Times

 

The Times

It wouldn't happen on Newsnight. Spare a thought for the young Bob Harris attempting to interview the wired and wasted rock glitterati of the early 1970s on that pioneering music show, The Old Grey Whistle Test.

"Keith Richards arrived with a bottle of Jack Daniels, which was pretty full when he got to the control room but by the time he got through to the studio it was two-thirds empty. He was in a state", Harris recalls.

"Lou Reed came in once with what I thought were two burly minders but they were just there to hold him up. They dragged him across the studio and plonked him in the chair. I looked at him all slumped over and though 'Oh my God' and after I asked him the first question there was a gap of five or six seconds, and it was as if someone had put a key in his back and started winding him up. You heard wuuurrrGHHH as he slowly came to life." Harris pauses to chuckle.

"There was Kim Fowley [an LA scenester who managed the Runaways], he spent eight minutes demonstrating how he was double-jointed in his arms and legs. But the saddest one was Paul Kossoff [the guitarist with Free, of All Right Now fame]. He came in only a few months before he passed away. He was not really in any fit state to be put in front of the TV cameras."

"Leo Sayer was waiting nearby to start his live set. Having tried and failed to get any kind of response from Paul I called Leo over, and he and I sat talking about Paul's contribution to music."

If such torrid moments (and reminders that Amy Winehouse was in no way a pioneer) loom large in Harris's mind, it's because the 85-year-old DJ is viewing tapes to put together for a 16-part series for Radio 2 to mark the 40th anniversary of the show's start. There will be archive recordings from OGWT veterans such as Roger Daltrey, Alice Cooper and Robert Plant, and also new interviews and music from them. There is also a 40th-anniversary CD.

The Old Grey Whistle Test ran from 1971 to 1987 and was the godfather to every half-serious rock show since, from The Tube to Later with Jools Holland. Presenters included Annie Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, but it is the long reign of "Whispering Bob", a man whose velvety tones would surely have been employed on Mr Kipling voiceovers if he hadn't been introducing Be-Bop Deluxe, that is most associated with the show. The OGWT featured everyone: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, the Police, Phil Collins in Genesis with hair, the young Elton John without it.

A personal highlight for Harris was interviewing John Lennon in New York: "Every now and then you meet someone you get on absolutely great with, and he was one." At first the producer chose all the bands and Harris could find himself in front of musicians he did not admire. "Mike Appleton would encourage me to offer an opinion, so sometimes I did."

I tell hiim I remember a mealy-mouthed introduction to Roxy Music. "I was not a big fan at all. Brian Eno was creative and interesting, but I'd done a Radio 1 In Concert a few weeks before and I was just shocked by their arrogance, Bryan Ferry in particular. They didn't seem to have any particular affection for their audience. Take Eno out of the equation and they were more style than substance. But people remember those comments. Mark Radcliffe [the radio DJ] came up to me when I first met him in the early Nineties and said, 'I will never forgive you for what you said about Roxy Music'".

And then, of course, Harris was on the wrong side of the punk wars. Punk received limited exposure on the show, partly because of the house rule that a featured band could only play a track that had appeared on an album rather than as a standalone single.

"I was the presenter of what was seen by the punk movement as a 'stadium rock' programme," Harris recalls. "I became a bit of a coconut shy." He was physically attacked by Sid Vicious. "A friend of mine, George Nicholson, a studio engineer, got a broken bottle on his head. He had 14 stitches in hospital. I got back to my flat at 8am and it was surrounded by press. I thought, this is not what I signed up for. I'd been doing the programme for six or seven years and didn't want to become the Ken Barlow of rock."

Harris bowed out and spent a low-key Eighties - "the wilderness years" - often working on local radio. He returned to Radio 1 in the Nineties, made the transition to Radio 2 and now, with his long-running country music show and OBE (he was appointed in the Queen's Birthday Honours in June), has reached grand-old-man-of-the-wireless status. It's been a full life for the policeman's son from Northampton, who has eight children by four partners. He's had a prostate cancer scare - "It's a reminder to get the best out of every day" but feels that he has had an extraordinary time. "I am so lucky. I'm not saying that glibly. I was lucky enough to be catapulted into the centre of music in a way that I would never have dreamt of.

"One of the films from the show that I recently saw again we made in Macon, Georgia, in 1976. I spent an afternoon with Dickey Betts [the sublime guitarist with those Southern rockers, the Allman Brothers Band] on the porch at his ranch in Georgia. He's got this acoustic guitaar and i'm sitting there listening to him talk and playing music. And, in my head, 35 years on, I'm still on Dickey Bett's porch."

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