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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Two Little Boys: Reclaiming tainted music

Two little boys had two little toys…

Hang on. No, we can’t sing that anymore. Nor can we wobble a piece of card while panting ridiculously, nor blurt Can you tell what it is yet? in our finest Aussie accent while playing Pictionary. No, those little cultural jokes will be stricken from the collective consciousness over the coming years until they make no sense anymore. It’s really just a hastening of the inevitable. The catchphrases, songs and mannerisms of bygone entertainment giants like George Formby and Norman Wisdom have faded in the many years since they were in vogue. They hang around in spirit through families regurgitating them to each other, but surely mine will be the last generation to recognise a Just like that! accompanied by a shaking hand held mid-air as a Tommy Cooper reference.

Tommy Cooper died the year I was born. I knew him only as an echo through grandparents who adored him. I never quite got him myself. The gradual decline of his legacy is as natural as that of Formby or Wisdom. However, Rolf Harris was present throughout my past 30 years, whether singing songs or presenting Rolf’s Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital or painting the Queen. His legacy is still at the forefront of the cultural mindset and isn’t being slowly forgotten – it’s being disowned, quick smart. Which I feel is saddening and, ultimately, futile.

If you’re really having trouble reconciling that CD single on the shelf, take comfort in the fact that Two Little Boys is not Harris’ song. It was written in 1902, sixty-seven years before his version was released. Many others have been recorded, but his is the most famous, especially in Britain. Following his conviction for child sex abuse, a twinge of guilt and shame now accompanies the hearing of Harris’ endlessly imitable delivery, as if enjoying it or singing along signifies tacit approval of the singer’s crimes. This is ridiculous for several reasons, but such is the seriousness and stigma of the offense that it is deemed socially safer to simply erase all references to the individual rather than confront the issue rationally and divorce the art from the artist.

This mass-disowning has precedent. The music of Gary Glitter was quickly removed from circulation after his child abuse convictions in the late ‘90s. The stomping I’m The Leader Of The Gang simply isn’t heard anymore. Christmas compilation CDs suddenly lost a staple in Another Rock n’Roll Christmas, and people were obliged to delete references to it from their collective memories.

But how can you? I certainly didn’t. Besides the fact that the song is an absolute belter, it’s tied up with too many childhood memories to simply forget. I cannot ostracise the memory of my grandparents’ renditions of Two Little Boys like I can an individual. Likewise, I doubt I’ll be able to stop myself panting out Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport when I see a suitably wobbly piece of board. The spectre of child abuse is a powerful one, but art (or indeed, fluff) becomes independent the moment it is made public. It takes on a life of its own the moment others assign their own meaning to it. We all have songs that we have taken and laid our own lives across, and with that they become ours. The artist does not and cannot control or change or tarnish them once they have been assimilated into memory.

I understand the stigma and the power these particular crimes have over public opinion and perception. With the appropriate level of contrition, talent and PR management, the public will forgive many an appalling act but, perhaps singularly, child abuse convictions represent a point-of-no-return for public figures.  I still remember the Monday night when in Desire (a questionable nightclub opposite Worthing Train Station throughout the ‘00s) the DJ played a Michael Jackson set after announcing the Not Guilty verdict Jackson had received earlier that day. The feeling in the club was of ecstatic relief – it’s OK, it’s OKAY, we haven’t lost the music! And Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough sounded even more joyful that night than ever before. Of course we hadn’t lost it. But even if MJ had been convicted that night, we still wouldn’t have lost that music – how do you erase the soundtrack to a million lives?

Of course you cannot, and to try is futile. Two Little Boys should be heard, its singer’s background explained if needs be, but heard and enjoyed nonetheless. To expunge it from existence would be to lose not only the song, but also to deny and sully our own memories. They are sure to fade on their own - for now, let’s just enjoy the damn music.


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