‘Rock on, Jet’ – the great Jet Harris deserves a better farewell than Sir Cliff’s sick-making effort

Mysteriously, the Independent was not too keen on my devoting this week’s column to the death of Jet Harris, bass guitarist for The Shadows until 1962. The paper’s view,  I assume, was that in a world full of sound and fury, of war, earthquake and general momentousness, the departure from this earth of an old rocker –   a failed old rocker, some might say – need not detain the rest of us for too long.

Maybe they were right. Certainly my sadness at the death of Jet Harris last week at the age of 71 had a personal element. It was Jet, and his fellow ex-Shadow Tony Meehan, who inspired me to have a go at the guitar when I was a bored boarder at a dull public school. I still owe him for that.

Old rockers are rarely given the press send-off they deserve, and Jet Harris’s was no exception. Some newspapers referred to the fact that his first wife went to bed with the band’s lead singer Cliff Richard – an unusual, possibly unique, claim to fame but hardly one which most people would want to be remembered for.

Other reports revealed that a woman friend of Jet’s had written to the now-distinguished Sir Cliff Richard two years ago when his the bass guitarist was needed specialist treatment for cancer. She received a curt note from the great man’s office advising her to contact Macmillan nurses.  The Christian spirit was not, in fact, too evident in any of Sir Cliff’s dealings with his struggling former bass guitarist. A request from Jet to play a few numbers (and earn a few quid) on the recent world tour of Cliff and The Shadows was briskly rejected.

What a perfect contrast the two careers in music of Sir Cliff Richard and Jet Harris offer since their paths parted in 1962.

For the briefest of moments (perhaps when he was having an affair with the first Mrs Harris), Cliff Richard seemed slightly edgy, almost dangerous. Perhaps that was simply what the market demanded at the time because, since then, his progress has been a model of market-led caution. This sensible has approached has rewarded him well. He is just about to record a new album with rappens and R ‘n’ B artists.

His press release in tribute to Jet Harris was straight off the PR production line; it even ended with the words, “Rock on, Jet”.

By contrast, Harris did everything wrong. He left The Shadows just when they were breaking through (and without him, their music lost its edge). He drank too much. He had a massive car crash. He married several times. He suffered from depression. After his slide out of the big time, he earned a living at various times as a bus conductor, a hospital porter, a cockle-picker and a bricklayer. Towards the end, he became what they called a heritage artist, playing his old hits to tiny audiences in godforsaken seaside resorts.

Who was truer to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll  – the perfect, airbrushed star or the boozy old bassist?

No contest, surely. The drive, the pain, the integrity that transformed skiffle into rock owes little to cleverly marketed, pretty-boy  frontmen like Cliff, and everything to brave, blundering pioneers like Jet Harris.

  • Galactic Cowboy

    Great piece, mate! No thanks, Cliff.
    Jet is rightly remembered.