Bob Harris' Gallery

He may not have been the first - or, indeed - the last man to bring Whistle Test to the viewing public, but 30 years after it first hit our screens, the name - and the voice - of Bob Harris are still synonymous with the BBC's long-running TV rock show.

How did you get into journalism?

My initial target was to get myself involved in a magazine, not that I had done anything like that. So I started buying loads of magazines and writing off to them and one of the people I got to meet was Tony Elliott, who was running UNIX magazine in 1967.

Tony liked my work and said, 'Right, what do you want to do next?' I said, 'Well, I want to meet John Peel.' So I found myself meeting John and Marc Bolan. Tony and I then started Time Out and John started supported me getting into Radio 1. He introduced me to Jeff Griffin and soon I was sitting in for John when I started on Radio 1 in 1970. John was my mentor figure. His programme on Radio London was what I aspired to. He really did help launch me. No doubt about that.

In 1972, you were approached by Michael Appleton to host The Old Grey Whistle Test. You were impressed that they were the first to feature Jackson Browne, on 2nd May '72.

Yes, that was the one for me. That really did it, but there were a lot of other things as well. The artists that I was playing on my radio show, Sounds Of The Seventies - you know, Family, Elton John, Free, Wishbone Ash - were coming up on Whistle Test week after week, as well as American bands that otherwise you didn't see. The show had film clips and interviews with people like Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder, and I thought 'Wow!'

But the absolute real clincher for me was Jackson Browne. I was just bowled over by what he did and so when Michael phoned up and said, 'Would you like to do the show?' - well, I jumped at it. There was no hesitation at all.

Is it true that you and Appleton clashed in the early days over the show's content?

No, when Michael said come in and do the show, I arrived on that first Monday morning with my bag of albums with me. I had basically worked out what the first show was going to be, bearing in mind that I had been working for two years on my Radio 1 show and choosing all the music. I've always done that. I still do that now on my Radio 2 show and I've never been on the radio in a situation where I've done anything other than played the music I've brought in and selected for that show. So naturally I just assumed that the same thing would be the case with Whistle Test.

But Michael threw a bit of paper at me and said, 'This is the running order.' I said, 'What do you mean, the running order? No, I choose the music.' I asked him, 'What happens if I'm sitting in front of people I don't like? What am I going to say about them?' So Michael looked at me and said, 'Well, that's the challenge, Bob.'

I realised that battering Mike with my favourite bands was not going to work, so what happened was, over a period of a few months, a mutual trust emerged between us. I began to trust much more the things I wouldn't have chosen and Mike began to trust my judgement over bands I was going to see and was listening to. I would make a list of bands or tell Michael abouit, for instance, the new Steve Miller album, or whatever it was. And I'd leave him to listen to it, and if he thought it was right, it'd be on the show. And if he didn't think it was right, it wasn't. We trusted each other and very soon, we were working side by side. It was a fantastic working relationship with Mike. We're still good friends.

Bob Harris

I believe meeting John Lennon in New York in 1975 was one of your favourite Old Grey Whistle Test shows?

That was the one! He was a person of so many aspects. That was the thing. He was sort of a melting pot. He was such a caring person, so aware of everything that was going on around him and he was affected by it to a large extent, as well.

As we know, he could also be cruel, chaotic and dismissive, and during the interview, he was saying that the first national press thast the Beatles ever got washim beating up a DJ (Bob Wooler) at Paul McCartney's birthday party. There was that side of John as well, as he said himself, and I can quote him exactly, he said, 'I've always been a little loose,' and that was what made him incredibly fascinating. He was this mix of people, all in one. I just thought he was so compelling. It was my favourite show and excerpts of the interview will be on the new BBC Old Grey Whistle Test DVD.

I've also got so many other memories from my years on the Whistle Test and a lot of these memories are based in America. I just loved going over there, going to the clubs and getting up on stage introducing the band that we were doing the filming with. I mean, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. Whoever would dream I would be on stage introducing them? Also, the Cars at The Roxy, that was a really good one, interviewing Jimmy Carter, going to James Taylor and Carly Simon's house, and the Bee Gees in Miami, standing behind me singing through Spirits Having Flown.

My time on The Old Grey Whistle Test was a cavalcade of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it really was.

Did you have any embarrassing moments on the show? In particular, the meeting with Kim Fowley didn't go quite to plan, did it?

He created the Runaways. He's six foot eight, a blond albino and a crazy guy. He came in wearing a cream-coloured suit and he was carrying a bullwhip. It was quite a long tapered one, and the tail of it was wrapped round a sort of teddy bear.

He took his jacket off, walked over to the camera and said, 'Did you know I'm double-jointed?' He started pushing his elbows in and then he got his legs up and his legs went in and I was sitting there, thinking, "Oh my God". So I said, 'What about the Runaways?' And he said, 'No, I've got a double-jointed elbow.'

You were outspoken on the show, often giving your personal views on the shows's guests. Do any criticisms spring to mind?

Yes. I did get into terrible trouble for knocking Roxy Music. I said basically that I didn't like them. I thought 'Virginia Plain' was okay but I really did think they were all kind of arrogance and packaging and not a lot of substance.

But funnily enough, Phil Manzanera and myself have subsequently got to know one another quite well. He came on my GLR show a couple of times and we got on fine. My criticisim of Roxy Music wasn't personal. I just thought that they had a disregard for their audience, which amounted to arrogance, and that's what I said.

You hosted your last proper Whistle Test on 31st December, 1979. You admitted that you felt like the Ken Barlow of rock, staying one series too many. Why was that?

Because it had gone stale, at that point, for me. To be truthful, you can even go as far to say that I was feeling disillusioned because the new wave hostility that had now arrive, challenged towards me in particular, was really something in terms of my day-by-day living. It got to the point where I couldn't even see bands anymore. I would walk into a club and people would be spitting and shouting at me. The Sex Pistols incident was a part of it.

That was the very visible part of it, but it was part of the norm. I thought, 'Well, I don't really need this. This is not what I got into this for.' It just seemed that the time wasn't right for me to be still doing it. So I stopped, feeling that I had kind of lost myself too. I just felt that it was time to go back to radio, connect again with my family and rebuild a slightly more normal life than the one I had been living for the previous five years. So that's what I did.

Looking back, how influential do you think The Old Grey Whistle Test was?

We're 30 years on so I don't have to be modest or try and sell it, but it was enormously influential, increasingly so as it went on. I think the main reason for that was the integrity of the programme, especially in the first four or five years. It was so rock-solid in what it was trying to do.

It was really true to itself, show after show, and when a programme is doing that for you, you really begin to trust it and you get a lot of affection for it and believe in it. Meat Loaf came on and the sales exploded and you began to realise that the programme had enormouse influences. It could break bands if it wanted to.

Has any show since come close to rivalling it's influence?

The Tube was very, very good. Each decade, if you think about it, has an influential pop/rock show. 6.5 Special/Oh Boy in the 50s, Ready Steady Go! in the 80s and Later With Jools Holland in the 90s. These have been the key, landmark shows through those periods of time.

To coincide with the 30th anniversary of the start of the series, you've released your autobiography, The Whispering Years.

If we spin back two years from now, I was looking at the fact tht in September 2001, it will be the 30th anniversary of The Old Grey Whistle Test. the 25th anniversary was marked by VH-1, who had a Whistle Test weekend, and I thought that this time round, it would be great if the BBC did something.

I had no idea that I would enjoy it as much as I did. What's more, the more I wrote, the more encouraging the BBC were on what I was writing. And the other great thing, one thing I'm most proud of in terms of the project, was that I hit my deadline to the day. I never dreamed I would when I started because it was such a mountain to climb.

© Record Collector


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