Old & Grey: December

In Terry Gilliam’s latest escapade into the bizarre and surreal, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, lurks an unexpected and unconventional figure in the character cast: clad in black suit and top hat, darkly witty and coolly sardonic appears the Devil himself, played by no other than cult musician Tom Waits. He has aged befittingly since his musical heyday in the 1970s, his face now haggard with the mischievous and ironical humour that characterises the extreme versatility of his music. Whether growling, caterwauling, drawling or (rarely) singing his distinctive, often seedy anecdotes over thumping jazz rhythms ‘(Underground’), eerie saxophone licks (‘Small Change’) or deliberately out-of-tune piano melodies (‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (not me)’), the performer communicates a persona that is strikingly befitting to such a sarcastic and blackly comical figure as Terry Gilliam’s creation. He even appears as the lunatic Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In fact, wherever Waits happens to turn up he is a surprising figure. His deep howling voice is reminiscent of the rawness of the early Delta Blues singers; I imagine more than one mouth was open in surprise when he appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977: a young, slim pale American with a full head of combed hair and characterful features. Dressed in a dark suit he sits alone at a grand piano with only a drummer, double-bassist and saxophonist – half-hidden and semi-audible – for company in the atmospheric semi-darkness of the small studio. At the piano he draws out the beautiful melody of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, while his gruff voice strains into the microphone. It is not a musical voice, but it is passionate, touching and unmistakable. Perhaps lacking is some of the eccentricity of his cabaret-like performances caught on live DVDs – such as ‘Burma Shave’, in which he hangs around a stage lamppost clutching a continual cigarette, and the audience howl with laughter at his seemingly semi-inebriated version of ‘Silent Night’ – yet he has not lost even an inch of conviction, and shows himself to be just as passionate as he is theatrical. To illustrate: my father attended a Sheffield concert in the late seventies. The lights went down, and in the pitch blackness Waits simply howled like a wolf – a haunting welcome, and endearingly bizarre.

Holly Bidgood

Old & Grey

This is the first post of our new column Old & Grey, written by Holly Bidgood, espousing the hidden joys buried away in the archives of the infamous TV show “The Old Grey Whistle Test“.


I remember when Top Of The Pops was cancelled, however long ago it was now, and the feeling of what a shame it was: a pity that the most popular forum for ‘live’ broadcasting by performers in the flesh should be taken off the air; more a pity that it should have been full of such utter rubbish in the first place. Shortly afterwards, DVDs appeared in daily life, and with it came a gradual trickle of DVDs as Christmas presents and the like, in which I found what I had always wished existed: The Old Grey Whistle Test. Here could be found a collection of live performances from the leading alternative – if you will – musicians: musicians with talent, with soul, and with beards.

The program quickly became a personal favourite, not least because I was suddenly able to see the flesh and blood attached to the voices and sounds I had grown up listening to; I felt that personal, nostalgic attraction to this world of real music, despite having been brought into the world nineteen years after the first series was aired. The Whistle Test happened in a small BBC studio with, at just under ten meters by seven, just enough room for a couple of cameras, no audience, and a softly-spoken, bearded presenter named Bob Harris. The name, according to Harris, came from an old ‘tin-pan alley’ phrase: the first pressing of a record would be played to the doormen in grey suits, known as Old Greys, and the ones they were able to remember and whistle after just one or two listens has passed the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Bob Harris doing his thing

The whole set-up was wonderfully modest (although, true, there were a few bizarre outfits, such as Alice Cooper in black make-up and lycra, and the New York Dolls playing in full women’s clothing complete with high heels). With honesty and a very low budget the program awarded a voice to those artists who were perhaps too low down on the record company’s list of priorities to be publicised in a lavish, costumed music video; here could be seen, perhaps for the first time by most viewers, more elusive musicians such as the likes of Tim Buckley, whose performance of ‘Dolphins’ in 1974 remains one of the most simple and heartfelt I have seen. There can even be found a young Elton John in the same year, complete with sparkly jacket and silly pink glasses, playing ‘Tiny Dancer’ in the empty studio: just a man and a piano. The program ran for seventeen years and, as we shall see, the BBC even managed to embrace punk…

Holly Bidgood