The Sweet Essence of Giraffe
To some, he was a "Mephistophelean engine of
pleasure". To others, he was "rock'n'roll's answer to Peter
Cook". Providing the comic relief in his own tragedy, Viv fashioned
English eccentricity into an art form. Celebrating his genius, Paul McCartney,
Pete Townshend, Stevie Winwood, John Peel, Mike OIdfield and fellow Bonzos.
All clever people are difficult. And all successful people are driven. And none was more difficult, driven, extravagantly gifted, prone to more exaggerated highs or punishing lows, more maddening or subiimelv inventive than Vivian StanshalI.
Modern marketing will ensure that anvone as emancipated in their outlook is unlikely to surface again. Today they would specialise in stand-up comedy, or Dada performance art, or mournful self-assessment, or pastiche rock'n'soul, or berserk ether-piercing monologues of the most surreal and unfettered kind. But they certainly wouldn't attempt to do all of them. And not all at the same time.
It's hard to know where to start when trying to estimate his loss. As a performer he was impossible to upstage, working his way through the rack of costume changes and hopeless home-made props, occasionally swirling between band members in the arms of a grotesque mannequin dancing partner; her feet attached to his shoes, while all around him was an ear-splitting backdrop of cherry bombs and lurching robots.
As a comedian perhaps the look of him worked against a wider audience. A chaotic and fruity-voiced old cove with a ginger beard with a knot in it, the Viv of latter years looked like someone who'd escaped from Blandings Castle and then spent six months in The Mothers Of Invention. So closelv did he resemble a cave-dweIling hermit you'd imagine that if you beat a circuitous path to his door and slipped him a bottle of brandy, he might vouchsafe the meaning of life. But as this would inevitably involve some hot serge trousers, t'vo tins of Ready Rubbed and a maladjusted member of the landed gentry, you'd probably be none the wiser. He tirelessly lampooned the homeland he was so obsessed with yet was also quaintly proud of it. His sense of humour had the same staunchly English ironic filter as that of Alan Bennett or Spike Milligan, and his fascination with absnrd-sounding gadgetry and rascally toffs has echoes in the work of Victoria Wood and Stephen Fry.
But as a musician and lyricist the passing of Viv Stanshall is enormously tragic. His lvrics were full of characters and images mously tra entirely new to the rock'n'roll stage on which they evolved in the fev late '60s; cartoon gangsters, niatinee idols, wheIk-and-surf-peppered coastal resorts, yobs, snobs and dandies, all inhabiting some dream-like Lewis Carroll landscape where portly policemen in vast plastic sandals would suddenly materialise and the hedges had been clipped into the shape of a human leg. And all these different eras, the monocled '20s, the Empire-patrolling '30s, the ration-book '40s, the trad jazz '50s and the starry and rose-tinted '60s, would somehow magically converge in his songs into one timeless psyrchedelic moment.
Viv could paint a big picture and yet include within
it the most minutely detailed observations. You only had to hear the title
of his second album masterpiece, My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe, to know
that he'd precisely identified the pebble-dashed banality of terraced
suburban life. We weren't simply in the wardrobe of his soul but, more
exactly, in the section labelled "shirts". It seemed extraordinary
that a man writing lines like "A livid ivy ofbroken veins stretched
autumnal on his cheeks/And the filth of the city found easy purchase in
the open pores" was playing the same circuit as Deep Purple.
No other figure in the British rock'n'roll pantheon ever built up a greater reservoir of goodwill nor exhausted it so comprehensively He began as the social misfit from the bleak seaside town, acquired a wider and more glittering collection of friends than you could shake a very large stick at, and vet ended his life almost completely alone.
London, 1962, and the art schools vibrate to the separate strands of music: dancehall jazz, rhythm and blues and ga British rock'n'roll. Saxist Rodney Slater's jazz, band refused to dutifully trot out sheet-music arrangements of quaint Vaudeville hits They were on a mission to subvert and destroy He'd just hired a singer from Southend-on-Sea with various means of attracting attention to himself among them a blinding dress sense, some wind instruments ar capacity to belch very loudly in public.
The original seven-piece Bonzo Dog Dada Band set out
on the school dance circuit; Rod, Viv and five other rumpled individuals
in baggy suits and with names like Claude Abbo and 'Happy' Wally Wi They
brought with them a repertoire of breezy novelty songs from 1920s lifted
from old music scores and 78s. A year later their frontman was wearing
long-johns, wire-rim spectacles and Edwardian five-buttoned jackets alongside
tuba-puffing fellow Central School Of Art student flatmate 'Legs' Larry
Smith, drummer Sam Spoons, 'Big' Sid Nicholls, Lenny Williams, and the
multi-instrumental Slater and Roger Ruskin Spear, who'd been breathlessly
informed he must see this group as "they're getting away with murder".
One ambition, he recalls, "was to play as badly and as loudly as
To fully appreciate their act we need first to accompany Viv friends on one of their grant-blowing trips to the costumiers, past junk shops of Upper Street and the cafes selling bubble-and-squeak to Dan Davies in Islington where fine bespoke tailoring was available with a wide range of out-moded accessories. Or to A Kemp's in Mornington Crescent where, to VIv's great delight, the sign above the door read ALFIE KEMP CAN FIT ANYBODY
We must also join them to witness a uniquely. ridiculous trio touring the town halls called The Alberts, when kilt-clad frontman Dougie Grey would stand marching on the spot while behind him, in gloriously slio* music-ball tradition, a minion revolved a small casgo suggesting a highland panorama. At one point an unconvincing dummy was fired from a cannon. "It was as close to Dada as you could get."
"A Ballet For The Vulgar!" their flyers promised Revellers who'd come to see The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ('Dada' had been abandoned to avoid tiresome pre-gig enquiry) were confronted with a spectacle apparently transplanted from the Bombay tea-rooms via an art school panto, like some palm-cooled Casablanca roof orchestra lightly dipped in add. They toiled under the lights in their double-breasted suits, spats and trilbies, silk hankies in their pockets, stumbling through charlestons, "band shouts", all manner of duff deco frippery with notous speed and abandon. Viv would step up to the microphone, some fably useless novelty foxtrot footling away behind him. "I gave my love an apple," he'd croon, "and she let me hold her hand. I gave my love an orange and we kissed beneath the band. I brought my girl bananas, she let me hold her tight. I'm gonna bring a watermelon to my girl tonight..."
Two events forced a change of direction. The New Vaudeville Band scored a hit with Winchester Cathedral and extended an open invitation to any of the Bonzos to jump ship. Only temporary trumpeter Bob Kerr defected "We said, Go - and never darken our towels again!" Neil recalls. "And when we saw them on Top Of The Pops, the lead singer in a gold lamé suit, the band in suits and ties like ours holding up speech bubbles, it was the most bare-faced thieverv you'd ever seen. As we went round the circuit people would say "Hey; you're like The New Vaudeville Band. Viv was furious. Never forgave him. He felt he'd been stabbed in the back."
The second occasion was at Abbey Road where the Bonzos were recording a first single for Parlophone, My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies. Neil again: "We were in there making this terrible racket when The Fabs came in, all in their dark suits and sunglasses, and went throucrh to their studio. I could hear them mixing George's track, I Want To Tell You - you know, with that brilliant discordant piano part- and I thought, That sounds wonderful! I went back through and thought, What are we doing with this?"
To the horror of their manager; who pictured a handsomc wedge playing covers in the Northern clubs, the Bonzos began writing their own material, Neil producing perfectly crafted pop pastiche, Viv a breed of camp rock'n'roll burlesque. But Reg Tracey was never chosen for his sound business acumen and commercial weather-eye "We were pissed when we signed with him," Neil sighs. "He was Kenny Ball's brother-inlaw. He could have been completely inept hut we thought, If we're going to sign up with anvone let it be Kenny Ball's brother-in-law, not some smooth operator tot who knows what r the 's doing! We were the Dada Band!"
They appeared, briefly but usefully; as the cabaret act in Magical Mystery Tour playing Death Cab For Ctitie, a song from their first LP, Gorilla.
The album was an instant critical success, randomly satirising
As ever, Viy's clothes gave advance warning of his state of mind, and the plus-fours and brogues were gradually being replaced by the satin jackets and octagonal specs. "He was changing," Roger remembers, "from doing those rather limp-wristed nasal BBC dancehall flgure-type nonsense things and degenerating into the weird satanic stuff like 11 Moustachioed Daughters." The album also included Rhinocratic Oaths, distorted snapshots of ordinary lives that so fascinated the man who'd never had one, and the Bonzos' forays off the map continued unchecked with the third album, Tadpoles, a situation encouraged by Viv's sivclv heavy drinking and almost instant dependence on Valium.
'He became more and more unhinged," Gus Dudgeon admits. "He never stopped talking about the fact that he was hooked on tranquillisers. He felt very bitter about it. Doctors in those days didn't think twice about prescribing them. It was an easy way to get rid of a patient who was a bit of a problem really."
But compared to the behaviour of the rest of the band you might never have noticed. Recording the track Shirt at Morgan Studios, just off the Willesden High Road, Viv determined that the missing ingredient was an instant straw-poll as to the great British public's opinion of such garments. 'Legs' was despatched to the main road to investigate. Gus stayed in the studio paying out the mike lead and "making sure the levels didn't go nuts.
"Larrv didn't seem to be having a lot of success. People were sort of ignoring him. I thought it could be connected with the fact that he was wearing a bright pink T-shirt with a lime green satin jacket, an enornious pair of tartan baggy trousers, pink platform high heels; round Granny glasses and long hair - sort of like King Charles but with a microphone. There was a bloke on a motorcycle looking as if a flicking alien had attacked him. So I politely suggested Viv have a go."
"Viv took all his clothes off apart from his stained and horribly hole-ridden underwear and stuck a pantomime rabbit's head on -[roadie] Borneo Fred Munt had found it and it was used as a bass drum baffle - and he walked out and leant against a VW at the lights with his hands on his hips. He just thought, you know, it might help! No-one ever said, This isn't going to work. In the end we used that bit - where an Irish voice says 'he's got a head on him like a rabbit!' - on We Are Normal. If there was even the faintest chance, we'd go for it. Absolutely everything was tried."
A MUTUAL ADMIRATION NOW BLOSSOMED BETWEEN the Bonzos and The Beades, who along with many other top-flight scene-makers were to be found exchanging impossibly witty bons mots in the select drinking clubs of Soho. Viv's standard trick was to meet up with his indefatigable accomplice Keith Moon at The Who's management office in Old Compton Street for a livener, and then make their way across the rooftops - and it is possible, though it requires the vaulting of an alleyway some four storeys up - to Le Chasse Club in Wardour Street where they'd enter noisily via a top floor window and order triple brandies all round.
Ever the opportunist, and desperate for a hit, Viv asked Paul McCartney down to Chappell's in Bond Street to hear some rough mixes and, if at all possible, help produce a single. Unsurprisingly it was the Innes tune I'm The Urban Spaceman that appealed, something of a homage to his own brand of chipper and unshakable melodies. McCartney was completely unfazed by the scene that awaited him.
"Viv had this hose-pipe trumpet thing that he kept twirling round his head. The engineer said it was impossible to record but I thought, We've got to have that on it. Just stick a mike in each corner; And it was a hit which was good, and put a bit of money in their pockets. I was 'Apollo C-Vermouth' - and still am to this day and will not have it said that I am not - a little pseudonym that I've cooked up to protect the innocent."
They'd had art students. They'd had nouveau psychedelics
by the score. They now had singles buyers with six-and-eight in their
pockets. But one more sub-species of audience awaited The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah
Band, great seas of foul-smelling hippies. At this stage Viv made few
concessions when adapting their detailed live revue into something that
might project across several square miles of Free fans. "Is there
a drummer in the house?" he shrugged as the Bonzos emerged at the
1969 Isle Of Wight Festival. For the errant 'Legs' and the ever-available
Moon were enjoying a drink in a nearby pub.
"It was wonderful actually 'cos Larry used to get tired and bored and get up and wave and blow kisses, and we'd have to pound away and try and keep the rhythm together. Then Larry turned up and hovered a bit and we're about to play Canyons Of Your Mind, which is the most straighiforward thing imaginable, and he just sort of tapped Jim on shoulder and said, I'd better take over no"; dear boy, this one's a bit tricky. We're like, Don't do that, we're enjoying ourselves!"
When Viv stepped out onstage at the Fillmore West, where the Bonzos were sharing a bill with Joe Cocker; The Byrds and Pacific Gas & Electric, the capacity crowd was horizontal. The mellifluous tones of Stanshall and his deeply English cabaret seemed to come from a different planet.
"They were completely spaced-out," Neil recalls.
"Uppers, downers, diagonals. We always started
They were over-worked, eternally in debt, immersed in legal wrangles, poorly managed, hardly in clover from the record sales, and the cracks started to appear on Do Not Adjust Your Set. Booked for two 13-part series of the satirical revue alongside future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin and TerryJones, the Bonzos relied more and more heavily on spontaneity and ludicrous props. Rung on the road and asked what thev'd need for the week's programme, Larry improvised "three cardboard boxes, a springboard, a petrol tanker and the largest bath you can find but it needs to be orange", none of which thev had the slightest intention of using. ITV rang back the day before fliming to say they'd got the boxes and the springboard, teams of people had been painting the bath but they simply couldn't find a petrol tanker and would an oil drum do?"
"They never forgave us," Neil reflects "We
were summoned to a meeting, Rodney, Viv and I, and we turned up with rubber
masks over our heads. Our manager was saying, I'm not going to talk to
you until you take those masks off. Are you going to take those masks
The final tour in 1970 seemed a complete reversal of everything they'd once so proudly pioneered. Having resisted the amped-up easy option of the progressive rock boom Viv now embraced it with typically cally obsessive fervour Not content vvith electric guitars and a rhythm section, he wanted four drummers, inviting various celebrity chums - Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Capaldi, the ubiquitous Moon - to appear whenever thev felt like it. Viv had hired their regular drummer while drinking in his Hampstead local. Enquiring as to the muffled commotion upstairs, he'd been told it was the landlord's 20-year-old son Glen Colson praccally tising in his bedroom. He was duly summoned. "Dear boy! (a wave of the hand) We're looking for a drummer. Come and drum with us! "
"It makes me shiver to think about it even now,"
says Colson, who remained closely in touch with the manipulative old goon
'til the very end. "He never let me rehearse. He just gave me the
albums and said, We'll be doing a selection. Mostlv it was the songs drastically
altered into 20-minute jams, like a really badversion of The Allman Brothers,
VIv changing costumes and walking around stage hitting congas, cherry
bombs going off everywhere, exploding robots. Neil was disgusted about
the jams. He wanted to be The Rutles.
Roger, Larry, Rodney, Neil and Viv at the period when they were regular contributors to teatime comedy show Do Not Adjust Your Set.