London art college types influenced by the Commedia Del Arte, 1920s jazz and vaudeville, the Bonzo’s were originally called The Bonzo Dog Dada Band.
Figuring nobody would know what Dada was, they changed it to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band but dropped the ‘Doo-Dah’ after their first album.
Until the Bonzos arrived, comedy in pop meant The Barron Knights and the ubiquitous Tin Pan Alley cash-in novelty songs. On primetime TV, comedians were still mocking Mick Jagger‘s big lips and how you couldn’t tell the boys from the girls these days.
No wonder the kids were all out necking Dexies.
The band had a line-up ridiculously rich in talent. Essex Estuary boy Vivian Stanshall (pictured at left) reinvented himself as one part Noel Coward, one part Kurt Schwitters. Pianist Neill Innes did a neat line in musical parody, sharing and perfectly underscoring Stanshall’s penchant for life’s theatre of the absurd.
Drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith deconstructed showbiz celebrity and shared Viv’s gift for surrealist pranks. Saxophonist Roger Ruskin Spear liked to make machines that exploded and wrote songs extolling the virtues of the Trouser Press.
Versed in Dada and blessed with an innate sense of good old English daftness, the Bonzos blew raspberries at everybody and everything.
They began by taking a flamethrower to trad jazz. If you weren’t there at the time it’s hard to imagine now just how ever-present trad was on British TV and radio in the 1960s. Even during the height of Beatlemania you couldn’t turn on BBC1 or the Light Programme without being Acker Bilked or Kenny Balled to death.
The Bonzos approached the genre with complete irreverence, and at break-neck speed. It was punk-trad Dad! Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold on their first album Gorilla, nailed it perfectly, right down to the obligatory “ooh-yah ooh-yah”s.
But the band were not mere wind-up merchants. Gorilla also contains Innes’s trippy Music For The Head Ballet and Stanshall’s masterful Mickey Spillane pastiche Big Shot which boasts lines like “she had the hottest lips since Hiroshima/I had to stand back for fear of being burned”.
The Bonzos came together for their first proper gig – a week’s cabaret in Newcastle and South Shields – in April 1966, booked by Kenny Ball’s brother-in-law, Reg Tracey.
The band travelled up in Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell’s old Daimler ambulance (which had a concrete floor!) with the bulk of the band sitting in the back on dining room chairs. And it took two days to traverse the A1 northwards . . .
Live, they were fearless. While more sensitive acts hesitated to leave their Kings Road comfort zone lest they were bottled by the common hordes, the Bonzos took their props, their puns and their piss-takes to the workingmen’s club heartland, honing their craft in such salubrious locations as The Latino, South Shields and La Bamba, Darlington.
By late 1967 the band were the official court jesters of the underground, supporting Cream at Eric Clapton‘s request, and making a memorable appearance in The Beatles‘ Magical Mystery Tour film performing their song Death Cab For Cutie (yes, that’s where the band got their name).
By 1968, they had picked up electric guitars and started writing their own material, training their gimlet eyes on the absurdities of modern British life. Their second album, The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse, was their finest hour and in the track My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe, middle-England tediosity got it anti-anthem.
Musical purists received the treatment elsewhere on the album (with Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?) and psychedelia got sent up something rotten throughout. “We are normal and we want out freedom”, deadpanned Innes. “We are normal and we dig Bert Weedon”.
Also in 1968, the Bonzos co-starred in the great children’s TV show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, with the nucleus of the future Monty Python crew. The band’s third album – Tadpoles – released in 1969, contains many of the songs featured on the show, including the Innes-penned hit single I’m The Urban Spaceman (produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth).
By the time of the Keynsham LP the jokes had worn thin.
The Bonzos had undertaken a punishing US tour which broke their spirit and their soul, and they came up against the same conundrum that would confront Madness many years later – where do you go after wacky? Nonetheless, it’s an underrated little album that portrays England as a lunatic asylum.
The Bonzo Dog Band gave their last performance at Loughborough in March 1970. Viv Stanshall launched straight into biG Grunt which broke up after a couple of gigs and left the Bonzos master of mime and mimicry in a state of nervous breakdown.
Over the following years he would fluctuate between manic creativity, alcoholism and increased doses of Valium to combat his frequent panic attacks.
Rodney Slater quit music to be a social worker, and a number of other Bonzo stalwarts defected to Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band which kept up the tradition of the original Doo Dah band.
The reformation album the band made in 1972 (Let’s Make Up & Be Friendly) had ‘contractual obligation’ written all over it, and although it had its moments, it did little to enhance the legacy.
Viv Stanshall was found dead on 6 March 1995 after a fire at his Muswell Hill (London) bedsit. The coroner found that the fire was caused by faulty wiring near his bed.
Vocals, trumpet, guitar, tuba
Piano, guitar, vocals
‘Legs’ Larry Smith
Drums, tuba, vocals
Roger Ruskin Spear
Saxophone, trumpet, guitar
Saxophones, trombone, cornet
Bass, guitar, vocals
Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell
Sam Spoons (Martin Ash)
Drums, spoons, percussion
Big Sydney Nicholl
Anthony ‘Bubs’ White