A couple of bands - notably The Temperance Seven, who had a big hit with Pasadena, and the more unhinged Alberts – emerged hamming it up with 1920s jazz front line instruments (the trad jazz boom in the late 1950s had kicked off the junk-shop crate-diving habit) and a lounge lizard vocalizing through a megaphone. The early incarnation of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band came out of this scene, but, featuring as it did the pop machine that was Neil Innes, the inspired dadaist sculptor Roger Ruskin Spear, and Keith Moon's drinking companion (and almost certainly the greatest wordsmith Walthamstow ever produced, as well as one of my ten favourite English writers ever - in literature as well as music), Viv Stanshall, they left it far behind for a weird hybrid of rock, parody, comedy, surrealism, jazz and straightforward buffoonery and Pythonism.
The making of the band
I can't better what's said in wiki about their formation, so I'm going to quote it (suitably edited of course)
In 1962, Vivian Stanshall and fellow art student Rodney Slater bonded over a transatlantic broadcast of a boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Saxophonist Slater had previously been playing in a trad jazz band at college. Roger Wilkes (trumpet) was the founder of the original band at the Royal College of Art, along with Trevor Brown (banjo). They slowly turned their style from more orthodox music towards the 1920s-style sound of The Alberts and The Temperance Seven.
Stanshall (tuba, later vocals) was their next recruit, and on that day in 1962, he and Slater christened them The Bonzo Dog Dada Band: Bonzo the dog after a popular British cartoon character, and Dada after the early 20th-century art movement. The band soon added two more faces to the line-up: Goldsmiths College lecturer Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and his lodger, and Stanshall's fellow art-student, songwriter/pianist, Neil Innes. The band had been working with drummer Tom Hedge before Rodney found Martin Ash, who later took the stage name of Sam Spoons and shortly afterwards got them their first pub gig, where they were noticed by Roger Ruskin Spear, the son of the British artist Ruskin Spear. With his interest in the manufacture of early electronic gadgets/objets d'art and sound-making systems, he soon became an integral part of the band.
The line-up changed again with the departure of Roger Wilkes and John Parry, the trombonist. The two were replaced by, respectively, Bob Kerr and Big Sid Nichols. The final 'classic' band member, "Legs" Larry Smith joined in 1963, as a tuba player and tap-dancer (but later as a drummer), on Stanshall's invitation. The band's fortunes began to increase when they got a deal with Parlophone in April 1966. Their first single, a cover of the 1920s song, My Brother Makes The Noises for the Talkies", was backed with I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon to My Girl Tonight. A second single, Alley Oop, backed with Button Up Your Overcoat followed in October of that year. Neither single sold well. According to Neil Innes, the band learned a lesson in the pitfalls of show business:
"Our trumpeter then was Bob Kerr, great player, and a fun guy. But he was friends with (songwriter and producer) Geoff Stephens, who'd made Winchester Cathedral with session men. And he knew Bob, so he rang Bob up saying: 'What am I going to do? Winchester Cathedral's a hit, and I've got no band to promote it.' So Bob came, flushed with excitement, to the rest of us at our digs, saying, 'We can be The New Vaudeville Band!' and we said, 'Certainly not, no way!' So, Bob couldn't understand this, so we said, 'Well, go, you go and do it then, if you want to. Go, never darken our towels again!', kind of thing. But the next thing, on Top of the Pops, was the New Vaudeville Band, with the singer looking exactly like Viv, in a sort of lamé suit, all the musicians wearing the kind of suits we were wearing, with two-tone shoes. They'd even nicked the cutout comic speaking balloons, which we made out of hardboard, with a fret saw, and painted white, and then wrote, 'Wow, I'm really expressing myself!' to hold over somebody's head while they did a saxophone solo. There was the entire image, and for the next few weeks people were saying to us, 'Hey, you're like that New Vaudeville Band!' And that's when I think Legs Larry Smith, said "Well look ...' - he'd always been arguing for doing some more modern material, so we all said, 'Right, now we start writing our own stuff.'"
Their own stuff included comic songs, parodies, Viv's Elvis impersonation, noir recitations and dadaist noise, which jostled with the older material on their first album, Gorilla, released in 1967. Although their first two singles hadn't sold well, they were coming to be seen as a riotously good live act, which helped get them a contract with the US label Liberty, which released Gorilla, and also brought them to the attention of Paul McCartney, who lobbied for their inclusion in Magical Mystery Tour. While they recorded and played with a bewildering variety of English musical luminaries, by the beginning of 1967, the core band consisted of Innes on piano, guitar and some poppy vocals, Stanshall on occasional trumpet and other blowy things as well as jazz and dada recitative vocals, Slater on various reeds, Smith on drums and Spear on, well robots, trouser press, explosions, etc. Dennis Cowan played bass on several albums, but never really got seen as part of the classic line-up.
fame at last
In 1968, three things happened: they released their follow-up album, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse (for those not equipped with the contextual British slang, arcane enough at the time, this translates as 'The turd in the outside toilet'), they became regulars on a (nominally) kids' TV show, Do Not Adjust Your Set (whose cast also included Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin), which both made them more popular and at the same time undermined them as a band for grown-ups (rather than the satirical equivalent of the Mothers of Invention, which is the way I tended to see them at the time), and they had an actual hit single with Urban Spaceman; for me, McCartney's co-production credit on this ranks as his finest musical moment. Because I'm a contrary sort, though, I'm linking to the even better B-side, The Canyons of your Mind, which lifts one risible image from Bob Lind's Elusive Butterfly and uses it to skewer a phenomenal number of silly rock tropes, including one of the finest (though as far as you can get from the most musical) bits of guitar-strangling solo I ever heard.
And they followed that up with Mr Apollo, itself a thing of great lyrical beauty that has deep resonance with anyone who ever looked at the small ads in a Silver Age American comic book. Who would not want to be 'two separate gorillas' or 'wrestle poodles – and win!'? It's rather schizophrenic, with Neil Innes taking the lead vocal, and slathers what is basically a sweet pop/rock song with psych sounds, while Viv free-associates some spectacular nonsense. Innes's pop sensibility seemed to be becoming increasingly dominant, and the band were re-christened as The Bonzo Dog Band, dropping the doo-dah/dada, which seems significant in terms of what came next.
In 1969, they released two albums: Tadpoles featured the singles and a few other songs they had performed on Do Not Adjust Your Set, while Keynsham took the Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse's template and darkened it. There are no covers: all the tracks are written by Neil and Viv (six each and two collaborations) and the two seem to pull against one another. After Keynsham was released, the band toured the USA, and then, when they returned, split up in January 1970. The reasons for the split were murky: Viv had a drugs problem – with prescription tranqs taken to ease stage fright, which had caused him to mess up more than once on the tour – but that wasn't all of it. Like the Beatles, they basically split because the two main creative forces were pulling in different directions.
The band – or at least Innes, Stanshall and Cowan – reformed briefly for a contractural obligation album, Let's Make Up and Be Friendly, which isn't at all bad and introduces the character of Sir Henry Rawlinson, later the star of two Stanshall solo albums, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End and Sir Henry at N'Didi's Kraal, as well as several brilliant recordings for John Peel.
Only Viv and Neil – the Lennon and McCartney of the band – had significant solo careers. Innes joined the Pythons, and then the Rutles, and has made no less than 14 solo albums (I looked it up- I didn't believe it either), as well as joining in the Bonzo reunions of 1988 and 2006.
Viv (né Victor, fact fans), who died in 1995 in a house fire in Muswell Hill (the stomping ground of Ray Davies, his only rival in the art of capturing English whimsicality and strange in popular music), aged 51. He put together several bands that fell apart quite quickly, and made just four albums; the two featuring Sir Henry, and Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974) and Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981). Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is simply the best album ever made in England, but the other three are all curate's eggs, let down by vaguely lumpen musicianship rather than Viv, who also created sculptures, events and paintings, as well as an extraordinary eccentric persona.
I never saw the Bonzos live, even though they played at my college when I was a student there (in my pre-drug days, the reasons lost in time), but in the few months in 2010 I lived in Torrington in 2010, I attended a gig by Three Bonzos and a Piano, featuring Rod Slater, Roger Ruskin spear and Sam Spoons, with Dave Glasson of Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band on piano and Andy Roberts on guitar. It was a tour de force, mixing new material with comedy skits, robots, a trouser press solo and a large sprinkling of Bonzos numbers. Roger took over the vocals, and made a decent fist of it, with a bit of help from the audience in the long, word-heavy numbers such as Big Shot. It was more than two hours of wonderful entertainment, although I didn't recognize a single song by Innes in the set. Which is instructive. They released two albums, Hair of the Dog and Bum Notes (mostly original material), and reintroduced Legs and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Newell (aged over 80) to the band later. Apparently they quit touring in 2014, which is a shame. It looks like the Art School Dance doesn't go on forever, after all
The Bonzos are well-served by compilations. Gorilla is, to my mind, the best of their five studio albums by a distance (I'm not counting the live double CD, Wrestle Poodles and Win, released in 2007 and featuring most of the living members of the band — Denis Cowan died aged 28 - with various comedic luminaries doing a much worse job of being Viv than RRS did with the Three Bonzos), and I'm not too fond of Keynsham, but Doughnut and Tadpoles have their moments.
Don't Adjust Your Set series one is available on DVD and there's some splendid Colour Me Pop performance videos on youtube.
There is a brilliant BBC documentary about St Viv at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AI-9WH4Z4gY and his biograqphy, Ginger Geezer by Randell & Welch, could have been better edited, but is still an enjoyable romp. There was three-hour BBC Radio 4 Tribute starting here. Please DO find time for English music's greatest artist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nt9zPrjLvPM
Everyone who loves language should own a copy of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and give one look to the movie, featuring Trevor Howard.
And as it's traditional to finish off with a video or two
Here's some Viv noir
Here's their take on a British suburban dadaist version of chanson
and here's a nice pop-psych tune from Neil
And, because I can't find any individual tunes on youtube, here is all of SH@RE
How nice to be in England
Now that England's here.
I stand upright in my wheelbarrow
And pretend I'm Boadicea