Picture if you can. Mid-1980’s Britain, on a cold November evening, a recent 16-year old convert to ‘alternative music’ (the author) sits down expectantly in front of the TV to watch ‘Whistle Test’ on BBC2. Obviously, (it is the 80’s after all) my fingers are also poised over the play and record buttons of a VHS video recorder, newly acquired in the family home. Whistle Test is the upgraded/updated version of the venerable ‘Old Grey Whistle Test‘ and provides a combination of live-in-the-studio bands, general music featurettes, artist interviews and so on.
The show begins with a close-up of a long, curly-haired singer sporting a plaid shirt and a watch for a tie. He sings acapella, bathed in reverb, backed by a close harmony with another other out-of-shot band member. The song seems familiar, but I can’t place it. The camera pans out. The second voice is the drummmer, under a white spotlight….”Waiting ’round the bend, My huckleberry friend, Moon River and me.”. Pause.
Then a super-energetic guitar player kicks-off what sounds like another new song with what is immediately recognisable as ‘a Riff’. Next, the entire four-piece band pile in and are now all visible under bright studio lights.
Singer in crumpled secondhand suit cupping the mic. Guitar player in jacket and ‘kerchief frantically bobbing and weaving while he plays scratchy, jangling guitar. Hyperactive bass player underpinning the song with highly melodic lines. Drummer in waistcoat and beret(?) driving them with forward (escape) momentum.
This isn’t like The Clash (my absolute favourite band at the time) or The Cult or the other post-punk music I’m vaguely aware of. It is joyous and openly, unashamedly melodic. But it is still weird, off-kilter and mysterious. The song ends abruptly in the chorus, on a non-tonic chord that just hangs in the air.
Andy Kershaw, co-presenter of the show appears and in his broad Lancashire (30 miles from where the I live in Yorkshire) accent declares “Smart! From Athens, Georgia thats R.E.M. with ‘Pretty Persuasion’ a track from their 2nd LP ‘Reckoning'”.