The Late Movies: The Old Grey Whistle Test


The Old Grey Whistle Test was a BBC TV show featuring live music. It ran from 1971 through 1988 on BBC2, and many performances are now collected on YouTube -- I'll show you some favorites below. But what the heck does "Old Grey Whistle Test" mean? According to host Bob Harris, the name comes from:

... a 'tin pan alley' phrase from years ago. When they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the old greys [doormen in grey suits]. The ones they could remember and could whistle having heard it just once or twice had passed the old grey whistle test.

So it's catchy, you see.

REM, "Moon River"/"Pretty Persuasion" Medley

1984. Remember when Michael Stipe had hair? Like lots of hair?

Bruce Johnston (Beach Boys), "Disney Girls"


Watch this Beach Boys classic stripped down to a piano-and-vocals rendition by its author, Bruce Johnston. Sample lyrics: "Patti Page and those summer days out on old Cape Cod / Oh those happy times, making home-made wine, down in my garage / I remember country shade and sipping lemonade, I guess I'm slowing down / You know it'd be a turn-back world with a local girl in a little smaller town."

John Lennon, "Stand By Me"

1975. I had no idea Lennon recorded this song. Beautiful and somehow heartbreaking around the edges. Check out the shout-out to his son Julian (who would have been about 12 at the time) around 2:18.

David Bowie, "Queen Bitch"

1972, with a sweet blue twelve-string guitar.

The Replacements, "Kiss Me on the Bus"

1986, if you couldn't tell by the hair.

Billy Joel, "Piano Man"

Man, I'd forgotten that this is genuinely an awesome song. 1975. Check out the mustache.

Tom Waits, "Burma Shave"

1979. The poor video quality somehow seems to add to the experience of this thing.

Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Painted Bird"

Note a young Robert Smith from The Cure on guitar. Date unknown, but I'm guessing late 1983.

The Runaways, "Wasted"

Probably 1977? They're really tearing it up here.

Roxy Music, "The Strand"

"The program was about integrity, I suppose, and sort of honest music: basic, straightforward music, often acoustic, to do with musicianship (or ideas of musicianship at the time), and a kind of directness, I guess. And along came Roxy Music, who were none of those things. ... They were a synthesis of lots and lots of things. ... You know, they had an oboe player."

The Police, "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Next To You"

1978. Sweet shades, Sting. Check out the guitar technique in the "Can't Stand Losing You" solo.

Got Any Other Favorites?

Post links in the comments! Search YouTube for "Old Grey Whistle Test" or OGWT to find TONS of stuff.