Way back in the mid 90s there was a radio documentary about The Bonzo Dog Band. Co-bandleader Vivian Stanshall had passed away in recent years in tragic circumstances, so it was a nice tip of the hat to an act that contemporary audiences had dismissed as a mere novelty act responsible for nothing more than “I’m the Urban Spaceman”. Even the host of the documentary was vaguely dismissive and stated ‘Individual tracks make them sound like a great laugh, but only the saddest person in existence would own a full album of theirs.’ Well I own five of their studio albums. And a compilation. And a couple of solo albums…
For me, there’s nothing more personal than a sense of humour. Whereas our tastes in music can evolve and change through our adult lives, you either find something funny or you don’t. The relationship between humour and music can be a difficult one. For every act like Half Man Half Biscuit, They Might Be Giants, Bill Bailey or Tim Minchin who make a success of it, there are countless others that try, fail and languish in obscurity. Some of them, such as Corn Mo, are actually quite good and deserve to find a wider audience, however he is very much in the minority.
The archetypal band to blend humour and music were The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. In the late 60s they were effectively the court jesters of the British music scene, gaining fame and notoriety for appearing on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour performing “Death Cab for Cutie”, thus inspiring the modern band of the same name. It didn’t stop there either as they became the house band for proto-Monty Python children’s TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set and even after their split former Bonzos would collaborate with such luminaries as Elton John, George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Monty Python, Ollie Halsall and The Raggy Dolls and occasionally standing in for John Peel. Even today the surviving members of the Bonzos are not beyond the odd collaboration with the likes of Stephen Fry, Ade Edmonson and Phil Jupitus. Their influence is wide and vast and their career is so much more than “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, their only hit single and pretty much the only Bonzos song the none fan can name, despite them becoming embedded in the very fabric of British culture over the last four decades.
Their debut album Gorilla is an album of it’s time. It just couldn’t have been made at any other time than 1967 – a year where the counter-culture went ‘over-the-top’ and the generation wars resulted in casualties on both sides. You see, while there was no end of great music being recorded in the 60s, you really wouldn’t know it if you took a glance at the television and radio schedules. Sure, there were the odd shows where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and their ilk were played to appease ‘the kids’, but these were in the minority. Elsewhere it was wall-to wall big band jazz and easy listening – ‘the olds’ ruled and couldn’t understand this noisy rock’n’roll stuff, so the playlists were adapted to cater for this. After all, it was the adults of the household that paid the bills…
Then, when things appeared at a deadlock, over the horizon (of sound) rode The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a motley bunch of students with a love of both jazz and popular music led by Vivian Stanshall and the equally talented Neil Innes…
Okay, let’s get one thing straight, while Gorilla didn’t exactly break the stranglehold that kill-joys had on the mass-media, but it did provide a hilarious soundtrack and highlighted both the banal snobbishness of the jazz scene at the time by setting about it with good humour and a winning way with a tune. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, “Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold” and “The Sound of Music” lampooned easy listening, jazz and musicals effectively. The combination of Stanshall’s lyrical wit and Innes’ way with a tune meant they were held in high esteem by the movers and shakers of the day, hence their appearance on Magical Mystery Tour and it’s not even the best tune on here.
Although it’s firmly rooted in the late 60s, some of the themes explored on Gorilla are still relevant today – “I’m Bored” pokes fun at the self-obsession that my generation apparently revels in wallowing in and “Look Out There’s A Monster Coming” makes fun of the highly-strung image-conscious among us.
Not only this, but it’s also the album that gave us the phrase “Cool Brittania” and possibly the only album ever dedicated to Kong ‘who must have been a great bloke…’
Even taking into consideration the strong start that Gorilla gave them, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse was a stunning album that came out of nowhere. Where Gorilla lampooned trad-jazz, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse had rock’s counter-culture in its sights, from showing Love how this type of thing should be done on “We Are Normal”, to mocking the blues revivalists on “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”, the obsession with space travel and science fiction on “Beautiful Zelda” and even referencing rock musical Hair on “Kama Sutra”. And that’s just the first side…
The ‘B’ side of our platter finds them pushing the envelope of pop with”Humanoid Boogie”, shaking their collective heads at suburban social conventions on “My Pink Half of the Drain Pipe” and taking a trip to Bournemouth on “Rockaliser Baby”. The album finally draws to a close with the nightmarish “11 Moustachioed Daughters”.
The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse blows the theory that The Bonzo Dog Band were a mere novelty act clean out of the water. It’s a perfectly balanced album with a unifying dynamic throughout and not a moment of it’s runtime is wasted. In it’s own way it was a classic of the time as it held up an absurd mirror to the current affairs and fashion of the period and dared the ir listeners to have a long hard look at themselves.
In many ways Tadpoles could be viewed as The Bonzo’s ‘pop’ album, given that it consists of tuneful ditties that were originally recorded for late 60s kids comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set. As a result it’s significantly less subversive than either Gorilla or The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, but what it does boast is a high-concentration of the band’s most commercial moments.
It’s no secret that Paul McCartney was in the co-producers chair for the Bonzo’s one commercially successful single, the still pretty damn good “I’m The Urban Spaceman”. Tadpoles is a whole lot more than that one hit single though, as their cover of “The Monster Mash” and the now unPC “Hunting Tigers out in Indiah” and “Ali Baba’s Camel” are dispatched with particular skill.
The albums two moments of absolute genius are the closing pair. “Mr Apollo” is a particularly brilliant lampoon of Charles Atlas and gym bunnies in general and pre-dates Black Sabbath’s slow grinding riffs by a good twelve months. Better still though is the jewel in the Bonzo Dog Band’s songbook, the frankly astounding “In the Canyons of Your Mind”, where Vivian Stanshall is let off the leash to spew forth brilliant nonsense about ‘cardboard coloured dreams’, ‘the sweet essence of giraffe’ and ‘the wardrobe of my soul (in the section labeled shirts)’ and boasts the all time greatest guitar solo in the history of the ear drum courtesy of the all too often underestimated Neil Innes.
Because these songs were cut for a kids TV show, Tadpoles is often seen as a lesser work than the Bonzo’s other albums, which is a real shame as there’s a sense of childish fun here that is a rare thing to capture. At the end of the day Tadpoles is a fun album and a perfect antidote to what was going on in the po-faced rock scene at the time.
Of course those of us that have seen any footage of the Bonzos performing on Do Not Adjust Your Set will forever associate the songs here with the bizarre visuals that accompanied them on the TV show. From brilliant multi-instrumentalist Roger Ruskin Spear waltzing around the studio floor with a tailors’ dummy, to Rodney Slater riding a kid’s tricycle and wearing a sign saying ‘I’m not dressing up this week’ (all the rest of the band were in hunting outfits if memory serves me correctly) while playing his saxophone, if you were really lucky you may even have had ‘Legs’ Larry Smith tap dancing across the stage blowing kisses at you…
Then there’s the unarguable evidence that The Bonzos always had a much darker and slightly disturbing side and with Keynsham they perfected the sound of a great band falling to pieces. That said, it also underlines what is often overlooked when considering The Bonzos, which is how good they were musically. They could do pop, hard rock, jazz and traditional arrangements and each member of the band was a capable musician in their own right.
At this point in their careers Bonzo mainmen Innes and the wayward genius Stanshall were pulling in different directions and it shows.
Individually they were as strong as ever, with “Tent”, “We Were Wrong” and “Sport (The Odd Boy)” being among The Bonzo’s finest moments, but as the album jumps between the work of the two writers, it can become disorientating after a while. Yes it’s diverse, but it’s diverse at the expense of dynamics and natural flow.
This creative split proved permanent and the band were on borrowed time, sadly Keynsham would be their last ‘proper’ album. Contractual obligations however declared otherwise.
In late 1971 the twitching corpse of The Bonzo Dog Band was resurrected to record one last album as part of a contractual obligation to their record label. Featuring Innes, Stanshall and bass player Dennis Cowan, with Ruskin Spear and Smith making guest appearances on a couple of tracks and Slater being there ‘in spirit’.
1972’s Lets Make Up and Be Friendly isn’t a patch on their four earlier albums, but given the circumstances, you really wouldn’t expect it to be. When the three best tracks on an album are “King of Scurf”, “Bad Blood” and the supremely tasteless “The Strain”, you know you have problems with quality control. Maybe it was an act of defiance on the part of Innes and Stanshall, but it made for a unsatisfying album.
Following Lets Make Up and Be Friendly, they went their separate ways. Stanshall to carve a unique solo career and occasionally stand in for John Peel. Innes to collaborated with Monty Python, Ruttled about and enjoyed the most high-profile career of all the former Bonzos. Ruskin Spear released a pair of frankly bonkers solo albums and tinkered with his robots and “Legs’ Larry tap danced for Elton John and Slater would occasionally collaborate with Stanshall.
There would be a further reunion in the late 80s to record the one-off single “No Matter Who You Vote for the Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho)”, to mark the 1987 General Election, but in typical Bonzo’s style, this was put off until the 1992 General Election. Sadly it would be the last time Stanshall would record with The Bonzos, as he sadly died in a freak fire in his flat in 1995.
In the last decade, The Bonzos reunited with guest vocalists for a series of shows and even released a new album before Innes went solo again. Ruskin-Spear, Slater and Sam Spoons still tour as Three Bonzos and a Piano and Innes does the occasional show with The Rutles.
Given their comedic act, it’s difficult for many people to take The Bonzos seriously, but listening back to their 60s and 70s releases, they recorded a pair of strong albums, an overlooked classic of the late 60s, a solid farewell and a regrettable reunion. There are of course a plethora of compilations out there, all of which show off The Bonzos well, but The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse remains their definitive statement.