What I'd like to do is...
Well, I could do that if you liked, but I'm sure that you'd be better at bullying me.
(Voice off): Didn’t you go to school with him?
You're a very big fellow. I wouldn't forget that.
No, no, you're older than me.
I'm not, you know.
Oh yes, you are.
The above piece of undoubtedly intellectual badinage took place in a hotel in Swiss Cottage, and was by way of being a prelude to an interview that not unexpectedly continued in a similar manner. In the end I conducted two interviews with Mr. Stanshall. The first was mainly concerned with The Bonzos and the second, which took place on his now-famous houseboat, covered his career since the Bonzos' demise. The latter interview, although undoubtedly more relaxed, was punctuated by your editor dicing with death by localized frostbite or drowning by having to relieve himself over the side of the boat. Fortunately, being a winter's afternoon dusk was falling, nonetheless I'm convinced an entire group of girl guides was witnessing my discomfiture through binoculars from a clump of trees on the far side of the river ...
So - Viv Stanshall ... This ... is... your .... life. Or at least some of it. You were born March 21st 1943 at Shillingford Oxfordshire or Bally Bricken, County Waterford (or was it both?). But it was in Walthamstow, a rather unpleasant suburb of North East London, that you first attracted the attention of the authorities. What, if anything, do you remember of those far-off days of rationing and ante-bellum austerity?
I can't remember much about the place. I learnt how to run away with grace (Grace?). There's nothing to tell about Walthamstow much, apart from my Aunt Ciss who was K-legged (3.'?), a terrifying old lady who carried a brolly. I played harmonica at the bottom of the stairs in a hideous flat in Walthamstow. I was whipped on my naked bottom when I went to a private school there. We wore red tunics and my father wanted me to be a barrister. But I wanted to go to the convent and I did - but I was thrashed for fighting.
After Walthamstow the scene shifts to Southend, where our subject encountered the local grammar school before being expelled at 16 for undisclosed, though no doubt dastardly, deeds. In spite of this setback (or possibly because of it), Vivian entered Southend School of Art. Art in general and the practice of painting and drawing in particular have exerted more influence on his life than anything else - including music. In fact, right up to the end of The Bonzo, he never thought that music would be a full time occupation.
It only dawned on me about six months before I knocked the band on the head that this was actually going to be a living. None of us thought that it was for real. I wouldn't say that we didn't take it seriously, because we really worked hard at it, but I think that there was a delicious understanding between audience and band that we were being paid for a load of codswallop, and of course we shouldn't be enjoying ourselves - work shouldn't be enjoyable. But I thought all along, “Well, this is going to stop.” I'd be found out, and then I'd be a painter.
Viv stayed at Southend Art School until 1961, when again for undisclosed reasons be entered the Merchant Navy, apparently as a first class, then second class steward, a utility steward, and finally a 'squeegee consultant'. (I have no idea if that was promotion or demotion, but anyone unfamiliar with the term 'squeegee' should read some of S. Clay Wilson's pirate stories in Zap Comics.) Viv didn't say much about his nautical days to me, but in a fascinating interview with Brian Case (NE Nov.25.1978) he alludes to one or two highly improbable incidents including a Douglas Fairbanks style fight in Port Said ending in a swim back to the ship through “lukewarm water full of barracudas”.
Abandoning his sea-legs, Viv re-entered Art School - initially the South West Essex School of Art, followed shortly - and rather surprisingly, since he lacked the necessary qualifications - the Central School of Art in London around late 1962. During the next three years, more perhaps by accident than design, the Bonzo Dog Band came into being.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Art Schools had been in the forefront of virtually every radical new movement: trad jazz, fashion, CND, drugs etc., from the immediately postwar days of Wally Fawkes and Humphrey Lyttleton down to the then contemporary r'n'b world of The Stones and The Pretty Things. A continuum had been established, and it's hardly surprising that Viv got caught up in it. Of the other long-term Bonzos, Neil Innes was at Goldsmiths, Roger Ruskin Spear was at Ealing (with Pete Townsend), Rodney Slater was at St. Martin's.. and with Viv at Central was Legs Larry Smith, of whom Viv says: “We shared a common iconoclasm. He was in Graphic Design and I was in Illustration.”
A good starting point for the band can be taken from the time that Viv moved up to London and shared a house in West Dulwich with Rodney Slater. Rodney was loosely involved with a Temperance Seven style band at the Royal College of Art which just rehearsed and played at occasional RCA bar parties. Viv recalls: 'There were instruments all over the place at Rod's house and he said, 'Do you think you could play tuba?' and so I started with that. They didn't have a vocalist and I started posturing at the front, got the smell of it and started dominating a bit, singing lyrics out of newspapers - all very Dada.” Initially this lot didn't have a name but the Bonzo Dog name came up fairly early on (Viv couldn't remember exactly when) as a result of a chance papertearing game, which Viv sometimes employs when stuck for ideas. Viv certainly liked the Bonzo Dog cartoon, so he thinks that he wrote that bit and someone else wrote 'Dada' and so they became the Bonzo Dog Dada Band which later changed to the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band and eventually, of course, just the Bonzo Dog Band.
Gradually they became more organized (if that's the right word) and started to play regularly. “We played various art school dances, then we got a job at the Deuragon Arms in Hackney and we played there Sunday lunchtimes. Then we got two nights a week at the Tiger's Head, Catford. Then we got another gig in a boozer, until the year I was taking my finals we were working six nights a week. So there wasn't a very painful transition. Also during an Easter holiday (1966) at about one in the morning we played the Blue Angel Club in Berkeley Square which was full of guards officers and had a roped in ballroom, that kind of thing. We were spotted by someone from the Bailey Ring (some kind of Mecca style organization that owns places like La Dolce Vita in .Newcastle) who asked us if we could come and do six weeks on the trot in our summer hols. So we did. You do 45 minutes or whatever's required and then you drive 14 miles and do it again. We did it in the end for a whole year with no readies, no nothing, and funnily enough they liked it.”
On the subject of the early Bonzo days there seems a slight difference of opinion as to who was actually in the band. In the sleeve notes to UA's excellent History Of The Bonzos album, Neil Innes refers to people like Jim Strobes (ne Chambers - who left the band after their first week in cabaret in Newcastle, Bob Kerr and large Sydney Nicholls. He also alludes to the fact that Kerr took half the band with him in order to form his own Whoopee Band, which left the primarily visual part of the team (Viv, Larry, etc.) rather upset. Viv, however, remembers it slightly differently. “Jim Strobes was never with us. He did sit in at the Tiger's Head a few times, but he was never officially in the band. However at a later stage from the Royal College days, the band consisted of maybe forty people with about the same attitude and it really didn't matter if they could play or not. I can remember turning up at some boozer which was so tiny and the stage was so packed that I performed along the top of the bar. Sometimes there'd be one pianist and nine banjo players, you never knew who was turning up. Eventually people would say, 'I'm an artist,' and drop out. As far as I was concerned what we were doing was merely an extension of what we were doing anyway, and a damned sight more fun. So it just narrowed down to those of us who weren't serious about ‘art’ in the context of art school. However, I don't know whether it was out of perversity, but all of us qualified, we thought that was a good idea.”
There were other members of the band however who lasted almost up to the 'Gorilla' days, besides the hard core of Viv, Neil, Roger and Rodney. These chaps are pictured in an early (possibly their first) press release, dating from early 1966, which hopefully is reprinted somewhere about here, and includes such now-forgotten personages as John Parry, Raymond Lewitt and Leon Williams. Confusingly, Legs Larry Smith doesn't appear to be in it, unless his real name is Perry, Lewitt or Williams. Actually the press handout is superb. On the back it says, 'For Hard Sell Ring Reg Tracy' whose phone number is given as Regent 4323. (Oh, the great days of named exchanges, come back Museum, Byron, Central et. al., all is forgiven.)
The image portrayed in that press photo is avowedly 20s high camp and Temperance Seven influenced. Was that how they saw themselves musically at the time, I wondered?
If there was any influence at all it would be The Alberts or the Commedia del Arte. We never sat around the table and discussed what we were doing. Everyone was free to do what they liked. I don't know if we even liked each other, I'm not sure about that even now. It just seemed that we provided frames and opportunities. It meant that before I could make an even passable row on an instrument I had something bouncing along that I could do, mnemonic nonsense to screech to. I've always liked shouting and if it's aggressive titillating rubbish then all the better.
Musically though at this stage their act mostly consisted of camped-up 20’s jazz things and novelty songs: Tiger Rag, When Yuba Played The Rhumba On A Tuba Down In Cuba, etc. Some of them could play very well and the others tried hard. However they were already evolving the sort of routines which became their trademark: running gags, elaborate costume sketches, explosions, as well as Sam Spoons’ legendary performances on his eponymous instruments. Also during the pub days they started using the speech and thought balloons held over each others' heads and the ventriloquist dummy act with Sam Spoons as dummy, plus Roger's robotics, and of course Viv's patented Elvis impersonation.
Playing all this stuff presumably went down well in art colleges and the like, but when they started playing places like Newcastle I wondered if they had to play Midnight Hour for fear of getting their heads stoved in.
Well, we did do selections from the charts. If they said, “Can you do Release Me?”, we'd say, “'Immediately,”... and just start. Boney N is a name, I look down the papers, I don't know who they are, I haven't the faintest idea, but should you request it I would immediately perform it for you. That, of course, is based on fear as is everything eventually - or masturbation, which amounts to the same thing. But really no, strangely enough. We would turn up and find that we were billed as 'Britain's zaniest trad band' and so we'd be Britain's zaniest trad band - until we got bored with it. But I liked that. If they stuck me out there and said we were 'rock and roll' or a 'Boffin Band,' we'd become Magnus Pykeheads. Latterly, the only time I've had any unpleasant situation was in Wales and that wasn't with the band. You see, we had a terrific armoury... insofar as the maroons that we let off at least quadrupled the strength allowed for the stage - it was bloody dangerous. I can remember nearly killing Ginger Baker at St. Martin's School of Art because we used to set them off in dustbins not only to stop the flak, but to amplify the noise. We would spend loving hours making them. We used to get them from a place called Strand Electrics, but you can no longer buy fuses, detonators, and that sort of thing. Anyway, you put in the powder and you wrap it round with sellotape; if you put on lots and lots of sellotape you get a really sharp crack, but if you put an old sock in it with pulpy apples and things like that you get more of a 'pmmm' sound. We were pretty reckless, but I don't think we were driven by fear - just used to go out and ... vomit. All of what I'm saying makes it sound as though it was honed and tailored which it wasn't. But because of the necessity of doing just 45 minutes in cabaret, it was just like Mohammed Ali - we thrashed them. Those places like Griesborough were terrifying. Clubs with racks and racks of people drinking Exhibition Ale who'd say, “Come on, make us laugh,” and we'd say, “No. Shan't.” Anyway, I dislocated my shoulder in one of them - the silliest thing, I was just conducting. Larry carried me off, finished the show, and then he shoved a large brandy down my throat which is the worst thing that you can do to anyone that's ill. I was actually taken off on a stretcher and I got the St. John's Ambulance men to make it look as much like a straitjacket as possible. They had to lift me over these huge dormitory tables with all the Exhibition Ale... and they all came up to touch the body (I also had foaming mouth capsules). All theatre. And they said, “Bloody great! Aye, bloody great, champion.” At the climax of Can Blue Men Sing The Whites? I used to have a foaming blood capsule. It's quite interesting, over here it registered quite an amount of shock in the front row. In America they loved it.
Sometime early in 1966 the band managed to get a record deal with Parlophone. Two singles were released: My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies/I'm Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight (April 1966) and Alley Oop/Button Up Your Overcoat (Sept 1966), but didn't exactly sweep the band to fame and fortune. Stanshall said of them, “I don't know how it came about. I do remember going into the bigger of the Abbey Road studios and knocking out half a dozen tracks in three hours, which didn't surprise me in the slightest. I think they were all mixed and done the same afternoon. Not really chart-toppers were they? I heard them maybe six months ago and I didn't find them too embarrassing. Roger does a divine balls-up on Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight - starts off in the wrong key and saves himself brilliantly.”
For the most part they are fun Temperance Seven style numbers, but bits of Bonzoism manage to creep in, especially at the end of Alley Oop when Stanshall does a voice-over as the music fades about what decent chaps they all are, etc.
Neil Innes (again in the History Of The Bonzos sleeve notes) suggests that from about that time the Bonzos started to drop the jazzy things because people were labelling them as another New Vaudeville Band - who had just had a hit with Winchester Cathedral (Sept 1966) - but the change to a more rock-based sound was gradual, if only because they couldn't afford the right equipment. The transition can still be heard a year later on Gorilla, with its mixture of styles. Viv reckons that as much as anything, as they played they simply got technically more proficient, at least so that they could successfully create a pastiche or parody. All of it was apparently thought of in colours. For Gorilla and Doughnut, there were no chords written out, just graphs and designs, but as Viv remarked, “It all sounds very John Cage-y, but it wasn't anything as flash as that.”
Presumably dropped by Parlophone, it was nearly a year before the next recordings emerged, this time on the more 'progressive' Liberty label, a fact explained partly when it's recalled that although 1966-7 was their northern club period they'd also become associated with the 'underground', playing regularly at UFO and suchlike establishments. However, before that, they had reached a far wider public by appearing in the Magical Mystery Tour, performing Death Cab For Cutie, a number that was shortly to appear on Gorilla that is a pastiche of both Presley and Raymond Chandler. Of their involvement in the Magical Mystery Tour, Viv had this to say, “Paul McCartney came to some of our gigs - I know he was at the Lyceum and the Albert Hall and I think he persuaded Lennon that it'd be a good idea to put us in that film. And that kind of put the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on us. The thing that pissed me off though was that they never put us on the record - mean buggers. That was fun to do - we had all our equipment stolen from outside the Raymond Revue Bar, so we had to hire everything. And we were persuaded by the management that we had to have haircuts. We all went off to Stanley Allwins and had these outrageous pooftah jobs done. It looked great; it was really stupid. I love having haircuts - picking out a picture in a hairdresser's window and saying, “I want that one.” Especially now I’m balding and I ask for a Tony Curtis. And it doesn't matter if you're going to shave your head the next day, I like to get them slavishly copying these absurd designs. I once spent half a grant, I think Maxwell's was the place, in Camden Town, which was a Gent's Outfitters - they would do the 'latest' but at 'slashed prices' and you'd save poundssss. And you'd go in and say, “I'd like to look a bit sharp”, and then you'd see them rubbing their hands, putting these hideous red shirts and stackheeled shoes on you, and you'd hobble out in them to score women.
JP: That was when it was 'Continental Fashions’
VS: Yes, I-ties.
JP: How disgusting.
Anyway, without being a runaway best-seller, Gorilla, when it came out, reached a wider audience than most of the 'underground' albums released at the time. And despite its mixture of styles it is still consistently entertaining and still sounds very funny. I asked Viv whether they had problems transferring the stage act onto record. “We never did. They were treated entirely differently. I can remember it being a problem trying to transfer the other way. The number of people who asked us to play The Intro And The Outro which took at least 50 overdubs so it was clearly impossible... though we did try.
Parts of Gorilla (notably lines from ‘The Intro’ and Big Shot) became catchphrases for the youth of the day. Well, me anyway. I can still occasionally be heard to mutter, “Mmm, that's nice, Max.” or “Have you got a light, Mac? No, but I've got a dark brown overcoat.” Was Viv surprised when this happened? “Yes, I suppose I was - and flattered. But I don’t think that much of The Intro & The Outro. We did it in Regent’s Park on a four-track and it just struck me as I was going down there on the bus. I thought, “Let's try that,” and we spent the rest of the afternoon on it.
1968 saw them trying to consolidate their position (what a ghastly phrase), and amongst other things they did a number of sessions for Top Gear. Since this fact gets a mention on the sleeve of their second album: Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse, I asked Viv about it. “John Peel gave us an incredible amount of airtime and also we did things like The Brain Opera. I can't think of any other band that were doing playlets, things with a 'concept' at that time. We also did The Craig Torso Show. It was awful muck with terrible gags, but at least we were trying to do something theatrical, rather than just going on and doing a series of songs.”
The Brain Opera was never recorded by The Bonzos, and was worked on jointly by Viv and, slightly surprisingly, Arthur Brown. It was basically about scientists in a German university who are offered huge cash prizes to go and work in America. The original idea was to do a record first and then put it on in a theatre. Lines from the Opera do crop up in later Bonzos and Stanshall things (especially Rawlinson), but I only recently discovered that at least two tracks on an album by Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (the first album I think, but as I don't have them I'm not sure) are from the Opera. The Opera does recur in this saga later on, but now it's time to look at Doughnut. Not surprisingly, it's more rock based than Gorilla, and with the exception of one or two duff moments is probably their best album. However it was not well received by either the critics or the public, who wanted to know why it wasn't like Gorilla. Nevertheless it's a classic, with my favourite piece of Bonzo-period Stanshall, the semi-spoken Rhinocratic Oaths.
1968 ended with their first and only hit single, I'm The Urban Spaceman, which if nothing else got them on Top Of The Pops, complete with robots and smoke. Christmas 1968 also brought them a Colour Me Pop special. A superb 40 minute programme put together by the band included the wonderful Elvis piss-take, Canyons Of Your Mind (the title comes from Bob Lind's Elusive Butterfly), meal time in the Ruskin Spear household (all the family sitting around attacking plates of scrap metal with drills, saws, etc.), plus Legs Larry dressed in a huge fur coat entering a pub doing his usual 'You're so beautiful' routine (Legs was also prone to Shirley Temple outfits and large, wobbly, plastic tits). There was also a scene with Roger and Viv recording two rabbits called ‘Bathroom Chewing Leaves’. The grand finale was an extended The Intro And The Outro with hundreds of extra personalities swamping the band out. (Start a campaign to get this gem reshown. Write to the Beeb today.)
The Bonzos other great TV appearances were on the immortal 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', a kids' TV satire show also notable for the 'Captain Fantastic And Mrs Black' serial. Lots of the Bonzos' stuff was aimed at the kids but was very funny nonetheless. Sketches included ‘Highlights From The Table-Tennis Match - Remember This Exciting Moment?' (cut to Legs Larry collapsed over table-tennis table). To some extent the songs represented a return to the early 20s novelty style, things like Ali Baba's Camel, By A Waterfall, and Hunting Tigers Out In India. Many of the songs ended up on the third album Tadpoles, which Viv reckoned was not really intended to be their next 'official' release, but just purely a kids' album.
To return to the single Urban Spaceman, its success brought new problems for the band.
There was a difference in what was expected of you, what kind of motor you turned up in and what sort of roadies you had and whether you actually humped your own equipment around. One would assume that that would endear you to your audience, but that doesn't appear to be so. I much preferred it when we'd turn up and see a couple of geezers who couldn't get in and say, “Wanna be a roadie?” and drop them a nicker and they'd help you hump the stuff in. Fine and healthy. At the same time, I liked ostrich plumes and bags of swank. But only as long as they knew that I thought it was ridiculous... drawn by dormice. We acquired a different kind of admirer. I got the feeling they'd shout for anything, make a racket just because you’re there. It used to make me puke when it was obligatory to do Urban Spaceman, which I always hated... to tell you the truth. As soon as the first couple of tootles of that one came on, the place was in a riot. Not because I didn't like the song that much - it was OK at first - but I didn't like them picking up on things like 'I got speed' which never occurred to me. Suddenly it's something to do with methadrine, so that's all right. Absurd, stupid. That would piss me off. I'm more interested in taking chances and sticking my neck out. I had a lot of worries. I didn't like it. It seemed to me an unacceptable gloss. There are and were other things that I'm more proud of, that justify that sort of attention rather than a well produced single. I didn't think it was particularly representative of the band really.”
With which statement I wholeheartedly agree - the B-side, the aforementioned Canyons Of Your Mind, was much better, although again neither that nor any of their recorded songs could claim to be representative of the band. Incidentally, the single's production was credited to Apollo C. Vermouth, who was Paul McCartney. The next single, Mr. Apollo, also got them on Top Of The Pops, but failed to become a hit, despite Vivian's definitive basso profundo performance (Five years ago I was a four stone apology... now - I am two separate gorillas).
One inevitable by-product of success was the virtual abandonment of small clubs in favour of much larger venues, and although they'd done the odd big gig from late 1967 onwards, they rarely played anything else after ‘Spaceman'. I wondered if these bigger places offered them more freedom to fool around.
The Albert Hall didn't. It does appear to have a massive stage, but by the time they've got all their bits and bobs on there there isn't much room to muck about. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was like that too. Until we got to America it didn't make any appreciable difference and then it started getting silly. Then the carrot offered was Madison Square Garden or Shea Stadium and they said, “Well, lads, if you work for four years that's where you'll be,” and I said, “'I don't want to be there.” And they actually said, “We can put a magnifying glass in front of you.”
Touring the States, which they eventually did twice, was the other spin off from the single's success. They would have gone earlier but their then manager Gerry Brown kept saying that they couldn't go without a hit, so they changed management (to the ubiquitous Tony Stratton-Smith) but got a hit anyway. In America they were hailed as the British Mothers, which Viv thinks was a fair comparison, although at that time he hadn't heard them that much and he's obviously right in considering them as much more musically articulate than The Bonzos. Apparently they went down incredibly well, receiving standing ovations at every gig except one in New Jersey when they played in a vast Sports Palace with Sly & The Family Stone to an audience of 11 year olds. Since the stadium would not allow the band proper equipment Viv ended up singing through a megaphone to 30,000 kids. They didn't like it. Other than that, things went well.
I enjoyed the freedom. We were developing mammoth shows insofar as we were playing 2-3 hours, and some shows went on for 4 hours. It became freer and freer. We'd start off with some new melody which would suggest a routine or mime or something else, there'd be people coming on and going off and doing stuff. It seemed that in America they gave you marks for the whole performance, rather than ticking you off. “See me, should concentrate more,” after every song. It stretches you out a lot, America. I liked the place, but then what the hell did I see of it? It seemed only travel. The Detroit Rock Festival was wonderful where we played in the open air, as far as I remember...at least there was scorching sun. I felt very naked. I found over there people came up with presents. Whereas here they knitted scarves for us, especially after ‘Spaceman’ of course, in America they came up with scrapbooks of absurd advertising or strange drawings or things more poignantly to do with what we were about.
One notable gig took place at the Fillmore East.
The audience was comprised of stoned sheep, and we said, “Who're we playing with?” - it was the first time we'd played there. I think we were playing with Spirit - or was it The Kinks? (My God, that was embarrassing. Have you ever seen them live? Oh dear, oh dear.) Anyway they said, “You're the warm-up act,” so we borrowed all these running shorts and things and came out and did some PE for a bit. I loved it. I must start carrying a whistle. So we did a warm-up for about 15 minutes with beach balls and things and they were dumbfounded. Then the curtains closed and we went round the back and put on our glittery togs and did our set. And I don't think they ever asked, “Who were those guys?” They made no reference to it. Extraordinary. Bill Graham apparently loved the idea, and wanted them to do it at the Fillmore West. Not surprising given his predilection for basketball games.
The Bonzos' shows had become not only brilliant visually by this time, but also increasingly musically excellent. This was partly due to just playing regularly, as Viv has already mentioned, but also because the bend had gone through various personnel changes - the banjo and bassoon players had long since been replaced by competent rock musicians, notably Dennis Cowan who played bass during the band's final year. Other people came and went, such as one Dave Clague (about whom I know nothing) and an American called Joel Druckman (whose father was a psychiatrist). Also because Legs Larry spent an increasing time poncing about at the front of the stage, other drummers were hired, including Aynsley Dunbar who stayed for about six months and who Viv reckons was tremendous, and Jim Capaldi who played at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Larry turned up pissed with Keith Moon and tried to throw Capaldi off the kit. Vivian wasn't too pleased, but the audience loved it.
1969 produced the fourth album by the band, Keynsam. I wondered whose original concept it had been?
It was mine. That seemed to me to be the only never-never land, the only tangible Shangri-La. The fact that this man was disembodied and he lived there. Somebody pointed Keynsham out to me once on the way back from Oxford (if they were going back to London it was on a funny route) and I was very disappointed - not in the place, it was just white walls so it could be an English San Simeon. I just didn't want to know where it was in the same way that I don’t want to know where Rawlinson End is.
Just in case anyone doesn't know, Keynsham refers to the place inhabited by Horace Batchelor, who used to have a spot on Radio Luxembourg just about every night to advertise his magic ‘infadraw' method of doing the pools. Horace was part of my (and just about everyone's) youth. Always that same incredible monotone exhorting you to write to: Horace Batchelor, Department 3, Keynsham, that's Keynsham, spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M, Bristol. The thing was that if you won the pools using his method you gave him a great chunk of it. If you lost, you paid him anyway. Superb. What fascinated me was that though his spiel remained constant, sometimes you were told to write to different department numbers. Horace had previously turned up on 'The Intro' as had that other great radio ham from the slightly later pirate days: Garner Ted Armstrong.
Viv still likes Keynsham, a piece of work he is still proud of, feeling that it was 'texturally pretty sound'. I would agree, except that I think that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Cliché time again.) I think that the concept is excellent, but I find some of the songs a bit weak, and with the exception of one or two moments I don't think that it's as funny as Gorilla or Doughnut. The original had a great sleeve though. One final piece of trivia before we leave Keynsham, John Tebler (the bearded one in the recent 'great MM Xmas Kwiz Swindle') attended a UA gig when Keynsham was released, held at the old Open Space Theatre in the Tottenham Court Road, only to discover that though there was food a-plenty those waggish Bonzos had provided neither plates nor cutlery. A fact which must have confused JT (not a difficult feat), though I have no doubt that he somehow managed to clear the tables in the end.
Keynsham turned out to be their last album (not counting ‘Let's Make Up’ of which more later), the band having decided to jack it in during the second American tour. At first sight this seems a rather odd decision as they were playing better than ever, so why did they do it?
Genuine nobility and integrity. I knew we were standing up there and pontificating and influencing people of an impressionable age. It seemed to me that it wasn't fair to stand up there posturing, not knowing what the hell you were talking about. Also I wanted to write a book, I hadn't done any pictures, more importantly I hadn't made anything other than stage props. The closeted life in an hotel wasn't conducive to honesty and we were fast becoming, if we weren't already, that which we set out to attack. So I thought we'd knock it on the head for a bit. I didn't realise it'd be permanent at the time, though I sort of did. The floating idea was that we would go off and do what we wanted to and having got that out of our systems we would reform later, though that was never discussed. Rodney had it all figured out months before, and as soon as it was out of my mouth, he said, “Yeah!” Larry wasn't too keen but he was the only dissenter, I think. And certainly the people that were involved with us financially weren't too keen, because it was the time when we had just started raking it in, when we were actually making a profit. Prior to that we had never made any money at all, always in debt. So from a show biz point of view it was the wrong time, but not from my point of view. I deeply regret though, not having made a chunk of money, not having that kind of insurance.
So that was it. The band fulfilled commitments through to early 1970 and then called it a day. Rodney had already got his career organised - he'd been attending night school for months, training to become a social worker, and is now well up the hierarchy Larry wrote and travelled and then made a comeback touring the States with Elton John. Roger Ruskin Spear went into biG GRunt with Viv and then got his own show, the 'Giant Kinetic Wardrobe' organised, made an EP and sundry albums. Neil has perhaps been more successful than any of them. Initially he formed The World, who recorded the Lucky Planet album, followed by his How Sweet To Be An Idiot solo album, since when, amongst other ventures, he has been involved with Python, Grimms, Rutland Weekend TV and its spin off, The Rutles. At the time of writing, the Beeb are showing his 'Innes Book Of Records' series.
biG GRunt was the main thing Viv wanted to get off the ground after The Bonzos; however, at about the same time he and various groups of mates (including Eric Clapton) recorded various things under the names Sean Head Showband and Gargantuan Chums. The Showband single was the excellent Labio Dental Fricative on UA (including such great lyrics as: “Took off his hat, took off his head, took off Max Bygraves, and this is what he said... “) on the B-side of which was Paper Round also featuring Clapton on guitar. A great single that should have been a hit. The other single of that time, on Fly, featured 'Vivian Stanshall and his Gargantuan Chums' on one side, performing Suspicion (great Stanshall all-purpose crooner vocal) and on the other the only recording issued by biG GRunt, Blind Date.
Of the formation of biG GRunt, Viv had this to say: “I just wanted a backdrop for the stuff I couldn't do with The Bonzos. Remi Kabaka was going to be in it but there was some management nuisance with that. I wanted to utilize my interest in polyrhythms and instrumentation but since he dropped out, that didn’t happen with biG GRunt.” In an interview in Beat Instrumental (March 1970) Viv talked at great length about biG GRunt which he was currently putting together. Some of it never happened but it remains interesting reading. A few selected quotes should demonstrate this, as we obviously can't reprint the whole thing. “It'll be much more musical than the Bonzo Dog Band. I hope that the music is going to be excellent. Before we made musical impressions that were sometimes good... but that side wasn't too important, although it was becoming more so towards the end. BiG GRunt is going to be a rhythmic thing with a uniform pattern running through it. There will be gags both sound and visual. At the moment we are re-rehearsing like mad because the rhythm section has got to be very tight and things on top have to be well rehearsed too.” At the time the interview was conducted the line-up hadn't been fixed (it ended up as Viv, Dennis Cowan, Roger Ruskin Spear, and Borneo Fred Munt. I suspect Bubs White also got involved somewhere, although he may just have been a 'Gargantuan Chum') but Viv had lots of plans. Out front was to be Stanshall with Fred (ex Bonzo roadie) on vocals. Roger was to operate his machines that were to make smells as well as sounds. 'There might be a big pipe in the middle of the stage with arterial tubes going out into the audience so they can get the smell.” Behind these three would be the rhythm section: “... lead guitar, bass and African drums, possibly. This section has got to be unbelievably tight because it’s never going to stop. Just as in dance where body movements create movement senses linked with music, so you can also do this with words. We'll be trying to keep the thing, flowering, blooming, suggesting what comes next.” Also revealed in the interview was the fact that the band were also working on a Borneo Fred solo album: Keep On Trucking - which I assume never happened, and that Viv intended to produce a volume of poetry. In fact, he'd already tried to put out a cheap album of poetry, but decided against it when the record company would only put it out at full price.
To return to the Blind Date single, Viv told me the following story of its origins. 'That was written for Mat Munro. I knew the notorious Brian Morrison. He was in furniture design when I was doing illustration at Central, so we're sort of chums and he had the publishing on a couple of songs of mine. I went down to see him and he said, 'Why don't you write a song for Mat Munro?' So I guffawed and he said, 'Mat sells millions in Australia and New Zealand and South Africa, all you've got to do is write tripe.’. I said, 'OK, but I'm not au fait with Mat's material, maybe you could lay some on me.’ So I went home and dissected Mat's material, which seemed full of catchphrases like 'It's funny, but ... and 'I knew somehow ...' punctuated with fingersnapping and what have you. So I got the bits and pieces and put them together and started off with, 'We made a date at half past eight to meet at ...' and I kept breaking out - I couldn't control it, and it wound up with all this rubbish about pygmies and ladders. So anyway I went down and the melody then was crap. I gave it to Morrison who promptly collapsed and he said, 'We've got to get Mat's manager down,’ who was in the third penthouse above. And Mat's manager came down and I kept a straight face but Morrison broke up. Anyway, it wound up as me recording it as the B-side of Suspicion. It was a genuine effort but I'm not that straight. Pete Brown, he does translations of Mireille Mathi'au... “
He never told us that.
No, he's a little sneak, isn't he? He's demonstrably Jewish under that cloak. He's the most infuriating Scrabble player. He will take (and I kid you not) 40 minutes to an hour to get all of those 7 letters out. In which time you will turn on the TV, see the commercial break while Brown's still pondering, and then turn it up and watch the entire programme. He did make me laugh, he came up with something - he was clearly fretting with his last 5 letters - he came up with EMUIE, which he explained as being bored with ostriches. He’s so conscious of his role as wordsmith. Right. Where were we? Oh yes. biG GRunt. (Christ knows why it was written like that. ) Everything looked set for the band, enthusiasm, bags of ideas, gigs set up, etc. However things didn't quite turn out right.. After about two proper gigs plus a couple of Top Gear appearances (anyone got tapes of them? Please?) and an appearance on the Easter edition of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore Show. Vivian had a complete nervous breakdown. “Yes, I was mental, spent six months in a room I'd painted black and then went into a mental hospital where I stayed for 3 or 4 months. I was jolly good at Ping-Pong. I was thrown out for fornication. I also behaved disgracefully at the Open Door. With hindsight, it was silly, because they should throw the loony bin open to let people see what normality is like or give them comfort or whatever it does. But anyway, at the time I was charging the visitors a couple of bob to go and watch people foam at the mouth. It wasn't all that tortured in the light of later experience. It was very helpful and my bed had previously been occupied by Spike Milligan, so that shows what a great tradition it all is. They used to say. “Well he didn't like greens either, he used to have two eggs.” He wasn’t as good at Ping-Pong as I was, though.
What sort of thing did Viv want to do when he came out?
Certainly I was thinking along the lines of some kind of theatrical presentation and I think that was when Neil and I went to Hemdale and I gave them a draft of The Brain Opera and they said they were going to put us into a theatre for a bit. So I put a lot of energy into that and they just forgot about it.
In his press biog Viv describes himself as having spent the 70s as a professional eccentric, a description with more than a grain of truth in it. Related to this is the diversity of the ventures he’s been involved with, which makes any kind of chronology from here on virtually impossible. Also, further periods of ill health have meant long lay offs (at least a removal from the public eye), and some of his ventures (particularly those just prior to lay offs) were, dare I say it, less successful than they might have been. What I'll try to do, then, is to group Vivian's activities as far as possible by medium (if that's the right word) rather than continue chronologically.
One of Vivian's most interesting assaults on the public in recent years has been as a radio personality. Of these perhaps the most surprising was his involvement with Richard Baker's 'Start The Week' on Radio 4. Viv explained. “Richard Gilbert was the producer of those things and he was and still is a freelance journalist. He did something on us for Queen or Esquire or something. He blagged me into doing it. He came to my house and he knew I had some tapes and he said, ‘Do you want to do the 78 spot?' I used to get the subject for the week and link up some surreal story with musical splices. It was great fun. I did it for about two years. There was also a programme hosted by Kenneth Robinson (If It's Wednesday) and I also used to do the Jack de Manio Show. Wonderful man. 'Have another glass of champagne, dear boy.’ They've all got these incredible gigs with vineyards. They visit the Chateau for two or three weeks and they append their names to fierce plonks and having done so they get cases of it turning up at the Beeb. So whenever you did the Jack de Manio Show you'd be off on champers. ‘Do try this little red wine in the corner'. He's an incredible bloke. I used to go round the corner to The George and there'd be Jack and his voice and John Snagge would come in and then another one - all these people yakking. Frightening. Radio voices. Very surreal.
However it was Radio Flashes that made up Viv’s magnum opus in broadcasting terms. “The gig was that while John Peel was away on holiday for four weeks I'd do it. All of that was extraordinary. They were going to pay me £45 for the whole thing. It was a two hour show and there were all these sketches and vignettes, cameos and all the rest... just getting the sound effects right and overdubbing the voices was a tremendous amount of work. And they were going to pay me £45 for it which was ridiculous, because not only was it a synthesis of loads and loads of bits and pieces, but it was full time work. Anyway, I went to see this bloke who was the Fuhrer of Finance because I thought 40-odd smackers wasn't enough. Let's say I'm meeting him at 4 o'clock, about 3 minutes later I’m ushered in, and without looking up he said, 'He's tall, he's red-headed, he has a beard, and he's 3 minutes late. Sit down. I have perused your script and I find you worthy of £55 a week. Shake hands.’ Then he pressed a button and a maid comes in. ‘Mr. Stanshall has an appointment at a quarter to 5. We'll take tea at 4.42.’ Not 4.40 or half past or quarter to or anything else like that, but 4.42. I'm watching the ticker and at 4.42, dingdong, in she comes with a silver tray. 'One lump or two?' Astounding.
One of the problems with doing Radio Flashes and other things for the Beeb was a continued battle with the establishment in order to obtain access to the Radiophonic Workshop. “The Radiophonic Workshop is built like the bridge of a ship with so many knobs and twiddles. It's a nipple man's nightmare. You can get anything there. They've got white noise and pink noise and you start from there and what fun you could have. But you can't do that. What I wanted to do - you remember Terry Wogan and his Fight The Flab? - I asked Terry Wogan if he'd do Fight The Flab if I provided Flab. So what I wanted was to get an intelligent noise of flab so that Wogan could fight it in the ring while I did Kert Walton-style commentary from the outside. Terry Wogan broguely agreed. I tried it with balloons full of water and porridge and I couldn't get it right - I wanted flab bouncing off the ropes and hitting the canvas and he'd have a half-nelson on flab, who goes for a flying cross-buttock, etc. So it seemed that the only way I could do that would be to start with white noise. So I thought, 'Great, I'll go down to the Radiophonic Workshop', but you can't do that, you've got to write a specific script. And this was up through the Head of Department at Radio I and then to the Head of Department at Radio 3 or 4 and still you don't get into the room. It was clearly impossible. ‘Flab enters the ring and removes his things: he postures and struts.' My scripts for the things I was working with on Flashes... I had an engineer and John Walters and we all spoke more or less the same language, but even to interpret the Script there to each other was difficult enough - but to tell some wanker - forget it. But at the end of all that, Radio Flashes got reviewed in The Guardian, The Times and The New Statesman. Dennis Potter said all this laudatory panegyric stuff. So they said, 'Could you do 13 weeks?' and I said, 'No, I just couldn't write that.’ But it was on the cards that I'd do one. I'd like to do that again. I had such a fight to get on 78s or records that they hadn't heard of. It's much easier now I'm sure - clearly it is from listening to Peel’s show, which is about the only thing that I do listen to.
Throughout the 70s Viv has turned up from time to time on television. For a time he was one of the team that put together Up Sunday, which included some marvellous sequences including the performance of one of his own songs called Cyrano. “It was a Tony Bennett thing with - I don't know what you call this device on TV when you see a face within a face so that you get a profile shot and then the full face coming through that - so it's as though there are gauzes of different shots coming through and resolving themselves with each part of the fabric. I did this with an enormous piece of nose putty and a bald head - a latex thing, and the whole thing melted as I went through the song. I got uglier and more destroyed, like the 'House Of Wax' number and then when I got up there wasn't any top to the stool, there was just this vast shining point. It's a pity you have to do those things within the corsets of satire programmes because I would really enjoy seeing that kind of thing on straight shows - in Brucie's Big Night or something. I'd really like to do a running TV show - one that had no particular place at all, so that they just allocated you say 10 minutes a week and you could use that time anywhere - a few seconds within a commercial break or whatever.
Viv's other major contribution to the television of our times was his 'One Man's Week' in 1974, which featured a tour of Viv's house, a trip to the Zoo (Viv is a member of the Royal Zoological Society) and up to the Manor to record.
For the reasons mentioned above, Viv's live work during the 70s has been at best sporadic. Various tours have taken place with bands usually consisting of old friends under names like Vivian Stanshall 's Chums or Vivarium (who toured with Procul Harum in 75). Viv was also involved with Grimms for a time, of which he says, “'I found that all very unhappy. I don't know why it didn't come off. There was a terrific lack of sympathy between musicians and poets. I told Brian Patten I hated him - I can't remember why. He seems to think he's the new Lord Byron - recycled Byron. To be honest - never got past his voice. His delivery interferes so much with what he's saying. I couldn't pass a remark on whether I like his work or not. I simply don't know.' Viv also turns up from time to time as a solo at Arts Festivals and things. A friend of mine saw him at Lancaster Poly in Spring 1973 appearing in a sketch called 'Art And Abart', doing a ludicrous clog dance in Van Gogh disguise. Viv was also Uncle Ernie in the stage version of Tommy.
As far as records go, Viv has made several 'dodgy' singles over the last few years (he can’t remember exactly how many), but they include a wonderful version of The Young Ones with a band called Kilgaron (with whom he also recorded We’ll Meet Again, but it wasn't released). In 1974, Warners put out a single called La Conga on the B-side of which was a thing called Baba Tunde (probably totally the wrong spelling - I don't have it), the making of which was worthy of note. “Steve Winwood was to play keyboards and Fuzzy Samuels was going to play bass, but he got the days mixed. When Steve turned up I said, ‘Thank God, you're here, Fuzzy hasn't shown. Can you play bass and we'll put the tinkle on later?' So he said, 'Well, the taxi driver plays bass.' I said, 'Does he?' So this enormous West Indian walked in and I said, 'Well, it's in D Flat Minor,' and he said, 'Mmmmm, me friend play kit.’ So the taxi driver's friend played kit. They just went straight in, no pissing about, and it was amazing, absolutely great.'
Other interesting items of recorded Stanshall in recent years include the narration on both Peter And The Wolf (the one on ESO) and Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Viv also cut one track for the 'That’ll Be The Day' soundtrack (Real Leather Jacket) backed by Keith Moon, Graham Bend, Keith Richard, Ron Wood and Jack Bruce.
Apart from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End', Viv has been involved in only two albums in the 70s. The first was the Bonzos' reunion album, Let's Make Up And Be Friendly in 72. “That was to get out of the UA contract. The deal was - I said, ‘We won’t record,' and we didn’t for 18 months or so, until it got to the point where they said, 'If you make one more then you're out of it.’ So we did, and we made a tremendous row - I still have the tape - they said, '45 minutes'. So we got to the studio, unpacked, and said '45 minutes - go!' and chucked off the album and that was that. It's an amazing tape. And the next morning we woke up and thought, 'We can't put that out, we can't be so rotten,' and so we did what we could.”
Strangely enough, it's not that bad - the production is definitely odd at times and there are some dull pieces, but it does contain the wonderful Strain, a Stanshall tour de force and one of the most distasteful things on record. Actually it wasn't really a reunion, being put together by Neil and Viv, aided and abetted by Andy Roberts, Bubs White, Dennis Cowan and a couple of others, with Legs Larry and Roger Ruskin Spear appearing only on a couple of tracks (they both wrote one song each) and Rodney Slater is present only in spirit.
From ‘Let's Make Up' there is a two year gap before Viv's first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. “That was all about frustration. I was really pretty sick at the time I made it. It's got some pretty good lyrics. I was toying, I think pretty successfully, with African polyrhythms and so on. It's one long squwark. It's the same old crap - the artist caught in the commercial net and having a squwark at the conditions he's created for himself. It's a fairly articulate squwark - it's pretty painful in parts. It's very personal to me. I think it was all I was capable of at the time. Not only was I drunk and full of Christ knows how many tranquillizers, but I was absolutely furious. It seems to me now that at that point I was inevitably plunging into the abyss and there was no way out. I didn't think it was wholly my fault, in that state you magnify anything that prickles, and so it was probably a vitriolic attack on my own lethargy, but certainly I didn't bother to sugar any of that. I'm not saying that it was stream of consciousness stuff because it came out very labouriously and it was almost Miltonic in construction in parts. I used as many bits and pieces as I could to get as wicked as I could - as many scalpels and innuendoes and double-entendres as I could wack into it. I find it uncomfortable to listen to. I don't think that you'd pull anybody with that in the background. The title was something I thought of on the road - like the game of what was the largest word you could make out of the numbers of the registration plate of the car in front, those games that you play to take your mind off things. And so we did the thing with road-signs and I had 'tuning forks ahead' and 'beware giant worms' - without the pictures they're not very funny. I don't suppose they were very funny then, but you'd giggle like a schoolboy masturbating when you're in those situations. The album was also a stab at Judge Dread's things. How The Zebra Got Its Spots is basically about masturbation.
One final comment about 'Umbrellas'. Warners lost the master tape of side two. What you hear on the album is dubbed from an acetate.
Before moving on to Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, mention should be made of the strange case of the other 'reformed' Bonzos album cut in 1977 that was never released. Some of this involves a fair amount of jiggery-pokery so I won't name too many names. Basically a 'firm' called Evolution (now in liquidation) put together a package that they sold to Phonogram that involved a reformed Bonzos put together by Viv. Evolution managed to convince Phonogram that it was pretty much the old band and thinking that that was what they were buying, Phonogram sunk a lot of money into the project. Neither Viv nor any of the other members of the band even knew they were dealing with Phonogram and had no idea what Evolution were touting them as. Viv signed a dummy contract that was somehow stuck on the back of the paper that Evolution showed Phonogram. All very dubious. An album was recorded and when Phonogram heard the tapes they freaked, since it sounded very little like the old Bonzos, but then there was no reason why it should, as that was never Viv's intention. Evolution buggered off with the money and that was that. It was an interesting band though: Zoot Money, BJ Wilson, Gaspar Lawall, amongst others, with Steve Winwood playing on the album as well. For the most part it was apparently more r'n'b orientated than the old Bonzos, except for one interminable track featuring and written by Legs Larry called A Day In The Life which eventually emerged in a different form as the B-side of his last single, Springtime lor Hitler. Anyway, Phonogram did the decent thing and allowed Viv to take the tapes back with a view to him hawking them around the other record companies. Which he did, except that he also took round tapes of Rawlinson End, which he'd wanted to release before the Evolution business came up. Apparently CBS were interested but wanted a Bonzo style single as well, likewise EMI, who wanted a side of Rawlinson and a side of other bits and pieces. Tony Stratton Smith at Charisma made no such stipulations.
So at last we have arrived at Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (if you pardon the pun); currently the last piece of the Stanshall puzzle. The origins of the Rawlinson name goes back a long way. The Rawlinson’s appear on trombone on The Intro And The Outro and Percy Rawlinson crops up in Rhinocratic Oaths (although Viv had forgotten this). Nevertheless, the real origin of the saga goes something like this:
I was writing a song about a dentist's and then I remembered reading a Woman's Own in there, where you get 'The Story So Far ...' and you're plunged into this extraordinary world of which you know nothing, and so I started reading one of these and forgot the song about the dentist and Rawlinson End came out of it. I did a couple of things for John Peel and in each one I included a Rawlinson End saga. Then John Walters asked me to do a 'Christmas At Rawlinson End' and since I was sans-band, I did them as they came up. I deliberately said Episode 22 or 47 or 95. So whilst you were left with something of a cliff-hanger at the end, it's only lately that I've introduced any continuity. I've given it shape to allow myself more freedom and I do studiedly pace it now, because the extemporisation never stops, even when I go into the studio with a script and it goes through about four processes when I get there and all of them are fragmented and chopped and swapped. I only know more or less what I'm going to say when I get in front of the mike
I have to admit that I find it difficult to say anything constructive about Rawlinson End. It's one of the most consistently funny and genuinely brilliant things I've ever heard. I fall over every time I hear any of it. I certainly have no intention of analysing it. I did put it to Viv, however, that there is a strong element of those old schools' programmes of the 50s and early 60s. VS: “'A lot of edification in it. Yes. You will enjoy yourself. Are you sitting comfortably? - then sit up STRAIGHT! There's a good deal of parental and school control in there, especially on the album.”'
The new album (Charisma C51139) is not Rawlinson End's first appearance on record - a 9 and a half minute bulletin appeared on ‘Let's Make Up', but essentially it's its first appearance in a structured form with a continuous narrative. Basically it's most of 3 or 4 bulletins of 1978 vintage, more or less as they appeared on Peel's show with a few more songs. An excellent record and every bit as essential as any of The Bonzos' albums.
One final comment from Viv: I think it's good. I think it's pretty bloody good actually. I certainly don't think it's worth 4 quid, but then I don't think anything is.
Viv has already at the time of writing done four shows based around the album and plans to do more. In the future they will probably become more elaborate with props and lights etc., but essentially Viv's gigs will remain - in the foreseeable future at least - theatrical rather than performing with a band. Viv dislocated and screwed up so much of his body doing that in the past that he's reluctant to risk it again. He will however record with a band again, although nothing is fixed yet.
I think that the above more or less covers all aspects of Viv's career to date, except his voice-overs for ads (I have a tape of my favourite - for Amplex breathfreshener) and the fact that he claims his paintings and drawings grace the walls of aesthetes across the globe.