Simon Price: There's no going back to the Old Grey Twilight Zone

The hippy tastes of Bob Harris were blown away by glam rock and punk

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His sneer said it all. The New York Dolls, super-camp street trash teetering around on high heels in lipstick and Empire State hairdos, had just ripped through a proto-punk stormer called Jet Boy, with twin frontmen David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, looking respectively like a dragged-up Jagger and an electrocuted Cher. As the last echoes of their guitars ebbed away, "Whispering" Bob Harris, presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, turned to the camera, gave a toothy smirk, and said simply "mock rock".

It will be 40 years next month since TOGWT took to the screens as part of BBC2's Late Night Line-Up. The anniversary has prompted a mini-wave of nostalgia; Harris is to present the Old Grey Whistle Test 40 series from Wednesday night on Radio 2 – and there is talk of the show returning to TV. Which is all very well – just don't expect me to join in the celebration.

As someone who was four at the time, clearly I was not its target demographic. But even in retrospect, the attitudes it represents leave me cold. A hangover from the just-deceased hippie era, TOGWT was essentially the sight and sound of an entire generation of beardies putting their fingers in their ears and shouting down their younger, glam rock-loving siblings: "Laa laa laa, we can't hear you!".

The Dolls incident wasn't the only example of the prematurely fogeyish Harris failing to get a band who incorporated a little flash and dazzle into their act. On 20 June 1972, Roxy Music turned up on TOGWT for their television debut. The footage of their rendition of Ladytron is beguiling to this day, and one can only imagine how gloriously alien they must have appeared at the time: Bryan Ferry, in a metallic tiger skin bolero, his eyes almost closed in louche ecstasy; Brian Eno, golden gloves at the end of his leopard-print sleeves, twiddling knobs on a synthesiser; Andy Mackay tootling an oboe in a silky sci-fi collar of Quality Street wrapper green; and Phil Manzanera in enormous sparkling fly-eye specs unavailable in any earthly shop.

Presenter-producer Richard Williams was a fan – "Roxy Music can bring pictures to your head like no one else... and they've only just begun", he had written in Melody Maker – but his opinion was not widespread on the programme.

As Johnny Rogan remembers in his book Style With Substance – Roxy's First Ten Years: "Before their all-important TV appearance ... Bob Harris announced to the world that he was totally against them appearing on the show. As far as he was concerned Roxy Music were little more than an unimpressive hype. Their recent overkill in the media might have fooled large sections of the public, but he did not count himself among them."

Roxy Music were way, way outside TOGWT's comfort zone. Hairy prog-blues merchants and self-indulgent singer-songwriters were the show's real stock in trade. If you want an enduring image of The Old Grey Whistle Test, think of Kris Kristofferson gazing across at Rita Coolidge with conspiratorial smugness, or one member of Focus looking at another with a "lost-in-music" face, or the drummer from the Edgar Winter Group catching flies with his open mouth as he embarks on an elongated solo. And all hosted by Harris in a style, laid back to the point of narcolepsy, which has been much parodied by comics, from Eric Idle on Rutland Weekend Television to Richard Ayoade on Snuff Box.

In its defence, TOGWT survives as a useful archive, almost by accident, of artists such as Bob Marley and the Wailers and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as, unlike Top of the Pops, classic episodes were not thoughtlessly trashed by the BBC. And, even if it was against its presenter's wishes, the occasional Roxy or Dolls did sneak through.

It is difficult to overstate how precious live music on TV was in the early 1970s. In the pre-VCR days, my dad would set up a microphone surrounded by cushions to create a makeshift soundproofed booth, around the TV speakers. We talked above a Harris-esque whisper at our peril. Furthermore, it was almost the only place rock musicians were interviewed about their craft, often with unintentionally hilarious results. "I don't know if we should explain what Rastafarians are," said a visibly relaxed Keith Richards in 1974 a propos of a recording session in Jamaica, "but they're these very heavy, happy dudes... who play drums."

TOGWT had the good fortune to be born in a year when the LP was coming into its own, and there was a mutually-beneficial synergy between the show and the albums boom of 1971. In a recent issue of The Word, David Hepworth, himself a former Whistle Test presenter, wrote a column arguing that 1971 was "the annus mirabilis of the rock album", citing, among others, Hunky Dory, Led Zeppelin IV, What's Going On, Sticky Fingers, Who's Next, Tapestry, Surf's Up, LA Woman, American Pie and Imagine as evidence.

It's a difficult canon to argue with. But the crux of the problem lies in the phrase "rock album". While 1971 might have been a golden age for the long player, it was an all-time low for the pop single. The first No 1 of the year was Clive Dunn's Grandad, the last, Benny Hill's Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West). Only Marc Bolan was blazing a trail for the return of the single as pop's prime format, with T. Rex smashes such as Hot Love, Get It On and Jeepster, and his beguilingly androgynous mystique. But T. Rex never appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test. No one ever sat down with Marc Bolan and found out what made him tick. Because a trivial Top of the Pops tyke like him couldn't possibly have anything interesting to say, could he?

For my generation, 1981 is our 1971. That was the year the post-punk gatecrashers were at the peak of their powers. The lunatics had taken over the asylum, to quote Fun Boy Three's single of that year.

It was the year the New Pop movement emerged with the debut singles of ABC and Duran Duran; the Scottish sound of Altered Images, Associates and Orange Juice; the gothic rock of Bauhaus, and the tribal beats of Bow Wow Wow, PiL and The Creatures. Human League broke through with a run of hits culminating in the million-selling Christmas No 1, Don't You Want Me. Other chart-toppers included Adam and the Ants' Stand And Deliver, Soft Cell's Tainted Love and The Specials' Ghost Town.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was embarrassingly tardy in responding to punk and post-punk until Annie Nightingale took over in 1978, when the studio doors were opened to the likes of Siouxsie, Japan, XTC, Blondie, Tubeway Army, Ramones, Squeeze and Iggy Pop.

TOWGT had a second life in the mid-Eighties as Whistle Test, popularising what was then termed World Music and breaking what we would now call Americana, R.E.M. in particular. But even then, the edgier alternative sounds were better-served over on Channel 4 by The Tube.

A revived TOGWT in 2011? Fine, if you're after a delicate, navel-gazing session from Laura Marling or Jamie Woon. But if you're looking for a 21st-century Roxy Music or New York Dolls, you'd better hope there isn't a 21st-century Bob Harris calling the shots.

'The Old Grey Whistle Test 40' begins on Wednesday at 10pm, BBC Radio 2

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