Meet Glastonbury's new cult hero. He's 68 and plays the didgeridoo

With Rolf Harris billed to perform at British youth's favourite gig, John Davidson and Cole Moreton look into the ironic appeal of our cheesy old singing stars
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The Independent Online
HE'S OLDER than many of their grandfathers, but this afternoon the massed tribes of b-boys, indie kids, clubbers and eco-warriors at the Glastonbury Festival will gather as one to hear Tony Bennett sing.

The 72-year-old Italian American crooner who left his heart in San Francisco will perform on a main stage filled by the likes of Blur, Robbie Williams and Primal Scream over the final three days. But Bennett is only the latest in a line-up of veterans that Glastonbury audiences have taken to their collective heart - including that highly unlikely favourite, Rolf Harris.

Yesterday many fans had abandoned the unequal struggle against the weather after one of the worst festival nights anyone could remember, when they endured lashing rain in the early hours. But for the diehard fans, nothing, not even the mudbath that Glastonbury becomes so often, could deter them from enjoying the likes of Harris and Tony Bennett.

Bennett appeals to lounge-core fans, supporters of a revival in easy listening music that was supposed to be a passing fad but has now lasted several years. Tom Jones, who gyrated his ageing hips at the festival in 1992, is so kitsch as to be classic - as witnessed by his wonderful duet with young pretender Robbie Williams at this year's Brit awards ceremony. John Peel, whose late-night show on Radio One helped shape so many record collections, has just got wittier, wiser and more avuncular with every passing year. And Bob Dylan, who plays mainstage tonight at the age of 57, is not so much the godfather of modern rock as its actual god.

But there is one veteran the Glastonbury fans love more than any other, whose rapturous reception by 10,000 fans watching the acoustic stage on Friday night must have seemed to outsiders an absolute mystery. He's 68 and Australian, with a white beard and funny glasses, he can't sing properly but there is - as young modern audiences never fail to chant - "only one Rolfy Harris". Acoustic stage manager Christopher Runciman said: "The whole tent was chanting his name."

So how do they know him? As the genial presenter of Animal Hospital on BBC1, Rolf has become favourite uncle to a new vegetarian, animal-rights- loving generation, as well as their pet-owning parents. Around 10 million people watch it every week. Teenage Glastonbury-goers grew up with his Cartoon Time, while older festival fans still remember the wobble-board and instant paintings of The Rolf Harris Show in the Sixties and Seventies.

Then there are the hits, still favourites in his live shows nearly four decades after the first. "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" got to number nine in the UK charts in July 1960, while "Sun Arise" (which featured the didgeridoo and is seriously credited by many as a forerunner of world music) made it to number three in October 1962. But his biggest song of all was "Two Little Boys", a twee little anti-war number released while American troops were in Vietnam. It was number one in November 1969.

For all this, the career of Rolf Harris as a live performer was stuck firmly in cheesy cabaret limbo during the Eighties and early Nineties. It was reborn thanks to an Australian TV show called The Money Or The Gun, which had a policy of inviting every guest to perform Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway To Heaven". Rolf's version came complete with wobble-board, skiffle rhythm and chuckling asides to the band, was released as a single by popular demand after being played on Radio One, and got to number seven in the charts in February 1993.

"I'll tell you what 'Stairway to Heaven' did," said Rolf. "It gave people in their early twenties permission to own up that they liked me. It was very square to say that you liked Rolf Harris before that. Suddenly it was very cool to like Rolf Harris."

In an age of irony, when everything comes with a raised eyebrow, audiences found themselves laughing both at and with him. Student unions booked him to play live, and at every show fans turned up in their hundreds wearing fake beards and glasses.

By 1993 the Glastonbury festival had been transformed from a ramshackle, friendly affair into a more commercial operation. The organisers, who were in touch with the student circuit, knew a good thing when they saw one. "We booked him to play on the main stage on Sunday morning, which was not traditionally a very happening slot," said a festival spokesman, Jason Holmes, this week. "But when he started playing, the students went crazy about it.

"Since then that Sunday slot has been completely revitalised, and we've had some performers who have been off-the-wall for us but were actually pretty big names: this time it's Tony Bennett. That's all down to Rolf. Originally he was booked with tongue in cheek, but suddenly he started pulling in the numbers."

photo feature, Review, page 26