AS Rolf Harris walked through the chic offices of his new record company, past the gold discs on the wall, past the displays of the latest album covers ('Cor, nice artwork on that one, lovely job') an excited whisper followed in his wake: 'There he is,' it went. 'That's him. Rolf.'

When he arrived in the boardroom, where he was to be interviewed, a female executive bounded in. In her daily working life she might well meet Elton John in the lift and Jon Bon Jovi by the coffee machine and probably be too cool to acknowledge either. But Rolf was different.

'Sorry to interrupt,' she said. 'I'm not working on your project, Rolf, but I just wanted to shake your hand. I think you're great.'

Rolf was back in the heart of the British pop industry for the first time since 'Two Little Boys' was the opening No 1 of the Seventies. More than 35,000 pre-release orders have been placed for his version of Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven'. 'Stairway' is a tune regularly voted the greatest ever in radio station polls across the globe. It is an anthem, chock-full of pomp and seriousness, dating from rock's most self-important era; a song which, church-funded research departments in Midwestern universities would have us believe, when played backwards is a paean of praise to Satan. (No one has yet suggested that the couplet 'One little chap/He had a mishap' has any devilish undertow).

'Jeez, is that so?' said Rolf, who was wearing, as an unconscious tribute to the Zep era, a sheepskin waistcoat. 'Thing is, before I recorded this I must've been the only fella in the world who'd never heard of 'Stairway to Heaven'. Don't know how, but it had completely passed me by.' (At the time of writing Rolf's version had passed Zep's Robert Plant by, too.)

Rolf's return has caused no end of excitement. Particularly among the thirtysomething marketing folk who signed him up. Our childhood heroes are our heroes for life. Just as no one kicks a football like Bestie anymore, no one could ever play a stylophone like Rolf Harris. Nor make the word 'cartoon' stretch across seven syllables. Nor paint a picture while singing 'Jake the Peg' that falls into focus only with the last stroke of a six-inch brush. There is only one Rolf. Well, almost.

'While she was pregnant,' he revealed, 'my mum was reading a great Australian classic called Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood. That's where it comes from. Bloody weird name.'

Unlike Bestie, however, Rolf has never stopped doing what he always did best. The beard, glasses and quiff are still introducing the nation's children to the delights of 'caaaaaaaar-tooons'. At 63, he has just finished in panto in Bath, where he starred alongside Gareth Chilcott, the cauliflower-eared ex-rugby forward, who was apparently 'a lovely fella, bit of difficulty with, the actual, y'know, words, but a terrific bloke'.

And now there's his jaunty, playful rendition of 'Stairway'. Rolf recorded it when he appeared on an Australian television programme called Your Money Or Your Gun in 1989. The show's running gag was that musical guests had to play the song in their own style. Alien Sex Fiend had once done a punk version of 'Sun Arise', so here was Rolf's chance to reverse the trend. He asked for the sheet music, rehearsed with his band for half an hour and set about deconstructing a classic. 'How's this make you blokes feel?' he asks his backing singers halfway through. 'Oooh, it makes us wonder,' they reply, echoing the song's legendary chorus. 'Yeah, same here,' he says.

According to the show's musical director, Chris Harriott, Rolf's version was 'ripe with grooves and hot with attitude. It was, if you will, musical cubism.' Rolf, on the other hand, thought it was 'a bit of fun, really'.

His idea was to perform the song as he had done 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport' in 1960. 'We had all the same features, the accordion, the wobble-board,' he said. 'But we did it in E Flat. I only had an E flat didgeridoo.'

It was 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down' that changed Rolf's life. Until its success he had been a struggling children's entertainer in Perth, and suddenly became internationally renowned.

'Funnily enough, first time I got on stage and sang 'Kangaroo' I got bloody booed off. I've always loved names, and I'd just put every Aussie name I could think of - Blue, Curly, Sport - to music. I thought 'Mind me platypus duck, Bill' was the funniest line anyone had ever written. Heeeherherhaahahaheehee. No one else did.'

The song also introduced, to a waiting world, the wobble-board. Like much of his career, Rolf happened upon this mould-breaking musical instrument by accident. He had spotted a piece of hard- board in a television studio and thought it would be a perfect background for a portrait.

'Someone had spilt paint all over it,' he said, his hands making splattering paint-brush motions. 'It was magic. In my studio I put some more background paint on it, but when the guy was about to come in for the sitting, it hadn't dried. I picked the board up to fan it dry, shook it and it went a- whoob-bloob-blimp-bloop. A magic sound. It had its own rhythm, like a pendulum.

'I assumed it was only the fact I'd painted it that it made this sound. I thought I'd invented something. Coupla years later, I discovered any piece of hardboard would do. It was a bit of a shock.'

It was a bit of a shock for the Masonite Corporation of America, too, which made thousands of wobble-boards in 1960 to coincide with the release of 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down'. The song died and they didn't sell any.

'Three years later it was released again,' Rolf said. 'It went mad in the US charts, they unloaded the lot of them and breathed a sigh of relief. Not that I got anything out of it. I've never been conscious of earning anything from anything I've ever done. But I guess I must have.'

Just as 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down' took its time to move, so did Rolf's 'Stairway'. About a year after the end of the series of Your Money Or Your Gun, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had the idea of releasing all 22 versions of the song recorded on the show as an album. It took a further six months to garner all the appropriate permissions. Then, last summer, John Reed, Elton John's manager, heard Rolf's version on Australian radio and recommended it to Phonogram, Elton's record company, as a sure-fire No 1.

'I'd forgotten all about it,' said Rolf. 'We did it in one take, got our minuscule fee and went home. I never even saw it on air. You think of all the times you busted a gut trying to organise a hit record, and here's something we did so casually catching on. Jeez.'

At which more young women appeared to take Rolf off to his next appointment, giggling like schoolgirls as they went. 'Jeez, girls,' he mock-protested. As he left, his laugh echoed all the way up the office stairway.

(Photographs omitted)

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