Strange Doings at Bonzo manor
Roy Hollingworth reports on a rural recording session
THE tale begins at 3 p.m. on a Soho Saturday. Blurting over the
telephone is Vivian Stanshall, with news that he's making a journey
into Oxfordshire, to the new Manor recording studios. The task is
to lay down vocals on the new Bonzo Dog album (hurrah). "There's
a bit of a party"
Photographer Barrie Wentzel and I are told to expect a car that
will whisk us from London to East Finchley, pick up Viv, and whisk
us to Oxford. The sun begins to die over Soho, and session musicians
crawl through the streets for evenings in city studios.
The driver arrives, looking like a member of any other occupation,
other than driving, and we are shown into Soho Square, which harbours
a variety of vehicles, including a gigantic ex-army ambulance, decorated
with skull and crossbones. We walk towards any of the cars, and
are then told to walk to the ambulance. The back doors are opened
(cast, heavy steel), and inside is a community, living on mattresses
and no conversation - Odd.
It takes the best part of an hour to East Finchley, because the
engine functions like tubercular lungs. Stanshall Manor produces
a wirey (sic) figure, carrier bags, and a ukelele shaped like a
duck in flight. Vivian also wears bells on his ankles, and a comfy
hat. "Hi, what the Hell is this?" We crouch in the front,
and merge with the North Circular.
Pushing an "x-ton" ambulance down the middle lane of a
by-pass produces strain. Vivian pushes like a madman, smudging his
pumps on the tarmac. The truck is dead, broken down. The long line
of traffic behind just can't make this one out. This is an artist
on his way to produce art. Where's the fat, fast limo?
Now we are sat in the back of a North London cab, not burning, but sort
of singing down the motorway. The people have been left behind with their
ambulance, buying parts. "I'm not coming the superstar bit, I'm just
bloody tired, and I've got a session and that thing's just bloody silly."
Vivian works hard. On Friday morning he had left Oxford, flown to Edinburgh,
gigged, flown to London, possibly eaten, and was now returning to the
album. He'll work himself to death will Vivian.
"You can tell," says Vivian, "that we've been working away
from each other. You'll get that when you hear the album. But it's come
together. Musically, it's the best Dog album. We're pleased." He
takes a swig of brandy from the bottle in the cab.
In the lone country pub, a lone country person sings "Leap Up and
Down and Wave Your Knickers in the Air, ha!" Viv takes three darts
in his left hand, and plants them in a lovely cluster two feet to the
left of the board, in the wall. It's not a look of amusement on the landlady's
face. She looks frightened.
Lost, and tired and cramped, and dozy from liquor (but the driver's straight),
the cab hovers through Oxford, like a November bluebottle. Aimless. A
time lag begins. Vivian hands out his No. 6s, and gives the driver one.
The driver doesn't smoke, and gives the cigarette back. Vivian didn't
notice that, strikes a match and puts it in front of the cabbies face.
Startled, the cabbie blows it out with burning lips. Viv lights another
match, puts it in front of the cabbie's face, still thinking he needs
a light. Scorch.
The ambulance got there before us. Vivian is in deathly mood.
One of Viv's tracks on the album is called "Strain". It takes
in a sort of sitting on the toilet atmosphere. That feeling of having
to do something physically that won't do it for itself.
We're listening to it in the control room of Manor studios. It's very
homely, the control desks look alien against their almost medieval backdrop.
Neil Innes and Vivian sit behind the panels on throne-like chairs. Vivian
is asleep, and making odd noises. Neil looks whimsical, wearing a tea
cosy, and smiling.
Neil: "I was doing Roger's (Spear) track. We'd been working on it
for a while, and Roger said 'Neil, can't you see I want this voice to
get over to the person on the other mountain.' I stopped, looked at Roger,
and enquired as to what mountain he was on about. 'The other mountain.
There's one person on one mountain, then there's sea in between, then
there's another person on another mountain, and they're talking to each
It had been a long day, and Roger had told nobody about mountains. He
thought he had.
We hear Roger's track. Shouting. Sounds bloody marvelous, as though it
had been thought up in his van on the way there. "Does it sound as
though it were thought up in his van?" asks Neil. Yes. "Well,
it was." A revolting jug of Guinness is brought into the room. Legs
Larry sits muttering in a high class mutter. "No, No, No," he
says, but little else seems relevant.
There's the resident engineers. This is the first album the country studios
have had to cope with. It appears to be going well.
Vivian is asleep.
"Scurfing A-OK" is a masterpiece. It's a Beach Boys rip off,
but it's not surf, it's great scaling dandruff, and suitable Stanshall
lyrics. Funny, but everyone seems to be scratching their heads. It's gutsy,
ripping, pulling, gagging, nagging. Daft. What a gap the Bonzos left behind.
Would you tackle an eight-stone weakling who had scurf?
Meanwhile, not 50 yards away are at least 150 Virgins.
They are eating meat, roasted on a spit in the Manor grounds, and spilling
and drinking wine. It's an odd assortment, ranging from an American lady
wanted by the FBI (she speaks like Neil Young sings) to an odd looner
in old bags who dances. Most people work for Virgin Records, who own the
Manor and studios. A venture to celebrate Fireworks.
The tapes play in the control room. Great Bonzos. Vivian seems to have
slipped from slumber into a neo-death pose. He had earlier said that nobody
told him it was going to be a party "like that".
"Sometimes I wish I could be up there with them. Look, there's Dodger.
Thank God he got back."
Neil and myself eye the small aircraft that dodge around the air near
the Manor. It's the next day now. If only we didn't have gammy legs. We'd
be up there. "What's the word," asks Neil, "Flake, or is
A tinkling of bells warns the listener of an advancing Stanshall. Bright.
Cheerful. "What was I like last night?"
Viv plays bongos for a photosession. Singing jungle tunes. It's nothing
to do with music. Old Bonzos bassist Dennis plays with the brakes of his
Morris 1000. A good player actually. Musically, this is the Bonzos finest
hour. You wouldn't believe it.