Bob Harris: remembering Bowie

Mark Ellen / 14 November 2017

Broadcaster Bob Harris discusses his friendship with the iconic rock star, David Bowie, on the cusp of international stardom.



Veteran broadcaster and Radio 2 regular Bob Harris moved to London from Northampton in 1968 and fell into the orbit of an unknown but fast-rising singer-songwriter called David Bowie. The pair became great friends. ‘Whispering’ Bob went on to be a journalist and DJ and presented BBC Two’s The Old Grey Whistle Test. Bowie became one of the most outrageous and influential rock stars of his generation.

[Mark Ellen] You first met David Bowie when he was in an experimental group called Feathers. Was this at Middle Earth in Covent Garden?

[Bob Harris] That’s right, my hang-out place when I first got to London, an underground club that ran overnight at the weekends. Pink Floyd played there and Soft Machine and the Byrds. I remember John Peel introducing Captain Beefheart with tears in his eyes – ‘I’ve waited so many years for this moment!’

Feathers was this mixed-media trio: John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson who mostly sang the songs, and David and his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale providing the visual stuff either side of him – mime and theatre – David with his Marcel Marceau white-painted face. I’d seen a group called the Exploding Galaxy headed by a self-styled kinetic sculptor who featured poetry and song, light shows, colours, dance, the girls all topless – so the notion of mixing poetry, dance and music was lodged in my brain. So when I saw Feathers I was ready for them! I was fascinated by this collision. I was writing a little review for Time Out magazine, which I’d just launched with my friend Tony Elliott, and talked to David afterwards and we became instant friends.

I was hanging out at Trident Studios a lot with Marc Bolan and his producer Tony Visconti and then Tony began producing Bowie too so we ended up spending a lot of time together.

Did you ever go to Haddon Hall, the run-down mansion he’d rented with a load of musician friends in Beckenham?

Everyone else had long hair and rainbow colours and looked very elfin and he had short hair and was well dressed and excruciatingly polite!

I think so, the place with the musicians’ gallery? Hard to remember as it was 50 years ago! You’re talking to a man who forgot he once went to George Harrison’s house and filmed a TV interview with him!

But I remember my first wife Sue and I invited David and Hermione over to our place in Hampstead. Hermione was delicately beautiful, like a ballet dancer, and he looked amazing. He’d just had a short back and sides as he had a part in the movie Virgin Soldiers so he looked very ‘straight’ as we used to say in those days. Everyone else had long hair and rainbow colours and looked very elfin and he had short hair and was well dressed and excruciatingly polite! Quiet, calm, very very lovely. It was such a beautiful evening. His eyes were amazing, deep pools you could almost dive into, very calming!

London was at the centre of the arts world: film, music, fashion, everything. A great sense of creative optimism.

Sue cooked a hotpot and we talked about pushing against the boundaries. Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ said it all, though the lyrics were rather cruel, but we all felt, ‘You old guys, get out of the way, we’re the new generation and we’re going to put the world to rights!’ David said, ‘We can do anything, break down the barriers!’ And he talked about what bands like Pink Floyd had done with the idea of the three-minute single and about Sgt Pepper – it’s impossible to overstate the impact of that album on every level – and he felt, we all did, that London was at the centre of the arts world: film, music, fashion, everything. A great sense of creative optimism.

What made him so different?

He was incredibly driven. You looked at bands in the charts like the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits and they’re all just standing there playing and they were so one-dimensional, whereas David was looking at a way of standing out, so he brought lots of dimensions into his music, colours, arrangements, presentation, film clips – very sweet and naïve really. It was his way of expressing himself and finding his feet. He was very inspired by the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, and experimenting all the time. Sometimes you fail spectacularly but you learn from that failure.

The night you put him on at one of your discos could probably be filed under ‘spectacular failure’.

I strode out to the mic, incensed, red in the face, and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’ll remember this night! This guy is going to be a star! Remember his name, it’s David Bowie!’

I have vivid memories of this! I’d moved to Beckenham to a flat run by a guy who had a mobile disco and one night he was double-booked and asked if I could do a gig for him in this East End club. I had James Brown records, Motown, the Stones … this could fill a floor! The place was rocking! And a few days before David had rung up – he often rang to talk about mutual friends and what was happening on the scene – and I said, ‘Why don’t you come too and play a few songs?’

He brought a cassette with the backing to Space Oddity on it and a little cassette player and speaker, and he’d bought a guitar so he could sing and play over the backing track. And he’d brought [future wife] Angie along with him who was really ‘out there’. I went to the centre of the stage and interrupted the dancing and they’d all had a few beers and were like [annoyed voice], ‘Woah, what’s happening?’ And I introduced David, Angie walks out and lies on the stage beside him and he sets up his speaker. The volume was tiny, you could hardly hear him, and he started singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom…’

And the booing started. Then the shouting. Then ‘Get the music back on!’ Halfway through he absolutely had to stop. It was getting quite aggressive, drowned out by the booing and the noise. I strode out to the mic, incensed, red in the face, and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’ll remember this night! This guy is going to be a star! Remember his name, it’s David Bowie!’ I went nuts. He was genuinely upset, the wrong person at the wrong gig on the wrong night. A horrible feeling. Getting booed off is never good.

Brian Eno produced several Bowie albums and said ideas came to him so fast it was ‘like watching a fast-forward film of a flower blossoming’. What was it like being in Trident studios when he was recording?

He was getting to that stage but still finding his way, slowly assuming more control. At that time Tony [Visconti] was the boss but soon they worked side by side. I dropped in to see him once with Marc Bolan and he was recording Memory of a Free Festival and David got us all to sing on the track – me, my wife Sue, Marc and a guy called Tony who became vice president of Sony. We sang the chorus over and over again – ‘the sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party’ with a bit of whooping and hollering and screaming and shouting – and he multi-tracked it until we sounded like a whole festival crowd.

Do you remember his stupendous appearance on Top of the Pops in 1972 singing Starman, the moment that launched his career?

I do! It’s a moment you can honestly compare to the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in America in ’64 in terms of its life-changing impact on the people who saw it. What I loved about that performance was the sense of camaraderie, the way he lent his elbow on [guitarist] Mick Ronson’s shoulder and then they put their arms round each other. There was clearly an amazing bond between them. It’s like that sense of friendship onstage between Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. And the androgynous nature of it was so liberating. It said to everybody watching, ‘Whatever you want to do, do it! Be like this! Be gay if you want, be sparkling, write great songs, be whatever you want to be!’ Marc Bolan had blurred that line too as he’d go around in eye-make-up and ballet shoes.

It was the moment where it all began to change for David. I was the compere for four dates on the Ziggy Stardust tour and I remember being backstage and now there were make-up people, costumes, tons of people, you couldn’t just come in and hang around anymore. He was ‘finding his pose’, the pose that he’d take onstage, so it was a different dynamic and there were lots of tensions – the band were in another dressing-room and being nudged slightly into the background. And then he disappeared on me. Literally. We were chatting on the phone one day and then I never heard from him again.

Were you sad that he’d disappeared from your life?

All of a sudden he was in another league altogether and he wasn’t in touch any more.

I was sad. I was. All of a sudden he was in another league altogether and he wasn’t in touch any more. And Marc suddenly had success and he disappeared too, so they’d both vanished from my life. We’d had such wonderful innocent times together. I felt a real sense of loss.

You gave a talk about Bowie on a Saga trip to Berlin in October. He was living there in the late ’70s when he made his ground-breaking ‘Berlin Trilogy’ – the Low, Heroes and Lodger albums. What was it about the place that attracted him?

Well he was burnt out by 1976. He’d lost a huge amount of weight and was doing a massive amount of cocaine so the Thin White Duke was a reality. I think he’d been living on a diet of cigarettes, cocaine and peanuts. He needed a break and no one recognised him in Berlin, so he could walk around being anonymous. And he was fascinated by German fashion and memorabilia and Berlin was the interface between East and West Germany, an amazing place to be. He needed to recharge and re-stoke the creative fire. And he made some masterpiece records there.

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