'Whispering' Bob Harris interview: ‘I was everything punk hated’

Bob Harris 
Bob Harris Credit: Jeff Gilbert

Music TV legend Bob Harris is returning with his seminal rock show The Old Grey Whistle Test – 30 years since its last episode

In 1971, a live rock show began on BBC Two that would change the face of music television. The Old Grey Whistle Test, commissioned by David Attenborough, was billed as an antidote to the disposable chart hits aired on such shows as Top of the Pops. It swiftly accrued an enviable portfolio of live acts, including The Who, Captain Beefheart, The New York Dolls, Blondie, David Bowie, Patti Smith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Far from being an art house ghetto, the show was a surprise ratings hit that, at its height, attracted five and a half million viewers.

Nearly 50 years on from its inception, for one night only BBC Four is resurrecting The Old Grey Whistle Test for a three-hour special featuring archive footage and live performances from guests of the original show such as Peter Frampton and Richard Thompson. It will be presented by “Whispering” Bob Harris, the man most associated with its 16-year run. Meeting Harris in the BBC’s Wogan House is a little like falling down a rabbit hole and ending up in a groovy happening circa 1975. The splendid red beard may have turned grey, and the mane of long golden hair long gone, but Harris, 71, hasn’t changed a jot. The lo-fidelity passion for his subject is still there, and that soothing voice (parodied by everyone from The Goodies to The Fast Show) is a Proustian reminder of less frenetic times. Forget mindfulness – listening to Harris makes everything seem calmer and more pleasant.

He’s thrilled that the series is back, and still feels proud of what he achieved all those years ago. “I recognise that it was a successor to all those shows that I loved growing up such as Oh Boy! which captured the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Harris, not so much with a whisper but with a beautifully articulated purr.

Bob Harris on The Old Grey Whistle Test in the Seventies Credit: BBC

He presented Whistle Test from 1972 to 1980 and was a defining critical voice of arts programming at a time when the music critic was God. Before his first appearance on the show, he had only been in a TV studio three times. Prior to this, the Northampton-born son of a policeman had been working on radio.

During his tenure on the show, he met John Lennon in New York and persuaded him to record two songs for it (Lennon was paid in Chocolate Olivers biscuits). He interviewed Jimmy Carter in Georgia, and was delighted to find that he was wearing a Whistle Test badge. Then there was the time Keith Richards drank a bottle of Jack Daniels on the show. Both interviewer and interviewee remained undaunted.

Harris himself is no rock ‘n’ roll drugs casualty (apart from once accidentally dropping acid at a Bob Marley gig after his drink was spiked). “I never led the lifestyle,” he says. “You look at it and see that it’s destructive and non-creative, but that’s what happens when you surrender yourself to that scene.”

He cites the attitude of his friend, Alice Cooper, as cementing his own thoughts on the matter. “We were in a room full of Hollywood freaks, and everyone was being crazy. Alice said to me that both of us knew that you wind back the clock and think of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix. He said he realised his friends were dying and that he didn’t want to die so he stopped getting drunk and put a fence around himself.”

Harris may have resisted the excesses of the age but he was, in his own words, “an absolute hippy. I remember the summer of ’67 and thinking that it was great. Love was in the air, of course, but it was the optimism that struck me. Everything seemed possible.”

But times change, and Harris found himself out of favour as punk and new wave asserted their grip on the music industry. “Everyone was so supportive before punk came along. Suddenly it all became tribal. I was everything punk hated – I had long hair, I was a hippy, I was 30 years old, a stadium rock lover, I worked for the BBC. I mean, how many boxes could I have ticked? The hostilities I had to deal with were ridiculous.”

Things came to a head when Harris was attacked by the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious at a gig in London. He had to be protected by the Procol Harum road crew. “It was scary. The guy that I was with in reception had been hit by a bottle and the centre of his head was split completely open. We had to get him to hospital and I didn’t return home until 7.30 the following morning. There were 40 or 50 photographers waiting for me and I remember thinking that this was not what I had signed up for and, most importantly, this was not what music was about.”

And so Harris stepped out of the spotlight and found himself working on local radio for the duration of the Eighties. “The penny dropped that I had become rock’s least fashionable person, the ‘Ken Barlow of rock’ as I said at the time. But I was OK with that – I had time to step back and let the dust settle and rediscover myself, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.”

Harris isn’t pretentious. In fact, it’s hard to think of a presenter with less of an ego – which is probably why industry figures say he’s a dream to work with, and celebrity friends (including Elton John and Robert Plant) find a certain comfort in his unsycophantic presence. Nor does he sit in an ivory tower spinning prog rock concert albums. He’s a fan of Spotify, and loves its magpie effect whereby everyone is able to embrace all kinds of music. He sidesteps my question about the insidious nature of TV talent shows. “Well, we had talent shows even in the days of The Old Grey Whistle Test,” he says. “But the problem with pop singles is that there is a lot of cutting and pasting [in the editing] which rinses the soul out of it. I’m not being ‘genreist’. It’s just a fact.”

The New York Dolls performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test Credit: Rex

Harris’s ability to live in the here and now is partly facilitated by the fact that he has three relatively young children (Miles, 25, Dylan, 23 and 19-year-old Flo) with his third wife, Trudie (he has five elder children from his previous two marriages), and runs a music production company from the Harris family HQ in Oxfordshire. “They are all on the pulse of what is happening, and I sit in the sunshine as they tell me about the music they love.”

Harris also has a more serious reason to live in the present. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 and, when we meet, has just been to see his oncologist. “We are keeping it under control. It’s boring more than anything else.” Has it changed the way he thinks about his life? “It has – it generates a desire for fitness. I walk for five miles a day and climb up on the ridge top behind the village, which blows the cobwebs away.”

Harris is certain that serious music television is in as strong a position as it has ever been, although he loves the idea of The Old Grey Whistle Test making a proper return. “I’m not talking about it being a retro show – I mean a magazine show where we discuss new bands.”

Harris smiles and, for a moment, this gentle man looks evangelical. “It’s still important to talk about music.”

The Old Grey Whistle Test is on BBC Four on Friday at 9pm

Bob Harris Country airs on Radio 2 every Thursday at 7pm