Articles

The Times, Wednesday March 8th 1995

OBITUARY

Vivian Stanshall, pop singer and comedian, was found dead in his burnt-out London flat on March 5 aged 52. He was born on March 21, 1942.

ALTHOUGH the apogee of Vivian Stanshall's career as a rock musician was the mid-1960s when he led the group Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, he was to appear to audiences in many different guises in the decades that followed. True, there were long lacunae in his performance record as he battled - often in isolation - against drink, drugs and the severe depressions that periodically undermmed his volatile spirit and rendered him unfit for any form of coherent activity. But he always seemed capable of summoning up the will to enable him to bounce back.
Thus, after the demise of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in 1970 he had reincarnations as, variously, comic, disc-jockey, radio playwright, broadcaster, film actor and promoter of Ruddles ales on TV. And at the time of his death he was about to start recording a new album for his own label.

The surreal, anarchic, satirical and often frankly lunatic style and content of the Bonzos' material made them natural performers on the college circuit which was becoming an important audience for rock bands In the mid-Sixties, thereby extending the frontiers of the "pop" kingdom, and making its performers more eclectic in their outlook and more adventurous In their approach to sound production. The hosepipe solo in the hit song I'm the Urban Spaceman (1968) was a characteristic Bonzo touch. Stanshall himself had a considerable khowledge of tne English comic tradition and was always able to look backwards and absorb appropriate influences as well as thinking ahead, when considering changes in the content of the Bonzos' stage acts.

Brought up in London, Vivian Stanshall went to sea with the Merchant Navy where the awesome drinking habits of his later life were nurtured. Coming back onshore he went to the Central School of Art, London. There, with students from a number of other colleges, he formed the Bonzos who began life, like so many others. on the pub circuit and graduated to clubs and cabaret. Their style was initially somewhat in the mould of Twenties revivalist bands such as the Temperance Seven and the New Vaudeville Band. But they soon learnt to widen their range and by the tirne of the issue of their first album, Gorilla (l967), could be heard in typically inventive Bonzo style with numbers such as Stanshall's own The Intro and the Outro.

The single I'm the Urban Spaceman gave the group a Top Ten hit in 1968 and they made several more successful albums, including The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse (1968) and Tadpoles (l969).
Of the group's eight or so members, Stanshall (vocals and trumpet) and Neil Innes (vocals and piano) were perhaps the most significant creators of material, Stanshall leavening Innes's rock and psychedelic orientation with his cullings from prewar popular musical traditions. The stage shows eventually evolved into crazy explosions of music, movement, scattergun satire and thumbIng the nose at icons - all carried off with an almost childlike noisiness.

In the end, the effort of getting up new routines to go with each performance proved a strain on the band's material and mental resources, and in 1970 its members parted. Radio, however, provided Stanshall with a second career almost immediately. With the encouragement of the DJ John Peel and his Radio 1 producer John Walters, Stanshall developed the idea of the eccentric English aristocrat Sir Henry Rawlinson who was later to achieve a full flowering in the 1980 film Sir Heny at Rawlinson End.

Sketches and narrations by Stanshall involving Sir Henry were a great success and when John Peel took a holiday break from his weekly show Top Gear Walters asked Stanshall to stand in as presenter. It was an inspired choice and the mixture of sketches, skits, spoof advertisements and fictitious police reports with which Stanshall proceeded to bamboozle his audience were a great hit. His collaborator in many of these hoaxes was his close friend Keith Moon, drummer of The Who who died after a party in 1978.

Even after John Peel's return to his show Stanshall continued to contribute to Top Gear and his Sir Henry
Rawlinson items the basis of a record Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which in turn spawned the film. With a comic lineage ranging from the Ealing Studios to Monty Python, with dollops of the Goons and the Alberts in between, this had a mixed reception, seeming to fall some way short of its cult classic pretensions. Nevertheless its distinguished cast, including Trevor Howard in the title role, Patrick Magee (always Samuel Beckett's favourite actor) and Stanshall himself delivering an eerie sing-song voice-over, ensured it was never less than totally zany. The Sir Henry philosophy, "If I had all the money I'd spent on drink I'd spend it all on drink", set the tone of the entertainment.

In the meantime Stanshall had done the narration for Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (1973) and made a few singles of increasingly manic tendencies. Huge, destructive drinking bouts with John Lennon and Keith Moon (neither of whom survived the decade) did nothing for his health and mental composure. He also became addicted to tranqillisers and after the filming of Sir Henry he retired to a boat on the Thames at Chertsey. There, for several years, he lived reclusively in the grip of depressions and anxiety states so profound that he was unable to do any more than the bare minimum to keep himself alive and ticking over.

Yet there was to be an at least momentary resurgence after Stanshall was persuaded by friends to wean himself off tranquillisers at a clinic near Weston-super-Mare. Returning to London, he took a flat in Muswell Hill where he dwelt among reproductions of Henri Rousseau pictures, trumpets, cassettes, stringed instruments, volumes of 17th-century lyric poetry, a speaking clock and his father's dentures.
There he reestablished control of his much-abused faculties. He created a musical Stinkfoot, worked for a Pills Anonymous group, did further episodes of Sir Henry for radio and made TV commercials for Ruddles ales -commercials which showed almost terminal drunkenness on the screen without, miraculously, drawing so much as a whimper of protest. To the end, his gifts were much admired by the current generation of stage and television comics.
Stanshall was twice married and had a son, but was living alone when he died.