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Lovers Buggers and Thieves

The Beast inside the Bonzos

Words: Martin Jones

Normals are all about you. They leave signs on the streets that give you clues. They are just people entirely formed by their environment. They are not necessarily middle-aged, middle-classed people. II's the clothes they choose to wear and the way they choose to speak. They imagine they are ordinary, yet they are really dreadful freaks terrifying. They are people bound by convention, "Normal" is a paradoxical term. Vivian Stanshall

IT BEGINS AT THE END, marked by a resigned yell and the ripple of a gong, and then there's no escape from the musical whirlpool: The tribal drums ripped from the chipboard set of a Hammer Horror flick begin their bare-chested rumba; the church organ strikes up a two-key mantra, and then the voice walks in, goblet of blood in one hand. skull in the other, intoning in a style somewhere between a Crowleyite worshipper and the narrator of a devilish Simon Raven novel:
Eleven Mustachioed Daughters
Running in a field of fat
The full moon high and the mandrake scream
Please come to our Sabbath

Whist behind it, from far down a closeted stone passageway, a male chorus fills the gaps in such sorcery. The voice continues, soon joined by a rising tide of horns and hysterical female shrieks, before the whole ritual peaks with a deformed lab assistant cry of "WORSHIP FOR SATAN?!"

What spawn of black minds is this? What three-hoofed calf, pulled blinking-onyx-eyes into our world of rationality? From what satanic swamp did such primeval slop bubble forth? The answer is to be found on The Bonzo Dog Band's second album. The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse: There at the end of side two lies the final song, 11 Mustachioed Daughters. And how do the Bonzos stamp it with their own unique brand of skewered humour? If you listen carefully towards the end, amongst the cacophony of ritual, you will hear a possibly English accent moan, "I don't remember too good but I think John Wayne was in it." Right before the record player needle tips into the run-out abyss...

The Bonzo Dog Band on the cover of their greatest hits compilation, Bestiality.

Welcome to the wonderful and weird world of The Bonzo Dog Band. For a few short years they didn't L just go against the grain of popular culture: They built a sandpaper 1 hovercraft and sped {1 off across its plain. \ In parts absurd, traditional, hilarious and slightly disturbing, over five albums the Bonzos explored worlds not unlike ours, but just, y'know, slightly different. They pulled out the heart of "suburban man" and examined it for signs of life; they revelled in the stupidity of advertising and trends; they took established musical traits and broke their backs, utilising them for their own ends... Oh, did I mention some of their more disturbing songs, as well?

England in the early 1960s was still a land emerging from post-war dullness. The Beatles had not yet returned to home from Hamburg. The teddy boy was the first stage of rebellion for young people, not yet "teenagers". All the things that marked the decade out as a colourful, changing time had not yet occurred. And then in September 1962, a bunch of art school students decided to form The Bonzo Dog Dada Band. Influenced by the satirical songs of The Alberts and the Dada movement that made part of their name (the "Bonzo Dog" being illustrator George Studdy's famous puppy), The Bonzo Dog Dada Band was a group intent on resurrecting the joys of old music hall/novelty seventy-eight RPM records live on stage. Although their outward appearance might have been trad jazz, at any one point there were more than two hands worth of 'musicians' in the band, and their gigs soon became pub cabarets of high invention and joyful chaos. Things started changing when tuba player Vivian Stanshall, a gigantic red haired eccentric, began filling the spot where a vocalist should have been, improvising lyrics and throwing absurdist shapes.

The informal nature of the group was such that many people joined and left without a thought of making a serious effort out of it. By the mid 1960s the Bonzos were a familiar sight on the London pub circuit, and also the working mans clubs of Northeast England. For while the nation's capital was getting ready to wig out, Stanshall and Co. were paying their dues and tightening their act on the harsh and vicious chicken-in-a-basket scene: Traveling back and forth from the north to London in a fart-filled van was the norm. The hell of this seven-nights-a-week existence was later detailed in The Bride Stripped Bare By "Bachelors", on their Keynsham album. Numbering nine (or ten, or seven) members at the time, the Bonzos' loud and fast renditions of traditional numbers, coupled with daft props, resolutely dangerous on-stage explosions and a dress code that made them appear as asylum escapees in zoot suits had them marked as outsiders from the beginning; and in this mess the individuals who would make up the core of the band emerged: Along with Stanshall there was Roger Ruskin Spear (saxophone). Rodney Slater (guitar), 'Legs' Larry Smith (drums) and Neil Innes (piano, guitar and vocals), Spear and Smith could match Stanshall for on-stage provocation: The former with his inventive, mechanical robots; the latter through his oft-realised desire to tap dance instead of play the drums.

By 1966, the group had become The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and released their first single, My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies. That and its follow-up. Alley Oop, were more or less straightforward runs through live favourites, business cards from men who were not interested in doing business. It was only through the success of a former Bonzo player that the band decided to change their direction: Cornetist Bob Kerr had left to front a group of session players called The New Vaudeville Band, who went on to have a huge hit with Winchester Cathedral. The collected Bonzos had been asked to make up the Vaudeville's public image but had refused, and the fact that Kerr popped up in their ranks with more than a touch of The Bonzo Dog Dada Band about him induced a severe case of sour grapes. Ignoring the departing comments of the few traditionalists left in the band, the Bonzos took up electric guitars and, with the twin assault of two gifted songwriters, began the first real phase of their history...

Sometimes working together, sometimes alone, Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes were the Lennon and McCartney of the Bonzos... Or, if not that, they were at least the Burke and Hare. Or the George and Mildred. Innes was maturing as a writer of extremely catchy pop songs, and Stanshall was using the group framework as firewood, before stomping off down a path of his own creation. Free from the labels they had been assigned as a live act, the band could open up new avenues of exploration. On the first track of their debut LP, Gorilla (October 1967), Stanshall molests the trad arrangement Cool Britannia with a sardonic vocal that was to become his trademark: "Cool Britannia/Britannia you are cool/Take a trip!" It's a snide aside at the hip scene around them, something the Bonzos had never felt part of. Indeed, in a prophetic case of usurping, their flagship song The Intro And The Outro unwittingly took the wind out of The Beatles sails. Possibly written before the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, its role call of bizarre band members mirrored the album cover line-up of the Fab Four's most famous LP: Although it's hard to imagine artist Peter Blake finding a place for "Adolf Hitler on vibes". The Intro And The Outro also marked the first appearance of a family called the Rawlinsons, but more of them later.

In amongst the cover versions faithful, destroyed or otherwise on Gorilla, lay some startlingly witty and dark songs, mapping out the shape of the beast inside the Bonzos, particularly in the form of Stanshall. Look Out, There's A Monster Coming was a plastic movie monster in a Hawaiian skirt, gleefully crushing cardboard cities with a toy guitar in its claws. Over a calypso beat, Stan shall recounts the futile search of the titular terror for a . soul mate, who undertakes increasingly desperate methods to find a girl. It's the flipside of Bobby Boris Pickett And The Crypt-kicker's Monster Mash, itself covered on a later Bonzo LP. "I bought a deluxe Merseybeat wig/But it was a size too big," despairs Stanshall, before feeding the chorus through a fuzzy voicebox. This is the beast that doesn't know its own power, the Frankenstein's monster who wants to give you a hug of love, unaware that it'll make your eyeballs pop out. Elsewhere on the LP, it's Stanshall's show. Both Death Cab For Cutie and Big Shot are film noir songs. via a black leather-clad Elvis and Raymond Chandler respectively. With Big Shot, Stanshall takes on his hard-boiled narrator role with glee, although, remembering that this is a Bonzo pastiche will help when lines such as "1 studied the swell of her enormous boobs!" appear. Before the gleeful disembowelment of The Sound Of Music that closes Gorilla, there is Stanshall's rip-snorting, petulant and utterly superior I'm Bored: A list of subjects that have him yawning like Noel Coward _ amongst them "exposés and LSD" uttering the lines, "You think that I won't laugh at it! I'm not a weak-willed hypocrite" and finishing with the concrete statement: "I'M BORED TODAY!"

The listener cowers as Stanshall complains. If the Bonzos had once been a knockabout hobby, they were now a fully-fledged rock act with a rising profile. As well as certain members of the band blazing a drunken trail around the drinking dens of Soho (i.e. Legs and Stanshall, more often than not accompanied by The Who's Keith Moon), they made an appearance in The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film, became the house band for the children's TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set (which was written by and featured future Monty Python's Flying Circus members Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin: The meeting of the groups probably playing a significant part in the formation of the future comedy leg-ends) and scored a top ten hit with Neil Innes' charming I'm The Urban Spaceman, produced by a pseudonymous Paul McCartney. The downside of this was that the band had very little time to do anything else. Life in the Bonzos was a continual parade of TV appearances, concerts and recording. Something had to break, and pretty soon. Their second album, The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse, was released in November 1968, the same month as their big hit single, although it was not included on the record.

Consisting entirely of original songs, Doughnut shows flickers of nefarious thought within its grooves. The madness played out by the band in their pre. recording days was unforced, improvised and untainted by outside influence. By the end of 1968, The Bonzo Dog Band (as they were now, finally, called) had received a taste of the music business and didn't like it. Apart from the free drinks. The walls were closing in and, to quote Stanshall in later years, the clocks were baring their teeth. The beginning of the LP is as far removed from the jazz satire of old as you could expect. We Are Normal starts with echo led, backwards voices and a soft heartbeat. Then there's the noise of a busy street: Stanshall a notorious practical joker and his cohorts were not averse to picking on members of the public and taping their reactions for their own pleasure. We Are Normal contains the voice of then bassist Joel Druckman, an American with a fondness for doing moonies and the claim that he once played in Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention (Neil Innes later considered that the Bonzos were "the mothers of convention".) For the track, Druckman wandered around Willesden Green near where they were recording the LP microphone in hand. Stanshall stood nearby, clad only in dirty underpants and wearing a papier-mâché rabbit head. "Here come some normals," says Druckman. "They look like normal.. Hawaiians." These were the "dreadful freaks" Stanshall had always feared: The nine-to-five generation of small talking, petty-minded grey people unable to deal with the abstract chaos of creation that made up his world. Druckman's words are followed by the chatter of disbelieving pedestrians ("He looks like a rabbit! He's got a head on him like a rabbit!") before the song lurches without warning into a spectacular parody of progressive rock. "WE ARE NORMAL AND WE WANT OUR FREEDOM!" they scream, cheekily nicking a line from Love's The Red Telephone. Of course, this being the Bonzos there's a voice in the background that proclaims, "We are normal and we dig Burt Weedon, aha!"

Bonzo album sleeves. Tadpoles front and back (main image and top) and a Gorilla reissue (bottom left).

Like that faint voice towards the end of 11 Mustachioed Daughters, the band had a way of slipping in did-I-hear-that-correctly whispers. Halfway through the easygoing Postcard a voice calls out the tennis score "Love fifteen!" only to have a reply to it that sounds like "Love fifteen-year-olds". Surely not? Postcard, and its cousin once-removed, My Pink Half Of the Drainpipe, are Stanshall/Innes collaborations of scathing black comedy, dealing as they do with the "little Englander": The small-minded, xenophobic, seaside-conquering, boring man/woman. Stanshall took all this from experience. He was born in the Essex coastal town of Leigh.on-Sea in 1943 and spent his youth amongst the decaying seafront funfairs and amusements, experiencing the dual existence of one living in such a place: Plenty to do in the summer, sod all to do in the winter. Postcard is just that, another disinterested scribble on the back of a tacky card faded at the edges by the all-burning sun: "After bingo we went for a swim! Fat sea cows with gorgonzola skin", with the sea cows "writing letters home, 'what a lovely view'''. The peak of the song comes with Stanshall crooning the atypical postcard joke, "JUST MARRIED AND IT STICKS OUT FOR A MILE!" and then Innes returns with the "We wish you were here" chorus. Postcard is the Bonzos disembodied and floating high above the seaside, casting a dour eye over the same old proceedings, year-in, year-out. The theme is continued and given a damn good thrashing on the Frenchified My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe, where Stanshall gets to vent full spleen on the "Normals": "You're looking at me across a fence/Of common sense" he sings, before going on to state that "My pink half of the drainpipe/Separates me from the incredibly fascinating story of your life in all its tedious attention to detail..." This is Stanshall the suburban terrorist, the man who would chillingly drag door-to-door salesmen into his home and discuss their wares whilst feeding mice to his collection of snakes (not to mention the piranhas, unseen in their huge, cloudy and precariously perched fish tank), anything to shake them out of inertia, stop them talking about the weather, sport, their new car, decorating, the garden or the annual holiday in bloody Spain. As if to balance such vehemence, Innes ploughs in with his own subtle observations, torn from the body of Postcard: "Have you seen the bullfight poster on me wall/Do you know the happy memories it recalls/Here's a photograph of me and my son Ted/There's me cousin with his hanky on his head!" And finishes with the eternal credo of the lobster-pink Englishman abroad: "We booked into our hotel just after two/And met a family from Bradford that we knew".

The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse also provided the listener with their second encounter with the Rawlinson family. who were progressing in their own mad way through the parallel universe of Stanshall's brain. Rhinocratic Oaths was the first of many narrative leaps Stanshall would make throughout the rest of his life, head first into an England that perhaps never existed. Over a trotting Innes accompaniment. Stanshall offers up four anecdotes, including Percy Rawlinson and his Alsatian, a hedge-trimming battle between neighbours (that pink half of the drainpipe again) and "Six foot eight, seventeen stone police sergeant Jeff Bull" undercover at the "Frug-A-Go-Go Beirkeller". But perhaps the one about trombone-playing Betty Pench comes closest to Stanshall's way of thinking: Answering the door not to a "turbaned ruffian" but a young man, she is informed that she's won a competition. Offered a Triumph Spitfire or £3,000, she plumbs for the cash. The man asks her what she'll do with it all. "I think I'll become an alcoholic," Betty replies.

Like so many others, 1969 would prove to be a pivotal and doom-laden year for the Bonzos, and Stanshall especially. Although their follow-up to Urban Spaceman didn't do as good in the charts, Mr Apollo was by far the superior song, bringing to the mainstream the vicious streak of humour that had previously laid in wait on the albums. A guitar riffled stamper (the Bonzos were not averse to throwing in the odd big chord here and there), Mr Apollo is a hilarious theft of those "You too can have u body like mine" rip-off adverts found in the back of comics: "I have seen/Mr Apollo/Uproot trees/With his bare hands!/ have seen/Mr Apollo's/Body building plan" sings Innes at the start, before Stanshall barges in with "And you can beat up bullies 'tiIl they cry! Oh crikey, let go you rotter! Don't punish me!" For this is indeed his show, his platform to unload some deep set trauma from the id, and get his own back. By the close of Mr Apollo, there's no stopping him, as the Stanshall brain swims off into uncharted waters: Yes... Just give me ten years of your life, and I'll trade in that puny flab for living muscles. Physique you deserve. Five years ago I was a four-stone apology. Today I am two separate gorillas. No tiresome exercises. No tricks. No unpleasant bending. Wrestle poodles and win! Play beach-ball! Shave your legs! Look over walls! Tease people! Brush them aside as though they were matchsticks! Although some restraint must have been enforced by the time the song was recorded, because an earlier draft of the lyrics contained the line: "Kick spastics and laugh!"

Mr Apollo made it onto the third album, Tadpoles, released in August 1969: Less a 'proper' LP and more of a compilation. It was made up of songs the Bonzos performed on Do Not Adjust Your Set, half covers and half originals, including Stanshall's eyeballs-on-springs take on Monster Mash ("Igor, have you watered the brains today?") and finally I'm The Urban Spaceman; plus its B-side, the anatomical love song, Canyons Of Your Mind, which, in its travels through various radio sessions, contained a number of explosive Stanshall belches.

Their next studio LP, Keynsham, was not released until November 1969, and it was around then that things began to seriously fall apart. This, after all, was a band that had basically not had a proper break in three years. The cracks started showing with their second tour of the USA within the year. By this point, Stanshall was also unofficially the band's manager; something that piled more pressure on him and thus led to more empty bottles, and more frequent panic attacks. The tour was totally different from their previous jaunt: they arrived to find that nobody knew who they were, no-one could buy their records, and no-one knew where they were playing. Their American record company had done nothing to promote them. To cope with the pressure, Stanshall was prescribed the tranquilliser Valium, a move that left him addicted to the drug for more or less the rest of his life. This, combined with the heavy drinking, was taking its toll. He had also had a bad LSD trip on the tour, though whether he experimented with it willingly or was spiked it was never known. LSD plus Stanshall's brain equalled... Bad news or a transcendental experience.


Viv and Neil (top) and the end of the Bonzos makes the cover of Friends, No 2 Jan 1970.

Whatever the outcome, after the Bonzos returned home early, Stanshall had a serious breakdown and voluntarily booked himself into a private hospital.

Oblivious to all this, Keynsham emerged as perhaps the band's best album: fourteen original songs split between Innes and Stanshall. Named after a typically tedious method of winning the "pools" (the old-style lottery), Keynsham was a concept album of sorts. The sort you can take or leave. Perhaps it was the increasing divide between Innes and Stanshall's writing styles that makes it such a great record: they only co-wrote two songs and split the rest. Innes' skill as a quality songwriter was now clear, with even his bursts of sentimentality, such as I Want To Be With You and the awesomely depressing voyeuristic fancy of Quiet Talks And Summer Walks made strangely appealing. And on the title track he also turns his hand to prophecy with the electric line, "There are no coincidences/But sometimes the pattern is more obvious."

But whereas Innes was in full control of his talents, Stanshall had wandered off down a precarious wooded path to get a glimpse of the ruined stately home ahead. If Mr Apollo had roused horrible memories in the man, then he dragged them to the surface with Sport (The Odd Boy), a mock Tudor attack on the sadistic practise still insisted on in schools everywhere of making children who don't like games join in. Usually in atrocious weather conditions.

Sport
Sport
Masculine sport
Equips a young man for society
Yes sport turns out a jolly good sort
It's an odd boy who doesn't like sport

Beautifully turned out and to the point (it begins with the dream introduction of "Let's go back to your childhood, childhood, childhood... "), Stanshall was now in the privileged position to spit venom, in the politest way possible, of course. Equipped with two great gifts a twisted way with words and a skewed vision of the British Empire Stanshall was at the height of his dark powers on Keynsham. Even the Eastern-tinged fez instrumental Noises For The Leg begins perhaps somewhere in the Crimean war with Liston knife in hand with a curdling howl of "No, no! Please, not the leg!" And then the solemn statement: "I've found the leg, Sir... By God I wish I hadn't".

But his position as the boozy Baudelaire of a dying decade came with the final track on the album, Busted. Co-written with Innes, it is ostensibly a commentary on the poor downtrodden persecuted student ("I'm so bloody normal/Yet I'm one of nature's freaks") as sung by Innes; but when Stanshall comes in with some lines of his own the viewpoint is skewed like an opium dream:

In the soft grey squeeze as they mind the doors
Like a sacrifice to the Minotaur
All together in the blood-rush hour
Come on fish-face you've got the power!

Four lines that summed up Stanshall's philosophy: The anthropologist in him watched the nine-to-five crowds and shuddered, despairing as to how they could ever go through such routines day-in, day-out. The people bound by convention, "All together in the blood-rush hour" and then holidaying in some Mediterranean sandpit once a year to "get away from it all"... Stanshall successfully navigated around the "soft grey squeeze" and returned with copious field notes to construct perhaps his best lyrics ever.

In early 1970, the Bonzo Dog Band split up due to a number of factors: The "What the fuck are we doing now?" factor brought on after the USA tour, the splintered interests of group members, the fact that the powers-that-be frowned on The Brain Opera, their next project-to-be (co-written with flaming loon Arthur Brown) and insisted on more Urban Spaceman-style numbers. Unaware that the split was permanent, Stanshall dived into another big depression and, despite working on a number of solo projects, could not get over the fact that, after eight years, the band was no more.

Well, not quite. After they announced the split, the Bonzos still had a number of gig commitments o fulfill and a contractual obligation to record one more album in order to ensure their future freedom. Almost two years after their demise, Stanshall, Innes, Legs, Roger Ruskin Spear, regular bassist Denis Cowan and few session chums went back into the studio. The result was Let's Make Up And Be Friendly, released in March 1972. By far the band's most 'mature' album (if there is a such a thing) although having an opening song about constipation might throw some doubt on this the record was mostly a Stanshall/lnnes two-hander, with Spear and Legs throwing in a few wayward pieces. The toilet-challenged The Strain showed Stanshall to be a changed man, his grumbling vocal perhaps the outcome of the personal troubles of recent years. Still erudite, yet somehow darker than the frontman of yore. Let's Make Up And Be Friendly is notable for a number of things, the most obvious being a startling quartet of genuine pop songs that pepper the album: Straight From My Heart, Rusty (Champion Thrust), Don't Get Me Wrong and Fresh Wound are instantly catchy and suffer nothing at the hands of the Bonzo sense of humour: The Legs-sung Rusty has him asking, "What's with this gay front?" for instance. Elsewhere, Spear's Waiting For The Wardrobe, nominally a 'typical' Bonzo song a la Shirt, opens with a hideous musical montage that recalls the beginning of We Are Normal. But this is the Dante's inferno of furniture buying: "Open up the door!" a voice screams from far below, as the electronic noises prowl onwards like a black underground stream. But it's Stanshall's Rawlinson End ("He looked so sinister in that corset") that is the album highlight, an illogical progression of Rhinocratic Oaths. This time he gets nine minutes to spin out a tale or two. Over piano accompaniment it begins, "It is almost three years since Madge and Bobby Rawlinson pulled up roots and were arrested by the Parks Department." And so the scene is set for the insane wordplay that was to take the Rawlinson's onto numerous radio broadcasts, two albums, and a feature film. Stanshall borrowed the "Now read on prose of women's magazines (usually the molested kind found in dentists waiting rooms) and bent it to his own, er, end. But, as with most of Let's Make Up And Be Friendly, things have turned a shade darker:

Poor Rosemary has her hands full at Rawlinson End trying to bring up Timothy and Leticia, now at that difficult age when they start... Asking questions... And wanking.

Then a menacing end of the pier organ drifts in and out of the narrative, a force of its own wrung from Stanshall's childhood. And the story touches the waters of Gothic absurdity "The stuttering candle traced leering phantoms on the walls" before pushing the listener nervously into the company of coughing and drunk Sir Henry Rawlinson, last bastion of a bloated island:

Y'see, the natives had it in their noddles that if a chap's soul was pure then the snake bite wouldn't harm him. Poor old Hargreaves died almost immediately. Horrible agony.

Let's Make Up And Be Friendly ends on a short but sinister note. Slush is two minutes of funeral strings and a continual laugh from Innes, but it's a laugh trying to convince you that things are going to be alright, really they are... After the fade-out, the Bonzo Dog Band was no more. In a group of so many individuals, each had their own direction with which to take the band: Stanshall wanted more theatrics, Innes wanted more music... And Legs wanted more sequins. The beast inside was gone, let loose by the departing members, although Vivian Stanshall took him in intermittently for years afterwards. Himself a creature of terrifying brilliance, Stanshall returned to the beast again and again for inspiration, both on and off record.