Whispering Class

Dave Woodhall talks to broadcasting legend Bob Harris.

There might be a more recognisable voice on British radio. There might also be someone who has a wider depth of musical knowledge. But probably not, and in any case there’s only one Bob Harris, whose Whispering Podcast made its debut this week. It is, as you’d expect, superb.

“Thank you. I’m so pleased, obviously in the first one we were just seeing how it went. We learned an awful lot and we did note that there was a lovely atmosphere and everyone who took part enjoyed it. We loved it.”

Sometimes things work with people who aren’t totally experienced in that line and maybe they don’t know what they’re doing so they’re not so blase, and there’s that bit of not knowing what’s going to happen next, everything’s a big adventure.

“Yes, that was definitely the thing for us.”

Looking back, Whistle Test had the feel of a podcast. It was very, I hesitate to say low-tech…

“It absolutely was. It didn’t have a budget to work with so we put some coloured paper over the lights to get some sort of atmosphere and created that Starkicker logo, and that’s it. Not by design, it’s just the way things work, the feel of the podcast is quite similar to that of Whistle Test. Obviously I’m the common denominator but we’re hoping it has the same feel and ethos. We were so pleased with the reaction, so many people have said it was a cross between Whistle Test and the weekend show I did on Radio Two. As the series goes along it will be quite cross-genre; it’s not just Americana and country, we’re featuring all sorts of music. It’s live; what happens, happens. It’s really, really enjoyable.”

Whistle Test started over fifty years ago, it’s more than forty since you stopped presenting it. And you must still get people walking up to you and saying “Mock rock” like they’re the first to think of it?

“I know, it’s so funny. That’s nearly fifty years ago now and it’s one of the things that’s stuck in people’s minds. It’s hilarious.”

It’s always coming up on those old TV programmes, they nearly always cut out the bit at the end and people don’t realise there was a real gleam in your eye when you said that. You weren’t scornful of the Dolls, you’d got the joke.

“Exactly. And of course I was brought up on the Stones and the New York Dolls were the glam rock carbon copy.”

At that time it seems that the musicians were more serious than the presenters and the audiences were more serious than anyone.

“There was an earnestness about rock journalists in those days, there was very much a divide between the singles audience, who watched Top of the Pops, and the album audiences which we represented. When we did the Whistle Test For One Night Only show on BBC4 in 2018 my children were with me and we were driving home. They would have been 24, 21 and 19, and the Twitter reaction was incredible in sheer numbers. Some of it was quite tribal, we never showed any punk, Bob’s going on about the New York Dolls, and some of it was quite personal towards me. The kids couldn’t understand it because music isn’t tribal like that anymore whereas in those days it was cool to be tribal. The kids didn’t get that at all because they take their music from Spotify or wherever, they make their own playlists and they all come up on shuffle.

“They’ll listen to One Direction followed by Abba followed by ELO and to them it’s all music. It’s a much healthier way of listening to music but we were all guilty of it in the seventies, that bit of feeling superior to the chart singles like Middle of the Road or Brotherhood of Man. But it’s all music and getting back to the podcast that’s where we are, in a place where it’s all music which we like. That’s it.”

Hand in hand with the podcast is the Bob Harris online archive, which is phenomenal. You can’t just have a quick look, you’re there for hours.

“I know. It’s so diverting when you begin to leaf through it all. The amount of background work that’s gone into tracing through it is incredible. I’m so proud and honoured that 3B Digital have taken the time and trouble. It sounds corny but they see it as something for the nation, to see the depth of the research and the depth of the creative process that’s gone into my programmes over the years is something they wanted to preserve. I’m very honoured that they did that.

“One of the many reasons why we wanted to do the Whispering Bobcast was to draw attention to the archive and we’ll be covering it in more detail because we’re keen for people to spend time and enjoy it. The whole playlist side of the website is something to get excited about. Going back over the old Whistle Test scripts for example, you’re reading music history in real time. I’m talking about bands putting out their first record, people who became household names and I’m introducing them for the first time.”

Later this year you’re doing some shows with Danny Baker. That might sound an odd pairing but you’re surprisingly similar, not least because Danny’s a massive music fan.

“He really is. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and very outspoken, as you know. Both of us have loads of stories to tell. We were booked to do the Bewdley Festival, neither of us had thought about it until the festival asked. This was the beginning of 2019 then I was ill that summer and then in September time Danny tweeted about it and he was told not to say any more because it had sold out. 400 people there, Danny and I met at the side of the stage, we hadn’t discussed what we were going to do, we just walked out and that was it. Robert Plant was in the audience and apparently it was his idea to put us together. He told us afterwards that it was one of the best gigs he’d seen in years so we should take it on the road. It’s taken two years because of Covid and everything, but now it’s going out in October and we hope it’ll just roll from there.”

A few years ago you did a similar thing on your own at the Robin, where I remember you saying that you wake up every morning, open your eyes and think “Result”. Is that still true?

“I do, especially since my illness. I think I’m rather fortunate to still be here”

And you have to be, because there’s so much music you have to discover and introduce to the world. But when the time comes and you don’t open your eyes, how would you describe yourself to wherever you’re going?

“Taking music to people. In whatever way that happens, whether on TV or the radio, or on stage. It was interesting when lockdown really kicked in and I started missing my job. I missed having people in to do sessions and going into Radio 2 to do programmes but as much as anything I missed being on stage. I’ve hosted loads of shows, C2C, Under the Apple Tree and sessions on the road. I hadn’t realised how much time I spent on stage and I really miss it. Getting back on the road with Danny – I can’t wait.”

And the obvious follow-up. If you could go back and re-live one gig or one film, one interview, what would you choose for your Desert Island Clip?

“I always said, and it is true, the John Lennon interview. 1975, New York, that was such an incredible experience. He recorded two songs for us, one of which was Stand By Me, which is my favourite song ever. One of the things I’m so proud of is the All-Star version we created last year for Help Musicians. I’m an ambassador for them and we did it as a fund-raiser for grass roots musicians. The video is beautiful; one of the absolute highlights of everything I’ve done is creating this version of Stand By Me.”

I did hear a story that Lennon was the only man you ever asked for an autograph. Is that true?

“It is. It was way before the time, of mobile phones. Now I get selfies with absolutely everyone but at the time even asking for an autograph was regarded as slightly uncool. It’s on the wall in my studio.”

The Whispering Bobcast

The Bob Harris Archive can be found here.