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We are normal, and we want our freedom
- 'We Are Normal' (Stanshall/Innes)
In the early 1960s, London had both a thriving music scene and a number of highly productive art colleges. It was a strange cross-fertilisation of the two that led, in 1962, to the formation of a fairly informal collection of musicians. As befits a group of art students, they named their band after a famous postcard character from the 1920s - George Studdy's 'Bonzo the Dog' - and an art movement from a similar period: Dadaism. Thus, when merged, these two components became the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, although the name was rapidly tweaked to become the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
The Music Hall Years
I brought my girl an apple, she let me hold her hand
I brought my girl an orange, we kissed beneath the band
I brought my girl bananas, she let me squeeze her tight...
- 'I'm Going to Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight' (Conrad)
The band's early line-up was quite fluid, with members coming and going on a regular basis. An initial core, however, consisted of co-founder Rodney Slater (clarinet), 'Happy' Wally Wilks (trumpet), Tom Parkinson (sousaphone), Chris Jennings (trombone), Claude Abbo (saxophone), Trevor Brown (banjo) and Tom Hedge (drums). The last member of this sizeable group was Slater's flatmate and the other co-founder of the group: an eccentric, ginger-haired tuba player by the name of Vivian Stanshall. On realising that the band had no vocalist, Stanshall took it upon himself to be the group's frontman, often simply reciting 'lyrics' taken from the day's newspapers.
Rebelling against the 'trad' jazz that was highly fashionable at the time - and particularly the seriousnness with which it was generally taken - the band took their initial musical inspiration from the same period as their name. With a collection of jolly - and occasionally rather smutty - music hall novelty songs from the 1920s, they began performing in the pubs and bars of swinging London.
Musicians continued to drift in and out of the band in the mid-1960s, new additions including Roger Ruskin Spear (saxophone), Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (banjo, bass and saxophone), Leon Williams (trumpet), John Parry (trombone), Raymond Lewitt (tuba) and Martin Ash, who performed under the name 'Sam Spoons' because of his chosen 'instrument'. In fact, the band's line-up was so fluid at the time that in later years the Bonzos were known to disagree over who was in the band - musicians such as James 'Jim Strobes' Chambers may or may not have been official Bonzos, depending on who you ask. More important for the future development of the band, however, was the addition of Bohay-Nowell's flatmate, a highly-talented songwriter and pianist called Neil Innes.
By this time, the Bonzos were becoming well known around London, and also found time to tour the so-called 'Batley circuit' of clubs in the north of England. Their music, combined with their image - 1920s clothing - and eccentric music hall antics and comic sketches, led to comparisons with bands such as The Temperance Seven, Spike Jones and His City Slickers and Sid Millward's Nitwits. Stanshall denied, however, that the former were an influence on the band, and Innes famously remarked, 'We're not doing a Temperance Seven, we're murdering them'. As their tours progressed, the stage show gradually got more and more manic, introducing fireworks, circus props and ever-sillier costumes.
Into the Studio
I bought a deluxe Merseybeat wig
But it was a size too big
- 'Look Out There's a Monster Coming' (Stanshall)
In 1966, the Bonzos found themselves a record deal and released their first two singles. These were taken from their repertoire of cover versions, the first being the music hall song 'My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies', which was followed by 'Alley Oop', a US one-hit wonder some six years previously for The Hollywood Argyles. The band's line-up continued to ebb and flow at this point, with the addition of 'Big Sid' Nicholls1, drummer 'Legs' Larry Smith and cornet player Bob Kerr, who remained with the band only briefly before leaving to join the New Vaudeville Band shortly after the latter had their biggest hit, 'Winchester Cathedral'.
Having exhausted the possibilities of musical hall novelty songs, both Stanshall and Innes were starting to find their own songwriting styles. In a similar way to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the two occasionally combined forces for a particular number, but more often wrote alone. So, while Innes concentrated on writing pop songs with an often haunting or melancholic feel, Stanshall produced works of inspired lunacy that veered from satire to nonsense and back again.
The first full Bonzos album - Gorilla - was released in October 1967, and displays a baffling array of influences. There are parodies of jazz ('Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold'), easy listening crooners ('I Left My Heart In San Francisco'), American crime fiction ('Big Shot', 'Death Cab For Cutie'2) and, most famously, the interminable on-stage ramblings of band frontmen who insist on introducing every single member of the ensemble, long past the point where anyone in the audience still cared ('The Intro And The Outro'). On a practical note, this latter also gives a run-down of exactly who was left in the band by this point - by the time of Gorilla the Bonzos were a seven-piece outfit consisting of Viv Stanshall, Neil Innes, 'Legs' Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Rodney Slater and Roger Ruskin Spear. Gorilla also included the Innes composition 'Equestrian Statue' - a whimsical ditty about a town-centre attraction and the man who turned up every month to clean it - which became the band's third single.
From Strength to Strength
Norman, if you're normal, I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life, and I shall baffle you with cabbages and rhinoceroses in the kitchen; incessant quotations from Now We Are Six through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty's giant poisoned electric head. So there
- 'My Pink Half of the Drainpipe' (Stanshall/Innes)
The success of Gorilla brought the Bonzos some influential fans. The most notable of these was Paul McCartney, who persuaded John Lennon to include the Bonzos in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour, in which they appeared performing 'Death Cab For Cutie' in a strip club. Of course, it wouldn't be the Bonzos without a few changes of personnel, so goodbye Sam Spoons and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, who were apparently not impressed with the Stanshall/Innes-led change of direction taken by the group. Transient Bonzos in the period between their first and second albums were bass-player Dave Clague and his replacement Joel Druckman, who was himself removed from the band shortly after recording of their second album, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse.
Before releasing the album, however, the band put out a fourth single, which was to become regarded as their own one-hit wonder. 'I'm the Urban Spaceman', written by Neil Innes, was produced by the unlikely-named Apollo C Vermouth. So unlikely named, in fact, that it was clearly a pseudonym, behind which none other than Bonzos fan Paul McCartney was hiding. With McCartney's guidance and influence, 'I'm the Urban Spaceman' peaked at number five in the charts, bringing the Bonzos to a new, mainstream audience. Despite being their biggest success, the song was not universally liked within the band: Stanshall claimed to hate it and Spear was none too fond either. Notwithstanding any feelings about this one particular song, the band carried on regardless and turned out a second album. Intriguingly, however, it did not include their recent hit3.
Boasting the newly shortened version of the band's moniker4 and named after a euphemistic phrase for the lavatory5, the band's November 1968 album had an overall tone that was more commercial than Gorilla, featuring Viv Stanshall's blues parody 'Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?', Neil Innes's space-age love song 'Beautiful Zelda', and the sharply observed tale of an insufferable neighbour, 'My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe'.
Onto the Television
Five years ago, I was a four-stone apology
Today, I am two separate gorillas
- 'Mr Apollo' (Stanshall/Innes)
Before becoming a hit single, 'I'm the Urban Spaceman' had featured on children's television programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, one of the forerunners of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In 1968, the Bonzos had become a regular feature on the programme, providing music between the comedy sketches. The songs from DNAYS were collected together on the Bonzo's third album, Tadpoles. The album, which carried the strapline 'Tackle the toons you tapped your tootsies to on Thames TV's Do Not Adjust Your Set', was released in August 1969, and was regarded at the time as not being a 'proper' album. Despite this, it managed to reach number 36 and saw a belated UK album release for 'I'm The Urban Spaceman', alongside the unsuccessful follow-up single 'Mr Apollo', the ever-popular 'Canyons Of Your Mind', and a cover of then recent US hit single 'Monster Mash'6.
The late 1960s were the Bonzos most successful period. Their association with DNAYS continued with the 1968 Christmas Special, and they were also rewarded with an extended appearance on the BBC's Colour Me Pop programme. The band were also bolstered by the third-time-lucky appointment of a bassist - Dennis Cowan - who managed to last more than a couple of months.
The Cracks Appear
The odd boy lay down by the football field
Took out a slim volume of Mallarmé
The centre-forward called him an imbecile
It's an odd boy who doesn't like sport
- 'Sport (The Odd Boy)' (Stanshall)
In 1969, the Bonzos undertook two tours of the USA, neither of which was particularly successful. While there was no doubting the band's cult following across the Atlantic, the tours were plagued by Spinal Tap-esque record delays and changes of venue, date and fee. Unsurprisingly, the band returned to the UK, where they pulled themselves together for one more album.
Keynsham, the band's 'proper' album of 1969, released in November of that year, failed to trouble the chart compilers, but does feature 'Mr Slater's Parrot', which was later adapted for use in, of all things, a commercial for Cadbury's Mini Eggs. Other highlights are the psychedelic title track, the schoolday reminiscences of 'Sport (The Odd Boy)', and the cautionary tale 'Busted'7. The album's title is a reference to a 1960s radio commercial for a football pools system run by one Horace Batchelor8, who would laboriously spell out the name of the town in his postal address every time the commercial was aired.
At this time, each of the Bonzos was starting to look towards solo projects, with 'Legs' Larry Smith the first to try his hand. Taking the name 'Topo D Bill', he released a single called 'Witchi Tai To', featuring fellow Bonzo Roger Ruskin Spear and members of the band Yes. With Stanshall and Innes also keen to get on with their solo careers, the Bonzos' days were numbered and, on 14 March, 1970, they finally called it quits.
One More Time
It is almost three years since Madge and Bobby Rawlinson pulled up roots and were arrested by the parks department
- 'Rawlinson End' (Innes/Stanshall)
Almost immediately on breaking up, the various Bonzos leapt straight into other projects. Viv Stanshall formed a series of bands with bassist Dennis Cowan, including the Sean Head Showband, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar, biG GRunt and Viv Stanshall and His Gargantuan Chums. Cowan also maintained his links with Neil Innes, playing in Innes's band, The World. None of these projects lasted very long, with Stanshall suffering a nervous breakdown, and Innes joining existing band McGuiness Flint. Meanwhile, Roger Ruskin Spear was also tasting some solo success with his band Roger Ruskin Spear and His Giant Orchestral Wardrobe.
As a group, however, the Bonzos were still under contract to their record company and, to escape from their clutches, were obliged to release one more album. The result, Lets Make Up and be Friendly was released in March, 1972 and boasts Stanshall's epic Western parody 'Bad Blood', and that rarest of things, a Roger Ruskin Spear composition: 'Waiting For The Wardrobe'. Other than Stanshall, Innes and Cowan, the only other ex-Bonzos to appear on the album are Spear and 'Legs' Larry Smith. The album was to lead Stanshall to his greatest post-Bonzo triumph, with the album Sir Henry at Rawlinson End9 a spin-off from the track 'Rawlinson End', telling of the exploits of the aristocratically eccentric Rawlinson family.
So that, more or less, was that. The ex-Bonzos had solo careers of varying success, the most visible of whom has probably been Neil Innes, through his work with Eric Idle and the Monty Python team. Stanshall, too, remained in the public eye, largely thanks to Sir Henry, until his tragic death in 1995.
See them in the public eye
Oozing oily charm
Hear them all personify
Down on Animal Farm (oink oink moooo)
- 'No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho)' (Innes/Stanshall)
After the Bonzos split, the band's music was compiled numerous times, with varying degrees of success. The History Of The Bonzos was a double album, sampling all of the Bonzos' albums, with a handful of post-Bonzos solo projects for good measure. Released in June 1974, it remains their most commercially successful compilation, reaching number 41. Cornology, a mammoth three-CD set released in 1992, rounded up all five albums, both sides of the band's two 1966 singles (including the marvellous innuendo of 'I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight'), and a handful of rarities such as a version of 'Mr Apollo' with Stanshall's closing monologue performed in German. An almost complete history in one box, it was also released as three separate discs: The Intro, The Outro and Dog Ends. In the wake of the Beatles' Anthology albums, the Bonzos' 1999 release - Anthropology - is a similar hodge-podge of unreleased versions, demos, rehearsals and out-takes. Highlights include a rather vulgar prototype of 'Canyons Of Your Mind', the lost Stanshall classic 'Mr Hyde In Me' and the John Lennon parody 'Give Booze A Chance'. The Complete BBC Recordings (2002) does exactly what it says on the sleeve, rounding up recordings the Bonzos made for the BBC, mainly for the John Peel show. It's essential for the otherwise unavailable 'We're Going To Bring It On Home' and the almost legendary sketch 'The Craig Torso Show'.
Before Stanshall's death, the band were persuaded to enter a recording studio once more, for the recording of 'No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho)', to coincide with the 1987 General Election. Typically, it wasn't finished in time, and remained unreleased until the next General Election, in 1992.
In 2006, several of the ex-Bonzos decided to reform to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band's first single release. The group - Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Bob Kerr and 'Legs' Larry Smith - played a one-off gig at the Astoria Theatre in London on 29 January, before releasing a UK tour schedule for November 2006. In the absence of Viv Stanshall, the remaining Bonzos have invited a number of comedians to join them on stage, including Phil Jupitus (who has toured with the band and has played guitar as well as singing with them), Stephen Fry, Adrian Edmondson and Paul Merton.
While never achieving enormous chart success or worldwide fame and fortune, the Bonzos were a highly talented, innovative, creative group of musicians who still have a significant cult following in the 21st Century. That many of their fans weren't even born when the Bonzos were struggling round the pubs and clubs of England is a welcome sign that Horace Batchelor, Sir Henry Rawlinson and Mr Slater's Parrot will be with us for a long time to come.
I'm the urban spaceman, babe
But here comes the twist
I don't exist
- 'I'm the Urban Spaceman' (Innes)