Only from England could there come a show as fanatically serious about rock ’n’ roll as The Old Grey Whistle Test. From 1971 to 1987, the program was like a U.K. music magazine come to life, covering one of the most scattershot 15-year periods in pop history with the kind of dry journalistic enthusiasm found in British tomes like Mojo and the New Music Express. And it was an equal opportunity exposer: Snarling punks were given as much screen time as the dinosaurs they sought to replace; art-fuck weirdos rubbed elbows with piano-caressing balladeers; and, as this second DVD of performances proves, they even gave Meat Loaf roughly three hours to do whatever the hell it is that he does. Unlike other such pre-MTV staples as Top of the Pop’s and its Yankee equivalent American Bandstand, Whistle Test looked beyond the charts to find that thin wire connecting the Who to the Undertones to Thomas Dolby.
Volume 2 is, like the decade and a half the show represents, a mixed bag. The first collection mainly focused on artists captured right at the precipice of fame: U2, the Police, R.E.M., etc. This new edition — which was actually released across the pond in 2003 — mostly scrapes the edges of cultdom for names that never made it that far. Every clip is, at the very least, a fascinating historical artifact — there probably isn’t much footage of Argent lying around anywhere, after all — and, at best, utterly revelatory. The performances are arranged in chronological order, giving a real sense of how quickly rock evolved as the hippie era sputtered to a close. Naturally, there’s a predominance of singer-songwriters in the first half, from Loggins & Messina doing the almost painfully twee “House on Pooh Corner” to the quietly tortured Judee Sill and Tim Buckley, both of whom died not too long after taping their segments. Of course, punk exploded within that timeframe as well, but as progressive as the show seems in retrospect, Whistle Test wasn’t quick to embrace outsiders: After the New York Dolls finish miming their way through “Jet Boy,” presenter Bob Harris smiles derisively into the camera and declares them “mock rock.” In fact, punk didn’t invade the show en masse until 1978 — about a year too late — when the Adverts, shown here in a blitz of “Bored Teenagers,” were brought in at the last minute to replace Blood Sweat & Tears, whose saxophonist had just died. After that, Whistle Test became one of the only places to see groups like Siouxsie & the Banshees on television.
But what really set Whistle Test apart from its peers? It allowed the rock stars who appeared on it to sleep in. “For a rock band in those days to be anywhere else but in bed or shagging a bird at ten in the morning was not anywhere you wanted to be,” says Roger Daltrey, one of the talking heads buffering the videos. “Whistle Test was incredibly civilized because they didn’t start doing anything until at least two in the afternoon.” Now that’s a program that knows musicians.