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Vivian Stanshall

As “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and defeat, bold flag-bearer” VIVIAN STANSHALL was the quintessential uber-eccentric comic-pop hero of the 60s, 70s and 80s – the crux of the description auto-referencing his greatest character, the gruffalo Sir Henry (At Rawlinson End). Of course, many will have witnessed the bespectacled loon-pot Viv who shot to fame in 1968 as spearhead of the rib-tickling BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND, but as many avid listeners of the John Peel show would lay testament, the tales of the upper-class Rawlinsons and Maynards (not forgetting Reg Smeeton, Old Scrotum, Seth One-Tooth, Hubert, Mrs E, Aunt Florrie et al), were the bees knees for anyone with a wonderfully warped sense of humour.
Born Victor Anthony Stanshall, 21 March 1943, Shillingford, Oxfordsire, his post-WWII family moved around a bit until settling in the coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea, in Essex. From bingo-caller to painting fairground attractions (and a spell in the merchant navy), STANSHALL would find his niche after finally enrolling at London’s Central School of Art and Design. It was there in September 1962, he met Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater and Neil Innes (the latter attended nearby Goldsmiths College) and, with other equally fascinating and unorthodox musicians, formed The BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND.
The antithesis of pop music of the day, picking up the odd instrument or kitchen utensil to whoop up their exotic sounds, the Dada-ist players – think The Temperance Seven in league with The New Vaudeville Band – were just about as funny as they looked. From an appearance in The BEATLES’ kaleidoscopic Magical Mystery Tour movie in 1967, to an off-kilter Top 10 hit with `I’m The Urban Spaceman’ (produced by a pseudonymous Mr. McCARTNEY!), a year later, The Bonzos offered an alternative slant to the world of cult comedy – and “rock” music.
As the BONZO DOG BAND decided to split in early 1970 (after four LPs: `Gorilla’, `The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse’, `Tadpoles’ and `Keynsham’), it gave an opportunity for STANSHALL to explore his alter-ego/inner-characters on a few 45s. First up was the simplistic, Barron Knights-like `Labio-Dental Fricative’, which featured ERIC CLAPTON in the accompanying Sean Head Showband. Following this cheesy as Camembert ditty, STANSHALL released his ode to ELVIS: `Suspicion’ (comic verses added to great effect), but no one expected a hit from the man and his “Gargantuan Chums”; his “biG GRunt” continued the laugh-in lunacy on the B-side with `Blind Date’.
As contractual duties led Viv back to the BONZO DOG BAND for a last attack of the earlobes a la 1972’s below-par `Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly’ – showcasing the sophisticated, spoken-wordsmith’s introduction to Sir Henry, by way of the 9-minute `Rawlinson End’ – he befriended fellow prankster KEITH MOON. One can only imagine their tales of debauchery and excess. Probably thinking that MIKE OLDFIELD’s titanic `Tubular Bells’ would never be the success it became, STANSHALL’s MC-sonic word-play would be an essential ingredient to the final minutes of side one.
In effect garnering a solo contract on Warner Bros., the exclusive Afro-centric `Lakonga’ (b/w `Baba Tunde’) single, kicked off a satisfying time for STANSHALL the singer (and euphonium and ukulele specialist). Scribed with percussionist Gaspar Lawal, who also featured on the man’s debut solo set, MEN OPENING UMBRELLAS AHEAD (1974) {*7} – alongside STEVE WINWOOD, JIM CAPALDI, Ric Grech, NEIL INNES, Anthony “Bubs” White, among others – Vivian was never funkier or Rawlinson-raspier, than on `Afoju Ti Ole Riran’ and `Yelp, Bellow, Rasp Et Cetera’. Some might say a precursor to IAN DURY via KILBURN & THE HIGH ROADS, the exceptions were the laid-back (nay horizontal!) `Dwarf Succulents’ and the mellowing, BRYAN FERRY-esque riposte, `Strange Tongues’.
Onwards and upwards, STANSHALL duly provided voice-overs for ROBERT CALVERT (on `Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters’), the skit-pop combo GRIMMS, the rock musical reading of Peter And The Wolf, and a BBC radio show (One Man’s Week); note too, that a novelty, pre-Young Ones version of Cliff’s `The Young Ones’ was rightfully bargain-binned. Having divorced first wife in 1975, he subsequently settled down with American writer Pamela `Ki’ Longfellow in their houseboat (the Searchlight). Viv also deposited a few testing tales of his comic characters from Sir Henry for John Peel’s Radio 1 show, and it was time to piece it all together in the adventures of “SIR HENRY AT RAWLINSON END” {*10}. The film version was almost immediately rubber-stamped and in the pipeline as the LP’s release day in 1978 approached (probably in November).
A schizoid STANSHALL on as many voices and instruments as one could imagine (although Julian Smedley, Pete Moss, Jim Cuomo, Jim French and friend STEVE WINWOOD would augment him like some ghostly chamber orchestra raised from the Titanic), the man’s genius was such he could never hope to emulate the comedy concept. Strictly no ballroom and sitting around a dinner-table fussing and fighting over the wherefores and whatnots of Sir Henry’s tales of the `Junglebunny’ and the `Rawlinson And Maynards’, there was no letting up. Vaudevillian and vast in its quintessentially Englishness, the fun never stopped for a second as `Aunt Florrie’s Waltz’, the manic `Interlewd’, Mrs. E’s “darning” `Socks’, brother Hubert’s `The Rub’ et al, proved this was a dysfunctional family one’d love to avoid! As aforementioned, the subsequent hour-long movie (starring Trevor Howard as Henry) was for the connoisseur: vivid imagination wasted in the brown-and-white reels of 16mm film.
Basically leftovers from his crack-pot “Rawlinson End” trials and tribulations, up jumped 1981’s TEDDY BOYS DON’T KNIT {*5} album, a sub-STANSHALL record to please the most ardent acolytes of the gent’s every movement. Slicing up the after-dinner cheese and serving it through an un-Henry-like rock’n’roll hatch, `Terry Keeps His Clips On’ and `CalypsoTo Colapso’ (flop singles both), had some appeal among the Dada-ist, nostalgia novelties. Folk-rock guitarist RICHARD THOMPSON would play his part well, NEIL INNES and former fellow BONZO, Roger Ruskin Spear played theirs too, although the closest Viv got to recreating Sir Henry’s imaginary mansion shenanigans was with `Possibly An Armchair (And Embodying) Fresh Faced Boys’ and the Oliver Reed-esque `King Kripple’.
Following a certain Mr. Rawlinson on his further adventures into deepest South Africa, spoken-word SIR HENRY AT NDIDI’S KRAAL (1984) {*7} succumbed to reincarnating Vivian’s greatest “white elephant” over one long 51-minute exercise. Without his permission and unedited, Demon Records issued the LP, much to the great man’s frustration. Sparse in its musicianship, only The POP GROUP’s rhythm section of Sean Oliver and Bruce Smith – plus MEKONS lass Suzi Honeyman – made up the numbers. And somehow the absence of nutty backing at intermittent points left Sir Henry in the proverbial dark. Bafflingly, All Music Guide preferred this hokum over the original! – it’s as if the British Empire never ‘appened, as Henry might’ve put it.
In 1988, the original BONZO DOG BAND players stepped out of their kennels for one further satirical election special, `No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho)’ – ironically, delayed for four years. The “Rawlinson dog-ends” appeared from time to time on the trusted John Peel Show, while Stinkfoot, A Comic Opera stage production, only briefly kept afloat; the same could not be said for his “The Searchlight” vessel, which eventually sunk to the bottom of the Thames.
Turning to BBC2’s The Late Show (in 1991) and, later BBC Radio 4 (in 1994) for some autobiographical anecdotes, Vivian was finding work on the fringes. Tragically, he died in a fire accident in his Muswell Hill, North London abode on 3rd of March 1995. Ten years later, The BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND re-formed in memory of their eccentric national treasure and figurehead: the un-knighted (as yet) Sir Vivian Stanshall.
Further homage was paid to Vivian and his main character by Michael Livesey & Brainwashing House, who released a full and worthy re-imagining of “Sire Henry At Rawlinson End” in June 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-1997/GRD series // rev-up MCS Jul2016

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