Watching the clip of XTC on the Old Grey Whistle Test reminded me of the transitional period in the program in 1978. At the before launching into ‘Statue of Liberty’ band leader Andy Partridge make some snide comment about a Rita Coolidge tune. It’s quite a shock on watching one of their other songs on the show that Bob Harris is still in the chair being insulted on his own show.
OGWT splits the generations. For people of my age it’s about hoping to catch the program, which was often broadcast well past bedtime for us school kids, in the hope of seeing Horslips miming in broom cupboard. For anyone 10 years younger the memories are probably of a slightly more adrenaline fuelled ‘Whistle Test’ which dragged on in to the late 80’s and featured Mark Ellen, David Hepworth and Andy Kershaw. For those older than me there’s even the early 70’s period hosted by Richard Williams and featuring a naked woman painted green in the credits apparently.
By 1978 the BBC was struggling to justify the existence of OGWT which reflects just how far music had progressed in less than a decade. No longer was it enough to lounge about smoking, grinning and mumbling, the energy level had gone up considerably and Bob Harris just wasn’t going to match that. His replacement was Annie Nightingale, a real force of nature who for long periods had kept her place as the only woman allowed on Radio 1. She was a product of the swinging 60’s but had managed to keep moving with the times, unlike Harris by simply adopting whatever music was in vogue. By the late 70’s she was a firm champion of ‘new wave’, today I believe she is a dance DJ despite being in her late 70’s.
In an era when age was crucial Nightingale was totally wrong but she was eager and willing and that’s what the BBC wants from its presenters, but the fact was she was around the same age as Harris and was fronting a show that smacked of the dead 70’s.
When OGWT was conceived it was going to be a programme for the ‘serious’ rock fan rather than the pop kids. The rule was therefore made that bands would only be invited onto the show if they had made an album. While this worked for a while, excluding the likes of Edison Lighthouse or Middle of the Road in favour of Greenslade but by the end of the 70’s credible artists were making great singles. The delay in getting the big record made has led to Harris complaining that a lot of the lesser bands appeared on the show (he probably includes XTC in that generalisation) and he missed out on the best bands who were still making singles initially. Certainly by 1978 record companies were ready to sign up anyone who looked new wave enough to make them money.
In 1977 OGWT featured one remotely punk band, namely The Talking Heads whose performance of ‘Psycho Killer’ has become one of those seminal rock video clips. 1978 opened the floodgates from Buzzcocks to Souxsie and the Banshees, to the Police and the Adverts. Despite the homegrown talent the only band to have more than one appearance was the Cars which represented the sort of shiny faux punk product that the BBC just loved. By 1979 however, according to OGWT punk had passed and a whole new load of stuff was heading our way from Two Tone and the new wave of British heavy metal.
For one year only, the new bands who had chosen to sneer at ‘whispering Bob’ and his Californian cast were given a chance to appear on the hated OGWT. For most it was too good to turn down, whatever its flaws the show had good sound and adequate production values. Interviewers at least made an attempt to sound intelligent, if a band sucked it was usually their own fault. Because of this artists either ignored their surroundings and soldiered grimly on or they attempted to be a bit smartarsed. Squeeze made a rude announcement, XTC scoffed Rita Coolidge and the Dammed smashed up their equipment.
I missed it all of course as I didn’t have a television for a couple of years and even if I did I wouldn’t have stayed home to watch it, for the first time music was stating to pass me by