Steyn on Britain and Europe
Just about the only part of my career I truly regret was the time I spent at the BBC, who very kindly fired me back in the Nineties. Otherwise, I'd have a lot more time to regret. Notwithstanding two years of headlines re Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and others, not everyone at the Beeb in my day was a paedophile - or at least I don't think so. Nonetheless, it was something of a shock to hear that Rolf Harris has been found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault on young girls in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. As I said when he was charged nine months ago, it almost certainly marks the demise of his small but enduring catalogue of novelty songs. "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and "Jake The Peg (With The Extra Leg)" delighted generations of children in both Britain and Australia, but it's hard to see them getting much airplay now, or any other singer reviving them given the name of the author.
I knew none of that when I selected Rolf Harris' biggest hit as Steyn's Song of the Week to mark his 80th birthday in 2010. We reprint it here as an elegy for a number we're unlikely to be hearing much of after yesterday's verdict:
This week we celebrate one of the most tender and sophisticated marriages of words and music. Altogether now:
But you can't tie a good kangaroo down, and this one bounces on over the decades. It's the magnum opus of composer/lyricist/vocalist/accordionist/didgeridooist/wobble boardist Rolf Harris, who turns 80 tomorrow. When the Queen turned 80, Rolf was invited round to the palace to paint her portrait. So now he's hit the big eight-zero, maybe Her Majesty will come round and return the favor. Born in Perth, Western Australia, on March 30th 1930, the "beat-bearded Australian" (in Time magazine's description: they left out "bespectacled") is largely unknown in the United States but, after almost 60 years in showbusiness, remains a colossus in Britain, Oz, New Zealand, South Africa and many other parts of the Commonwealth. Early on, he found himself in Canada entirely by mistake, as one does, and so got a gig at a club in Vancouver, where he was such a hit he was held over for 31 weeks until the club burned down on Christmas Eve. It was in Her Majesty's northern Dominion that he introduced his non-marsupial, tripedal blockbuster "Jake The Peg (With The Extra Leg)". Aside from his own compositions, his musical accomplishments range from a Number One revival of a 1902 weepie "Two Little Boys" (which Tim Rice mentioned on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show a couple of months back, and which is one of Mrs Thatcher's two favorite records) to the indisputably all-time greatest version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven".
When Rolf painted the Queen, he was reviving a family tradition. His grandfather painted her grandfather, King George V, in a portrait which was exhibited at the Australian National Portrait Gallery a year or so back. It's fair to say Rolf paints with a somewhat broader brush. For decades, he turned up on telly every week with big half-gallon pots of Dulux emulsion in assorted colors and the sort of four-inch brush you'd use to cover a wall in nothing flat, and he'd dip it in the black paint and do a couple of streaks on a big board, and then wait for it to dry so he could add a couple of big white streaks, usually killing the time by singing a song and enquiring between verses, "Can you tell what it is yet?" He's the only entertainer I know of who got a half-century TV career out of making the audience literally watch paint dry.
Indeed, it was while experimenting with paint-drying methods that he invented one of the two great musical instruments with which he's indelibly associated (three, if you include the stylophone). One day in 1958 Rolf dashed off another masterpiece on a piece of two-foot-by-three-foot Masonite board and, to hasten its drying, propped it up against an oil heater. But the board got too hot, so he took it by the short edges and wobbled it back and forth to cool it down. And, when he did so, he was struck by the resonance of the sound. It was like a tight bongo, and Rolf thought it might go well with a song he'd written a few months earlier, on the back of the menu while dining his bride at a Lyon's Corner House off Marble Arch in London. The idea had been to write an Aussie version of one of Harry Belafonte's Caribbean calypsos and call it "Kangalypso". But along the way the concept slipped its moorings. It became the tale of a dying stockman, or rancher, and Rolf opens it with a spoken intro:
The premise of the song is simple: Take every well known Antipodean creature and give 'em a verse apiece, and save the chorus for the most famous one of all. So the old stockman issues instructions apropos his cockatoo, his koala and his platypus duck:
By the way, a couple of weeks ago our Song of the Week was Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water". About twenty years after Rolf Harris wrote "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport", Simon wrote "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover". I've always had an urge to ask him whether, consciously or subconsciously, "Fifty Ways" was inspired by "Tie Me Kangaroo Down". Consider:
You just slip out the back, Jack
That's Mr Simon, 1975. But look at what Rolf was doing back in 1957:
Coincidence? Or deep down inside Paul Simon is there an Aussie novelty song trying to break out? Simon once showed me his original drafts for many of his lyrics, but I never snuck a peek to see whether this one started out as "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Wombat".
The didgeridoo, incidentally, is an aboriginal wind instrument made from hollowed out eucalyptus trees, and it's the sound the old stockman asks his mate, Blue, to keep playing until he's safely through to the great hereafter. When Rolf came to record his song, it was getting non-didgeridoo players that turned out to be the problem. He had tried out "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" on stage at the Down Under Club in London, and he knew he had a hit. And so it was that he borrowed a bit of studio time from TVW-7, the Aussie TV station he was working at in those days, and recorded him and the band on a single microphone. He had four musicians, and, rather than pay them, he offered them each ten per cent of the royalties. Not one took him up on the offer, insisting instead on a flat fee of Â£7 because they all thought the number was a surefire flop. It was the worst business decision any of them ever made. Between the didgeridoo and the wobble board, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" rocketed to the top of the Australian charts in 1960 - and Masonite sold 55,000 kangaroo-stenciled wobble boards off the back of it. Rolf's song had everything, including a bit of social content. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of social content that's weathered the years too well:
"Abo" is slang for "Aboriginal", and it's not so much that the dying stockman lets them go loose only now that "they're of no further use' to him so much as the fact that they're the fourth attraction in what's otherwise a menagerie of animals. By 1962, when Rolf re-recorded the song, the offending verse was already being dropped from performances. The re-recording was produced by George Martin, who was just about to start work with an up-and-coming band EMI had taken on called the Beatles. In December 1963, Rolf found himself on the BBC radio show "From Us To You" with the Fab Four, and naturally treated them to "Tie Me Kangaroo Down". The lads joined in on the chorus, and Rolf rewrote the lyrics for his new backing singers:
The special material didn't all rise to the heights of Ringo ill-treating Rolf's dingo. "George's guitar's on the blink, I think" is a bit of a cheat, as it doesn't rhyme the name. "Prop me up by the wall, Paul" is just about serviceable, but "Keep the hits coming on, John" is very lame. There've been a lot of customized rewrites over the years, increasingly sentimental. Rolf at the 1982 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony:
Ah, well. It never fails to please. There are other interpreters: Fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman did it on "Saturday Night Live", and Elvis Costello sang it on "Frasier". Pat Boone covered it but found big Rolf harder than Little Richard to bounce a hit off. Weirdest of all, Ray Conniff decided to include the song on his boffo easy-listening LP built around the big song from Dr Zhivago. It sold two million copies, which makes it the biggest-selling version in the United States, and, not having any idea what the lyric meant, Ray got his vocalist to include the Abo verse. There's a Fijian version, which perhaps gets closest to Rolf's original "Kangalypso" concept, and a Jewish punk version, and a rude version:
A joey is a baby kangaroo. Speaking of which, in 2005 Rolf himself did an ill-advised remake with the Australian children's act, the Wiggles. I confess a little of the Wiggles goes a very long way with me. By contrast, Rolf has managed to parlay a piece of Masonite board, a hollowed out eucalyptus and a half-dozen pots of paint into six decades of international success. I don't know what his birthday plans are, but I figure he's got a ways to go yet before he's ready for his last verse:
As he likes to say, "Can you tell what it is?" Ah, well, there are worse ways to go. Don't drop dead playing golf, Rolf. And happy birthday!
~first published at SteynOnline on March 29th 2010. They tanned his hide before he was dead, Fred, and his last years will be ones of utter disgrace. With hindsight, the verse of the "rude version" quoted above seems most relevant to Harris' denouement.
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