Friday, 9 September 2011

Put yourself in the picture: the other lot

To conclude this week's rifling through yellowing copies of Radio Times - and again, big thanks to Steve Williams for locating and typing up all this week's output - something from that RT we began the week on, 30th September 1976. Rod Stewart had the cover to plug a documentary about him on The Lively Arts, and there's also a feature on the new series of Whistle Test, which began on Tuesday at 11.10. This is how proper grown-ups' music was described in the mid-70s:

It's far from old and grey yet, you can't whistle most of the music it broadcasts, but it certainly has passed the test of time and popularity. Pop music's lively television magazine programme, The Old Grey Whistle Test, begins its sixth year this week. The show is still young at heart, serious in purpose, proud of its pioneering and always ready with a few surprises.

Pop music wears so many faces these days, it fairly boggles the ear to define Whistle Test territory. You might call it 'album music' or durable contemporary pop. More ephemeral single hits get their moments on Top of the Pops, while middle-of-the-road music surfaces all around. Whistle Test, however, dwells on what's new and what's classic in serious quality pop.

Fans of the programme run the gamut of age and taste. Letters occasionally arive requesting earlier transmission so that ten year old Algernon can watch Paul McCartney's Wings flap, for instance. Conversely, there's the apocryphal tale of the pensioner who got such a tonic from a Whistle Test gig by Dr Hook and The Medicine Show that he wrote in to enquire if he could get Dr Hook on the National Health.

"We've gone out of our way to make it a music programme on television, not just a television programme with music," said Michael Appleton, Whistle Test's confident 39 year old producer. "Basically my idea is to mix acts and styles to widen the musical specturm of the audience. Of course. it's desigend to entertain, but I'm interested in educating as well. We approach pop as an enduring form of music." Appleton's dark beard was one of three that were bobbing at me at the Whistle Test GHQ at Television Centre, a sort of fall-out shelter surrounded by LPs instead of sandbags. Tom Corcoran, the director, supported a rakish little blonde goatee. The best known beard in the room belonged to the programme's long time presenter, Bob Harris.

In an era when the disc jockey or compere is more likely to 'sock it to you' with decibel overload, 'Whispering' Bob Harris, as he's affectionately called, suggests a country doctor who's just gently reassured you that the baby didn't swallow the weed-killer after all. Son of a former Northampton detective inspector, Bob, who is 30, was briefly a police cadet. He became of of two founding editors of London's Time Out magazine. Somebody at Radio 1 heard his dulcet voice and measured his encyclopaedic knowledge of pop, and he became a DJ, joining Whistle Test regularly on its second series.

Harris and Appleton are particularly proud of boosting new talent. Focus was a blur before the show, a clear success after. Alice Cooper was just on the way up, Babe Ruth was unknown - before they passed their whistle tests. Despite booking a significant roster of established stars, Appleton says, "I prefer new people to big names". Still, musicians at all stages of development have found that the show is a stimulus to their recording sales and general public appreciation.

The forty minute format generally takes two directions. The 'special', when the talent and theatre or studio are available, will become a concert - by the likes of Queen, Chick Coren, Rory Gallagher or Nils Lofgren. The more usual magazine format becomes a survey of what's current and choice in pop/rock/reggae/blues, generally built around a live interview. Harris clearly prefers the filmed interview, with the chance to edit to a high polish, but a live interview can yield some fun best left unedited.

For example, there was the record producer who lost his voice while in colloquy with 'Whispering' Bob - making it one of the quietest interviews in the history of television.

In a field where chaos is the order of the day, how do they plan shows?

Appleton and Harris listen to stacks of albums each week; they fairly eat vinyl for breakfast. While Appleton is in charge of the content, their taste runs in similar channels. Occasionally, Harris has said on camera he's not that overwhelmed with a track or an act, but always in good taste. "He's not a yes man," Appleton says, and he ought to know.

The Whistle Tester were eyeing a big scheduling board for the upcoming series, and there were many blank spaces. Only a special by Janis Ian was set. But there will be field trips to Amsterdam and West Berlin and Macon, Georgia, of all places, to devote shows to the best local talent available. Also in the works is a bit of classic Buddy Holly film, and some clips from a new film by Led Zeppelin. By next May, they hope to do a week of Rock Proms in stereo from an as yey undecided venue.

Whistle Test tries to launch each year with something extra special, like the Edinburgh reggae concert, the 10th Cambridge Festival or the Lennon interview. This year Appleton considered he's got a real treat for fans - Hard Rain, an hour's film of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue shot in Colorado by NBC and only just shown in the States.


wilberforce said...

is there no end to the conveyor belt of talent that is the coren family? first alan, then offspring giles and victoria - and now it seems musical cousin chick...

Arthur Nibble said...

More beards!

I always found it funny that the term ‘old grey whistle test’ referred to a song being a hit if your grey-coated doorman remembered the tune and whistled it. I’d love it if a doorman remembered the tune to anything by Captain Beefheart, for example (though not meant as a slur on the man – a mate asked if I fancied going to a Beefheart tribute gig by Robyn Hitchcock earlier this year, not my usual bag, but I thoroughly enjoyed it).

Like ‘TOTP’, ‘OGWT’ held an important place in BBC TV’s music scheduling and added a few different colours to the musical palette. More likely to be the sort of thing your older brother or sister would be into if you were a glam rock teenie at the time, but I liked to watch every now and again (when my parents were asleep and I had control of the push-buttons) and get a handle on the mellow West Coast stylings and those ‘serious’ artists who’d stand as much chance on getting on ‘TOTP’ as Robert Wyatt - er, hang on...

Noax said...

I haven't got much to say about Whistle Test itself as by the time I got to the stage where I might be into some of the music on it, it seemed to be Andy Kershaw going 'And now, Pere Ubu!' or 'The wonderful Bhundu Boys!' every single week.

What I will say is that the sheer number of puns in that article almost made my eyes bleed.

Adam Maunder said...

Much as I hate to agree with anything Elton John ever says or does, he did say on the Whistle Test retrospective series on Radio 2 the other week that he thought the show was an incomparable archive of the rock sounds around/available at the time, and I think that is probably going to be its continued relevance, and use, as time goes on.

My familiarity with it stems from the bits & pieces my father managed to tape during its lifespan; he acquired a VCR in 1979, so there's a fair bit of great - as well as crap - stuff I've seen. Ian Dury live at the Hackney Empire (I think?), that performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd doing 'Free Bird' at Knebworth that they repeated ad bloody nauseam, Stillwater (the band immortalised in Cameron Crowe's 'Almost Famous', whom many people assumed to be fictional - nope, they existed alright), and plenty of footage of ski-ing accompanying 'Tubular Bells', and other such nonsense.

David Quantick wrote an excellent - of course - piece in Uncut a month or two ago which covered the whole thing rather nicely, and Kershaw, as ever, came over sounding like a right knob. In fairness to him, his Radio 1 show did used to include a good range of stuff in addition to the African sounds he's best known for championing. Certainly, the name Barrence Whitfield would mean even less than it generally does were it not for his endorsement. Ivor Cutler, too.

Yup - from Camel to Blondie, and from Rory Gallagher to Robyn Hitchcock, you could never say there wasn't something for everyone on the Test. In reference to y'all's comments: if you don't know him, Chick Corea was one of the names that the rock press liked to bang on about in the 70s because he was seen to be using jazz in a new way (i.e, fusion), and Noax - I have to say I really didn't notice the pun onslaught in that piece, which maybe suggests I oughta lay off the Denis Norden for a bit. He says there's a medical condition whereby people incurably make them in any given situation; I don't think I'm quite there yet, but with QI back on, I might not last the winter!

wilberforce said...

of course i know who chick corea is - that was just my way of having a little fun at the expense of a typo error...

Adam Maunder (in abject remorse) said...

Oh, I didn't mean to cast aspersions - just passing on the info in case, as he doesn't seem to be as much a name that'd be on everybody's lips these days, as he was then. (Sorry!)

Typos always make great comic capital anyway: Milligan loved referring to himself as 'Spine Milligna, the well-known typing error', The Burkiss Way did it non-stop (Mr. Smoth, Miss Jobes, etc), and I still cherish an apparently real newspaper headline, 'Let the people snig!'. Not sure if that was even the Guardian/Grauniad, either.