Bob Harris on Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Queen, Robert Plant and more...
Old Grey Whistle Test presenter Bob Harris shared John Lennon’s life-changing news and helped kick-start Rick Wakeman’s heart. And that's not all...
They don’t make broadcasters like ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris anymore. At a time when media is ruled by the loud, the crass and the cruel, he is the anti-Cowell: a soft-spoken but fiercely witty presence, whose velvet delivery is as much a part of British rock culture as Roger Daltrey’s stutter or the rolled letter ‘r’ in Johnny Rotten’s invective.
It’s hard to remember a time when Harris wasn’t in our lives. Joining Radio 1 in 1970, his fame peaked with a move to BBC2’s music show The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972, where he hosted bands from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was the golden age of rock journalism, before the rise of the press officer, when the legends didn’t just toss a cursory bone in draconian interview slots, but let Harris into their lives. Many of his subjects became life-long friends.
With nearly 50 years in the business, Bob Harris has seen it all. Now he tells it all.
Bob Harris presents The Old Grey Whistle Test, For One Night Only, tonight at 9pm GMT on BBC4. It includes live performances and interviews from Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson, Ian Anderson, Albert Lee, Mollie Marriott and more.
I actually compered the T. Rextasy tour of 1971, when Hot Love was No. 1. We started off at the Portsmouth Guildhall, and that was the moment when Marc Bolan realised just how big T. Rex had got. He’d been gigging for about four years, and he’d always finish the night and hang out backstage for a while afterwards. That night, he’d played the gig and we were in the dressing room when we started to be aware of a lot of noise outside, but didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to it. By the time it came time to leave, we realised that the audience – which was packed with screaming girls – had made its way round to the stage door. It was absolute pandemonium!
The local police formed a cordon to get us into the cars, but I remember coming out of the stage door and the first thing I was aware of was stainless steel, because all these girls were holding scissors, or even knives, to try and get themselves a lock of Marc’s corkscrew hair. He was a little bit shorter than me, so all these scissors were coming straight for me, at eye level.
We made it to a convoy of these huge Vauxhall cars, and Marc and I got into one of them, but it was surrounded, and one of the windows wasn’t quite shut, and there were fingers and hands in the gap trying to pull it down. People on the bonnet, people on the roof… we were edging forward through the crowd when suddenly there was this ‘crunch!’ as the suspension gave way. I remember Marc was sat next to me, wearing a gold silk jacket with a pink feather boa, and the look on his face! On one hand, it was very scary, but unbelievably exciting too. I’d seen nothing like this since the days of The Beatles.
Three of the cars were written off in one night: the fans had just ripped everything off them. The next night, the cars were waiting, the last notes were still resonating, and we were out of there, straight to a hotel, way out of town. Otherwise, Marc would have been starting riots behind him.
For my 60th birthday I held a 60s-themed party with everybody invited to come in costume; I looked like some kind of hippie Willie Nelson, with a long blond wig, looking absolutely ridiculous. Robert Plant came along and played a fantastic impromptu set with Bernie Marsden, jamming a few old Led Zeppelin numbers. Mark Lamarr gave a little speech, and actually made a good point. He stood up and said: “I always thought the 60s were known as the era of free love… How any of you lot ever got a fuck looking like that I’ll never know.”
I got to know David when he came over for dinner at our house in Blackheath. A little while later, in 1969, I was booked to do a DJ gig at a student college in East London, so I invited David to come and perform. It was a real disco night, a dance night, totally inappropriate for David. He’d just finished recording Space Oddity, and he had a backing track on a cassette, which he played over the PA while he was strumming an acoustic guitar and singing.
I remember the audience just started booing him. It was really embarrassing. It was a Saturday night, and they just wanted to drink beer and party, and they wanted disco. They had no idea who David Bowie was, and there he was trying to play Space Oddity and getting booed off the stage. I remember he’d started going out with Angie, and she was sat on the edge of the stage, while he was getting shouted at by this drunk student audience.
I was so angry. I took the mic and addressed the audience and told them: [incandescent] “You’ll remember this night! You will all remember this night! Remember the name David Bowie, because he’s going to be absolutely huge, you mark my words. And you just sent him packing. You’re all going to regret this!” And that sort of thing
Freddie Mercury was lovely, bright, sensitive, and quite vulnerable, funnily enough, when you think of his larger-than-life stage persona. One of the things about Freddie was that he was very civilised and quite ‘English’. I’d go over to his flat near Shepherd’s Bush in the afternoon, and he’d get out the fine china and the sugar lumps and we’d have a cup of tea.
We also did some filming in America for their 1976 tour, and I travelled with them to Las Vegas where they played the Aladdin Hotel. We stepped off the plane, straight into four waiting limos – I was travelling with Roger Taylor – into Vegas and to the Aladdin, where we were all given different names and ‘coded’ into our rooms.
We arrived in Las Vegas on Monday, and the band weren’t playing until Thursday, so we had three days to party. Me and Roger started at the top of the main entertainment strip, and worked our way down, going into every single place, placing a bet in one, going across the road to watch a band, into the next place to watch the wet T-shirt contest…
On the Thursday, when the band were playing, they got the four limos to park at the back of the Aladdin, each of them got in, then the limos drove them round to the front, where they got out and walked into the hotel for the gig.
You have to do it – it’s the rock’n’roll way – you can’t just walk into the lobby!
The Fast Show
Back in the 70s, I was impersonated by literally everybody on television. You know, Eric Idle did me on Rutland Weekend Television, The Goodies had a take-off sketch of Jukebox Jury where I was all four panellists… so I got very used to it and always thought of it as a compliment.
So I’d seen The Fast Show, with the jazz man character [Louis Balfour], and all the turning around to the camera saying ‘nice!’ and ‘great!’, and I’d been thinking to myself, ‘I used to do that’, but until they actually invited me to appear on The Fast Show night on BBC2 [in 1999], I didn’t realise it was actually based on me.
I met up with Fast Show actor John Thomson in Ronnie Scott’s to film the sketch, and he told me the jazz character was actually a cross between myself and Roger Moore. I was never cross with them; I thought it was brilliant. But a while after that, I was standing in a queue at a supermarket checkout and the girl looked up and goes, ‘oh my God, you’re the guy from The Fast Show!’ Now that’s embarrassing…
The Bee Gees
In 1978, they were the biggest group in the world. We’d arranged to meet at Criteria Studios in Miami at two o’ clock, but when I found them in reception, they were having a problem with the playback of the new album, Spirits Having Flown – the backing tracks were fine, but they couldn’t play back the vocals. So they took me into this little sound booth, sat me down between two bloody great speakers, stood behind me, and sang the whole album to me. So I had this private moment with Barry, Robin and Maurice, with whoever was singing the lead vocal in the centre, and the other two stood at his shoulders doing the harmonies.
To have the entire album sung live for me – all those great songs like Tragedy – it was a shiver-down-the-spine moment. I applauded at the end.
In 1974, I was helping to record a solo album with a guy called John Golding, and Rick was helping me out with the arrangements. During the recording, Rick was taken quite ill with some sort of heart problem [it was the first of Wakeman’s three heart attacks] and taken to hospital. I thought we’d have to cancel the orchestra… but Rick did the scoring in hospital, then discharged himself and came down to the studio to take charge of the session, stayed for three hours, got back in the car and went straight back to hospital. All because he didn’t want to let me down.
That was a great friendship moment.
The Old Grey Whistle Test spent three days in New York with John in February 1975. It had been a slightly difficult time, because he was having all the problems getting a green card: Nixon saw him as a subversive, and kept turning down his application. At the time, he wasn’t able to leave America, and was getting really homesick for England, and particularly for his son Julian, who he hadn’t seen for quite a while. I think he saw us as an opportunity to send a postcard to the UK.
We got on like a house on fire. We talked about the Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and about working with Phil Spector, and the master tapes, and how Spector had had a car crash and had just kept the tapes and had suddenly become impossible to get hold of. John hung around in LA for several months, just trying to get hold of these tapes, hanging out with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon – this was the 18 months that became known as the ‘lost weekend’.
But he’d got that crazy moment out of his system. He’d come back and Yoko had stabilised him again, and they’d moved into The Dakota, and settled down in New York. They seemed very together. And in fact, the day we met John to film the interview was the same day Yoko told him that she was pregnant with Sean. So as you can imagine, he was in the most wonderful mood. He was just very happy to be with Yoko.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 148.