Rolling Stone, December 2, 1970
Bonzo Remnants Running Around
By Charles Alverson
LONDON- Last March, the Bonzo Dog Band, after eight years of insanity and anarchy disguised as music, called it quits and shot off in all directions at once.
Fans of the Bonzos may wonder what ever happened to the members of the silly sextet who were last seen in the states in December when they got disgusted and flew home in mid-tour.
After the band exploded, Vivian (Vic) Stanshall, the red- haired front man and one of the original Bonzos, formed Big Grunt, which included Bonzos Dennis Cowan, bassist, Roger Ruskin Spear, reeds player and maker of infernal machines, and "Borneao" Fred Munt, the ex-Bonzo roadie, on congas and saxophone.
But Big Grunt folded after only two gigs when Vic, pushing himself too hard as manager, lyricist and leader, had a nervous breakdown and had to go into a hospital for a couple of months.
The World is really just getting started, gigging around Britain and the Continent. A single, "Angelina," didn't do much, but there's more hope for its first LP which was released November 20.
The sound of the World is hard-rocking and happy, but compared to the madness of the Bonzos it is pretty sedate stuff. "I think they sound like the Beatles used to sound," says Fred Munt, "but Neil would kill me if he heard me say so." Both Neil, dark, intense and an habitual hat-wearer, and Dennis, blond and quiet, say the playing the World is vastly different from Bonzo days when almost every number was jokey. But even then, they and saxophonist Rodney Slater provided the group's solid musical base while the other three Bonzos ran wild.
Next to Vic, perhaps the wildest of the Bonzos was Roger Spear, who specialized in robots, sound effects and diabolical machines. On the death of Big Grunt, Roger set off, surrounded by devices from the Bonzo Dog Band, to become a solo act. After starting with a gig at Birmingham University, he began to get a few more dates and tours with other groups.
On stage, Roger is a dervish of action as he ricochets around the stage, bouncing off of amplifiers, triggering his mechanical monsters and playing duets with a robot with replaceable heads, a built-in tape recorder and an inflatable chest. Int he course of his frantic act, he tells jokes, plays a theremin shaped like a human leg, acts as straight man for his robot, sings in blackface, juggles bricks and tries to fill the empty moments with corny razzle-dazzle.
Sometimes it doesn't work. At the Hammersmith Palais the other night, the audience, restlessly waiting for the Who to play, greeted Rogers's frenzied efforts with barely polite tolerance. But with college audiences, the act often goes down like a bomb. Roger's getting enough work to make it, but it's a grind. He works without roadie or manager, so after the Hammersmith gig he had to drive 400 miles to Glasgow to appear the next night.
Another scheme of Roger's is the creation of a band composed of 20 fat banjoists and one thin trumpet player. Or a great choir of people singing about frying pans, accompanied by taxi drivers brought in off the street to play instruments they'd never seen before.
Spear admits that these projects are not likely to be vast commercial successes. "You'd have to prove they would work," he says, "and the only way to do that would be to find a rich loony to put them on."
While Roger beats his brains out and dreams of a rich loony sponsor, Rodney Slater, an original Bonzo who played swing saxophone among other things, works as a social worker in London and vows that he's through with professional music.
"I saw the handwriting on the wall last Christmas," says Rodney, at 29 the oldest of the ex-Bonzos, "so when the group split I was already working day s as a child-care officer." He now runs a youth club in London's Kentish Town.
At his flat in West London, which is quite ordinary except for cages of birds and two racing bikes in the hall, Slater says that his years with the Bonzos were a "very, very valuable experience. I couldn't have spent the time better."
But at the same time, he says, "I've no temptation to go back into music. There are too many 20-percenters hanging on to your neck." For him, Slater says, the Bonzo Dog Band wasn't exactly a financial bonanza. "I spent eight years of my life at it," he says, "and I came out dead even."
But Rodney, stockily built with blond, moderately short hair and a flat-nosed friendly face, isn't bitter. "I set out to become a professional musician," he says, "and I did. I'm pleased about that."
He still plays for his own pleasure. "It's always been for my own pleasure, really," Slater says. But he adds that next year he's returning to college to study social work and expects to make it his career. "Just like the Bonzo Dog," he says, "I give it all I've got."
Vic Stanshall gave the Bonzos all he had, too, and a little more. Out of the hospital since last summer, Vic stays mostly in his cluttered house in North London surrounded by tanks of fish and turtles, pots of cactus, manikins, musical instruments and his 25 month old son Rupert.
Cracking up and going to the hospital was a shattering experience, and Vic, although fully recovered, hasn't quite sorted out his mind. "Vic always lived on the knife-edge," says a friend, "and the pressure just got to be too much for him." Now, with his light-red hair and mustache, and huge, octagonal glasses with clear-plastic frames, Stanshall looks like a slightly-bewildered wizard.
He spends his time sculpting, painting, tending his fish, turtles and cactus, writing songs and trying to decide whagt he wants to do next. "After an experience like this," he says, "you're sort of empty of what you were, what you thought you were, and you've got a lot of things to sort out.
Vic says he'll go back to performing "but first I want to find out what is important about what I'm doing here and then assemble it." He's been writing a lot of songs, doing the music as well as the words. He works out the tune on the ukulele ("A much maligned instrument," he says), the euphonium, a sort of tuba, and the recorder.
But working alone like this has problems, Vic says. "I haven't had any kind of criticism for ages, and my work tends to sprawl all over the place. That was the best thing about the Bonzos. Anything you suggested got ridiculed at least five times. I'd like to get some of my work out and see how it does."
Another pressing reason for going back to work, Vic says, is that he's broke. But he has a few things working for him. One is a musical he's collaborating on called Warm Steps, which he describes as a "fantasy on drug use in various cultures." He also did a pilot show for a program on Scottish television and has done a few television commercials. As we're talking, Vic's face suddenly comes on the silent television screen in a commercial for cheese crisps. "There's another few quid in the bank," says Vic with satisfaction. And he's also been talking with BBC radio about doing a regular half-hour show featuring some of the weird records he's been collecting for years.
The sixth Bonzo, Larry (Legs) Smith, drummer, tuba player and eccentric dancer, was last seen somewhere between Oxford and Brighton walking fast and smiling. If you see old Larry, tell him the other Bonzos are doing fine and would like to hear from him one of these days. Even a picture postcard will do.
Thank you Sarah!! (your email addy didn't work)
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