Sep 06

ROLF HARRIS – “Two Little Boys”

FT + Popular90 comments • 13,435 views

#280, 20th December 1969

In rock terms you could locate the end of “the 1960s” at Altamont or Woodstock, or the Beatles’ final split. In the wider narrative of British life, you could point to the 1970 World Cup defeat and the end of the Wilson government. But in the world of the pop charts, the decade ends here, with Australian light entertainer Rolf Harris reviving a sentimental music hall ditty from 1912.

“Two Little Boys” is not without cultural significance, and not without merit either, but you have to work quite hard to get to either. Though it’s a record about war, you’d have to push to link its success to Viet Nam, but it does have another, odder political resonance: Margaret Thatcher on Desert Island Discs picked it as her favourite record of all time.

Why? The Internet is unfortunately silent on this point. It wasn’t current during her girlhood, and her children were 16 at this point, so she clearly liked it for herself. Selfless loyalty to ones friends isn’t an especially Thatcherite trait, but the song does take place in wartime when the supremacy of the individual can be suspended without ideological taint. Maybe – a reading Robin Carmody might enjoy – she liked the idea of this hated decade of statist government and progressive reform ending with such a simple, reassuringly moral tune.

Or, given that her only other pop-crit pronouncement was to praise the Thrashing Doves on kids TV, it may simply be that the Thatcher ears work in mysterious ways.

Is “Two Little Boys” any good, though? It fails the (quite important) test of me ever wanting to listen to it again, but it’s hard to hate the thing. Rolf Harris has become a minor national treasure partly because of the huge enthusiasm and sincerity with which he approaches everything he does – from teaching kids to draw, to entertaining students at Glastonbury, to painting a portrait of the Queen. “Two Little Boys” is no exception – no singer but a natural storyteller, he sells the song to a young audience with full conviction.

This is one of the entries where the ‘marking system’ on Popular breaks down a bit. There is nothing wrong with making records for children; there is nothing wrong with children (or their parents) buying them and getting them to No.1; the notion that young adults, particularly fashionable young adults, have some kind of moral lock on popular music is nonsense. But the starting point of this history is a thirty-something man asking which No.1s he enjoys, and why, and in that context all I can say about this is that it’s probably the best version of “Two Little Boys” ever recorded.



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  1. 31
    Peter Gaunt on 27 Sep 2006 #

    It’s a strangely likeable song this one, isn’t it? Not normally my cup of tea but for some inexplicable reason I’ve always liked it. Someone, I forget who, did a really, really fast punk version in the 70s which, besides being a wonderful piss-take, at least had the virtue of only being a minute or so long.

  2. 32
    CarsmileSteve on 28 Sep 2006 #

    Onto Rolf anyway – for some reason I always assumed this song was about the American Civil War, although I realise that this makes no sense at all.

    strangely i’d also thought this. i suppose it kind of maybe makes sense that it’s a civil war of some sort, otherwise how would they know each other. also it must be from a time with cannons, but when horses (obv) were still in use…

    …also i seem to recall Oink! comic doing a skit of it which as well as marvellously changing the first lines to:

    Two little boys had two little toys
    Each had a wooden geegee
    Gaily they played each summer’s day
    Except when they stopped for a weewee

    showed the boys in American Civil War uniforms in the later panels.

  3. 33
    Marcello Carlin on 28 Sep 2006 #

    The punk version was by Splodgenessabounds, in 1980.

    Rolf did shoot a promo film for the song which depicted him walking through the WWI trenches and the cemetery at Ypres.

  4. 34
    Erithian on 28 Sep 2006 #

    Yes indeed Tom, the Hindley-Cogan connection is very unpleasant, and suffice to say that when I learned what it was, it wasn’t used in the quiz I was compiling.

    Doc – I thought “Sylvia” was a terrific single and “Hocus Pocus” not far behind. Of course the other Dutch band in the early 70s UK chart was Golden Earring, whose cred was rather spoilt by their former drummer Jaap Eggermont later being the evil genius behind “Stars on 45”.

  5. 35
    Doctor Mod on 30 Sep 2006 #

    OK, Erithian, you win. Last night I downloaded both “Sylvia” and “Hocus Pocus.” I’d always liked the former, and I thank you for reminding me of it. And “Hocus Pocus” wasn’t as irritating as I had thought–I now find the yodel perversely amusing. So I ordered a copy of the “Best of” CD. Erithian made me do it. (A pun on a Golden Earring title.)

    Speaking of GE, well, they’re downright redoubtable. They’ve been together since 1961 (with the same basic lineup since 1970) and are still performing, which, I think, beats the Stones in the longevity category.

    “Stars on 45” is truly unforgivable, but, in the most technical sense, it did return “Venus” to the charts as part of the medley.

  6. 36
    Website Optimization on 3 Feb 2007 #

    Sounds good!

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 23 Jul 2007 #

    An interesting piece I spotted in the Times on Saturday which may explain a lot about this song’s history…any relation, Tom?

  8. 38
    riki cooper on 7 Jan 2008 #

    I saw the show Rolf sang it on as a child around 1970 in New Zealand.

    The first impression I got of the songs era was European, 18-19th century. Boys in blue could only be french, therefore I surmise the song stems from the Napoleonic wars.

    Toy wooden horses doesn’t fit 19th century America, but certainly with Europe. Young boys weren’t conditioned or expecting war between the states years before. Young boys in Europe always knew war was inevitable and it always came from England. if you look at 6 nations rugby every country in that competition has been plundered by or fought long hard campaigns against the English. Therefore you do not have to work hard to find cultural signifigance at all. In fact you could write at least a 1500 word referenced essay as a tertiary project. Also, the boys may have been well bought up as suggested by having a toy horse each and a comfortable lifestyle is subtly hinted at. The boys may well have been upper class and groomed as calvary officers as their forebears were. The whole piece speaks of nobility, gentility, bravado, dashing heroics of the officer class. Who knows, it could possibly have been interpreted from the French!

  9. 39
    richard thompson on 9 Jun 2008 #

    This was my favourite when I was seven years old as I remember rolf singing it on TOTP, during it’s last week there they just showed a photo of Rolf, the one they used at the beginning of the programme during the chart rundown as they used to play it at the beginning, there was Edison Lighthouse at the start the following week, so there was a new no 1 with Jimmy Savile introducing it.

  10. 40
    Two Little Boys on 30 Dec 2008 #

    […] What’s Not There [explanation]: Thatcher’s other apparent favourite songs (“Telstar ”; “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” (and c.f. David Cameron on “Ernie”)); Ted Egan’s politics re: indigenous peoples (likewise Rolf’s “‘racism’ apology”); JH Ewing’s influence on Baden-Powell re: the Brownies; Thatcher on the Good Samaritan. As with any track that got to Number One, I’d already got lots of my thoughts in order by reading and commenting at Popular. […]

  11. 41
    maggiethatcher on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Interesting that as Thatcher’s health deteriorates, songs are being written and recorded about her death, such as Maggie’s death anthem and The lady’s not for Burning (Piss anthem) – Cashing in on her demise is very Thatcher-ite.
    Via http://www.maggiethatcher.com/buymusic.html

  12. 42
    Waldo on 25 Oct 2009 #

    Cheesy ol’ Rolf hit a sure fire winner with this charming little song over the yuletide. He must be one of the few people in the entertainment industry in this country whom has inspired nothing but affection over the course of his lengthy career. I can even remember a little run of “public information films” (remember them?) he presented about this time called “Swim With Rolf”. Glasses off! I really don’t believe there has ever been a bad bone in Rolf’s body and shame on the Beatles for taking the piss all those years ago.

    My old dad (and he was bloody old) used to sing an old 1st WW song to my brother and me, “There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding”, whilst most of my little friends’ dads, being twenty years younger, would plump for “Hard Day’s Night” and some such. Needless to say, TLB was right up Papa’s strasse. This might have been a reason for eight year-old Waldo to hate it but I didn’t. I just didn’t like it very much. Looking back at it through middle-age eyes, I can readily accept it as a song about love and friendship advancing through the years and the line about one day “our horses will not be toys” is particularly evocative. Evocative but uplifting too.

  13. 43
    tim davidge on 6 Jun 2010 #

    The Official Charts Company list of the twenty top-selling singles from 01.01.1960 to 31.12.1969 (as published in The Independent, 01.06.2010) reads as follows:

    1 She Loves You The Beatles
    2 I Want To Hold Your Hand The Beatles
    3 Tears Ken Dodd
    4 Can’t Buy Me Love The Beatles
    5 I Feel Fine The Beatles
    6 The Carnival Is Over The Seekers
    7 We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper The Beatles
    8 Release Me Engelbert Humperdinck
    9 It’s Now Or Never (O Sole Mio) Elvis Presley
    10 Green Green Grass Of Home Tom Jones
    11 The Last Waltz Engelbert Humperdinck
    12 Stranger On The Shore Acker Bilk
    13 I Remember You Frank Ifield
    14 The Young Ones Cliff Richard
    15 Sugar Sugar The Archies
    16 The Next Time/Bachelor Boy Cliff Richard
    17 Telstar The Tornados
    18 From Me To You The Beatles
    19 Two Little Boys Rolf Harris
    20 Hey Jude The Beatles

  14. 44
    punctum on 13 Apr 2011 #

    Lena has her say on Rolf, since her Number 2 blog is now expanding to include selected NME chart-only runners-up:


  15. 45
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Rolf Harris, Musician, Artist(1999)

    Beryl Bainbridge, novelist(2008)

    Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Scientist(2010)

  16. 46
    Kirsty Young on 15 Apr 2011 #

    and Margaret Thatcher. You’re flagging, Crag. And you’re still not getting an invite.


  17. 47
    Mark G on 15 Apr 2011 #

    Rolf Harris took his own record to the desert island? Isn’t there a law against that?

  18. 48
    enitharmon on 15 Apr 2011 #

    If you’ve been paying attention, quite a few of the castaways have taken their own records. Cilla Black is one. Alan Price (with his Animals hat on) is another

    Actually although I felt much the same as you at first glance it makes sense. If you are going to be alone on a desert island you might well want to be reminded of what is probably the biggest achievement of your life.

  19. 49
    DietMondrian on 16 Apr 2011 #

    Opera singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s eight choices included seven of her own recordings.

  20. 50
    wichita lineman on 16 Apr 2011 #

    Re 48: not surprising with Alan Price, a man so selfless he registered House Of The Rising Sun in his own name, behind the backs of his bandmates, to nab all the royalties.

    Re 49: Elisabeth Grosskopf.

  21. 51
    Snif on 17 Apr 2011 #

    Among Dudley Moore’s selections was his own “Lust” from the “Bedazzled” soundtrack…though to be fair I can’t blame him.

  22. 52
    Lena on 15 Mar 2012 #

    C’mon get happy: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2012/03/sunshine-punch-cuff-links-tracy.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  23. 53
    Lena on 20 Mar 2012 #

    …and it’s again…:http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/unboundedness-elvis-presley-suspicious.html Merci beaucoup for reading, everyone!

  24. 54
    Jimmy the Swede on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Lenny Henry has just been released from the Tower with a severe warning and the prospect of a K in tatters. What a knob’ead! Even the Swede was singing along to that and I bet Brenda was too.

  25. 55
    Erithian on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Yes, it was described as Lenny’s Adele moment. Do you think Stevie Wonder was singing along too?

  26. 56
    Jimmy the Swede on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Lenny just knows that as soon as he shows his boat on stage again, he’ll be met with a chorus of this song. The best rememdy will be to just concede defeat and join in.

    I think Stevie Wonder had as much chance of joining in singing along to Rolf as Brenda would have had singing along to Stevie doing “Living for the City”. God, that would have been f’king cracking!

  27. 57
    punctum on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Yes, ingrate Lenny Henry complaining about the relative lack of black faces on stage in what was effectively a Conservative Party fundraising affair hyped up to disguise the reintroduction of slavery into Britain. TBH I’ve no idea why he was even there.

  28. 58
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Christ, I hadn’t heard about this. “You’ve got to stop. We’re ready.” What, was Rolf the warm-up for Lenny Henry? Then, “I’m so sorry to interrupt you SIR”. That’s te same tone in which I get called “sir” if I walk into a pub in, I dunno, Enfield and there’s some git behind the bar who doesn’t think my clothes fit his Victorian-via-Holiday Inn pub fittings. What an awful man.

    Re 57: There’s a scene in Extras which kind of explains that.

    Does anyone like Lenny Henry?

  29. 59
    Mark G on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Back in my theatre-group days, our director (who loved everyone) was asked about Len, he used to use the place to test out new material.

    Dislikeable, it seems. (I heard from a different source that he was parked at Reading Blockbuster, sent someone in for films, some kid asked him for an autograph and was told “no, f** off!”

    As per u, there was a more recent interview where he admitted having been a git but was better now.


  30. 60
    punctum on 7 Jun 2012 #

    I find it fairly predictable, if saddening, that people prefer to have a go at Lenny Henry rather than the managing director of Close Protection UK.

  31. 61
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Less likeable than James Corden. That takes some doing.

  32. 62
    Erithian on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Punctum, that’s not what we’re talking about. Dunno about a relative lack of black faces – Stevie Wonder and Grace Jones being two of the undisputed hits of the night – but Lenny wasn’t complaining about it. What happened was that the comedians were filling in, none of them particularly well, while the stage was set up for the various acts, and when there was an extra delay getting Stevie Wonder’s set ready, Lenny got Rolf to fill in with an impromptu “Two Little Boys”. Then just when everybody was singing along, Lenny got the nod that Stevie was ready – and no doubt under pressure from the producer à la James Corden with Adele’s BRITS speech, interrupted Rolf mid-song. Rolf was heard to say “good on yer Len” afterwards – it was unfortunate and clumsy but I doubt Lenny is totally to blame.

    I’d love to know whether Rolf gave Lenny the same offstage hairdryer treatment as he once gave John Lennon though.

  33. 63
    Erithian on 7 Jun 2012 #

    And yes, it’s not what we’re talking about and somewhat off-topic but the CPUK story, and the intern situation in general, is bloody scandalous.

  34. 64
    punctum on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Well, it needs to be on-topic because if the whole Diamond Jubilee programme was built on a substratum of slavery then everybody who participated in it is by implication compliant with its processes. We certainly didn’t have this in 2002, let alone 1977; there might have been Stuff the Jubilee badges back then but at least you could get to see the Royals and not have roads and streets barricaded off with wristband/ticket-holder signs.

    Although I admit it’s easier to have a go at a soft target like Lenny Henry (note my use of the word “relative” and the content of the routine he did) than to examine the underbelly of the enterprise.

  35. 65
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2012 #

    The thing that bothers me most is the implication (by the media as well as the govt and CPUK) that if the stewards hadn’t been left under a bridge, the slave labour would have all been perfectly acceptable. And they wheeled out someone who was happy to travel across the country and stand in the rain all day for no pay – to show balance.

    Wore my Stuff The Jubilee badge. That was the extent of my involvement in the celebrations.

  36. 66
    Jimmy the Swede on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Philip, of course, hooked one high and clumsily out to the fine leg boundary but there was no-one in the deep. Lucky boy.

    #67 – I’m not sure that this could have been called a Conservative Party fundraiser, especially with the BBC so close to Labour (and who the hell would want to give Cameron and Osborne money anyway?). I don’t even think it had much to do with the monarchy really. This whole nonsense was all about Brenda, who I personally think is wonderful. When she finally gloves one, her funeral will, I believe, be the last great state occasion here. Not many folk will be particulary interested in her heirs and successors, it seems to me. Having said that, yes, CPUK do appear to be biblically evil.

  37. 67
    Mark G on 7 Jun 2012 #

    #67? That’s this one!

  38. 68
    punctum on 7 Jun 2012 #

    #66: Have to admit I did feel sorry for Brenda – there she was, aching to be at her husband’s side in hospital, being forced to sit through hours of music she hated.

    It’s odd that Major, Coe and erm Heston Blumenthal were in the “VIP” seats alongside DavyCam, SamCam and Mr & Mrs Cleggster and that Blair and Brown were nowhere to be seen. I’m not so sure politics didn’t play a part here.

  39. 69
    Jimmy the Swede on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Check! I meant #57, of course. Sorry.

    #68 – You may be right about that, Punctum. Although I have to say that Brown made a career of not being seen. As for Blair, I rather fancy that his dear wife may have had something to do with her background seat. At least the Bercows wern’t at the top table either. Dreadful people!

  40. 70
    thefatgit on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Not sure that those poor people CPUK bussed in could be described as “slaves”, which implies capture and forced labour, but what is being described is similar to the Reicharbeitsdienst program of Nazi Germany, which is pretty heinous nonetheless.

  41. 71
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    It’s also probably true to say that the vast workforce who built the Olympic stadium in Beijing were far closer to slaves than our poor Jubilee numpties.

  42. 72
    enitharmon on 8 Jun 2012 #

    This might astonish Marcello but on this occasion (there have been others) I’m with him all the way. I found the whole business rather disgusting at a time when most of us are living in straitened circumstances and the sycophantic tones of BBC voices quite nauseating.

    I don’t have a televisual device, Radio 4 being my ambience of choice these days, but it became unbearable. Radio 3 was better but not immune. If we’d had a bank holiday in its proper place I could have been basking on the beach but as it is we had two days of weather that was better in the North Lonsdale hundred of Lancashire than it evidently was in London but still nothing to sent a postcard home to Granny about.

    I had my own popular cultural binge on Monday; three classic films one after the other. Thirties western romp Destry Rides Again and Sixties spy romp Funeral In Berlin sandwiching They Shoot Horses Don’t They, a harrowing depression-era drama from 1969 which rings so true today that it should have a big re-release this summer (instead of jolly Britain-can-take-it romp Passport to Pimlico).

    I feel a FreakyTrigger post about classic popular cinema coming on.

  43. 73
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    Christ Rosie, did bloody Bambi turn up in Funeral in Berlin too? I’m sure Len Deighton didn’t put that in the book. That little bastard gets everywhere – that’s Bambi, not Len.

  44. 74
    enitharmon on 8 Jun 2012 #

    He didn’t put anybody called Harry Palmer in the book either but that’s the film industry for you.

    I’m sure Len Deighton did interesting things with Bambi’s mum in his day job. I’m imagining lots of mustard and redcurrant jelly.

  45. 75
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    #74 – “I’m sure Len Deighton did interesting things with Bambi’s mum in his day job. I’m imagining lots of mustard and redcurrant jelly.”

    Do you know something? Anyone who didn’t know about Len’s cookery skills may well have interpreted this reference as a suggestion of a truly vile practice combining bestiality with necrophilia. Fuggin’ disgusting!

  46. 76
    punctum on 8 Jun 2012 #

    Lena and I have several of Mr Deighton’s French cookbooks at home, including French Cooking For Men (with an appropriate 1969-ish “manly” cover). Some good stuff in them, actually, and nothing remotely pervy.

  47. 77
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    Indeed so.

  48. 78
    enitharmon on 8 Jun 2012 #

    There’s nothing pervy about roast venison with cumberland sauce, unless you’re a vegetarian.

  49. 79
    Lazarus on 19 Apr 2013 #

    Well, here we go again … the rumours had been going around for a week or two, but still – that’s the end of ‘Animal Hospital’ I guess. And in the week of Thatcher’s funeral as well …

  50. 80
    Mark G on 19 Apr 2013 #

    Well, Animal Hospital ended quite a long time ago, but “Rolf’s Animal Clinic” has just been pulled by Channel 5

  51. 81
    glue_factory on 19 Apr 2013 #

    @80 I’d wondered if they were deliberately showing it, prior to his name coming out, while they still could.

  52. 82
    Jimmy the Swede on 20 Apr 2013 #

    No chance of any repeats of “Cartoon Time” either.

    #79 – I fear the rumours about Rolf were floating around a lot longer than a week or two. Harris’ name was dropped in some quarters as being the “elderly household name entertainer” from the moment he was first questioned last year. But innocent until proven guilty, of course.

  53. 83
    T on 15 May 2014 #

    Actually I would have thought the story of a friend helping another friend out of private charity rather than letting them become a hated burden on the state sounds about as Thatcherite as you can get…

  54. 84
    Mark G on 15 May 2014 #

    Hmm, rescuing the dying brother as opposed to.. leaving him for the NHS/Ambulance service? I think that’s in the non-existant ninth chorus…

  55. 85
    Rory on 30 Jun 2014 #

    Rolf found guilty. Never mind “Two Little Boys”, “Jake the Peg” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”: that’s Led Zeppelin’s most famous song, two Kate Bush albums, and a classic episode of The Goodies all tainted by association.

  56. 86
    Lazarus on 30 Jun 2014 #

    I imagine his controversial portrait of Her Maj has been discreetly removed as well.

  57. 87
    Mark G on 1 Jul 2014 #

    Not to mention Splodgenessabounds, and Jarvis Cocker…

  58. 88
    Jimmy the Swede on 24 Sep 2014 #

    Perhaps here’s as good as anywhere to record that DLT has been found guilty on one count of indecent assault, the other two charges being thrown out. I would personally be surprised if the Cornflake finds himself a guest of Brenda’s but either way I’m afraid that we won’t be seeing him again on network. Certainly he wasn’t given any favours when footage of him clowining around with Savile was shown as a backdrop to the news of his conviction. It’s all been terribly sad. But worse for the victims, obviously.

  59. 89
    lonepilgrim on 28 Sep 2017 #

    sad to read the decline and fall of Rolf’s reputation over the course of this thread, but the man brought it on himself.
    Even as a kid I found this song a bit manipulative – although it did encourage a realisation that war wasn’t a big adventure but had consequences. bob Dylan does a song called ‘Two Soldiers’ on his ‘World Gone Wrong’ album that has similar themes but older protagonists – so that have been a source for TLB. Here’s bob writing about the song in the liner notes for extra mystification:
    Jerry Garcia showed me TWO SOLDIERS (Hazel & Alice do it pretty similar) a battle song extraordinaire, some dragoon officer’s epaulettes laying liquid in the mud, physical plunge into Limitationville, war dominated by finance (lending money for interest being a nauseating & revolting thing) love is not collateral. hittin’ em where they ain’t (in the imperfect state that they’re in) America when Mother was the queen of Her heart, before Charlie Chaplin, before the Wild One, before the Children of the Sun–before the celestial grunge, before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces–before all the ancient & honorable artillery had been taken out of the city, learning to go forward by turning back the clock, stopping the mind from thinking in hours, firing a few random shots at the face of time…

  60. 90
    weej on 28 Sep 2017 #

    As I’m currently researching music for the early part of the century for a project, I have discovered that Two Little Boys is a fairly typical example of a genre of songs which seem to have been popular around 1899-1905 (the aftermath of the Spanish-American war through to the middle days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency) – the sentimental war ballad. Most concern a grieving lover or mother reminiscing over a photo of a brave soldier, all are lugubrious and solemn to the point of ludicrousness. I have yet to find a single example which I warm to even slightly, and there are few genres I can say that about. It universally seems cynical, exploitative, jingoistic. In this particular case it seems it was made popular by Harry Lauder, which is a shame he’s much better when he works with his own material, but of course there was always room for a bit of mawk in the music halls.

    And then two thirds of a century, up pops Rolf. The only thing positive to say about this particular recording is that it sounds jarringly odd when placed in the context of 1969, but I’m afraid a bit of historical context has done it no favours. If anything it’s the definition of a bad taste record, taking old empty sentimentality and wrapping it up in a nostalgic bow for a new generation – by which I don’t mean the kids. Was this record really ever for kids? Pretty sure that kids would be the first to suss it out.

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