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Bonzo Dog Band

Popular in the late 60s/early 70s after being introduced on the telly via London Weekend comedy show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, pastiche comedy-pop troupe, the BONZO DOG (Doo-Dah) BAND were a welcome diversion to the post-psychedelic blues littering the music scene. Surreal vaudevillian music hall and as avant-garde as a combination of ZAPPA, pre-Python and trad-jazzers, The Temperance Seven, these er… cosmic cats were the bees knees. Led (ever so slightly astray) by the uber-eccentric singer/MC, Viv Stanshall, and fellow scribe Neil Innes, the comical collective only had one major hit, 1968’s `I’m The Urban Spaceman’, although five albums revealed their true absurdist whimsy.
Formed on 25 September 1962 by Goldsmiths College art students, Viv Stanshall (lead vocals, tuba specialist, etc.) and Rodney Slater (saxophone), the pair came up with the comic concept after watching a heavy-weight boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Enlisting college lecturer Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and his lodger Neil Innes, then Martin Stafford Ash (aka Sam Spoons) and gadget man Roger Ruskin Spear, a tuba player and tap-dancer “Legs” Larry Smith was the final instalment to the original and profoundly flexible BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND, which also included trumpeter Bob Kerr, before he took off (with no other invited Bonzos) to join “serious” rivals The New Vaudeville Band (their similarly-fashioned `Winchester Cathedral’ hit UK No.4 and US No.1!).
Going nowhere with their own anything-goes trad-jazz eccentricity, and having limited progress at Parlophone Records with parody pieces `My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’ (a 1920s song) and `Alley Oop’ (a universal hit in 1960 for The Hollywood Argyles), a change of tact was necessary to achieve any semblance of success. Psychedelia was a-flowering everywhere on the planet by now, and The BEATLES were the movement’s biggest asset so, with a debut album for US Liberty Records ear-marked for release in October ’67, the Bonzos were only too happy to donate ELVIS-parody `Death Cab For Cutie’ to the Magical Mystery Tour TV movie (IVOR CUTLER was also on the bus – so to speak).
As previously stated, the troupe’s debut GORILLA {*7} skilfully parodied quintessential Englishness to a tee on comic tracks such as pre-MacDonald’s `Jollity Farm’ (penned by Leslie Sarony in the 1920s!), film noir take-off `Big Shot’, credits-gone-mad `The Intro And The Outro’ (adding fantasy-league musos John Wayne, Robert Morley, Billy Butlin, Adolf Hitler, Princess Anne, Liberace, Lord Snooty, Harold Wilson, ERIC CLAPTON et al) and the aforementioned `Death Cab…’. Not all of the madcap album was rolling-in-the-aisles-funny, but the best of the rest were the predictable yet timely “Penny Laine”-esque `The Equestrian Statue’, the calypso un-PC `Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming’ and the playful-yet-bad-karaoke finale, `The Sound Of Music’.
Bassist Dennis Cowan in place of Bohay-Nowell (while Spoons left for a short while; Bob Kerr “the nearly unknown” played sax), the aforementioned TV show lit the fuse toward the Bonzos becoming random novelty Top 5 pop stars a la `Urban Spaceman’ (produced by Apollo C. Vermouth – aka PAUL McCARTNEY). Its B-side just as essential listening as its flip, `Canyons Of Your Mind’, was downright side-splitting (her hair “the sweet essence of giraffe”), and that included the off-key, off-kilter guitar solo!
Stanshall or Innes being the main protagonists behind the all-new monikered BONZO DOG BAND’s surreal humour, parent LP – in the sense that the said platter was only available as the opener on the US “Urban Spaceman” version – THE DOUGHNUT IN GRANNY’S GREENHOUSE (1968) {*7} was held in high regard among the fun-loving fraternity. The fact you could buy an LP rather than await a radio or TV broadcast proved fruitful for the 7-piece outfit as its Top 40 place would suggest. From the MOTHERS OF INVENTION-like `We Are Normal’ to the rhetorical fuzzbox `Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, the songs were priceless in their poker-faced wit. Underground America already in awe of the political FUGS, the irony was that even the Yanks caught on to `The Trouser Press’ (the subsequent name of a cult magazine), although the tongue-in-cheek barra-boy `My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe’ must’ve went over their heads. Innes loved his rock’n’roll and Fab Four (e.g. `Rockaliser Baby’ and `Humanoid Boogie’), but it was the sub-Stanshall bits and pieces (e.g. `11 Mustachioed Daughters’, etc.) that were out of this world.
Stanshall, of course, could stretch the parody levels beyond any PC limits, but at a time when it was safe to laugh, at er… anything basically funny, `Hunting Tigers Out In “Indiah”’(authored by Stanley Damerell) – from 1969’s Top 40 TADPOLES {*6} – was probably a precursor to his enchanting Sir Henry character. As Monty Python were fast-becoming in-vogue on the BBC, Roger Ruskin Spear was increasingly afforded silly skits like `Shirts’ and `Tubas In The Moonlight’. Adding a fair share of comic routines and cover versions (`Doctor Jazz’, `Ali Baba’s Camel’, `Be A Waterfall’ outshone by a re-vamp of BOBBY PICKETT’s `The Monster Mash’), some spontaneity was lost in the process.
Britain was already under the spell of parody hit singles act, The Barron Knights, while The Scaffold were building foundations around the No.1 spot with `Lily The Pink’, so to pull off being terrifically funny was an art form in itself. Unfortunately, the Bonzos were fitting into neither category, as fourth album KEYNSHAM (1969) {*6} depicted. Songsmith Innes was arguably afforded too much air-time at the price of Stanshall’s kooky contributions; Neil’s best bits `You Done My Brain In’ and `What Do You Do?’ were on the other side of the comedy spectrum to Stanshall’s maniacal `Tent’, `Mr. Slater’s Parrot’ and the Maynard-mentioning `Sport (The Odd Boy)’. Typical of the set’s subliminal schizophrenia.
In the wake of poor sales, both STANSHALL and part-time ‘Python, INNES, plotted their own solo careers; the former kick-starting his by way of a few flop 45s in 1970. One thing they’d forgotten was to offer up a contract-binding fifth set, so all and sundry had to backtrack on subsequent plans to come up with LET’S MAKE UP AND BE FRIENDLY (1972) {*4}. An album that just about said it in opening titles, `The Strain’ and `Turkeys’, the reunion was a trying one for all parties concerned. Nevertheless, it heralded the roots of Vivian’s “Sir Henry” character by way of a lengthy tale at `Rawlinson End’ – worth the admission price alone – and in a way, through `Don’t Get Me Wrong’, gave shape to one of INNES’ better ideas, the spoof-BEATLES-inflected TV film, The RUTLES (also starring Eric Idle).
The funny songsmith would find his niche among TV turns: Grimms (with the aforementioned Scaffold), Rutland Weekend Television, toddler show The Raggy Dolls and several cameos for the filmic Monty Python came to the fore, alongside a semi-successful solo career (`How Sweet To Be An Idiot’ his best known song in the 70s). Larry Smith went on tour with ELTON JOHN and ERIC CLAPTON; Ruskin Spear formed his Giant Kinetic Wardrobe, and Slater became a government officer.
Meanwhile, “Tubular Bells” MoC, VIVIAN STANSHALL, released his inaugural solo album, `Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ (1974), and set to task on his finest hour, `Sir Henry At Rawlinson End’ (1978), an excellent production of comic genius that was first premiered on the influential John Peel Show – even punk-rock fans were impressed with the antics of the Rawlinsons and Maynards, not forgetting Nice n Tidy, or indeed, Tidy n Nice. A movie was made shortly afterwards, but starring the equally quintessential upper-crust English gent, Trevor Howard, it was not the success it deserved to be. One still imagined only Vivian to be the real Sir Henry, and, for that matter, all the other colourful characters. Sadly, VIVIAN STANSHALL died in a fire at his home on 3 March 1995, a tragic end to such an inspirational comic figure. His eccentricity had known no boundaries.
The BONZO DOG DOO DAH BAND had re-formed briefly in 1988, issuing a delayed single four years on when a political opportunity led to `No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho!)’. On 28 January 2006, at the London Astoria, surviving members Innes, Smith, Spear, Slater, Bohay-Nowell, Spoons and Bob Kerr (plus several honorary Bonzos, including Ade Edmondson, Phil Jupitus, Paul Merton and Stephen Fry), got together for a bit of jollity; the all-encompassing live event unleashed as a double-CD that November under the title, WRESTLE POODLES …AND WIN! {*7}.
Expectation was rife for their first fresh set in 35 years, POUR L’AMOUR DES CHIENS {*6} – meaning “For The Love Of Dogs” – although, predictably, without the legendary Vivian, it fell short of the comedy charm and acumen that gave the Bonzos their unique place in rock’n’roll history; Edmondson and Spear grappled with the KAISER CHIEFS’ `I Predict A Riot’, and `Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ and `Scarlet Ribbons’ raised a smirk. Sporadic one-off gigs continued to unfold from time to time, but as yet, no further recordings have appeared, just the odd compilation.
The genius of NEIL INNES would be sadly missed, when, on 29th December 2019, he took up his post in comedy-rock heaven.
© MC Strong 1994-1997/GRD series // rev-up MCS Jul2016-Jan2020

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