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

272. The Beatles – The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)

Midsummer, 1969: Burmese the horse was ridden by the Queen for the first time at Trooping the Colour on 14 June, a role she held until 1986. It was a busy time for the Royal family – a week later, BBC One transmitted a fly-on-the-wall documentary devoted to them. The Royal Family had been made by the BBC and ITV to celebrate the investiture of Prince Charles on 1 July, and gave an insight into the Windsors that could only have been imagined previously. Viewing figures topped 30,600,500, but some worried that the overexposure could damage the throne, and the Queen pulled it off air in 1972. Only clips have been seen on TV since then.

Earlier that day, Patrick Troughton made his last regular appearance in Doctor Who. Banished to Earth by the Time Lords in the final episode of The War Games, it was also the final black and white episode of the sci-fi series.

After the referendum in Rhodesia had voted in favour of becoming a Republic, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, left Government House on 24 June. This severed the last diplomatic relationship with the UK.

All these events have one momentous historical event in common: they took place when the Beatles were at number 1 for the 17th and final time, with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko. It was a sure a sign as any that the Fab Four were about to split up, and yet it proved that Lennon and McCartney were still able to put aside their differences and work together.

Lennon and Yoko Ono had married in Gibraltar, Spain on 20 March that year. Soon after Lennon wrote The Ballad of John and Yoko as a kind of travelogue set to a Chuck Berry sound, covering the wedding, the honeymoon in Paris, and their first bed-in a few days later at the Amsterdam Hilton.

An excited and impatient Lennon visited McCartney at home on 14 April, three days after Get Back had been released, in the hope of getting the song finished. Surprisingly, not only did they finish writing it, they went to Abbey Road that afternoon with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (for the first time since he’d walked out of sessions for The Beatles) and recorded it, without George Harrison (who was on holiday) or Ringo Starr (he was filming The Magic Christian). The Ballad of John and Yoko was done and dusted by 9.30pm. Lennon sang lead, played lead and rhythm guitar, and made percussion sounds by slapping the back of an acoustic guitar. McCartney provided some excellent harmony vocals, bass, drums, piano and maracas. Appreciating the irony of being the only two band members involved, Barry Miles noted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (1997) the following exchange: Lennon (on guitar): ‘Go a bit faster, Ringo!’ McCartney (on drums): ‘OK, George!’

After months of torturous misery during the Get Back sessions, how come the duo were able to knock up a single so quickly? The fact they were two down simplified matters obviously, but McCartney was probably so relieved that Lennon was enthusiastic for the first time in a fair while, he was bound to jump at the chance, even if the lyrics made it plain that Lennon was growing apart from the Beatles. He may also have known that Lennon was likely to go ahead and record it anyway with somebody else, and he was determined to keep the band together despite the tensions.

The Ballad of John and Yoko is a real oddity in the Beatles catalogue. With it’s self-centered lyrics, you could easily call this the start of Lennon’s solo career really. I find it a real shame that, after all my blogs on such classic material, this is the final Beatles song I get to write about for this blog. I mean, it’s only half the band! Let It Be would have been a far more appropriate way to end the number 1s of the greatest band of all time.

Unlike many though, I’m not here to bury it. It’s not a bad song, and it’s not my least favourite Beatles single. I think I prefer it to Get Back, because it has more energy. Ironically, it’s McCartney who shines here. His rhythm track has real punch to it, and I’ve always enjoyed his drumming (I’m certainly not knocking Starr though). And I really like the final verse when he joins Lennon to sing. I admire the chutzpah of Lennon to write a chorus which mocks the whole ‘Bigger than Jesus’ scandal of 1966 too. It showed how far music had come in three years, and the Beatles led the way for most of that time (having said that, many radio stations would either censor the song or refuse to even play it).

Maybe in a way it is an appropriate song to end on, with the Fab Four’s chief songwriters working together so closely again. Those days had been few and far between for some time, and sadly, there weren’t any more to come.

This single, backed with George Harrison’s superior Old Brown Shoe, was rush-released on 30 May, and was their first single to be in stereo only. Due to Lennon wanting the song to be topical, this meant the unusual approach of releasing it while previous single Get Back was still at number 1. Tommy Roe’s Dizzy knocked that from the top, but was only there for a week before The Ballad of John and Yoko hit number 1.

And here’s where the story of the world’s greatest band ends. Except obviously, it wasn’t over yet. The group had already agreed on McCartney’s suggestion to make another album, and sessions were under way. The Ballad of John and Yoko‘s success proved there was still fuel in the tank, and George Martin was glad to be back on board providing they went back to earlier methods of recording. In other words, stop the bickering of the past year. And they all got on much better… for a while, anyway. McCartney and Martin were keen on a long medley and Lennon wasn’t. Lennon didn’t bother turning up for sessions for Harrison songs either.

Before Abbey Road had been completed he released his first ‘solo’ single (as the Plastic Ono Band), the famous anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance. Nothing was ever said, but there was a general feeling among all involved that Abbey Road would be their final work together.

McCartney had become the odd man out earlier that year after the other three had voted tough American businessman Allen Klein as their new manager, which put a huge strain on the band in addition to their other issues. On 20 September, six days before the release of one of their best albums, Lennon announced he was leaving and John, Paul, George and Ringo never recorded as a unit again.

Something/Come Together would have been a perfect number 1 single in October, but demand had been so high for its parent album, it missed out. One last song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was completed minus Lennon in January 1970. This was done to make it part of the salvaged Get Back sessions, now to feature in a film and LP called Let It Be. Klein handed over the tapes to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Instant Karma! for Lennon. Smothering many of the songs with lush orchestral sounds, including Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, McCartney was not amused, and beat Lennon to the punch by publicly announcing he had quit, the week before the release of McCartney, his first solo album, on 10 April.

The full story of the demise of the Beatles makes for a riveting but depressing read, and I recommend Pete Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles (2009) if you want to know more.

Despite many highly lucrative offers over the years, the Beatles never did reform. It’s likely they would have had Lennon not been murdered in 1980, with relations between he and McCartney thawing. The closest we got was the Anthology project of the mid-90s, and the singles Free As a Bird (1995) and Real Love (1996), where the remaining trio worked on Lennon demos provided by Ono. Although not up to the standard of their previous work, they’re decent enough tunes, and I still can’t believe neither made it to number 1. I guess the world had moved on. A bit.

A new romantic comedy, Yesterday, imagines a world in which they never existed. Pop would probably still have moved on from the doldrums of the early-60s, but it could never have become quite so innovative, so witty, so joyous and so magical without them. Nobody had, has, or ever will have the alchemy of the Fab Four.

The Beatles. 17 number 1 singles. They changed everything.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (11 June-1 July)

Births:

Graphic artist Simon Taylor – 22 June