Whistle Test: Best Of The 1980s?

What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night (UK readers can watch it again here until 23rd March). The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.

The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.

Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen. The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):

8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)

Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.

7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)

One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.

6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)

Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.

5. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)

One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.

4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)

The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong.

3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)

Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.

2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)

One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.

1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)

Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.

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5 thoughts on “Whistle Test: Best Of The 1980s?

  1. Really enjoyed this post. I remember the last ever OGWT – first time I ever heard Marquee Moon, a real game-changer for me. My fave clips are all 70s – Lynyrd Skynyrd, Roxy Music ‘In Every Dream Home’ and Harris’ total and utter bewilderment at the New York Dolls – ‘Mock Rock’ indeed!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ta and yes, I’d agree that the ’70s surely threw up more memorable OGWT moments than the ’80s. I didn’t see them at the time but I’ve seen ’em since! I love Bob’s grin after the Dolls. I think they showed that clip on Friday night. I’d add Curtis Mayfield, Steve Marriott, Bob Marley, John Martyn, Lennon and of course Bowie. There was also a funny Bob bit I remember when they showed some early ’70s Rush in concert – cut to a very serious-looking Bob, and then a long pause. He finally whispered, ‘Well, if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Led Zeppelin will be absolutely delighted’. Ouch!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a show that wasn’t scared to introduce new genres and experimental music. It’s easy to look back and think that they only selected artists that were at the top of their game, yet they were manly new up and coming acts. It would be difficult to replicate the OGWT as the current music scene is too commercialised with no new genres, no rebellious teenagers and little imagination or creativity. I hope someone will prove me wrong???

    Liked by 1 person

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