The Late Movies: The Old Grey Whistle Test

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a BBC TV show featuring live music. It ran from 1971 through 1988 on BBC2, and many performances are now collected on YouTube -- I'll show you some favorites below. But what the heck does "Old Grey Whistle Test" mean? According to host Bob Harris, the name comes from:

... a 'tin pan alley' phrase from years ago. When they got the first pressing of a record they would play it to people they called the old greys [doormen in grey suits]. The ones they could remember and could whistle having heard it just once or twice had passed the old grey whistle test.

So it's catchy, you see.

REM, "Moon River"/"Pretty Persuasion" Medley

1984. Remember when Michael Stipe had hair? Like lots of hair?

Bruce Johnston (Beach Boys), "Disney Girls"


Watch this Beach Boys classic stripped down to a piano-and-vocals rendition by its author, Bruce Johnston. Sample lyrics: "Patti Page and those summer days out on old Cape Cod / Oh those happy times, making home-made wine, down in my garage / I remember country shade and sipping lemonade, I guess I'm slowing down / You know it'd be a turn-back world with a local girl in a little smaller town."

John Lennon, "Stand By Me"

1975. I had no idea Lennon recorded this song. Beautiful and somehow heartbreaking around the edges. Check out the shout-out to his son Julian (who would have been about 12 at the time) around 2:18.

David Bowie, "Queen Bitch"

1972, with a sweet blue twelve-string guitar.

The Replacements, "Kiss Me on the Bus"

1986, if you couldn't tell by the hair.

Billy Joel, "Piano Man"

Man, I'd forgotten that this is genuinely an awesome song. 1975. Check out the mustache.

Tom Waits, "Burma Shave"

1979. The poor video quality somehow seems to add to the experience of this thing.

Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Painted Bird"

Note a young Robert Smith from The Cure on guitar. Date unknown, but I'm guessing late 1983.

The Runaways, "Wasted"

Probably 1977? They're really tearing it up here.

Roxy Music, "The Strand"

"The program was about integrity, I suppose, and sort of honest music: basic, straightforward music, often acoustic, to do with musicianship (or ideas of musicianship at the time), and a kind of directness, I guess. And along came Roxy Music, who were none of those things. ... They were a synthesis of lots and lots of things. ... You know, they had an oboe player."

The Police, "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Next To You"

1978. Sweet shades, Sting. Check out the guitar technique in the "Can't Stand Losing You" solo.

Got Any Other Favorites?

Post links in the comments! Search YouTube for "Old Grey Whistle Test" or OGWT to find TONS of stuff.

Chloe Efforn
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.


Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.


He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.


John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.


As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.


In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.


John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.


John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.


In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

Getty Images
The Time Sammy Davis Jr. Impersonated Michael Jackson
Getty Images
Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. was known for his impersonations—check out his rendition of “As Time Goes By” as 13 different people. So when he hit the stage with Jerry Lewis for a 1988 TV special, he decided to show the audience that his talents weren’t just limited to acts from his era.

Though he briefly mentions Rod Stewart, his main target was Michael Jackson. Davis and Jackson were extremely close; when Jackson was just in his twenties, he would often show up at Davis’s house unannounced to immerse himself in the archives, a room downstairs that contained videos of Davis’s performances over the years.

“Michael Jackson is more than a friend," Davis—who was born on this day in 1925—explained, while also alluding to the fact that the King of Pop borrowed some dance moves from him. "He’s like a son.” And then he launched into this impression:

Jackson returned the favor during a special on February 4, 1990, in which Hollywood’s biggest stars gathered to honor Davis, who was celebrating six decades in show business:

Sadly, the anniversary show was the last time Davis would perform in public. Though throat cancer had mostly stolen his voice by this point, Davis let his tap shoes do the talking. He died on May 16, 1990—just three months after the tribute aired.


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