Sep 06

ROLF HARRIS – “Two Little Boys”

FT + Popular90 comments • 12,518 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. 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.

  2. 77
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    Indeed so.

  3. 78
    enitharmon on 8 Jun 2012 #

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

  4. 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 …

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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…

  10. 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.

  11. 86
    Lazarus on 30 Jun 2014 #

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

  12. 87
    Mark G on 1 Jul 2014 #

    Not to mention Splodgenessabounds, and Jarvis Cocker…

  13. 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.

  14. 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…

  15. 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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