Ahhh, festival season. There’s a music festival to suit every taste and style and age. Just like, over the years, there have been TV channels and shows to suit every taste in music, from Top of the Pops and MTV to The Tube and The Old Grey Whistle Test.
The Old Grey Whistle Test (I’ll call it TOGWT from now on) was commissioned by Sir David Attenborough in 1971 to play ‘serious’ rock music, which over the years evolved from largely prog-blues to encompass punk, reggae and electronic. Acts appearing on TOGWT to play and/or be interviewed read like a Who’s Who of the 1970s and 80s – David Bowie, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Bangles, Elton John, Blondie, The Damned… I could go on for pages.
The name of the show, apparently, comes from an old Tin Pan Alley phrase. New songs were played to ‘old greys’ (doormen) and any song that they could remember and whistle after just one or two plays was deemed to have passed the test and be a potential hit. Tin Pan Alley itself (the name was originally used to describe the noise of all the pianos) was an area of New York used by songwriters and music publishers between about 1885 and the 1930s/40s. Discussions are currently ongoing over whether five of the buildings should be designated landmarks.
Unusually for the time, the BBC kept many TOGWT recordings. In the early days of TV most programmes were broadcast live and if a recording was made it was for short-term use only. The idea of keeping TV recordings for posterity took a while to develop and was very expensive to implement. Although a collection of recordings did build up, the BBC was not legally required to maintain an archive until 1981.
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