280. Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys (1969)

Boxing Day 1969: A fire broke out at the 15th-century Rose & Crown hotel in Saffron Walden when a TV in the lounge overheated. 11 people died that night, which led to the passing in 1971 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The previous day, children all across the country will have opened their Christmas presents, and if they had BBC One on their television sets, they may have seen delighted to see Australian children’s entertainer Rolf Harris was meeting patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, Surrey. I’m betting that during the show, he’ll have sang that year’s Christmas number 1, and final chart-topper of the decade, Two Little Boys. Until a few years ago, it was a fondly remembered anti-war song by a national treasure. Now it’s an uncomfortable reminder that a paedophile tricked us all for nearly 50 , and the name of the song has only helped it become a sick joke.

Few stars have fallen in the UK as swiftly and completely as Harris. He was our favourite Aussie, loved by most, including me. And then in 2013 he was arrested and interviewed for allegations related to Operation Yewtree, set up by police in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex scandals.

Harris was born on 30 March 1930 in Bassendean, Perth in Western Australia. He was named after Rolf Boldrewood, the pseudonym of a writer his mother, Agnes, admired. As a child, Harris loved to paint, and aged 16 and studying at Perth Modern School, his self-portrait was one of 80 works out of 200 to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry in the 1947 Archibald Prize. He won his first art prize two years later. In his adolescence he was also an excellent swimmer, winning several competitions in the 40s and 50s. This is perhaps why he starred in a public information film in the 70s encouraging children to learn to swim.

He moved to England in 1952, and aged 22 he was studying at City and Guilds of London Art School in South London. Only a year later he had his big break in TV, performing a regular 10-minute cartoon drawing section on the BBC children’s show Jigsaw. By 1954 he was a regular on a similar show, Whirligig. When Harris wasn’t on TV (he also starred in ITV show Small Time from 1955) or learning from impressionist painter Hayward Veal, he could be found every Thursday at a club called the Down Under, where he would hone his entertainment skills.

By 1959 Harris was married to Welsh actress Alwen Hughes and back in Perth after being headhunted. His popularity exploded there and as well as presenting a children’s show and a variety show, he recorded his first single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport on one mic with four local musicians and his wobble board. He had his first hit, reaching number 1 in Australia in 1960. It sold well in the UK too and became one of his signature songs.

One of his most notable early hits was Sun Arise in 1962. Produced by George Martin, it was more serious than his usual fare, and I used to love listening to it, finding it pretty psychedelic. Harris couldn’t play the didgeridoo so the sound was replicated by eight double basses. Back in the UK, he got to know the Beatles, possibly through Martin, and despite being angered by them interfering in his act off the side of the stage during one of the Fab Four’s Christmas shows, they struck up a friendship. His 1965 single Jake the Peg became one of his most beloved songs. This tale of a man with an ‘extra leg’ would also sadly take on a whole new dimension once the truth came out.

As well as introducing us to Australian musical instruments, Harris became known in 1968 for his association with the futuristic Stylophone. He would use this miniature analog stylus-operated keyboard on his records and on TV, and he and David Bowie helped popularise the instrument. It did wonders for his street cred in the 90s when musicians like Pulp, Orbital and Stereolab began using it too, remembering Harris’s adverts from their childhood.

By the time of his number 1 single, Rolf Harris was untouchable (sadly, as it turned out), presenting the long-running The Rolf Harris Show on the BBC, churning out novelty hits and becoming one of TV’s top celebrities thanks to his charming eccentricities and lovable image.

Always on the lookout for songs for his TV show, he fell in love with Two Little Boys (ahem… see?) in 1969 and asked musical director Alan Braden to arrange a version for him.

One of the oldest songs to reach number 1 for some time, this music hall song had been written back in 1902 by American composer Theodore Morse and lyricist Edward Madden and was made popular by Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. An unashamedly sentimental tale of two young boys who played together, then fought together in the US civil war, Harris was perhaps very canny to pick such a tune as the 60s drew to a close, with the war in Vietnam proving more and more unpopular. Allegedly, John Lennon congratulated him for getting a protest song to the top of the charts. The TV audience loved it, and so he released it in time for Christmas. It ended the eight-week run of Sugar Sugar over the festive fortnight and stayed there for most of January 1970. So, after light entertainment tunes, the dying embers of rock’n’roll, Beatlemania, psychedelia and rock, the charts came full circle, and a light entertainer ruled the roost again as the 60s drew to a close.

I was genuinely hurt and disappointed when the allegations came out about Rolf Harris. Savile wasn’t a surprise at all, he was clearly weird and had a dark side (although obviously I was shocked and appalled when the scale of his shocking crimes became apparent). I felt, like much of the country, betrayed that such a loveable guy could hurt children. I watched him perform four times at Glastonbury Festival, and Two Little Boys was always one of the highlights. Looking back, I maybe sensed he wasn’t the person we were led to believe. There were times during his performances there that his real personality perhaps slipped out, and I remember finding him a bit vulgar, and wondering if in actual fact he wasn’t the weird but harmless manchild he had hoodwinked us into believing in.

Listening to Two Little Boys is a sad and uncomfortable experience now. Don’t get me wrong, it was never a masterpiece, and wasn’t something I would ever casually listen to, but it was hard not to have a soft spot for a song so full of pathos. It was a song that could make the hardest of hearts melt for a minute or two. Even Margaret Thatcher loved it! It wasn’t cool and it didn’t matter. It was about the love between two friends down the years, forced into fighting a bloody war but still looking out for each other. And that filthy heavy-breathing bastard went has ruined it for everyone.

The 70s were leaner years for Harris’s music career, but he remained very much in the public eye through his TV shows. He performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and became Sir Rolf Harris in 1977, before launching a new series, Rolf on Saturday — OK?, which ran for three years.

In 1982 he performed didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming, and did so again on her 2005 album Aerial. He presented Rolf’s Cartoon Time on the BBC through most of the 80s, and then moved to ITV to host Rolf’s Cartoon Club from 1989 to 1993, which is where my earliest memories of him stem. Apparently he hosted a child abuse prevention video in 1985, called Kids Can Say No!

It was around this time he began to be loved by students who remembered him from their youth. His version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven returned him to the charts for the first time in years in 1993, and he made his Glastonbury Festival debut. As well as being an ironic figure of fun, his TV career went from strength to strength thanks to Animal Hospital, which did wonders for his public image and ran from 1994 to 2003.

Harris also moved back into serious painting, presenting Rolf on Art and then Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. He even painted the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2005. Three years later he re-recorded Two Little Boys to mark the 90th anniversary of World War One, after discovering that the song was remarkably close to the experiences of his own father and uncle during the conflict. In 2011 he appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and spoke of his experiences of clinical depression.

2012 saw Rolf perform at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Concert, breaking out into a rendition of Two Little Boys to fill in time, before comedian Lenny Henry stopped him and was booed off stage. Then that October, Operation Yewtree began. The UK was still coming to terms with Savile’s crimes when Harris was arrested in March 2013 after many rumours he was one of the suspects. In June 2014 he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault and subsequently sentenced over five years in prison. While inside, stories would occasionally appear of him having written abusive song lyrics about his victims. He was released in 2017, and was last in the news earlier this year having entered a school playground to wave at children. In this climate of #cancelled, Rolf Harris, now 88, will be loathed until the day he dies.

So, sorry to end such an innovative, startling musical decade on such a sour note, but I will be touching on the 60s again soon. Like my blog Every 50s Number 1, I will listen to the whole lot again and whittle them down to pick the best and worst of every year, before deciding on the best and worst of the decade. A mammoth task indeed.

And eventually we’ll resume with the 70s number 1s, but as Two Little Boys was at number 1 until 30 January, here’s a look at what made the news as the new decade began.

A few changes were rang in by Big Ben on New Year’s Day, with the age of majority for most legal purposes reduced from 21 to 18 under the terms of the Family Law Reform Act 1969. The half crown coin also ceased to be legal tender. The National Westminster Bank began trading that day following the merger of National Provincial Bank and Westminster Bank.

Following a cold spell, the weather in January became changeable. The grave of Karl Mark was vandalised by anti-Germanic racists at Highgate in London on 18 January. Three days later, Fraserburgh lifeboat Duchess of Kent capsized, and five of the six crew died.

22 January saw a Boeing 747 land in Heathrow Airport, making it the first jumbo jet in the country. And four days before the first new number 1 of the 70s, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger was fined £200 for possession of cannabis. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.

Written by: Theodore F Morse & Edward Madden

Producer: Mickey Clarke

Weeks at number 1: 6 (20 December 1969-30 January 1970)

Births:

Politician Ed Miliband – 24 December
Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay – 30 December
Politician Andy Burnham – 7 January
Olympic rower Tim Foster – 19 January
Comedian Mitch Benn – 20 January
Art curator Maria Balshaw – 24 January

Deaths:

Actor Jimmy Hankey – 13 January
Urdd founder Ifan ab Owen Edwards – 23 January
Poet Albert Evans – 26 January
Military historian Basil Liddell Hart – 29 January

160. The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand (1963)

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1963 had been an eventful year in many ways, particularly for pop music, and of course, the impact the Beatles had caused a sea change in the charts that hadn’t been seen since the advent of rock’n’roll. So it is entirely appropriate that the Christmas number 1 that year belonged to them. I Want to Hold Your Hand started a tradition, becoming the first of several festive chart-toppers for John, Paul, George and Ringo. It was also the song that transformed their fortunes in the US, and began the phenomenon known as the British Invasion.

Following the success of She Loves You, the Beatles played abroad for the first time since their Hamburg days, touring Sweden. They returned home to hundreds of screaming fans, and took on another triumphant tour of the UK, and their second album With the Beatles was released on 22 November. It became only the second album to sell over a million copies. In the sleeve notes, press officer Tony Barrow described the boys as ‘the fabulous foursome’, which became adopted by the media and shortened to ‘the Fab Four’. Unusually, EMI chose to keep one track back from the sessions in order to maximise its sales.

Allegedly, manager Brian Epstein was growing increasingly determined that the Beatles crack the US, and pressed Lennon and McCartney to write a single specifically with that in mind. Paul McCartney was now dating Jane Asher, and had moved into her family home at 57 Wimpole Street, London. I Want to Hold Your Hand was another collaborative effort, composed ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’ by John and Paul.  It was often the case at the time that the music took priority and random, almost bland phrases would be called out, and if they fitted, they stayed in the songs. The song’s title was likely in mind as they had recorded I Wanna Be Your Man as a showcase for Ringo on the new album.

The first track to be recorded using four-track technology, I Want to Hold Your Hand has a more subtle intro than She Loves You – it actually has an intro, for a start. All four band members provide the handclaps as the first verse begins. Lyrically, it’s rather bland, and polite, as was the fashion at the time. It’s not as clever as She Loves You, and at first you could be forgiven for finding it as safe and sexless as a track by Cliff Richard and the Shadows. However, musically we’re in more adventurous territory, and the way the whole track lifts when they first sing ‘I wanna hold your hand’ suggests hand-holding is just the start. This is backed up by ‘And when I touch you I feel happy inside’. Famously, ‘I can’t hide’ was misheard by Bob Dylan, who gave the Beatles cannabis after assuming the band were regular users – he thought they were singing ‘I get high’. On the whole, it’s inferior to She Loves You, but then again, most things were, and often still are.

Upon its release, I Want to Hold Your Hand had already had over a million advance orders in the UK. However, it found itself battling it out with the Beatles’ last single – Beatlemania was becoming such a force that She Loves You had returned to number 1 after You’ll Never Walk Alone. On 12 December the Beatles became the first act to knock themselves off the top of the charts, and stayed there until mid-January 1964. During this time, EMI and Brian Epstein convinced Capitol Records in the US to get behind the single. The band were becoming known in the US thanks to small labels like Vee-Jay releasing earlier material. It was released in America on Boxing Day, and eventually hit the top of the Billboard charts in February, where it remained until She Loves You overtook it. Beatlemania had hit the US, and gave the country a much-needed lift following JFK’s assassination.

Brian Epstein refused to let the group relax over Christmas, and so they found themselves headlining The Beatles’ Christmas Show, a variety show that ran for 16 nights over the festive period. A mixture of pantomime (hence the Fab Four’s bizarre outfits in the picture above) and music, the shows also featured Billy J Kramer with the Dakotas, Cilla Black and Rolf Harris. That Christmas also saw them release their first gift for fan club members, The Beatles’ Christmas Record.

Elsewhere that Christmas, Doctor Who introduced the Timelord’s most infamous villains to TV screens. The famous sink plunger stalked assistant Barbara at the end of the first episode of The Daleks on 21 December. And New Year’s Day 1964 saw the start of another television – and musical – milestone, with the very first episode of Top of the Pops. DJ Jimmy Savile introduced the show live from Manchester, and it featured tracks from the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, Dusty Springfield, and of course, the Beatles. The show became an institution, and mirrored whatever was happening in the charts every week until that same disgraceful human being, Jimmy Savile, was the last person seen on screen on the final weekly episode in 2005.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 5 (12 December 1963-15 January 1964)

Births:

Comedian Caroline Aherne – 24 December 
Comedian Bill Bailey – 13 January 

109. Elvis Presley – It’s Now or Never (1960)

elvis_presley-its_now_or_never_s.jpgAfter two years military service, Elvis Presley was discharged from the US army in March 1960. The story goes that Elvis’s time in Friedberg, West Germany involved mainly parties, girls and drugs. While there, he met Priscilla Beaulieu for the first time, at a party at Elvis’s house. Then only 14, the pair agreed to stay in touch when he left West Germany, but she was convinced they would never meet again.

Elvis had been worried about his music career losing momentum during his time as a GI, but a steady stream of singles had been put aside beforehand, and the number 1s kept coming. However, he was itching to get back to recording, and before the month was out he was back in the studio, rush-releasing a new single, Stuck on You, which hit number 1 in the US (surprisingly, it stalled at number three over here). He then began work on the comeback album, Elvis Is Back! at RCA’s Nashville studio. While stationed in West Germany, he had heard Tony Martin’s 1949 hit There’s No Tomorrow, which was based on the famous Italian tune, O Sole Mio, which had once been recorded by one of Elvis’s heroes, the crooner Mario Lanza. Before Elvis had returned from the army, he told his music publisher Freddy Bienstock he was keen to record a new song based on the melody. Tasked with finding the right songwriters, he returned to his office in New York to find Aaron Schroeder (who had co-written Elvis’s 1959 number 1, I Got Stung) and Wally Gold, who had previously had hit singles while in the group the Four Esquires. The duo made quick work of the task, coming up with It’s Now or Never in half an hour. As usual, Steve Sholes produced, and Bill Porter was the sound engineer. Porter was having a particularly busy but successful time of it, having worked on music by the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), which was usurped from the top by It’s Now or Never. Listening to the two back-to-back, there’s a definite similarity.

It’s Now or Never found Elvis reverting to crooner mode, with his vocal performance closely resembling Mario Lanza’s almost-operatic method of intonation. Elvis is issuing an ultimatum to his lover – act now or lose him for good. He struggled to lift his voice to hit that impressive final note, recording it over and over. Porter told Presley he could easily just splice two takes together, but he insisted on his vocal being all one take, and pulled it off on the next run-through. It’s Now or Never really impressed at the time and was a huge hit, but rights issues in the UK meant its release was delayed for four months. This was no setback however, as the single racked up lots of advance orders. When finally released on 3 November, it went straight to number 1, where it remained for two months, becoming the biggest-selling single of 1960. It is also one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, selling over 25 million worldwide. And it meant the King had now achieved five number 1s – overtaking Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell, who had four each.

Unfortunately for me and I expect many people of a certain age, It’s Now or Never means only one thing – ice-cream. Walls’ Ice Cream used O Sole Mio for many years on their famous adverts for Cornetto. So for me it’s impossible to hear this Elvis track without picturing a man on a gondolier trying to steal a woman’s ice-cream. It’s also a disturbing irony that disgraced sexual predator and DJ Jimmy Savile selected It’s Now or Never when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.

To celebrate 50 years of his music, It’s Now or Never was among the batch of re-releases of his most popular singles, and it went to number 1 once more for a week on 5 February 2005. In 2017, Priscilla Presley revealed online that this song was Elvis’s favourite among his huge catalogue. Wonder if he liked Cornettos?

On 9 December, the first episode of legendary soap opera Coronation Street aired on ITV. Among the characters introduced in that first show were Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker, all of whom became mainstays, alongside Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, who is still in the soap to this day.

Written by: Wally Gold & Aaron Schroeder/Eduardo di Capua (O Sole Mio)

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 8 (3 November-28 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Actress Tilda Swinton – 5 November
Presenter Jonathan Ross – 17 November
Singer Kim Wilde – 18 November
Fashion designer John Galliano – 28 November
Footballer Gary Lineker – 30 November
Def Leppard bassist Rick Savage – 2 December
Actor Kenneth Branagh – 10 December – Kenneth Branagh
Footballer John Lukic – 11 December
Footballer Chris Waddle – 14 December
Presenter Carol Vorderman – 24 December
Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon – 26 December

Deaths:

Architect Sir Nina Cooper – 22 December