At a glance
- Hardboard musical instrument
- Accidental discovery
- Used from 1961 to 2004
- Australians in Britain
Painting, music and performance
This wobble board was used by Australian artist, musician and entertainer Rolf Harris for more than 40 years.
Harris used this wobble board while performing his cover version of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven on the British television showTop of the Pops in 1993. It is a symbol of Harris's enduring creativity and popularity in Australia and Britain.
Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport
Harris was born in Bassendean, Western Australia, in 1930, the son of Welsh migrants. He painted from a young age and at the age of 15 was the youngest finalist for the Archibald portrait prize.
Harris's ambition to be an artist, like his Welsh grandfather, led him to London in 1952. He lived at Earl's Court, studied art and entertained homesick Australians at the Down Under Club in Fulham.
In My Autobiography: Can You Tell What It Is Yet?, Harris wrote:
I tried to explain that London was the hub of the universe. I had grown up listening to stories about Britain. Mum and Dad still called it 'home'. I imagined a place full of umbrellas, warm beer, flat caps and bowler hats.
It was a magical, bustling, unexplored new world for me. I wanted to stand on my own two feet. I wanted to be the smallest fish in the biggest pond. How else would I know if the boy from Bassendean was good enough?
One of the songs Harris wrote in London in the late 1950s was Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. This light-hearted stockman's lament, inspired by a Harry Belafonte calypso, was written shortly before Harris accidentally discovered the wobble board.
Harris was preparing a piece of hardboard – an engineered wood product – to paint a portrait of magician Robert Harbin in his London flat in 1959.
Eager to dry the board, Harris coated it with turpentine and placed it on a heater to speed up the process. When he tested the surface to see if it was dry, he burnt his hand.
In an interview with Australian television presenter Andrew Denton in 2005, Harris explained:
So I propped it between the palms of my hands and I fanned it to cool it off (wobble) and that amazing sound I went (wobble) and I started emphasising every second one and I had written Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport a couple of months previously and it just fitted perfectly.
Harris realised that by holding the opposite edges of the board with both hands and wobbling it at different angles, the vibrations produced distinctive sounds.He incorporated the wobble board in his performances and he also tried to patent it shortly after its discovery.
Harris marketed a Masonite model with some success in the early 1960s, though the wobble board is no longer commercially available.
Rolf Rules O.K!
This wobble board acquired by the National Museum was Harris's second. It was used from about 1961 to 2004.
Painted on both sides by Harris in the 1990s, it features his caricatured self portrait, with trademark glasses and beard. On one side he is 'Rolfaroo', pictured with a kangaroo's body, climbing a stairway to heaven. On the other side he wears a jacket emblazoned with 'Rolf Rules O.K!'
The Museum's Rolf Harris collection includes two more wobble boards and a 'Rolf Rules O.K!' leather jacket.
The 'Rolf Rules O.K!' tour followed the renewal of Harris's musical career in the 1990s.
Australians in Britain
The flow of Australians to Britain is not a new phenomenon. The desire to return or to explore the place many Australians called 'home' was evident from the earliest days of British settlement of Australia.
People travelled to Britain for work, war service, education, leisure and exposure to broader society. The expansion of tourism and transport meant many more Australians travelled overseas after World War Two. London held a particular allure for young Australians in the 1950s and 1960s. They created a community of expatriates in the vibrant and cosmopolitan English capital.
It was here that Harris was able to play out his ambition of being an artist and explore his Australian identity on stage. Harris continues to live in England and regularly visits Australia.
The Rolf Harris wobble board is on show in the National Museum's Australian Journeys gallery.