Rolf Harris – Can you hear what it is yet?
I wrote this blog entry back in 2012. Since that date, well let’s just say a great deal has come to light about Mr Harris’s behaviour. I’m not going to delete the post. I think on reflection that I will leave it here as a testimony to how I genuinely thought back in 2012 and how I, and the rest of the world, were duped and misled by a once popular entertainer. So there you go…
The Best of Rolf Harris,
Starline SRS 5020,
Born in the suburbs of Perth, Western Australia in 1930, Rolf Harris remains a professional Australian despite spending over sixty years entertaining and amusing the British. The son of Welsh emigrants, Rolf Harris has been part of the fabric of British life for so long, it’s hard to remember or imagine a time when jolly old uncle Rolf wasn’t around, bouncing about on telly with his wobble board and paintbrush like an enthusiastic puppy. Since his arrival in England in April 1952, successive generations of children have grown up with Rolf’s own unique brand of tireless antipodean exuberance as a soundtrack to their youth.
Rolf Harris has been many things in his lifetime: an accomplished swimmer, a puppeteer, an artist, a musician and a chart-topping singer. He is the most rounded of all-round entertainers and he seems to excel effortlessly at everything he tries. He has painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and enjoyed a TV career spanning an impressive sixty years, during which he has amused children, instructed adults and helped to bandage the injured paws of sorrowful-looking kittens. His fifty-year-long recording career has seen him record with The Beatles, headline Glastonbury, play the first concert at the Sydney Opera House, release a Christmas number one and perfect the art of performing with three legs.
Initially though, that laid-back Australian effortlessness was missing from Rolf’s act. He made his musical debut at Fulham’s Down Under Club, and was successful enough entertaining raucous crowds of inebriated Australian expatriates but was less at ease when asked to perform in front of more genteel British audiences. Trying desperately to appear refined and polite while stuffed into a tuxedo, Rolf played for Clement Freud at the Royal Court Theatre to precious little acclaim. When the realisation finally came that the apparently stuffy British crowd also wanted to let their hair down and enjoy his raw irreverent songs and unrefined outback sense of humour, Rolf was, as they say, off and running. No mean feat with three legs.
Rolf’s career on vinyl began with some releases for EMI’s Australian subsidiary, notably the now famous Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, a self-penned song that is a curious mixture of outback folk song pastiche and Caribbean rhythms (the song was originally called Kangalypso). The song was a major hit in Rolf’s homeland and even entered the UK charts in 1960, climbing into the Top Ten. When EMI in London finally saw some merit in Rolf’s off-kilter entertaining and invited him along to their Abbey Road studios, Rolf was confident that he would soon score some more hits in the UK charts.
Considered something of an ‘oddball’ in the early 1960s pop scene (justifiably so!) Rolf was sent along to a young producer working for one of EMI’s minor subsidiary labels. This producer, just four years older than Rolf but wise beyond his years, specialised in releasing more outré novelty recordings by all those uncategorizable artistes that simply puzzled or perplexed the EMI execs. Rather than being bowled over by Rolf’s manic sounds and unique musical skills, the young producer listened to his collected works with little enthusiasm before dismissing them in an instant. In a clipped English accent he insisted that all the songs would have to be re-recorded. Fighting back his indignation, Rolf begrudgingly accepted the advice and decided he would listen to the views of the stuffy English record producer. A good thing for him that he did for the producer was of course George Martin and he would steer Rolf Harris on the path to achieving greater recording success than he could ever have hoped for.
Initially labelled as repetitive and boring by George Martin, Sun Arise proved to be Rolf’s first hit to be crafted in the UK. Written by Rolf from genuine Aboriginal melodies collected by his friend Harry Butler, Sun Arise was an odd-sounding dose of ethnicity; a native hymn to the glories of the dawn set to a droning wail of didgeridoo and high-pitched beating sticks. Urged by George Martin to break up the Aboriginal monotone backing with a cheery middle bit, the re-jigged much more radio-friendly version was gradually crafted and tweaked to become a hit.
The middle section was duly added but a problem arose as no-one in England could actually play the didgeridoo heard in Rolf’s original. Undaunted, and in an inventive flourish that would serve him well when it came to fulfilling the more avant-garde demands of The Beatles, George Martin instead brought in eight bass fiddles to play a droning bottom E throughout the song. With added drums to augment the original beating sticks, Sun Arise is still a remarkable achievement after all these years and despite its familiarity it still deserves a listen every now and then, if only as a reminder of its abiding genius.
The collection here, The Best of Rolf Harris, is a 1970 compilation which gathers together most of Rolf’s defining 1960s releases. Classics such as Two Little Boys may now be overly familiar but it remains no less heart-wrenching in its evocation of childhood friendship enduring under the pressures of modern warfare. Jake the Peg is of course included as well as the aforementioned Sun Arise , but there are many other unexpected gems plucked from Rolf’s single releases. The 1967 single Fijian Girl for instance is a kind of South Pacific themed symphony, mixing the lush orchestrations of Ronnie Hazelhurst with distinctly Beach Boy like vibes, while Bluer than Blue is a rewardingly jaunty and frivolous bubble-gum pop number from Ken Howard, Alan Blaikley and Peter Mason which sees Rolf stroll and whistle his way through a frothy little love affair. I Know a Man shows that even Rolf Harris wasn’t immune to pop trends as the song sees Rolf go beat amid twangy guitars and a pounding honky-tonk piano. He still manages to cram in a few of his trademark vocal acrobatics but it shows a forgotten side of Rolf as a non-novelty performer.
Always more a singles man rather that an album act, there have been many other Rolf ‘best of’ compilations since this release but for classic George Martin 60s productions, this remains the one to track down. After Two Little Boys, Rolf wouldn’t trouble the UK charts again until his 1993 version of Stairway To Heaven (a remarkable improvement on the original).
To remind you of the inspired madcap genius of Rolf, what better than the sounds of Big Dog, the 1965 B-side of Jake the Peg which sees Rolf employ little more than a wobbleboard and his trademark breathless vocals to great effect, as he records his efforts not to be eaten by a voracious Aussie-eating Great Dane. A marvellous song that could only ever be realised by one extraordinary man:
The official Rolf Harris site for all your Rolfaroo requirements: