To conclude this week's rifling through yellowing copies of Radio Times - and again, big thanks to Steve Williams for locating and typing up all this week's output - something from that RT we began the week on, 30th September 1976. Rod Stewart had the cover to plug a documentary about him on The Lively Arts, and there's also a feature on the new series of Whistle Test, which began on Tuesday at 11.10. This is how proper grown-ups' music was described in the mid-70s:
It's far from old and grey yet, you can't whistle most of the music it broadcasts, but it certainly has passed the test of time and popularity. Pop music's lively television magazine programme, The Old Grey Whistle Test, begins its sixth year this week. The show is still young at heart, serious in purpose, proud of its pioneering and always ready with a few surprises.
Pop music wears so many faces these days, it fairly boggles the ear to define Whistle Test territory. You might call it 'album music' or durable contemporary pop. More ephemeral single hits get their moments on Top of the Pops, while middle-of-the-road music surfaces all around. Whistle Test, however, dwells on what's new and what's classic in serious quality pop.
Fans of the programme run the gamut of age and taste. Letters occasionally arive requesting earlier transmission so that ten year old Algernon can watch Paul McCartney's Wings flap, for instance. Conversely, there's the apocryphal tale of the pensioner who got such a tonic from a Whistle Test gig by Dr Hook and The Medicine Show that he wrote in to enquire if he could get Dr Hook on the National Health.
"We've gone out of our way to make it a music programme on television, not just a television programme with music," said Michael Appleton, Whistle Test's confident 39 year old producer. "Basically my idea is to mix acts and styles to widen the musical specturm of the audience. Of course. it's desigend to entertain, but I'm interested in educating as well. We approach pop as an enduring form of music." Appleton's dark beard was one of three that were bobbing at me at the Whistle Test GHQ at Television Centre, a sort of fall-out shelter surrounded by LPs instead of sandbags. Tom Corcoran, the director, supported a rakish little blonde goatee. The best known beard in the room belonged to the programme's long time presenter, Bob Harris.
In an era when the disc jockey or compere is more likely to 'sock it to you' with decibel overload, 'Whispering' Bob Harris, as he's affectionately called, suggests a country doctor who's just gently reassured you that the baby didn't swallow the weed-killer after all. Son of a former Northampton detective inspector, Bob, who is 30, was briefly a police cadet. He became of of two founding editors of London's Time Out magazine. Somebody at Radio 1 heard his dulcet voice and measured his encyclopaedic knowledge of pop, and he became a DJ, joining Whistle Test regularly on its second series.
Harris and Appleton are particularly proud of boosting new talent. Focus was a blur before the show, a clear success after. Alice Cooper was just on the way up, Babe Ruth was unknown - before they passed their whistle tests. Despite booking a significant roster of established stars, Appleton says, "I prefer new people to big names". Still, musicians at all stages of development have found that the show is a stimulus to their recording sales and general public appreciation.
The forty minute format generally takes two directions. The 'special', when the talent and theatre or studio are available, will become a concert - by the likes of Queen, Chick Coren, Rory Gallagher or Nils Lofgren. The more usual magazine format becomes a survey of what's current and choice in pop/rock/reggae/blues, generally built around a live interview. Harris clearly prefers the filmed interview, with the chance to edit to a high polish, but a live interview can yield some fun best left unedited.
For example, there was the record producer who lost his voice while in colloquy with 'Whispering' Bob - making it one of the quietest interviews in the history of television.
In a field where chaos is the order of the day, how do they plan shows?
Appleton and Harris listen to stacks of albums each week; they fairly eat vinyl for breakfast. While Appleton is in charge of the content, their taste runs in similar channels. Occasionally, Harris has said on camera he's not that overwhelmed with a track or an act, but always in good taste. "He's not a yes man," Appleton says, and he ought to know.
The Whistle Tester were eyeing a big scheduling board for the upcoming series, and there were many blank spaces. Only a special by Janis Ian was set. But there will be field trips to Amsterdam and West Berlin and Macon, Georgia, of all places, to devote shows to the best local talent available. Also in the works is a bit of classic Buddy Holly film, and some clips from a new film by Led Zeppelin. By next May, they hope to do a week of Rock Proms in stereo from an as yey undecided venue.
Whistle Test tries to launch each year with something extra special, like the Edinburgh reggae concert, the 10th Cambridge Festival or the Lennon interview. This year Appleton considered he's got a real treat for fans - Hard Rain, an hour's film of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue shot in Colorado by NBC and only just shown in the States.