Social Sciences alum Phil Harding graduated from the University of York in 1969. Since then, he has enjoyed a successful career in Journalism and Broadcasting. He worked at the BBC and held a variety of editorial positions including editor of the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4; Editor of News on Radio Five Live, Chief Political Advisor to the BBC; and Director of News at the World Service. Here, Phil tells us about one memorable night in Langwith fifty-odd years ago, when Jimi Hendrix came to play:
Please can you tell us a little bit about your time at York?
I started in 1965, studying Biology but switched after one year, when you could do that, to Social Sciences, which I studied for 3 years, graduating in 1969. I was very fortunate because there was a term when I was at York where I had finished doing Biology but I had not yet started my Social Sciences degree full-time, so I could take on lots of extracurricular activities.
Throughout my time at York, I was the editor of Nouse (twice); I organised social events and University-wide entertainment; did some DJ-ing; I was politically active, taking part in protests against overseas student fees and being a part of sit-ins about rises in canteen prices and I was also the NUS conference delegate. I was with University Radio York right from the start, before it got its licence when it was a pirate radio station, transmitted round the college blocks via the electricity ring main.
How did you find Jimi Hendrix in order to book him and did you have any idea he was going to become so successful?
The University was very small back then with just over 500 students when I started. It wasn’t easy finding well known names to play at York on a small budget so I had to try and spot up and coming stars before they became famous. Stars on the rise! I heard ‘Hey Joe’ on the radio and thought it was fantastic. I’d never heard anything quite like it. So backed my hunch, went for it and booked him straight away for the miserly sum of £150. That was in December. By February ‘Hey Joe’ was Number 6 in the charts and climbing. This was always a risky strategy because what sometimes happened was that if bands got really big in the meantime, they would pull out of playing York for much more lucrative gigs elsewhere.
We arranged for him to play in Langwith Dining Hall (now appropriately Hendrix Hall), with a lot of help from the brilliant Langwith Social Secretary at the time, Pete Clarke. This was the era of psychedelia so we set up light shows all over the hall and we had films projected all over the walls and ceilings. It was a very ‘trippy’ atmosphere. We had sold over 1000 tickets and the place was packed. I suspect we broke the fire limit. As the night went on, Jimi’s slot got closer and closer. By now the support acts had finished and we hadn’t heard anything from Jimi. Was he going to show up? We were starting to get very nervous. A thousand expectant people and no Hendrix.
Then sometime around eleven, we got a phone call, Jimi’s van had broken down but they were now on their way. The concert was supposed to finish at eleven but thanks to the goodwill of the Langwith night porters (secured over the months by many late-night cups of coffee) they agreed we could carry on. The band turned up just after midnight just Jimi and the two other members of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They went on stage and played two incredible one-hour sets and finished at around 2 am.
What was the atmosphere like on the night of the performance?
It was electric and astonishing. At the time no-one had ever seen anything like it. Hendrix took pop music in so many different directions, which is why he’s still so revered to this day. I watched him that night and just thought wow. In those days he’d smash his guitar against the speakers, play it behind his head and even set fire to it. He was a total showman but also an absolutely amazing musician. On stage he was this larger than life personality; off-stage he was quiet, shy really, very polite and totally unassuming.
Would you say that all your extracurricular activities helped you become the successful media broadcaster/journalist you are today?
Oh yes without a doubt. I was lucky enough to get selected for a traineeship at the BBC. They selected three of us that year. We were the first three news trainees not to have gone to Oxford or Cambridge. I now know, from the standpoint of being an employer, how important it is for your application to stand out from all the other qualified applicants. I’m sure that the fact I had booked Jimi Hendrix at least made them curious. All the stuff I did at York stood me in good stead at the interview. And when I got to the BBC, it was a help too. I knew how to handle things like negotiating deals with not always scrupulous agents, booking bands, organizing events and budgeting. I spent my time at York being more than a student, though I did manage to squeeze in some studying – honestly!
“As well as being a sufficiently careful student, after all you do need to get a degree, try and spread your wings as well and do as many things as you can because you’ll get opportunities at University that you won’t get anywhere else”
Of course, it is far harder now to start a career in the media industry, as it is elsewhere. Times are tough, jobs are far less stable these days but I do believe that, making the most of your opportunities at University can be a big help.
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