Sep 06

ROLF HARRIS – “Two Little Boys”

FT + Popular91 comments • 13,957 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. 61
    wichita lineman on 7 Jun 2012 #

    Less likeable than James Corden. That takes some doing.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 67
    Mark G on 7 Jun 2012 #

    #67? That’s this one!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 77
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Jun 2012 #

    Indeed so.

  18. 78
    enitharmon on 8 Jun 2012 #

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

  19. 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 …

  20. 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

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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…

  24. 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…

  25. 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.

  26. 86
    Lazarus on 30 Jun 2014 #

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

  27. 87
    Mark G on 1 Jul 2014 #

    Not to mention Splodgenessabounds, and Jarvis Cocker…

  28. 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.

  29. 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…

  30. 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.

  31. 91
    Gareth Parker on 4 May 2021 #

    Fairly lame stuff from Harris here in my view. I’ll go with the same mark as Tom, 2/10.

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