THE A TO B OF CULTURE
By Karen Morden in frankmagazine.com
From the iron rhino that was the swinging 60's, there emitted a small but significantly audible prefabricated coal grunt that was the Bonzo Dog Band. An anarchic mix of music hall, trad jazz, rock, explosions, robotics, dandyism, pop, parody, tap-dancing, wordplay and belching, the Bonzos flourished between 1966 and 1969. Described by Pol Pot as the quintessential art-school band, they were originally the Bonzo Dog Dada Band. As the modernist practice of singing lyrics straight from newspapers began to subside, along with the yawniness of explaining to nonartyfarts that Dada was an art movement and nothing to do with Mama, `Dada' became 'Doo-Dah'; after a period of constipation the doo-dah was finally dropped.
The Bonzos occupy a unique and respected position in the canons of British humour and pop; their hundreds of fans and admirers who want to touch their clothes include Chris Morris, Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry. Never a commercial success (which serves to continue to secure them Kudos), their only chart hit was I'm the Urban Spaceman in 1968. This witty ditty was produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. The Bonzos also appeared in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film where Vivian Stanshall, the Bonzo's delightfully eccentric frontman, sports a gold suit and launches into a (then novel) mike-twirling, jaw-curling, Elvis impersonation with Death Cab For Cutie. The Bonzo's light-hearted yet intense 'nothing sacred' attitude influenced future Monty Python's Flying Circus members Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle when they appeared side by side in the memorable ITV children's television show Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Despite this exposure on the side of the Establishment, the Bonzos were greatly respected by the counter-culture of the time; they hung on the college and art-school circuits, they were a resident band alongside Pink Floyd in the UFO club, and Bonzo members collaborated with members of the rock aristocracy - sometimes obscurely with ex- Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, sometimes infamously in the case of dressing up as Nazi officers and drinking laughing liquid with Keith Moon. The Bonzos remained marginalized, partly due to bad management but also because they refused to be pigeonholed. Being everywhere and nowhere, embracing everything and nothing, they blew ripe raspberries at their music biz contemporaries, both Establishment and underground (daring to urge John and Yoko to 'Give Booze a Chance', and cast an absurdist eye on wider culture, lampooning (yet often weirdly celebrating) such phenomena as English seaside holidays (Postcard and Britain's Imperialist legacy (Hunting Tigers Out in Indiah), persistently questioning the concept of 'normal' everyday life (Rhinocratic Oaths, My Pink Half of the Drainpipe).
But, `whisky-wow-wow', we breathe, it is time to focus on one Bonzo song.
I've chosen the Mickey Spillane parody Big Shot, from their first album, mainly because it begins with `B'. Written and adorably narrated by Stanshall, who plays it cool but with extra spoonfuls of gusto, the piece is a 90% proof parody of 1940's film noir (think of Kiss Me Deadly, or any private detective given life by Raymond Chandler or Humphrey Bogart). The music be- bobs lightly in the background, plinking and plonking past gin joints, stepping hesitantly round every dark corner. At times it's reminiscent of Dave Brubeck, with the cacophonous and internationally overblown saxophone instrumental concomitant with the Bonzos' jazz-ish origins uncomfortably akin to John Coltrane. Looking at the diction of The Big Kill, 1952, by Mickey Spillane, the lines in Big Shot: "Wrong, baby. I slapped her hard", or "This is a deadly game, have a few laughs and go home", could easily have been slipped a mickey finn and abducted in a fast car from Spillane's original novels by Stanshall. In Big Shot, the protagonist, Bachelor Johnny Cool, sizing up the femme fatale, 'Hotsy', "studied the swell of her enormous boobs." Comparing this with a real line from The Big Kill: "Her breasts were precocious things... rising jauntily against the nylon as though they were looking for a way out," it is clear that Big Shot is not too extreme a parody. Big Shot has a punchy, pulpy comic book feel true to its object of ridicule, but necessarily exaggerated, for example we hear gun shots (or is that "Legs" Larry Smith's drumming?) and Hotsy is dressed as Biffo the Bear.
Of course this sensibility is very Bonzos, who used monster masks, superhero costumes, explosions and comic book speech bubbles saying Wow... I'm really expressing myself! in their act. Their songs contain nods to Lord Snooty, Brainiac, Mickey Mouse and King Kong amongst the more arty references to Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
Yet there are differences in Big Shot that separate it from the original genre. Though Johnny intimates that he was born and bred in the US of A, and the rhythms of speech match Spillane's dialogues, Stanshall plays him as recognisably English, nearer to a Simon Templar (The Saint) figure. Listen to the way Stanshall, with flair, "We spoke French fluently"; fey upper class English camp creeps into tough East Side New York from the wrong side of the tracks. Spillane's Mike Hammer is internally a sensitive, though jaded, guy, fighting for the good of humanity, on the outside he's always cool, tough and cynical: "I'm getting tired of seeing dames in clothes that make them look like a tulip having a hard time coming up," he says in The Big Kill. Yet his purpose in life, for Spillane's readers, is to be a `G' man: 'girls, guns and guts'. Bachelor Johnny Cool on the other hand is (and, we assume Stanshall also to be) an 'L' man, 'strictly liquor, love and laughs'. Johnny is unable to hide his true desires behind a masculine exterior: he is the drooling fool. Hotsy says, "you're slobbering over the seat, kid." In fact, Johnny is totally emasculated for comic effect: he has a wife who is `credulous as hell' and declares, "normally I pack a rod... in my pyjamas, I carry nothing but scars from Normandy beach." Another WW2 reference, "she had the hottest lips since Hiroshima, I had to stand back for fear of being burned", suggests that on one level the Bonzos are mocking their parent's war-worn generation, a widening of a generation gap typical of the baby boomers to which they belonged. Evidence that times had changed can be found in the complex meanings of phrases such as 'play it cool, Johnny' and "Baby, you're so far ahead it's beautiful."
There is an amusing development of language here; on the one hand the phrases are too arcane Fifties Americana, out of date and therefore ripe for parody, on the other those phrases had become mainstream currency for young people in Swinging Sixties Britain, and hence very cool indeed. Our sympathies are overall with the anti-hero Johnny, and the knowing Stanshall in this multiplicity of meaning, and - as Stanshall rather autobiographically argues - despite the lack of machismo, being eccentric is electric.
One further point about Big Shot worth exploring is that as well as the use of language in a pop song being 'so far ahead, its beautiful', the attitude to women (i.e. Hotsy here) is ahead of its time. Hotsy is still considered sexy despite, in fact because of, being dressed as Biffo the Bear. She has an ideal, comic book curvaceous body ('42-23-38. One hell of a region') yet she remains in control throughout and displays some very unladylike behaviour. One would imagine a woman who 'spat playfully' yet remains sexually desirable to be a character in an edition of late 1990's female sketch show Smack The Pony rather than in a 1967 piece by an all-male band. Women characters in British comedy at that time were usually stooges; they were either grotesque battle-axes or conventionally gorgeous babes whose function was to expose their bodies in order to expose the uncontrollable lust of men. The Bonzos subversively, perhaps unknowingly, allow a little more room to move than most British comedy at the time for female character. Regarding this subject, it is interesting to note that Stanshall appeared on the cover of
Oz magazine in March 1969
being unzipped by a breast-liberated Germaine Greer.
Nevertheless, the principal thing for which Big Shot is remembered, and oft-quoted by Bonzo aficionados, is its final lines: "A punk stopped me on the street. He said, 'you got a light, mac?' I said 'No, but I got a dark brown overcoat'." One wonders whether the rest of the song was just written in order to include this joke.
Big Shot appears on the album Gorilla, sports fans, hope it makes you sick...
Karen Morden Teaches media studies or something aiong those lines in Brighton. Best friend: Harry Pye. Fave food: Vegetable Korma. Fave film: Ferris Beuller's Day Off. Fave artist: Martin Creed. Fave band: Bonzo Dog Band and The Style Council. Fave Gallery: Zwemmers.