Friday, April 03, 2020

If not for "Whistle Test" and Mike Appleton

I just heard that Mike Appleton has died.

Mike's the guy second from the right in the back row, alongside Robyn Hitchcock, Trevor Dann, Andy Kershaw and Rick Wright of Pink Floyd. The front row is Mark Ellen, Bob Harris, Billy Bragg and me.

Mike was the BBC man behind "The Old Grey Whistle Test". He was the one who launched it as  producer and for years as Editor managed to keep it on the air until it was eventually booted out in the course of one of BBC's numberless quests for a younger demographic, only to be replaced by a more hectic show that nobody remembers.

"Whistle Test", by contrast, they do remember and that's all thanks to Mike. Even the people who don't remember have come to know it. If you've ever gone on YouTube and watched some old clip of Little Feat or Ry Cooder or Tim Buckley or John Martyn or the Wailers playing in some tiny BBC studio, that's because Mike booked them, often at a time when nobody else in broadcasting seemed to be remotely interested in them. Mike was oblivious to the whims of fashion. At the time everybody thought that was a weakness but actually it proved to be a strength.

I knew Mike a bit from when I worked as a record plugger and when I bumped into him at a Bruce Springsteen party in the bowling alley at Madison Square Garden in 1980 I had drunk enough to suggest that he really should hire me on the "Whistle Test". A couple of weeks later he rang and asked me to come and review some music books. That led to me doing the show with Annie Nightingale and then with Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw and then Live Aid, which was only made possible by the fact that Mike was the one guy who knew how to put a thing like that on television.

I went all over the world filming with Mike. On our days off in New York I would head down to Tower to buy the latest records. Mike would rent a car and drive into rural New Jersey where he would track down elderly people who had once worked for Thomas Edison in pursuit of his passion, which was collecting old phonographic equipment.

It's not going too far to say that most of the people in the picture above, taken twenty years ago when VH1 put on an evening celebrating "Whistle Test", would not have crossed each other's paths, or even be in that line of work, had it not been for Mike.

I'm regularly asked to name the records that changed my life. If I'm perfectly honest records never changed my life. However, a handful of people did. Mike was one of that handful.


  1. Lovely tribute David.
    Whistle Test transformed my world forever by introducing me to the spectrum of music that was out I guess Mike was responsible for that.....Thank you Michael, forever in your debt,...RIP

  2. Mike Appleton was one of the great TV Music Producers.He was always at the forefront of the music scene. It was Mike whom I turned to when Bob and I were looking for a better solution to televise Live Aid. He set the train in motion which resulted in the longest TV broadcast ever for music.Condolences to his family.