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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Mark Steel: What a triumph! We have persuaded Starbucks to relocate its European HQ from Holland to the UK

Mark Steel
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year  

David Cameron needs to tread very carefully when ‘doing God’, especially when it looks like a way of countering Ukip

Mary Dejevsky
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal