Book review: Still Whispering After All These Years by Bob Harris
The Ken Barlow of Rock is hardly the most flattering of descriptions and it takes on more significance when you learn that this is Bob Harris talking about himself.
Not today, as he celebrates a disc spinning career spanning more than four decades, but back in the punk days when he literally found himself between this short-lived anarchic breed of rock and a hard place.
He suffered cuts and bruises in an attack by Sex Pistols’ fans, angry that their idols were seemingly snubbed by BBC TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test, the live music show which Bob hosted.
As he explains, that late night programme centred on ‘album’ musicians while punk and new wave was very much about singles, the domain of the more mainstream Top of the Pops.
How times and trends change, yet with hindsight it is clear that Harris, not without suffering the occasional bout of misfortune, has somehow managed to deflect most of the punches thrown at him in both personal and professional life.
In early 1972, a Melody Maker article hailed him as somebody who had ‘cemented a firm relationship between himself and the audience with music as the primary justification.’
Even Harris admits now that just six years later that same scribe and magazine accurately summed up the attitude towards him at the time as ‘undeniably the most reviled personality both on television and within rock music.’ Some fall from grace!
From Whistle Test to his current shows on BBC Radio 2, Harris has spent his life at the heart of the British music industry. Along the way it has cost him dearly in friendships and finances. He confides that in his Radio 1 Sounds of the 70s days, fellow DJ John Peel was so appalled at his apparent neglect of family for work that he did not speak to him for almost 20 years.
There was a very public spat with another presenter, Bruno Brookes, whose home Harris bought but was later unable to fulfil the agreed repayments. That deal almost cost three-times-married Harris his prized record collection in compensation until the legal bods accepted that its loss would end his presenting career – one that he has revamped several times over the years.
Healthwise, he has fought Legionnaires’ disease and, more recently, prostate cancer – his near-brush with death spurring him on to raise funds and public awareness for a condition whose worst enemy is prevention, followed closely by early awareness.
After six years anchoring Whistle Test, Harris, concerned that ‘I’d lost my identity to my television persona,’ made a conscious decision to avoid the small screen, pursuing instead radio and live appearances.
His passion for music and musicians stretches across the spectrum, with his early-hours BBC Radio 2 shows compiled and recorded in advance in his home studio. Harris has also championed country music to British audiences, his efforts rewarded when he scooped the Americana Music Association Trailblazer Award four years ago.
But how many of his followers and fans – including a fair smattering of musicians themselves, not to mention Princess Anne who apparently dropped it into conversation while presenting his OBE for services to broadcasting – would know that he had once performed backing vocals for David Bowie?
Or that he enjoyed a long running Saturday night residency at London’s legendary Marquee Club? Or that he was a co-founder in 1968 of Time Out, a magazine whose office politics ultimately drove him out or, more accurately, prevented him from getting in when he arrived one morning to find locks had been changed because he had been voted off the editorial board in his absence.
As one door closed, another opened and he set his sights on radio, initially covering for John Peel on Radio 1 during a month-long holiday in 1970 and then enjoying the kudos of launching the BBC’s 24-hour radio service in 1991.
As the book title says, Bob Harris might still be whispering after all these years, albeit with a slightly deeper voice, but this updated and fascinating autobiography, first published 14 years ago, gives an entertaining insight into a real icon of the airwaves. The whisperer who would never settle for being a whimperer!
(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £20)