"So Norman, if you're normal..."
One of my favourite anecdotes from the history of rock music recalls the Bonzo Dog Band touring the USA in the late 60s and their minibus being stopped by a local Sheriff. The law officer asked if they were carrying any firearms or drugs. When they denied possession of either (preferring alcohol to drugs at the time), the Sheriff asked how they were going to defend themselves. At this the previously silent Viv Stanshall lost his patience and exploded, yelling from the back of the minibus, “With good manners!”
By the late 60s the youth of the time had adopted the Bonzos as the counter culture’s humorous minstrels. Their previous album, Gorilla, had been a no-holds-barred deconstruction of the easy listening and jazz so beloved of that generation’s parents, which had gone a long way to making them so popular. The Bonzo’s were emphatically on the kids side…
Or were they?
The thing is The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse brutally deconstructs the psychedelia and blues-rock that was becoming increasingly popular with ‘the kids’ at the time. It kicks off with the Love-baiting “We Are Normal”, which easily out-weirds any of their acid-dropping peers and instantly puts the listener on the back foot – it’s obvious that it’s fashionable counter culture that the Bonzo’s were now merrily lampooning.
“Postcard” is a sweet look at the UK coastal holiday culture and one of three tracks on the album which amusingly celebrates everyday UK life. The other is the absurdly brilliant “My Pink Half of The Drainpipe” which is a hilarious look at neighbourly relations and contains “Rodney’s main saxophone solo, as promised”. It certainly beats the hell out of the clichéd yelling from a vocalist when a guitar solo is about to start… “Rhinocratic Oaths” is one of the band’s most celebrated tracks, with it’s tales of misunderstanding and personality clashes, which although a solid tune, really doesn’t deserve its high reputation.
“Beautiful Zelda” and “Humanoid Boogie” both poke fun at the (then current) obsession with sci-fi lyrics a good year before David Bowie took us on his “Space Oddity”. “Beautiful Zelda” is one of the great forgotten tracks in the Bonzo songbook and deserves far wider recognition, from its phased cymbals to the warped guitars, it’s one of British psychedelia’s most inventive tunes. By contrast “Can Blue Men Sing The Whites” accurately apes the white-blues boom to the point where it even copies it’s limitations. It makes a particularly good job of pointing out that the white middle class musicians that were making the old blues-classics marketable to a mass-audience were rarely paying the blues-masters any royalties at all, while they themselves lived in relative luxury.
“Hello Mabel” is the album’s sole attempt at recapturing the vibe of Gorilla and while a great little tune, stands out like a sore thumb on the album. Normal service is resumed with “Karma Sutra”, which sounds for all the world like an unfairly forgotten out-take from late 60s counter-culture musical Hair. “Trouser Press” finds Roger Ruskin Spear reasonably off the leash and adding some significant strangeness to an album not short of strangeness…
“Rockaliser Baby” is another unfairly ignored Bonzo’s classic and a strong contender for the best track on The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. With it’s tales of a trips to Bournemouth, police clashes with the local ‘Teds’ and the like, it’s lyrics obviously pay tribute to Stanshall’s youth spent as a rocker, though what the stuff about the electric iron was about was probably a mystery to everyone except Stanshall.
This leads us to the brilliant psychedelic mini-epic that is “Eleven Mustachioed Daughters”, which with its chattering hand drums and bonkers lyrics pretty much condenses First Utterance by Comus into five minutes a clear four years before that album was released. Whatever the case, it was certainly an unsettling way to close this splendid album.
Despite it’s changes in pace and style, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse boasts a unity that is rare among Bonzo’s albums, which results in the band’s strongest release. In brutally disassembling the music so beloved of the youth market they could have put themselves out on a limb culturally, but such was the Bonzo’s talent and likeable humour that they only enhanced their reputation.
All this and they had good manners…