrenic or “out there” for the random music DVD purchase, but to those in the know, and certainly as part of a three-disc set, it is more than acceptable; it is essential. 

Written by Tio Esqueleto 

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
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