Articles

Dear Old Thing

The Bonzo Dog band have reunited with Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Ade Edmunson and Phill Jupitus filling in for the late Viv Stanshall.

Mark Ellen remembers why comedians still love "the rock and roll Peter Cook"

NEIL INNES FIRST MET VIV Stanshall in a pub in New Cross (he was 20, Viv was 22): "He was rather overweight and wearing a frock coat and Billy Bunter trousers, and he had these little tinted oval Victorian glasses perched on his nose, an unpleasant violet colour, a euphonium under his arm and these horrible pink false ears. It was a rough sort of pub where it was pretty hard to 'merge in' anyway." One of Viv's ambitions with the first line-up of The Bonzo Dog Dada Band was "to play as badly and as loudly as possible".

Viv soon advertised the band as "the Mephistophelean engines of pleasure" and encouraged them to buy stage clothes at Alfie Kemp's tailors in Mornington Crescent where, to his great delight, the sign above the door read "ALFIE KEMP CAN FIT ANYBODY".

The first touring version of The Bonzo Dog Dada Band was billed as 'A Ballet For The Vulgar" and looked like a Casablanca roof orchestra dipped in acid. They offered '20s ballads, poorly played Charlestons and "band shouts". One of Viv's opening numbers began "I gave my love an apple and she let me hold her hand / I gave my love an orange and we kissed beneath the band / I bought my girl bananas and she let me hold her tight / I'm gonna bring a watermelon to my girl tonight!".

Bonzos' banjo operative Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell remembers visiting a laundry in a town the band were playing, always Viv's first port of call, "which had a sort of wishing-well full of goldfish in the middle, huge place. Viv nipped out and brought some carrots, sliced them up into thin slivers and then sat very conspicuously on the edge of the pond occasionally snapping his hand into the water and bringing up a piece of carrot, shaking it, holding it up, leaning his head back and dropping it into his mouth as if head-first. Screams from the girls who worked there: 'That man's eating our goldfish!'"

Recording the track Shirt at Morgan Studios for the album Tadpoles, the band encouraged Viv to wander out into Willesden High Road with a 40-foot mike lead and stop passers-by for some "reaction", their comments on the quirks of the fashion trade and shirts in particular (an episode that made a great impression on the young Chris Morris). Very few members of the public played ball, partly because Viv was wearing underpants and a pantomine rabbit's head. Of the sections that were usable, one appears in We Are Normal, an Irish voice that points out "he's got a head on him like a rabbit".

Viv and friend-in-booze Keith Moon had a regular pastime: "testing people's reactions". With this in mind, they once repaired to a gentlemen's outfitters in search of "a strong pair of trousers". To test the wares, Viv and Keith took a leg each and pulled until the trousers parted company. "Not really very strong are they?" Viv informed the appalled assistant. At which point they'd arranged for a onelegged man to enter the shop who, on seeing two sets of single-legged trousers, exclaimed, "That's exactly what I'm lookin' for!" and bought both.

Viv once sent off for 10 vintage copies of the Daily Telegraph and recruited nine of his pals to sit reading them on the Circle Line, enjoying the gradual- but soon horribly confused - reaction of his fellow passengers as they wondered if they'd fallen through a wormhole in time.

Booked to appear on the 13-Part satirical TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set along with future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones - The Bonzos were asked what props they might reqnire for the first recording and shot back the following reponse: "Three cardboard boxes, a springboard, a petrol tanker and the largest bath you can find but it needs to be orange", none of which they had any intention of using. ITV rang back and to confirm they'd got the boxes and the springboard, teams of people had been painting the bath but they couldn't find a petrol tanker and would an oil drum do? "They never forgave us," Neil Innes admits. "We were summoned to a meeting - Rodney, Viv and I - and we turned up wearing rubber masks."

The Bonzos were thrown out of Chappell's Studios in Bond Street after VIv suggested they see "what sound a tuba would make if you filled it up with water ".

WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
The Bonzos and friends played one packed night
at London's Astoria on January 28th

Viv bought a rusting freighter which he christened The Old Profanity Showboat, and lived for a while on a WW2 minesweeper moored on the Thames at Chertsey with a collection of painted guitars, masks, props and pictures, and an African pith helmet plumbed upside down as a sink. The boat eventually sank with all his relics onboard. "Nothing ordinary ever happened to him," Neil Innes reflects. "I mean if you lived on a boat and it sank, why would it sink on your birthday?"

Viv briefly formed The Sean Head Showband with Eric Clapton to record the single Labio-Dental Fricative.

When Viv lived in Finchley he had one of his hedges clipped into the shape of a human leg.

Viv recorded a series of sketches called Radio Flashes that were broadcast on John Peel's night-time Radio I show in the '70s. He played the part of the fruity-voiced Colonel Knut with the inevitable Moon as his luvvable sidekick Lemmy. ''A typical day," his producer, the late John Walters, remembered, "would involve Viv bowling in direct from the chemists, where he'd queued impatiently behind someone buying a new-fangled insect deterrent called Wasp-Eze, and immediately improvise on-air his own brand of aerosol for the' cautious safari-traveller. Cue Air On A G String - 'Do you have pachyderm problems? Why don't you ... tssst! tssst!Repello-phant! As used by the Royal Family! Just watch those big fellows pack their trunks and go!' But it all went horribly wrong in the end. It was the day of the broadcast and we still didn't have the last episode in the serial. The heart starts to pound. No-one arrives. Then Mooney's there - and he's the unpredictable one. Where the fuck's Viv? In he bursts with a ukulele, the old clinking carrier-bag. 'Som' mate, been driving round London looking for an offie that'll take a cheque!' I said, never mind that, thank Godyou're here, Let's get the levels up and do this last episode. It's going out tonight. And Viv just looked at me and said, 'Hang on mate. I've got to write the bugger first."

Neil Innes's speech at Viv's-funeral (on March 21 1995) perfectly captured both the affection people felt for Stanshall and the mounting difficulty of haviug to deal with him. "Was he," Innes wondered, "immensely brave or merely reckless? Did he fear that no-one would love him ifhe allowed himself to be ordinary? He has bequeathed to all of us the comedy and tragedy of his life in order to illuminate our own."

THE FIRST HALF
The house band plus Neil Innes (piano), Rodney Slater (sax), Roger Ruskin Spear (sax and "rowmonium"), Sam Spoons (drums, spoons), Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (banjo, saw), 'Legs' Larry Smith (tap dance) and Bob Kerr (trumpet).
Rule Britannia
Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah
My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies
On Her Doorstep Last Night
Little Sir Echo
Ali Baba's Camel
Falling In Love Again
I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight
Look Out There's A Monster Coming
By A Waterfall
The Sheikh Of Araby
Hello Mabel
Jollity Farm
Equestrian Statue

THE SECOND HALF
Cool Britannia
We Are Normal
The Strain (with Ade Edmondson)
Sound Of Music (with Stephen Fry)
Trouser Press
My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe (with Ade Edmondson)
I'm Bored (with Ade Edmondson)
Sport (with Stephen Fry)
Mr Apollo (with Phil I Jupitus)
Humanoid Boogie
Tent (with Ade Edmondson)
Can Blue Men Sing The Whites (with Phill Jupitus)
Look At Me I'm Wonderful
I Left My Heart In San Francisco
Rhinocratic Oaths (with Stephen Fry)
Mr Slater's Parrot (with Ade Edmondson)
Monster Mash (with Paul Merton)
I'm The Urban Spaceman
Canyons Of Your Mind
The Intro And The Outro (everyone)

WITH MANY THANKS TO JANICE SIMPSON AND DANNY BARBOUR.