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Best of the Test (volume 2): Al Stewart, The Only Ones, Thomas Dolby, Prefab Sprout

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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The second installment in my look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


For five unfortunate years I worked in a factory making parts for airbags. After one particularly slow, grueling day I was driving home listening to the radio when a song came on that I didn’t know but was exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment. It was so mellow and relaxed, yet had a definite groove. I took note of the title and found out it was by someone named Al Stewart. The song was “Year of the Cat” and this performance on Whistle Test from 1978 is a great version of the song. From the wonderful piano intro on, the song takes it’s time as every instrument and every note gets room to breathe. I still know very little about Stewart, but I do know that “Year of the Cat” still has that calming effect on me every time I hear it.


The Only Ones are best known for the punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet”, but that wasn’t their only great song. “No Peace for the Wicked” is a wonderful, shambling ode to pain and heartache with Peter Perrett’s distinctive voice asking “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas?” before answering his own question… “I’m in love with extreme mental torture…”. Perfect.


Obviously with someone like Thomas Dolby, I knew “She Blinded Me With Science”, but it was through his performance of “Hyperactive”, included on volume two of the Whistle Test DVDs, that I realized he was more than a one-hit wonder. There could not be a more fitting song title for this frenzied funk jam. Shakers, trombone, synths, and a vocoder are all employed throughout along with the vocals of Adele Bertei who provides the track with an almost childlike innocence amidst all the frantic instrumentation. A joy to watch.


The third volume of the Whistle Test DVDs was my introduction to the underappreciated and often overlooked Prefab Sprout. Intricate guitar lines weave over top warm synths and tight, occasionally jazzy drumming with the male lead vocals/female backing vocals dynamic that may draw comparisons to the Dream Academy. Prefab Sprout are much more than that though and you only have to watch this magnificent performance of “When Loves Break Down” to see that. There’s a real gentleness here, like they’re trying to play as soft as they can without losing the sound completely, until, at the end, they do; fading out like someone is slowly turning the volume dial.


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