Paul Fitzpatrick: London, November 2021.
Back in the early seventies there was only one provider of contemporary music to the masses – The BBC.
Radio One ruled the airwaves unchallenged from 1967 until the commercial radio stations came along in the mid 70s, although to be fair if you could get a decent signal, Radio Luxembourg was a reasonable late night alternative… until you got fed up listening to adverts for Timotei Shampoo and Aqua Manda cologne.
In terms of TV, the Beeb had it all sewn up with its weekly chart show aimed at the teenage market – Top of the Pops, which launched in 1964.
Seven years later the OGWT came along and focused on the more discerning album buying audience.
TOTP had its moments of course, but epiphany’s like Starman or Virginia Plain were rare and for every ‘Jeepster” there was a ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’
The OGWT on the other hand, was a voyage of discovery, it wasn’t always great but it was always watchable.
The truth is that we rarely knew who was going to be on the show, but it mattered not, we just tuned in and went along for the ride, building our musical knowledge and refining our tastes as we went along.
The OGWT became a weekly ‘event’ and a post-mortem of each episode was mandatory.
I can still remember an attempt to describe the debut performance of Focus to a mate at school who’d missed the show.
“They’re a Dutch quartet with an amazing drummer, an unbelievable guitarist and a guy who looks like Archie Gemmill on keyboards…. who yodels a lot”
I’m not sure he rushed out to buy the album based on my summary.
The show was famous for its live studio performances, but in the early days tracks that couldn’t be performed live were usually accompanied by old black & white film footage, compiled by film archivist Philip Jenkinson.
A couple of those home-made videos left a lasting impression.
The first time I heard Queen was on the OGWT in 1973.
A rendition of ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ soundtracked over a vintage black & white movie clip.
My favourite though was the footage that accompanied Led Zeppelin’s – Trampled Underfoot. I’ve no idea how they synch’d a 1920’s silent movie clip so seamlessly with Zep’s homage to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, but they pulled it off.
I have too many great memories of the show to mention and have spent many an hour disappearing down OGWT, YouTube rabbit holes but when I reflect on what made the show special, there are a few elements that spring to mind….
1) The OGWT excelled at introducing us to new artists:
Putting aside the broadcasting monopoly that the Beeb enjoyed I still have to credit the show for introducing me to – Neil Young, Queen, Robin Trower, John Martyn, Bill Withers, Joan Armatrading, Talking Heads, Lynyrd Skynyrd, New York Dolls, The Wailers and many more.
2) The show wasn’t just electric, it was eclectic:
If you happened to tune in when – Dr Hook, Rick Wakeman, John Martyn and Mike Oldfield were all featured you could have been forgiven for thinking that the majority of the acts mirrored the presenter, i.e. white men with beards and long hair…. but the show was actually a lot more diverse than that.
For instance, it was perfectly normal to have Bill Withers on the same show as Tangerine Dream or Curtis Mayfield with Captain Beefheart.
BB King would feature alongside Kris Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell could be on the same bill as Roxy Music.
It’s fair to say that every musical genre was given a fair crack of the whip on a show where the only criteria was quality.
3) The show produced seminal performances that live on forever:
At the end of the day it was the live studio performances that we all talked about and they remain the iconic moments of the show.
It’s difficult to cherry-pick as there were so many classic OGWT moments, but a few favourites that spring to mind are….
Bowie – Queen Bitch
Little Feat – Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor
Sensational Alex Harvey Band – The Faith Healer
Roxy Music – In Every Dream Home a Heartache
Gil Scott-Heron – Johannesburg
The OGWT of course was synonymous with whispering Bob Harris and his reign as the main presenter from 1972-79 covered the golden-age of the show.
Nothing lasts forever though, and as the punk movement gained momentum Bob started getting a bit grouchy and wasn’t handling the change of the guard very well…..
Bob had ‘previous’ of course, labelling Roxy Music as a triumph of ‘style over substance‘. And goofily described The New York Dolls as “mock rock” at the conclusion of a blistering rendition of ‘Jet Boy’….
Harris, subsequently became a target for New Wavers and Punks and narrowly escaped serious injury when Sid Vicious tried to ‘glass’ him in a London nightclub.
Rescued ironically by a team of Procol Harum roadies, Bob escaped relatively unscathed, but suffered cuts, bruises and a damaged ego.
Worn down by the abuse and feeling that he was swimming against the cultural tide, Bob would step down from his OGWT duties soon-after.
The show ploughed on for another 9 years post Bob, with a revolving door of presenters but by then there was bona fide competition from other channels and shows, like C4’s The Tube.
Gone but certainly not forgotten…. Fortunately we can still relive some of the shows iconic moments via clips from the vaults, many of which have millions of views.
So it’s this prime-time OGWT – the ‘Bob Harris years 72-79’, that helped to shape my musical tastes as a teenager that I would propose for the TV Hall of Fame….
4 thoughts on “Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT) 72-79: TV Hall of Fame Induction.”
I still play my OGWT DVDs and record all the re-runs on tv these days.
I vividly remember that Queen video and being so excited talking to pals at school the following morning … and the Zep, track / video is pure genius!
Live performances from Rory Gallagher (of course) and Sensational Alex Harvey Band together with any Captain Beefheart performances are the ones I cherish most – but no matter if you thought one particular act wasn’t for you, you just knew the next one probably would be. 🙂
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I watch these shows on youtube…love them. We didn’t have anything near as cool as this in America at the time. My favorite clip off this show is the Keith Moon interview about his solo album.
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You did have HAPPY DAYS, though. 🙂
(Actually, I loved Happy Days …I’m not slagging off.)
Keith Moon makes an appearance and a lasting impression on contributor Mark Arbuckle in this article that made s all SO jealous . 😀
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Yea but you all had Doctor Who! We did get to see it on our PBS station later on. Yea I liked Happy Days also.
Wonderful article! Those are my favorite Keith’s! If I had enough info I would be happy to blog on Moon every day. Incredible drummer and personality.