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.