By Pete Dooley
When I wrote the first draft of this article, Viv Stanshall was still alive. Now that he's dead, I must say I feel rather pissed off about it. I've been cheated. Not by Viv himself, but by the music industry. Because despite what the NME and Melody Maker obituaries would have you believe, he was working right up to the end. The reason virtually nothing but Ruddles adverts surfaced since 1983 is because it simply wasn't released. If you wanted to hear Viv Stanshall's work over the last decade, you had to turn on the radio and tape it. Now he's dead, of course, there'll probably be no end of cynical grave-plundering releases. Anyway, I'm annoyed. But I'm not going to let that colour the mood of this piece. It's an appreciation, after all, of an often infuriating, always intriguing, and ever-engaging talent.
It really all began with a rather unusual childhood. Stanshall was apparently forcibly taught BBC English by his father, who returned from the war "a changed man". It might have worked out well, but the Stanshalls lived in the East End of London, and so Viv's cultured tones set him apart from the norm at an early age.
Viv's first brush with fame came with the Bonzo Dog Band. Everyone knows 'The Urban Spaceman', but don't be fooled. That was Neil Innes' baby. Stanshall apparently didn't even appear on it. Turn the single over, and you'll hear Stanshall's bloated-Presley flavoured 'Canyons of Your Mind', complete with camp intro and atrocious Innes guitar solo, which actually pre-dated the genuine fat-Vegas-Elvis by a couple of years. Maybe Elvis heard this song and thought it was a good idea.
From 1965 to 1970, over four albums, the Bonzos flirted with a variety of musical styles, beginning with 1920s novelty songs and ending with psychedelic mini-operas, spawning hordes of imitators along the way. What Monty Python didn't steal from Spike Milligan, they stole from the Bonzos. They even eventually stole Neil Innes, in person. The Bonzos were also feted regulars on John Peel's Top Gear show, producing many sessions that were superior to their officially-released versions. I recommend them.
In 1970, the Bonzos went their separate ways. Viv Stanshall immediately launched biG GRunt, who recorded little more than a session for John Peel (and a damn fine one, at that) before Viv suffered a massive, and much-publicised, nervous breakdown. As a result, Stanshall became tranquiliser dependent, a condition he wrestled with for the next twenty years.
Stanshall re-emerged a year later, filling in for a few weeks on John Peel's radio show. Vivian Stanshall's Radio Flashes, a mix of sketches and music, ran for four episodes and a Christmas special. It was enormously popular and the BBC asked for more. Viv, still recuperating, had looked upon the enterprise as a favour for Peel, felt he couldn't handle the pressure, and declined. Twenty years later, Victor Lewis-Smith, who'd obviously heard Radio Flashes, was doing much the same thing.
During 1972 a single, 'Suspicion', an effective demolition of the Presley tune, was a minor hit. Also in 1972 the Bonzos briefly reunited for their contractual obligation album, Let's Make Up And Be Friendly. Less a Bonzos album than a Stanshall/Innes collaboration, it was still surprisingly good. 1974 saw the release of Viv's masterpiece, 'Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead', a both hilarious and chilling work, reflecting Stanshall's own troubled state at the time. Two years and a label change later saw the release of the single 'The Question' (worth searching out for its b-side, a Boris Karloff Frankenstein remake of 'The Young Ones'
In the meantime, apart from tasteless stunts in Nazi gear with Keith Moon, Stanshall was still appearing regularly on Radio 4's Start The Week and producing sessions for John Peel. It was from the latter that Viv's next album originated, released in 1978. 'Sir Henry At Rawlinson End' was the bizarre, sprawling saga of that last bastion of decent English lunacy, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and his various warped relatives and deranged servants. The Rawlinson saga proved to be one of the more popular post-Bonzos projects, spawning a film, a stage play and a book, and it continued to run away with itself on radio right into the early nineties.
1981 saw a return to more musical things with 'Teddy Boys Don't Knit', a collection of wonderfully tasteless tunes, concerning variously senility, sudden death, alcoholism and uncontrollable sneezing.
1983 saw the release of 'Sir Henry At N'Didi's Kraal, a below-par offering of highly-lavatorial hi-jinks, which in Stanshall's own words "should never have been released".
The rest of the 1980s saw Viv's work confined largely to radio, but in 1991 after successfully battling his various demons, Stanshall embarked upon a marathon UK tour to packed houses and rapturous audiences; particularly memorable was a show in Manchester, at which Viv was "adored" by a section of the audience prostrating themselves at his manly feet. Shortly afterwards, his short play 'Crank' was broadcast by the BBC's Late Show.
In 1992 and 1993, Stanshall was plagued by ill-health, the results of his tranquiliser addiction and alcoholism, which saw him spend a couple of lengthy periods in hospital. By 1994, somewhat rejuvenated, he embarked upon gathering new material for a prospective new album. By his own estimate, he had 90 or songs lying around "waiting for some bugger with the money". He also made an appearance (somewhat the worse for drink) in Pulp's film Do You Remember The First Time?, and in the final months of the year Viv completed another nostalgic autobiographical piece for Radio 4, in which he reflected upon his early life and environment. It was almost as if he knew.
By the beginning of 1995, Viv had clinched the album deal that had eluded him for so long, and a new album of Rawlinson End material was on the cards. Whether or not anything had been recorded, and if it'll be released, remains to be seen.
Viv Stanshall died in a fire at his London flat sometime during the early hours of March 6th, 1995. As I write this, the exact circumstances are unclear, and I'm not about to speculate. What is important is that he's not around any more. In the obituaries I've seen, one word crops up again and again. Eccentric. It was a word that Viv Stanshall had grown to hate over the years. Viv Stanshall was not an eccentric. He was an individual. Irreplaceable. He had been sorely neglected in the last decade of his life, and now we're going to pay for it.
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