The British version of this DVD collection, an assemblage of rock-and-roll highlights from 16 years of TV's finest live-music program (or programme, mate), runs two discs and includes the likes of Japan, Focus, Dr. Feelgood, Simply Red, Meat Loaf and Robert Wyatt--in other words, acts unlikely to enhance the show's legendary rep as a showcase for The Best That Ever Was. Wisely, for U.S. distribution, BBC Video has pared down the lot to a single-disc package just shy of perfect, though they could have kept Alice Cooper and Lynyrd Skynyrd and given us the Who or Sex Pistols or Elvis Costello or the Jam, among the dozens who appeared on the show. When the Clown Prince of Schlock and Roll opens up the disc with "Under My Wheels" and Skynyrd launches into an endless "Freebird," it feels more like threat than promise. Gladly the kitsch and crud give way to quality soon enough, and what's revealed is nearly two decades' worth of music stripped of polish and pretense; it's the arena in miniature, then-unknowns on their way to superstardom (and, in some cases, martyrdom), singing and sweating in a studio to three cameramen using earmuffs to keep out the noise. No lip-synching was allowed (save for Roxy Music, and who could even tell?), so what you get are larger-than-lifes (Bob Marley, the Police, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat, etc.) shrunk down to club-size miniatures--raw and exhilarating, no matter how old the performances may be.
In most cases, the acts showcased on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which ran from '71 to '87 till being usurped by the likes of Jools Holland's rock-and-roll gangbang, were on the first rungs of the ladder of success. Elton John, still the singer-songwriter yet to evolve into Liberace Lite, offers an intimate "Tiny Dancer," followed by Curtis Mayfield praying for peace, a baby-faced Randy Newman preaching atomic annihilation, a Marley-and-Tosh Wailers stirring it up, Captain Beefheart and later Tom Waits croaking it out, the Ramones and the Damned tearing it up. You see the Talking Heads and Blondie fresh out of CBGB, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fresh from Florida, XTC before Andy Partridge was too terrified to perform live, U2 when Bono wore leather pants and a mullet, R.E.M. when they still soared like Byrds. There are the requisite bonuses, chiefly intros by the show's various hosts and rambling but nonetheless thoughtful interviews with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon and Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, but what's said is hardly as enjoyable and enlightening as what's sung. Or, in the case of Iggy Pop moaning "I'm Bored," what's barely sung.