Forty-six years ago I tuned in to the Old Grey Whistle Test to catch a piece on Led Zeppelin and their long-awaited movie – The Song Remains the Same.
After his chat with Robert Plant, Bob Harris introduced Armatrading who played two songs – the ubiquitous “Love and Affection” and my favourite Armatrading track – “Down to Zero”.
As teenagers in the 70s we were prone to making assumptions based on our limited awareness, so when Bob introduced Armatrading and I saw a black female with an afro and an acoustic guitar I wasn’t sure what to expect. The female troubadours of the day tended to look like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt or Carly Simon.
As she played the opening chords to “Down to Zero” any preconceptions evaporated and were replaced with… ‘wow, where’s she been hiding?’
It was one of those eureka moments which had maximum impact as she was an artist that not many people knew anything about. In fact it seemed like everyone who saw her OGWT performance that evening rushed out to buy the album, (which had already been on the record shop shelves for several months), so, overnight you had 100,000 people all claiming to have ‘discovered’ her.
Of course, we would later learn that Armatrading had already done the hard yards, paying her musical dues for ten years before the OGWT ‘breakthrough’.
The album was beautifully produced with Armatrading’s vocals and guitar at the front of the mix, however at the time I don’t remember it registering with me that the man on production duties was the prolific Glyn Johns.
Johns’ resume includes production & engineering chores on landmark albums for The Who, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Eric Clapton. So, it was quite a compliment when he said that the Joan Armatrading album is “the best he’s ever been associated with”.
Armatrading’s second song that evening would become her signature tune, the classic “Love and Affection”, with the killer opening line…
“I’m not in love, but I’m open to persuasion”
The haunting saxophone solo on the track was provided by Gallagher & Lyle sideman Jimmy Jewell and the baritone backing vocal was provided by Clarke Peters, better known to some as Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire.
Grammy nominated, Armatrading, in her own quiet way has gone on to cultivate a long and fruitful career, doing things her way, still successfully touring and recording with a newly released live album and book of selected lyrics.
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….