Music

Best of the Test (vol.1): Bowie, Magazine, King Crimson, Orange Juice

A 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.

In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.

Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.

The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.

Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.

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