Week Five of MP3 Monday brings a brand new theme: Songs performed live on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC music show that aired from 1971 to 1987. During its lifespan, it was probably the premiere televised source for new music, with particular focus on soul, punk, postpunk, and (since this was early ’80s Britain) reggae.
The BBC has issued a series of DVDs compiling performances from the show, which has resulted in fans uploading videos to Youtube. I’ve ripped the MP3s below from those videos; links to more of those at the bottom.
As always, songs will be available for download for a week, so grab ’em quick.
1. “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. From the November 21, 1972 episode. Originally from the album Just As I Am (1971).
Bill Withers got a late start in the music game, not recording until his early 30s and only after careers in the military and aircraft assembly. Of his first album, from which “Ain’t No Sunshine” is taken, he said: “I was just making a record. I didn’t know whether anyone was going to like it or not. Had nobody gone for that first record, I would have probably just gone on with life and forgot about the whole thing.” That would have been a shame, since he has a wonderfully calming, human-scale soul voice.
Judging by the sweat in Bill’s eyes, the lights at BBC Television Centre must have been turned up high the day this track was recorded. Hip-hop heads will notice legendary session man James Gadson on drums. If you saw the great documentary Keepintime — in which Gadson and some other classic soul drummers meet up with the DJs (Cut Chemist, Madlib, J-Rocc, DJ Shadow) who sample their old sides — you’ll remember Gadson as the crazy-looking old dude. Non-hip-hop heads will simply notice his permagrin and great suit.
And while I’m at it, here’s one more Bill Withers track: “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” from 1972’s Live at Carnegie Hall.
2. “Can’t Stand Losing You” by The Police. From the October 3, 1978 episode. Originally from the album Outlandos d’Amour (1978).
For those of us who first heard The Police when they had already hit the big time (Synchronicity-era), it’s nice to see them young and scrappy. “Can’t Stand Losing You” was the first single from their first album and it went nowhere initially. This Whistle Test appearance came just as the band was picking up steam.
In the video, a coltish young Sting looks so much more punk than he would in later tantric years, with his bleached spiked hair turned lime green by the overhead lights. Although he would have been around 27 at the time, he looks an awkward 19. Also a good reminder of how great a drummer Stewart Copeland was.
Also, Sting stole Harry Caray’s glasses.
3. “To Hell With Poverty” by Gang of Four. Originally from the EP Another Day/Another Dollar (1982). From the April 11, 1981 episode.
Gang of Four was the British parallel to Mission of Burma, an angular post-punk band that mixed rigid funk, left-wing politics, and names derived from Asian governments. (Brits would, perhaps rightly, prefer to call Mission of Burma the American parallel to Gang of Four.)
Like Burma, Gang of Four has seen its sound become hugely influential among a certain school of contemporary acts (Franz Ferdinand, The Rapture, Bloc Party, et al) and has recently reformed. If you want to buy an album, Entertainment! — which still sounds fresh, abrasive, and fun 27 years later — is the clear recommendation.
The strangest thing about this video is how downright regular the Four look. By which I mean: how dorky they look. They could be your local Class 2A all-district cross-country team circa 1984.
Finally, here are some other interesting videos from Whistle Test. The ones in bold are of particular interest:
- The Pet Shop Boys, “Opportunities”
- Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”
- Cat Stevens, “If I Laugh”
- U2, “Exit”
- Thomas Dolby, “Hyperactive”
- Patti Smith, “Because the Night”
- The Undertones, “Jimmy Jimmy”
- The Go-Gos, “We Got the Beat”
- Adam and the Ants, “Ants Invasion”
- Captain Beefheart, “This Is The Day”
- Gary Numan & Tubeway Army, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
- Blondie, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”
- The Jam, “Billy Hunt” and “In the Street Today”
- Buzzcocks, “Nothing Left”
- XTC, “Radios in Motion”
- Judas Priest, “Rocka Rolla”
- Madness, “Night Boat to Cairo”
- The Specials, “Rudy, A Message To You”
- David Bowie, “Queen Bitch”
- Aztec Camera, “Walk Out to Winter”
- Little Feat, “Fat Man in the Bathtub”
- Eurythmics, “Never Gonna Cry Again”
- P.I.L., “Careering”
- Tom Waits, “Small Change”
- Ramones, “Don’t Come Close”
- The Damned, “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today”
Stick around for the ending of that Damned track. It’s so much harder being punk rock when you’re in an empty studio.
Finally, a classic video of The Edgar Winter Group doing “Frankenstein”, a symbol of prog rock at its most progtastic. Dude rocks a keytar and oh so much more! Truly awesome in its awesomeness. So awesome, in fact, that it’s parodied, three decades later, in this sketch from a BBC comedy show.