Between 1971 and 1987, BBC television's The Old Grey Whistle Test was crucial viewing for any "serious" rock fan, a weekly digest of live performance, concert footage, interviews, and news, presented for most of that run by the gently bearded whisper of DJ Bob Harris. It was never a show that chased headlines -- although Whistle Test can claim to have launched some of the most incandescent talents of the early '70s, from Alice Cooper, who made his first U.K. TV appearance on the show, to Focus, hitherto an unknown Dutch prog act, it was just as notable for the acts it didn't feature as for those it did. No "pop" groups, no Top 40 hypes, nothing that at least one member of the production team wouldn't trust with his life. The result, though the show itself drifted in and out of critical and public favor throughout its 16-year run, is today regarded among the most crucial British rock archives in existence, and the two DVDs that comprise this package highlight at least a fraction of the jewels therein. The 45 exclusive performances stretching across the show's entire run do indeed include the most epochal showings, with the first disc traveling through the first half of the 1970s, a gold mine of thinking man's rock -- Focus, of course, whipping up a frenzied (and festive) "Hocus Pocus," show favorites the Sensational Alex Harvey Band hamming it up with "Give My Compliments to the Chef," the Wailers' spellbinding romp through "Stir It Up," and an absolutely epic rendition of "Frankenstein" from the Edgar Winter Group.
There's room, too, for a couple of the bands that Harris himself furiously fought against including on the show, only to be outvoted by his teammates -- nobody who saw them will ever forget the scorn and disgust with which the staid and serious Harris introduced the decidedly glamorous novelty of Roxy Music and the New York Dolls, and there's a school of thought that actually credits his outrage with laying the foundations of punk rock a few years later. Harris represented the establishment; Roxy (and the Dolls) were the future. If you liked one, you couldn't trust the other. Harris himself had departed Whistle Test by the time the show itself was ready to embrace punk -- he presided over a handful more begrudging nods in that direction, including the blistering performances from Dr. Feelgood and Otway & Barrett that appear here, but it was with the arrival of hostess Annie Nightingale that the show (and this collection) moved into the new age. Talking Heads, XTC, Blondie, the Damned, Public Image, and the Teardrop Explodes all highlight disc two, although there's still room for the traditional Whistle Test audience. Meat Loaf turned in a phenomenal "Paradise By the Dashboard Lights," there's some stunning footage of Bruce Springsteen, Robert Wyatt turns in a heartbreaking "Shipbuilding," and R.E.M. -- possibly the one band in the '80s that wholly epitomized the spirit of the show in the '70s -- takes a suitably po-faced trip down "Moon River." Bonus material includes personal recollections from the show's hosts (a wealth of entertaining trivia) and a clutch of interviews from the show's golden years: Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Keith Richard, Elton John. In addition, producer Mike Appleton delivers a vastly enjoyable audio commentary, while there's also a smattering of still-photo features. At the end of the day, though, it's the music that made The Old Grey Whistle Test what it was, and the music -- close to five hours of it -- that renders this collection such an essential document.