The Bonzo Dog Band
COMEDY ROCK BAND LAUNCHED ON CHILDREN'S TV WHO BECAME SIXTIES CULT FAVOURITES
By Dave Thompson
Few people growing up with children's television in the late Sixties can fail to have been affected by 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'. Forget that uncharacteristically lukewarm episode that was unearthed by Channel 4 last Christmas; at its best, which was almost every week, the show represented the most anarchic blend of humour, idiocy and general unsuitability ever unleashed at such an early hour - 5:25 on Wednesday evenings.
The pilot show went out on Boxing Day, 1967 - or, at least, it should have. A technical error saw the following week's episode being aired instead, with an unscheduled commercial break, and an abrupt ending when it should have been a disaster. Instead, the ensuing newspaper headlines got the series off to the best possible start.
Today the show is best remembered for providing various future members of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' with their first opportunity to seriously assault public decency en masse. Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and, later, animator Terry Gilliam all graduated from 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'. However, the real stars of the show were not the presenters and comedians, but the musical turn whose contributions were to become a regular part of each show: not through any fault of their own, but through their association with... THE BEATLES! For Boxing Day, 1967, also saw the world premiere of 'Magical Mystery Tour'. And dour as the overall reviews might have been, few folk could fault the strangely-attired six piece, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose "Death Cab For Cutie" was so ridiculously out of place in that film that it was possibly the only bit that made perfect sense.
The Bonzos grew out of Goldsmith's College in London late in 1965, pieced together by pianist Neil Innes, 'Legs' Larry Smith (drums), Sam Spoons (percussion), Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (bass), Rodney Slater (horns), Vivian Stanshall (vocals) and Roger Ruskin Spear, who divided his time between playing saxophone and constructing marvelous exploding robots. Originally dubbed the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, the name was changed to save the members the trouble of having to continually explain what Dada was. Bonzo the Dog, a cartoon hero of the Twenties, of course, needed no introduction.
Their act originally revolved around what Innes later described as "Ricky-ticky foxtrots". All that was to change, however, in August when the band was approached to become the New Vaudeville Band - a name currently making great headway up the chart, which concealed the identity of faceless session men. From all accounts, the offer seemed perfect for the Bonzos: "Winchester Cathedral":, the Vaudevilles' hit, was not too far removed from the bulk of their live set at the time. However, only one member of the group seemed to agree: a saxophonist whose name history has forgotten to record. And while he found himself appearing on 'Top Of The Pops' within the week, the rest of the band returned to the relative obscurity of a Parlophone Records contract, which had already afforded them one flop single, "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies" (backed with the evocatively titled "I'm Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Gal Tonight").
This was followed by a cover of the Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop" in September - a release that made as little impression on the world as did similar efforts by the Royal Guardsmen and, of all people, the Beach Boys. And there, it is rumoured, the Bonzos story might have eventually fizzled out in the wasteland of cabaret and working men's clubs.
The defection of their saxophonist, however, was to have far-reaching effects - not least of all to the band's stage act. According to Innes, when he appeared on "Top Of The Pops" the saxist used large proportion of the Bonzos' own stage routine, forcing the band into a hasty rethink and a shift to rock'n'roll. "Death Cab For Cutie", as performed on 'Magical Mystery Tour', may have read like diseased Raymond Chandler sub-plot, but it sounded like Elvis Presley. And with the patronage of Paul McCartney now earning the band almost as many headlines as the increasingly explosive live performances which had seen them through the past twelve months, the Bonzos were snatched up by the Liberty label and given strict instructions to pull out ALL the stops.
"Gorilla", the album which emerged in October 1967, certainly did that. Combining elements of their old selves ("Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold") with a couple of heartfelt jibes at 'The Sound Of Music' and rebounding the whole thing off with that manic breed of stupidity which is more politely referred to as Eccentricity, the album contained at least one classic Neil Innes number, "Big Shot" - the tale of bachelor Johnny Cool, and the starting place for that excruciating joke: "Have you got a light, mac?": "No, but I've got dark brown overcoat."
"Gorilla" (dedicated, incidentally, to Kong, "who must have been a great bloke"), also featured "Death Cab For Cutie", "Mickey's Son & Daughter" (a gathering of cartoon characters, together with Loony Toons-style finale) and "The Intro and The Outro" (more of which later). Original copies of the album are hard to find but my be bought for as little as £8, due to the availability of several reissues.
The following month, "Equestrian Statue" was chipped from its pedestal as the band's third single. It did nothing, although -- like the Disney-twee "Jollity Farm" (another cut from the album, and one which recently turned up in a television commercial) - its refrain has all but passed into the English language. The single is lot harder to find than the current value of £6 might suggest.
Life on 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' rended to treat the Bonzos kindly. The compliment was not, however, reciprocated. On one occasion, the Rediffusion TV props department called the band to ask if they needed anything special for the next show. "Three cardboard boxes, a springboard and a petrol tanker," replied Larry Smith. Twenty-four hours later, a second call assured the band that the springboard and the boxes were okay, but they were having trouble procuring a petrol tanker. Would an oil drum do? "Oh, that was a joke," the band replied. "They went mad!" Innes said later.
On another occasion, the band was called in for a top level meeting with their management company - and discussed their future wearing rubber masks. They also kept a seal costume handy; it was, Innes claimed, "The seal of good housekeeping."
The first series of 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' ran from January 4th until March 28th, 1968, with one episode - the fourth - winning first prize at the Prix Jeunesse international TV festival. A new series was scheduled for the following February. In the meantime, the Bonzos (minus Spoons) set to work on their next album.
Strangely for a band guaranteed nationwide TV exposure as often as they were, the Bonzos' records were scheduled NOT to coincide with the show. Throughout the run of the first series, not a squeak had been heard from Liberty. Now, with Christmas approaching, "I'm The Urban Spaceman" was pulled from the LP sessions as a single. In some ways it was a strange choice. The powers of law and order were coming down hard on drug use, or the suggestion thereof. The Beeb had already banned the Beatles "A Day In The Life" because of the supposed drug references. And now here were the Bonzos - an Independent Television band! - admitting that they had speed; they could fly; they didn't exist! It should have given Auntie palpitations; instead she took it to her heart and, while the poop grapevine abounded with rumours as to the identity of the song's producer, Apollo C. Vermouth, "Urban Spaceman" took a trip all the way to No. 5 in the cha-cha-cha-cha-charts. And, just as we always thought, Mr. Vermouth turned out to be Paul McCartney.
The flip of the single was "The Canyons Of Your Mind". Blessed with the World's Worst Guitar Solo, this was a faintly disquieting love song, in which various parts of the Adored One's body were likened to geographical features, and ended up with Stanshall detecting in her hair "the sweet essence of giraffe".
Neither side of the single was featured on the band's next album, released in November, being held over instead until the succeeding set. However, the success of the single ensures that this remains the commonest of their original releases (although the picture sleeve which is alleged to have accompanied it does seem to have vanished).
Their popularity was reflected by "The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse", which gave the Bonzos their first U.K. album chart entry (peaking at No. 40 in January, 1969) as well as a strong contender for the best album title ever.
"Doughnut" opened with the Zappa- esque "We Are Normal" (with the immortal chorus, "We are normal and we want our freedom/We are normal and we like Bert Weedon"). Elsewhere, the band succeeded in rhyming "whites" with "hypocrites", delivered a succession of totally meaningless anecdotes in "Rhinocratic Oaths", and reached new peaks of banality with Viv Stanshall's "My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe", and the quite dire threat made to Norman... "if you're normal".
An untimely pause, designed perhaps to await the return of 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', preceded the release of the follow-up to "Urban Spaceman": this was "Mr. Apollo", undoubtedly the Bonzos' finest hour. Certainly, when 10cc wrote their own "Sand In My Face" for their first album, the promises of the Bonzos' bodybuilding giant could not have been too far from their minds. "Once I was a four stone apology," the Adonis claimed, "Now, I am two separate gorillas." Spacy guitar, a soaring chorus and a startingly crisp Stanshall/Innes production added to the song's virtues but, incredibly, it flopped and once again has been severely undervalued by past cataloguers, who obviously never spent five years trying to locate of copy of the record. The single's collectibility is added to the presence of a non-LP flip, "Ready Mades."
"Tadpoles", the album which "Mr. Apollo" previewed, was by far the Bonzos' most musical outing yet, largely through the influence of Roger Ruskin Spear, who apparently felt that their original direction had been lost. The album arrived in a vicious yellow sleeve, - little cutaways revealing glimpses of the ornate inner sleeve, which was adorned with illustrations of Victorian and Edwardian nick-nacks. This made the perfect visual accompaniment to those numbers upon which Spear's influence was most noticeable: "By A Waterfall", "Tubas in the Moonlight" and, to a lesser degree, "Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah'" (to rhyme with "yah"). He was also responsible for unearthing "Laughing Blues", an infuriating instrumental which dated back to the band's days at Parlophone. The inclusion of "I'm The Urban Spaceman" and "Canyons Of Your Mind" alongside "Mr. Apollo" made for a particularly strong album.
For latter-day Bonzos fans, lured into earshot perhaps by continuous comparisons with the Mothers of Invention, only two numbers vied for the honours which Mr. Apollo" so effortlessly captured. The first was the opening number, "Shirt", which unleashed Viv Stanshall on the streets of Willesden, interviewing passers-by about... shirts. The other, of course, was the band's priceless version of "Monster Mash", conceived six years before Bobby Pickett's 1962 original was finally discovered by a mass audience with London Records reissued it. United Artists did themselves a considerable disservice when they neglected to rush the Bonzos' cover out in direct competition.
"Tadpoles" reached No. 36 in the chart in August, riding on the wave of mourning which followed the news that 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' would not be returning for a third season (the episodic 'Adventures of Captain Fantastic & Mrs. Black' starring David Jason and Denise Coffey, was given brief reprieve, running solo for a further season). "Tadpoles", incidentally, was the Bonzos' only album to carry a reference to the show.
With surprising haste, a fourth Bonzos album appeared before the year was out. "Keynsham" was, quite simply, a delight - despite the somewhat lacklustre "I Want To Be With You", which was issued as single in November. "You Done My Brain In", the opening number (and the next single to be lifted from the set) and "Mrs. Slater's Parrot" (its B- side) were instant favourites, the latter in particular harking back to the days of "Doughnut": two hilarious verses gave way to a barrage of parrot noises. Other standouts were the maniacal "Tent", and "Sport (The Odd Boy)" - the soundtrack to every non-athletic schoolboy's games lessons. And yet, despite the coherence which the album boasted, the Bonzos themselves were on their last legs. The past four years had taken a lot out of them. Throughout their television career they had been touring almost incessantly: they were in fact one of the country's biggest club draws, whilst on larger bills, few bands could ever be prevailed upon to follow them. Their lack of substantial recorded success, however, did not bode well for the future and, early in 1970, the band called it a day, the different members swiftly embarking on a host of new projects.
The Bonzos' solo antics would fill a feature of their own, but mention must surely be made of Roger Ruskin Spear's Giant Kinetic Wardrobe, which toured the country with a hoard of home-made robots and was responsible for one peculiar EP in 1971 plus two equally bizarre albums for United Artists (which featured the likes of Cyril Jordan, B.J. Cole and ex-Yes guitarist Pete Banks), Neil Innes's "Lucky Planet" set, and a host of Viv Stanshall solo projects - the Sean Head Showband, Viv Stanshall & his Gargantuan Chums and the Big Grunt. None of these projects did anything in the marketplace; hardly surprising then, that a Bonzos' reunion took place in 1972, with the aptly-titled "Let's Make Up And Be Friendly".
With the exception of Rodney Slater, who seemingly disappeared into a career in local government, the reunion saw the entire band - Stanshall, Innes, Larry Smith (who had spent his vacation in a variety of projects, most notably as a guest on John Cale's "Academy In Peril" album), Ruskin-Spear and Dennis Cowan (who had replaced Vernon Dudley Bohay- Nowell shortly after "Gorilla") - working together, along with a variety of session men, including Hughie Flint. And for the most part it was a successful outing, with pride of place going to "King Of Scurf", a cross between the Beach Boys and a dandruff commercial.
However, the reunion was not to be particularly long-lived. Within a year Innes had joined Grimms, an itinerant assemblage of street poets. This brought together Roger McGough, John Gorman and Mike McGear (recently known as Scaffold), Andy Roberts from the Liverpool Scene, and Innes for three LPs and a book, "Clowns on the Road" (a collection of poems, doodles and photographs which, if nothing else, paved the way for the later Python and Goodies' tomes). Innes also linked up with Python themselves, supporting them on several shows, and appearing in both "Monty Python & the Holy Grail" and Michael Palin's "Jabberwocky". With Eric Idle, he created the Rutles, for the small screen and in 1979 he made the first series of 'The Innes Book of Records'.
Viv Stanshall also moved into celluloid. Enlarging on a short number from "Keynsham" and the nine-minute "Rawlinson End" from "Let's Make Up", Stanshall came up with that great comic creation, Sir Henry of Rawlinson End. The exploits of this blustering pillar of English gentility were originally serialised as sessions for John Peel, then recorded for an album on Charisma, before being transformed into a feature film, which in turn spawned a book. Stanshall also made a brief appearance on Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells", leading a sailor's hornpipe through the corridors of the Manor.
Even amidst all this activity, the Bonzos refused to lie down. As early as August 1970, Liberty had packaged "The Beast Of The Bonzos", a sixteen track compilation which actually lived up to its implied title. Reissues for "Gorilla" and "Doughnut" (in revised sleeves) followed, both appearing now on Liberty's recently formed budget label, Sunset. "Tadpoles" was next, boasting not only a new cover, but a new title too, "Urban Spaceman". It was accompanied by a 'new' single, a reissue of "The Intro And The Outro" from the band's first album. A spectacular piece of nonsense, it allegedly featured guest appearances from Eric Clapton (ukelele), Quasimodo (bells) and the Count Bassie Orchestra (triangle), to name but three. Five months later, in March 1974, "Mr. Slater's Parrot" was similarly promoted as a prelude to "The History of the Bonzos".
A magnificent two LP set, this compilation offered an almost unchallengeable selection of the band's greatest bits (only soured by the omission of "Death Cab For Cutie"), together with highlights from the various members solo projects. A booklet, documenting the career of the band, accompanied the package, and only an absurdly dismal chart performance (it peaked at No. 41) marred the proceedings. As it was, the set did much to introduce the band to a new generation of fans, and it is with this still growing following in mind that a Bonzos' reissue campaign has continued, albeit sporadically, ever since.
In November 1975 "Keynsham" returned to the racks courtesy of the Sunset label. Two and a half years later, it was followed by "Let's Make Up And Be Friendly", from which "The Strain" was lifted for a maxi single, and the lead track of which was "I'm The Urban Spaceman". Backed by "The Intro And The Outro", "Spaceman" reappeared as part of EMI's Golden Greats series in 1984 with Max Headroom marking the occasion by giving the band's original promo film its first public airing in a decade and a half.
The Sunset reissues tend to sell for no more than £5 today, their value being held in check by later reissues, some of which have restored the original artwork to the sleeves. United Artists reissued "Gorilla" and "Keynsham" in 1980, although the latter was deleted by 1984, in which year MfP put together a budget compilation which included "Death Cab For Cutie", "The Equestrian Statue" and "Monster Mash", none of which had appeared on "The History Of The Bonzos".
Since then, Awareness have reissued "Let's Make Up And Be Friendly" and Edsel have so far restored three Bonzos albums to the shops: "The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse", "Tadpoles" (back in its original packaging) and "Keynsham" (in a weird new sleeve designed by Viv Stanshall).
The marriage between rock and comedy has always been a shaky one, reliant as it all too often is on topicality. However, the Bonzos somehow managed to transcend such limitations and much of their best material has survived the passage of time unscathed. Roger's wah-wah rabbits, for example, will never go out of fashion. Narcissus will always have trouble with his trousers, and as for Norman... "Norman, if you're normal, 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."
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