'Whistle Test' DVD Showcases Vintage Performances

The U.K.'s legendary '70s and '80s live rock-performance TV series "The Old Grey Whistle Test" (BBC Video) arrives on DVD Sept. 16. The disc contains 28 performance clips from such varied talents as J

The U.K.'s legendary '70s and '80s live rock-performance TV series "The Old Grey Whistle Test" (BBC Video) arrives on DVD Sept. 16. The disc contains 28 performance clips from such varied talents as John Lennon, U2, the Police, the Ramones and Bonnie Raitt, along with interviews with such luminaries as Lennon, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Robert Plant.

Also included is a gallery of stills of the artists on the show, an audio commentary by series producer Mike Appleton and sleeve notes by DVD producer Jill Sinclair, who joined the show in 1977 as a production assistant. "It was fantastic revisiting my youth," Sinclair tells Billboard.

Sinclair says the series' album-track slant "was devised as the antidote to [U.K. show] 'Top of the Pops.' In the early '70s, lots of bands like Led Zeppelin were emerging that didn't want singles and wanted to be seen as 'album bands.' But there was nowhere on television you could be unless you had a hit single until 'Whistle Test.'"

Bands did need to have an album available, though. Sinclair notes that this policy "came back and bit the program in the backside" with the advent of punk rock in the late '70s. As some punk bands did not have albums at the time, the series "came a bit unstuck for a couple of seasons but then regained its composure," Sinclair says. "But a lot of people say its heyday was the beginning of the '70s, when it was the only place in the world you could see the artists who are on this DVD."

Indeed, as Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz relates, "The Old Grey Whistle Test" was the first major non-cable TV show the band played. "We were considered pretty edgy at the time," says Frantz, who appears on the DVD in his band's performance of "Psycho Killer." "So it shows how open the times were in the U.K. that we would be invited to perform."

"The Old Grey Whistle Test" ran from 1971 to 1987. The BBC Video release was compiled from a two-disc "best-of" set previously issued in the U.K. to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the show's debut. "It's taken this long to get permission for stateside release," Sinclair says, adding that two more DVD volumes are in the pipeline, both domestically and in the U.K.