There a few notable mistakes in Whispering Bob Harris’ career, but none will ring out as loudly as the infamous moment he labelled Roxy Music a triumph of “style over substance” just moments before they made him eat his words.
Roxy Music were performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test, an iconic series on British television which promoted rock music on a national level, when Harris, then-host of the show, decided to speak his mind and highlight the stylish band as another young upstart that didn’t have the musical chops to compete with the gigantic stadium rock that was filling the airwaves.
It was a theory that was founded in the band’s inception. Roxy Music hadn’t arrived the way most rock acts had in 1972. Instead of carving a path through sticky-floored pubs, the group had been largely put together from some of the capital’s finest musicians. To make matters worse for the purist rock fans, rumour had it that the group were being vastly backed financially.
While this rumour is a relative myth—many new acts at the time were catching the same attention from major labels’ bank accounts—Roxy Music’s beginning was different to most others. An assembled group built around two powerhouses in the suaver-than-suave leading man, Bryan Ferry and the mercurial musical genius, Brian Eno, meant that before too long they were supporting some of the music world’s biggest acts.
Roxy Music provided the opening slot fireworks for David Bowie and The Spider From Mars as well as Alice Cooper with the former quickly proclaiming Roxy Music to be one of his favourite new acts. It was an endorsement that saw Ferry and the band be quickly caught up in the glam explosion.
Acts like the aforementioned Bowie and Alice Cooper were being amply backed by Marc Bolan’s T-Rex, Mott The Hoople and The New York Dolls as they took over the charts and gave the previously purist rock world a glittered punch to the jaw. While mammoth acts like Cream, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix had shone for their incredible instrumentation in the sixties, it appeared the seventies, with its androgyny and genre-bending music, was going to be a very different decade.
That was something that Whispering Bob Harris was clearly none-too-keen on. During his years on countless shows both on TV and radio, the music journalist, broadcaster, and musical adviser to many, didn’t make that many mistakes. But when he was introducing Roxy Music, who had only released their self-titled debut record four days before, Harris made one absolute clanger.
Introducing the band as a triumph of “style over substance”, Harris motions to the camera who focus in on Ferry singing at his keyboard with a tiger-striped shiny suit jacket and a severe glint in his eye.
That glittering ocular moment comes from knowing what Roxy Music were about to do, not just that evening but for many years to come. The band, with the words of Bob Harris ringing in their ear, turned on what can only be described as an all-star performance.
The track they performed, ‘Ladytron’ couldn’t have been better suited to Harris’ remarks. The track, a sprawling and meandering masterpiece of glam rock joy, is given extra impetus as Ferry delivers his lines down the barrel of the camera proving once and for all that Roxy Music were both style and substance.