Paintbox, Issue 26
, by Tim Worthington
By the time that The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band played their final live dates early in 1970, the individual members had been planning their next move for several months. While for Rodney Slater this meant a career in social work, the others had a more musical direction in mind - and, predictably, nobody's plans were more inventive, ambitious or downright eccentric than those of Vivian Stanshall.
In the months leading up to the band's split, both Stanshall and Neil Innes had formed new bands and had already started recording, but while Innes' new project The World had released an album (the superb "Lucky Planet") by the end of 1970, Stanshall's Sean Head Showband, a loose collection of musicians which included Eric Clapton, only managed to put out one single. 'Labiodental Fricative'/'Paper Round' was certainly an impressive single - particularly the a-side, with its ringing guitars, dreamy middle eight and absurd tongue-twister lyrics - but the Sean Head Showband was clearly never intended as anything more than a short-term stopgap project. Barely a month after the release of 'Labiodental Fricative', the Sean Head Showband were effectively defunct and Stanshall announced the arrival of his major new project - biG GRunt.
In addition to Stanshall as lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, biG GRunt included two other former members of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in their ranks, demonstrating that Stanshall was playing as close attention to the band's visual style and use of humour as he was to the music. Bassist Dennis Cowan, who at that time was also a member of The World, was a reliable musical anchor and renowned by his former bandmates for his highly distinctive sense of humour. Saxophonist Roger Ruskin Spear, in addition to having been the most manic member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band onstage and the third most prolific songwriter of the outfit (after Stanshall and Innes), was also a self-styled inventor who built bizarre robots, exploding props and absurd mechanical contraptions for their live shows. The other members of biG GRunt were guitarists Bubs White and Borneo Fred Munt, both of whom had been members of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's road crew, and powerful drummer Ian Wallace. Even without biG GRunt having played a note of music in public, the background of the individual members made it clear that they were a formidable prospect both musically and as performers.
biG GRunt's first public appearance was a live session recorded for John Peel's Radio 1 Show in March 1970. The band performed four tracks for this session, mostly brand new material, and each of them was as exciting and invigorating as their initial promise had suggested. The first number, 'Blind Date', had been written when Vivian Stanshall, for some bizarre and unexplained reason, was asked to provide a song for the wholesome easy listening crooner Matt Monro. The singer's management, who were presumably expecting something more in the style of the Bonzos' crooner parody 'Canyons Of Your Mind' were understandably less than pleased to be presented with a song that, while undeniably catchy, was about a gorilla and a pygmy being introduced by a dating agency. Stanshall could see the song's true potential, though, and it was revived for the biG GRunt session and performed in laid-back rockabilly style that placed perfect emphasis on the joyfully ridiculous lyrics. 'Blind Date' later became the a-side of biG GRunt's lone single, and Stanshall remained fond of the track, giving it a rare and welcome outing when he stood in as presenter of Radio 2's "Sounds of the Sixties" in the late 1980s.
'11 Mustachioed Daughters', a hypnotic and rhythm-heavy track with odd lyrics concerning witchcraft, paganism and voodoo, had originally appeared on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's second album "The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse" in 1967. The original version had been built around ethnic percussion and an eerie harpsichord figure, but here the song was given a radical musical overhaul that left it sounding completely different. Dynamic guitar riffs, funky bass and massive drumming underpinned Stanshall's demented howling vocals, which made his mannered, over-articulated style on the original version sound positively normal in comparison.
'The Strain' was also a Bonzo number - or, to be more accurate, it was a Bonzo number that hadn't actually been recorded by them yet. Vivian Stanshall's bizarre attempt at creating a dance craze involving lavatories would eventually end up as the first track on the band's 1972 reunion album "Let's Make Up And Be Friendly", but it started out as a biG GRunt number, and was noticeably different in its original incarnation, as was presented here. Quite apart from the rougher early version of the lyrics, this performance boasted a taut, driving-rhythm section, with Wallace's precise sledgehammer drumming very much to the fore.
The final track that biG GRunt recorded for the session was an instrumental known as 'Cyborg Signal'. Clearly inspired by the spacey guitar-led instrumental 'freakouts' that were popular at the time (for example Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive'), the track fused heavy guitars and propulsive drums with chiming bells and Stanshall's plaintive, distant euphonium, and the entire performance was nothing short of breathtaking. While the track adopted the styling of the progressive rock bands that were then currently in vogue, Stanshall's robust composing abilities meant he was able to achieve everything that the track needed to in under five minutes, whereas most major acts of the day would have taken about thirty. Although its melodic motif would later form the basis for 'Strange Tongues' on Stanshall's solo album "Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead", 'Cyborg Signal' itself remains sadly unheard outside of this session. This is a shame, as it was the highlight of an invigorating set that underlined just how genuinely exciting a project biG GRunt were. On the basis of this compulsive and enthralling evidence, we can only begin to speculate how truly awe-inspiring it must have been to witness the band live.
biG GRunt did indeed play a number of well-received live shows, with the strength and imagination of the music matched by Spear's dazzling pyrotechnics and outlandish robotic devices. They also performed live on "Marty Amok", a BBC1 special featuring the comedian Marty Feldman, which amazingly still exists on the original color videotape (although it has sadly never been repeated). Music press interviews of the time caught Stanshall enthusiastically discussing his ambitious plans for biG GRunt, aiming to create a fusion of serious music with avant-garde humour and over-the-top visuals. However, Stanshall's well-documented personal problems made it difficult for him to give the project his full attention and keep the line-up together, and by the summer of 1971 biG GRunt were unofficially but obviously defunct. Their sole recorded legacy was their studio version of 'Blind Date', which was released as a double a-side with a cover of Elvis Presley's 'Suspicion' by Gargantuan Chums (another short-lived Stanshall outfit of the time, which boasted the involvement of The Who's drummer Keith Moon). It is unknown whether biG GRunt actually recorded any more material in the studio, but it's tempting to speculate that there might be an entire unreleased album in the vaults - or at the very least, a stunning version of 'Cyborg Signal'.
Possibly because so little is known about the band and their short career, biG GRunt are often relegated to little more than a footnote in articles and books about Vivian Stanshall and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. However, they deserve far more recognition than that. For a brief but invigorating moment, they appeared to be doing something that was genuinely intriguing and pioneering. It could be said that it's easy to speculate about what might have been, but the band's Peel session is evidence of what actually _was_, and it still sounds thoroughly exciting to this day.