Flashback To The Time Harry Butler & Rolf Harris Wrote A Song Together – And Alice Cooper Covered It…

Flashback To The Time Harry Butler & Rolf Harris Wrote A Song Together – And Alice Cooper Covered It…

rolf harris, alice cooper
L: Rolf Harris. Photo by Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images. RAlice Cooper. Photo by Neil Lupin/Redferns.

Yeah, so we know that Rolf Harris is a persona non grata these days, and rightly so. But to not tell this story would be to do a disservice to the late Harry Butler, the famous Australian naturalist who was a regular on our TV screens in the '70s and '80s with his ABC-TV program In The Wild. The fact that Harris & Butler's song ended up on Alice Cooper's breakthrough album in 1970 is as remarkable as the fact that no one really talks about it. 

"Sun Arise" was originally Rolf Harris's fourth single, back in 1961. Harris had been in the UK since the early '50s and had a popular television show on the BBC. A couple of years prior, in 1959, Harris returned to Perth for a brief stint to work in television there. It was around this time that he composed "Sun Arise" with the assistance of Harry Butler, who knew something of Aboriginal beliefs. (Butler's later involvement with the BBC-produced series Rolf's Walkabout in 1970 would eventually lead him to his own nature program). Harris had his first couple of hits not long after returning to London where he was introduced to a young George Martin; a man tasked with the job of making a hit record out of the simple and repetitive song which aimed to recreate the sound of a corroboree. Martin, who was still yet to encounter the Beatles at this point, was known for the studio ingenuity he had brought to records by the Goons and others. With eight double basses, rhythm sticks and Harris's voice replicating a didgeridoo sound, Martin made a remarkable polyrhythmic record that was unprecedented in the world of pop at the time. 

The record failed to secure much airplay in Australia – possibly because of the prevailing racist attitudes towards Indigenous Australians at the time. But it was a massive hit in the UK, peaking at #3; and a minor hit in the US, which is assumedly how the future members of Alice Cooper heard it. 

Influenced by Salvador Dali and the Grand Guignol as well as the Beatles, the Who and Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper was very much a group in their early days. (Check out our piece "The Insanity And Horror Of The Early Alice Cooper Group"). In 1970, inspired by the raw rock of Detroit bands The Stooges and The MC5, and having failed to make a dent with their first two albums, the Alice Cooper group moved from California to Michigan. With the help of young producer Bob Ezrin, they developed a harder, more direct sound that really came to fruition with their third album, Love it to Death. Some of the band's more psychedelic elements were still present – evident in the lengthy Pink Floyd-inspired "Black Juju" that closed out Side One and the guitar-driven version of "Sun Arise" that ended Side Two. The record's hypnotic repetition and drone-like qualities translated perfectly to post-psychedelic rock.

Love it To Death, which featured Alice Cooper's first hit single "I'm Eighteen", set the band on its way. By the mid-70s they were one of the biggest bands in the world. Alice would then become a solo artist under the same name and achieving even greater success. The record remained in print, but the presence of the Butler/Harris writing credit, which should have been a talking point in Australia at least, was all but forgotten. The Hoodoo Gurus – a band formed by another pair of West Australians Dave Faulkner and James Baker, and big Alice Cooper fans – started performing the song live in the early '80s, giving it a new lease of life in certain circles. (The Gurus would also tip their hat to Harry Butler by naming a song "In The Wild".) Sadly though, this remarkable Australian contribution to a classic album by one of rock's biggest and most outrageous acts – one who remains incredibly popular here – is still unrecognized. With Rolf Harris's fall from grace making any focus on his musical legacy unlikely, that's surely how it will remain. 

It's worth also noting that Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – accompanied by a didgeridoo player – performed "Sun Arise" on Denton when they were in Australia in 1994. Apparently, it was part of Andrew Denton's ongoing 'Musical Challenge', but there's no doubt Page and Plant would have remembered the original recording from their youth. Watch below:

And here's another raw, live take on the song from Ol Black Eyes, aka Alice Cooper. While you're listening, we suggest you remember Harry Butler, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 85. 

If you're not fully across all the joys of Alice Cooper's Love It to Death, you can listen on Spotify: 

Listen to Love It To Death on Apple Music:

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