The Old Grey Whistle Test: presenter Bob Harris looks back on the highs and lows
The radio DJ looks back at the glory days of the BBC music show ahead of a three-hour tribute programme on BBC4
Bob Harris is checking Twitter. It’s a cold Thursday afternoon and in a meeting room at the BBC’s Wogan House the 71-year-old radio presenter is reading social media responses to the news that he’s hosting a three-hour programme on BBC4 marking 30 years since The Old Grey Whistle Test was last broadcast (which airs on BBC4 on Friday 23 February at 9.00pm).
“The response has been fabulous!” enthuses Harris, who helmed the landmark BBC2 music series during its imperial period, from 1972 to 1978, and whose hushed tones conferred churchly reverence on a remarkable run of live performers that included David Bowie, Bob Marley, John Martyn and Joni Mitchell.
But Harris, who can also currently be heard on Radio 2, presenting Old Grey Whistle Test at 40 – a 16-part series, first broadcast in 2011 – admits to conflicted emotions about the current anniversary: an undoubted sense of pride at what he achieved, yet a renewed sadness at his departure and its demise.
“Very bittersweet,” he says, with a sigh. “During my last two years on the show I came under intensive fire from the punk bands.”
Ironically, Harris’s first big break came via punk champion DJ John Peel. In August 1968, a 22-year-old Harris appeared on Peel’s Radio 1 show to talk about Time Out, the new magazine he’d just launched with his pal Tony Elliott.
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When Peel went on holiday in 1970, it was suggested that Harris sit in. Almost as an act of homage, Peel’s radio model – a conspiratorial late-night scene for the cognoscenti – was one that Harris transferred whole to Whistle Test.
“It was this word-of-mouth doorway into an exclusive club,” he explains. “You wouldn’t hear these musicians anywhere else. Because they couldn’t afford to dress the studio, everyone looked like squatters. Plus it was the last programme of the night, so if a guitar solo went on too long, no one complained. Open-ended creativity. I loved it.”
But by 1976, that indulgent private-club feel, coupled with Harris’s appearance and background – long-haired, middle-class, son of a Northamptonshire policeman – was entirely out of step. To lairy young punks, “Whispering” Bob was the establishment.
It all came to a head in the London club Dingwalls in March 1977, when a group of punks attacked Harris, demanding to know when the Sex Pistols would be on the show.
“I hadn’t set out to antagonise anyone,” says Harris, “but Whistle Test was an albums show. Top of the Pops was singles. Punk came up through singles.”
Some argue that the damage was done a few years earlier, when Harris dismissed New Wave progenitors Roxy Music as being “style over substance”, and dubbed proto-punk US rockers the New York Dolls as “mock rock”.
“I was wrong,” admits Harris. “In the era of the big rock critic I felt you had to be outspoken. Watching that Dolls clip now I think, ‘What were you thinking, Bob?’ I became the Ken Barlow of rock. It ate away at me.”
Stepping away from the spotlight, Harris moved to Italy where he lived a below-the-radar existence before returning to Radio 1 in 1989 to host the after-midnight slot. Then, in 1994, along with Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates, Harris was jettisoned from the station by the new controller, Matthew Bannister: “Did I want to leave? Absolutely not. Could I understand his decision? Completely. I was already unfashionable in 1976, so I was probably at the top of Matthew’s list.”
Worse was to come. During the 1990s property boom, Harris borrowed £130,000 from fellow DJ Bruno Brookes to buy a flat. Then came the crash and Harris was unable to repay the debt, which led to an expensive legal dispute.
I’d always assumed that Harris lost his huge collection of vinyl records during the dispute, but no. Happily for him the court accepted that his records were “tools of trade”.
I tell Harris he’s a fighter. We talk briefly about his recovery from prostate cancer in 2007, before discussion returns to Brookes. “I realise I had this steel in me,” he says. “After the whole Bruno thing, I had a new determination. What else am I going to do? I love music.”
Harris is currently developing a production company with his wife, Trudie, and his son, Miles, and he is also working on a podcast about walking. (“Wandering Bob?”, suggests his PR.)
Most important is the Thursday-night country music show on Radio 2 that he’s been presenting since 1999, and which finds the presenter at the heart of a creative, modern scene he absolutely loves: “I’ll occasionally have cabbies say, ‘Oh Bob, music’s not what it used to be.’ I’ll say, ‘No it isn’t. There’s more choice, it’s more accessible, there’s more of everything.’”
This enthusiasm is present in everything he does. His YouTube channel, WhisperingBobTV, broadcasts modern country artists playing live in the shed-cum-studio at the bottom of his garden in Steventon, Oxfordshire, and he’s currently developing a new live concert series, broadcast from musicians’ own homes.
I tell him he’s had the last laugh, that none of the 1977 punks who urged his demise would ever imagine he’d still be thriving in 2018. “Those barriers have broken down,” he says with delight. “Because of YouTube and Spotify, the 70s tribalism that was my undoing doesn’t exist any more.”
I ask if a new BBC music programme could successfully capture this eclectic boundary-free world of modern music. He thinks for a minute.
“It would need to be magazine show with a main band, a smaller band, a news desk… you’d have film reports, gig clips, interviews… that would instantly be different.” It’s hard to know if Bob is pulling my leg, but I tell him he’s just described a modern version of The Old Grey Whistle Test.
“Emphatically! Yes!” he says with delight, and a small twinkle in his eye.
By Andrew Male
The Old Grey Whistle Test is on 9pm Friday, BBC4. Bob Harris Country is on Thursday 7pm Radio 2