It was the groundbreaking TV music show that during its 16-season run featured legendary acts and those on the cusp of making it big.

The roll-call included everyone from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen, Elton John to Roxy Music, Talking Heads to U2, and the Ramones, Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, REM, David Bowie, Blondie, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne.

Every genre of music was covered: from punk and new wave to soul, reggae, country, funk, blues and hard rock. It had a special place in its heart for singer-songwriters of rare talent. And when the Dutch group, Focus, appeared on the show in 1973, the demand for their two albums became so great that their record company devoted 10 straight days to pressing more copies.

OGWT gave valuable early exposure to such musicians as Springsteen, Bob Marley, and Tom Petty. Marley and the Wailers made their first British TV appearance on the show, in 1973. It also introduced many viewers to countless new groups. Little Feat was a good example of that - as a future OGWT presenter, Andy Kershaw, would acknowledge.

The list of musicians who played in the Whistle Test studio over the years is remarkable: the Pet Shop Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, Suzanne Vega, John Cooper Clarke, Johnny Winter, Fairport Convention, the Damned, Little Feat, the Pogues, the New York Dolls, the Undertones, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Meatloaf is said to have French-kissed his singing partner during one livewire performance.

U2 performed such songs as I Will Follow and 11 O'Clock Tick Tock on the show. David Bowie's appearances included Five Years, Queen Bitch and Oh You Pretty Things.

The Herald: Bassist John Entwistle, of the Who, and his band play songs from his third solo album. Rigor Mortis Sets In, on the Old Grey Whistle Test, May 21, 1973. Left to right: Tony Ashton, Eddie Jones, Entwistle and Graham DeakinBassist John Entwistle, of the Who, and his band play songs from his third solo album. Rigor Mortis Sets In, on the Old Grey Whistle Test, May 21, 1973. Left to right: Tony Ashton, Eddie Jones, Entwistle and Graham Deakin (Image: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

The programme also ran exclusive interviews with such stars as Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Springsteen and Robert Plant. No wonder that it was rated so highly by discerning music fans and musicians alike.

The Old Grey Whistle Test, which was created by the BBC television producer Mike Appleton, was launched on BBC2 52 years ago today, at 10.55pm on Tuesday, September 21, 1971, introduced by Richard Williams.

As it happens, 1971 was a stunning year for new albums: it saw the release of, amongst many others LPs, the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Pink Floyd's Meddle, Led Zeppelin VI, Elton John's Madman Across the Water, Carole King's Tapestry, and John Lennon's Imagine. Indeed, an entire book about that landmark year - 1971: Never a Dull Moment, by David Hepworth, himself a former presenter of OGWT - was published a few years ago.

From Radio Luxembourg to The Old Grey Whistle Test: Whispering Bob Harris on the music that defined a generation

OGWT was intended to do for the thriving album market what Top of the Pops did for the singles chart. The guests in those first few weeks included Alice Cooper, John Martyn, Curtis Mayfield, Dr John and Curtis Mayfield.

The appearance by Cooper and his band, as they performed their song, Under My Wheels, caught the eye. David Hepworth would recall: "The camera lingered on Alice's jump-suit, which was slit down to his navel, the glittery stars and fringed sleeves of the band's suits and the mascara, which looked as though it had been applied by a drunken sailor". They looked cheap but that did not matter - Cooper found it so easy to stir outrage in the Britain of 1971 that by the time his next album was released, in 1972, he was, in Hepworth's words, a 'bona fide phenomenon'.

Not that OGWT's facilities in those early years were extravagant. As Richard Williams later said: "We did it in a very, very small studio with very limited facilities - people wouldn't believe now how tiny the place was. And rock musicians generally found that very difficult to cope with, to come in and play live in such a limited space". Some, like Curtis Mayfield, rose to the challenge magnificently.

Williams would also recollect that budgetary constraints led to the early shows alternating live or pre-recorded performances with album tracks accompanied by silent-movie clips from the archives of the film historian, Philip Jenkinson.

The Herald: Bob Harris took over as OGWT presenter in September 1972Bob Harris took over as OGWT presenter in September 1972 (Image: BBC)

'Whispering' Bob Harris, the much-admired presenter of Radio 1's progressive music programme, Sounds of the Seventies, was invited to take over from Williams as the face of OGWT, in September 1972.

He fronted the programme for six years and became the presenter most commonly associated with it, renowned for his distinctively low-key approach as much as for his love of music. To him fell the enviable task of making periodical trips to America to record interviews with the biggest names.

He has written, entertainingly, about his OWGT adventures and interviews with celebrities in his memoirs, Bob Harris: The Whispering Years.

The show, however, was slow to latch onto the punk phenomenon. And a major turning-point for Harris turned out to be the physical and verbal abuse directed at him by punks, who saw him as a middle-class, softly-spoken enemy. The menacing became part of his daily life.

In 1977 he was badly assaulted by punks at a London venue where Six Pistols and their entourage, over-refreshed, had been celebrating after the band signed with A&M Records.

Harris was confronted by six Mohican-cut drunks, wielding broken glass. "I was in serious trouble here", he wrote in his memoirs, "more scared than I have ever been in my life". He was rescued by a dozen or so bystanders, who were mainly the road crew for Procol Harum.

Harris also came under fire in the music press, who saw him as a man out of time amidst the explosion of punk and new wave. The experience soured things for him, and in September 1978 he co-hosted his final Whistle Test with his successor, Annie Nightingale.

Over time the show had been given larger budgets, and was able to devote special editions to high-profile acts, including Bruce Springsteen in Philadelphia in 1984.

Standing in the way of (remote) control

During the 1908s the Old Grey Whistle Test sought to move with the times, even to the point of renaming itself Whistle Test, as it competed with the popularity of the chaotic rival offering, The Tube. But the arrival at the BBC of Janet Street-Porter as Head of BBC Youth & Entertainment Features heralded the end of Whistle Test early in 1988, after 16 seasons.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2017, Bob Harris said of the show: "The quid pro quo with the BBC was that we had no substantial budget, but we had freedom to experiment. Many American bands who’d never been seen in the UK, including Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, made their British TV appearances on Whistle Test.

"For me, the best of all were Bob Marley and the Wailers. They were ridiculously good, creating such an atmosphere in the studio. They were totally stoned. Another thrill was a very eccentric Captain Beefheart. He virtually took over the control room, as if he was producing the entire show.

"When the New York Dolls came on, I was criticised for describing them as mock rock. I’d grown up with the Rolling Stones so to me they were like a tribute band, basing themselves on something I’d heard before. I met David Johansen, the lead singer, years later. But far from holding a grudge, he said it was the best thing that could have happened because it gave them notoriety".

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Annie Nightingale also told the Guardian: "I had this jokey style because I wanted to be encouraging to the bands, a lot of whom were very inexperienced. They’d only get one rehearsal before the live take, in this very cold studio, often with no audience.

"But everything went wrong when Gary Numan came on with his band Tubeway Army. This was a big break for them, and they’d brought their own set, made of bits of polystyrene. The fire officer didn’t like it and started spraying it with fire retardant, adding to the tension. Then when the camera swung round and knocked over half their props, hysteria took over. I was laughing to try and calm things down, but Numan told me later he never forgave us for that because he had felt so nervous".

In February 2018 Harris hosted Old Grey Whistle Test Live: For One Night Only, a live, three-hour show with music, special guests and rare archive to mark 30 years since the legendary series was last broadcast.