Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport: Steyn’s Song of the Week – SteynOnline

Rolf Harris died earlier this month – a decade after the total implosion of his celebrity, and with the announcement being held for the best part of a fortnight from his hasty shovelling into the crematorium. He was a “national treasure” on at least two continents – until one day he wasn’t. And, notwithstanding two years of headlines about “Paedos at the Beeb!” re Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall, Jonathan King and others, it was still something of a shock to hear that Rolf Harris had been found guilty of twelve counts of indecent assault on young girls in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. As I said when he was charged, it would mark 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 no more – and it’s hard to see any other singer reviving them given the name of the author.

I knew none of that when I selected Rolf Harris’s biggest hit as Steyn’s Song of the Week to mark his eightieth birthday thirteen years ago in 2010. We reprint it here as an elegy for a number that was an enduring hit across the generations but is now assuredly entombed with its author:

This week we celebrate one of the most tender and sophisticated marriages of words and music. Altogether now:

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down…

That’s a pretty stellar backing group there: the Seekers at Australia’s ARIA awards in 2008. 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 eighty tomorrow. When the Queen turned eighty, 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 favour. Born in Bassendean, just north of 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 sixty 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 thirty-one 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)”. This performance is from south of the border, introduced by Liberace, a man more accustomed to tying his candelabra down:

Aside from his own compositions, his musical accomplishments range include 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:

Nor should we forget 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:

There’s an old Australian stockman, lying, dying, and he gets himself up on one elbow, and he turns to his mates, who are gathered round him and he says:

Watch me wallabies feed, mate
Watch me wallabies feed
They’re a dangerous breed, mate
So watch me wallabies feed
Altogether now!

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down
Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down…

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:

Keep me cockatoo cool, Curl…

Take me koala back, Jack…

Mind me platypus duck, Bill…

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
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy…

That’s Mr Simon, 1975. But look at what Rolf was doing back in 1957:

Take me koala back, Jack…

Play your didgeridoo, Blue…

Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred

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 £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:

Let me Abos go loose, Lou
Let me Abos go loose
They’re of no further use, Lou
So let me Abos go loose
Altogether now!

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Tie me kangaroo down…

“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:

Don’t ill-treat me pet dingo, Ringo
Don’t ill-treat me pet dingo
He can’t understand your lingo, Ringo
So don’t ill-treat me pet dingo
Altogether now…

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 customised rewrites over the years, increasingly sentimental. Rolf at the 1982 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony:

Let me welcome you to the Games, friends
Welcome you to the Games
Look, I don’t know all of your names, friends
But let me welcome you to the Games
Altogether now!

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:

I got a joey for you, girl
I got a joey for you
Put your hand in my pouch, girl
And I’ll jump all over you…

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:

Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred
Tan me hide when I’m dead
So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde
And that’s it hanging on the shed…

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 were ones of utter disgrace. With hindsight, the verse of the “rude version” quoted above seems most relevant to Harris’s denouement.

~If you enjoy Steyn’s Song of the Week at SteynOnline, please note that there will be a live stage edition during this summer’s Mark Steyn Cruise – along with many other favourite features from SteynOnline and The Mark Steyn Show. More details here.

The Mark Steyn Club is just beginning its seventh year. If you’ve got some kith or kin who might like the sound of it, we also have a special Gift Membership. More details here.

Steyn’s Song of the Week airs thrice weekly on Serenade Radio in the UK, one or other of which broadcasts is certain to be convenient for whichever part of the world you’re in:

5.30pm Sunday London (12.30pm New York)

5.30am Monday London (4.30pm Sydney)

9pm Thursday London (1pm Vancouver)

Whichever you prefer, you can listen from anywhere on the planet right here.

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