MOAB IS MY WASHPOT
By STEPHEN FRY
There was one band, however, that I soon came to know everything about. About halfway through my first term, Rick Carmichael ran out of cash and decided to hold a Study Sale, an auction in which all the stuff, gear and rig he could do without became available to the highest bidder. I came away from this sale with the complete set of BBC tie-in Jeeves Penguins and an LP, the very album whose first track, "Hunting Tigers out in India," had been playing when I had first knocked on Rick's door. It was called Tadpoles and was the work of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
I had heard of them because they had enjoyed their one and only number one hit with "The Urban Spaceman" while I was still at Stouts Hill. This album was most strange and wonderful to look upon. It had holes pierced in the eyes of the band members on the front and, inside, a card which you could slide ackwards and forwards, which made all kinds of shapes pass in and out of the blank eye sockets. Below the title Tadpoles was the phrase 'Tackle the toons you tapped your tootsies to in Thames TV's Do Not Adjust Your Set...' which, it grieves me to say, meant nothing whatever to me, our house not being an ITV house. I am not even sure if my parents' television could get ITV at this stage. I remember, to divert for a moment, that when we had moved up to Norfolk, aged nine and seven, Roger and I had been desperate to watch television that first evening because the week before, in Chesham, we had seen the first ever episode of Doctor Who and were already hopelessly hooked. Something had happened in transit to the mahogany Pye television with its tiny grey screen and it wouldn't work. We missed that second episode and I grieve still at the loss. Do Not Adjust Your Set, I now know, was an early evening comedy show which had featured Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, who had by this time already gone on to join John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam in Monty Python's Flying Circus, which had just begun to seep into our consciousnesses. The music for Do Not Adjust Your Set was provided by a very strange collection of Art students and musicians who called themselves the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. By the time I began seriously to get into them, they had dropped the Doo-Dah and were just the Bonzo Dog Band.
The two leading lights of the band were the immensely skilled musical pasticheur Neil Innes (who continued his association with the Python people by writing the songs for and appearing in The Rutles and The Holy Grail and so on), and the late, majestic and remarkable Vivian Stanshall, one of the most talented, profligate, bizarre, absurd, infuriating, unfathomable and magnificent Englishmen ever to have drawn breath. Stanshall (Sir Viv to his worshippers) died in a fire a few years ago and I felt terrible because I hadn't been in touch with him for years - ever since I had helped him out a little by investing in a musical he had written called Stinkfoot which played, to generally uncomprehending silence, in the Shaw Theatre, London, some ten or so years ago.
Over the next year at Uppingharn I bought their other albums, Gorilla, A Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse, Keynsham and finally Let's Make Up and Be Friendly, their last, which contained Stanshall's short story, "Rawlinson End" which I can still recite by heart and which he went on to develop into that outré film masterpiece Sir Henry at Rawlinson End starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry and J. G. Devlin as his butler, Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer. When I first heard the joke, "Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer," I laughed so much I honestly thought I might die of suffocation.
Oh, very well, it isn't Alexander Pope or Oscar Wilde, but for me it was as delicious as anything could be delicious. With Stanshall, it was as if a new world had exploded in my head, a world where delight in language for the sake of its own textures, beauties and sounds, and where the absurd, the shocking and the deeply English jostled about in mad jamboree. It was Stanshall's voice, I think, that delighted me more than anything. It had two registers, one light and dotty, with the timbre almost of a 1920s crooner, and capable of very high pitch indeed, as when he sang songs like the Broadway standard "By a Waterfall"; the other was Dundee cake of a voice, astoundingly deep, rich, and fruity, capable of Elvis impersonations (the song "Death Cab for Cutie", for example) as well as great gutsy trombone blasts of larynx-lazy British sottery, to use a Stanshally sort of phrase.
Most people will know his voice from the instruments he introduces on Mike Oldfield's otherwise entirely instrumental album Tubular Bells, which sold in its millions and millions in the early 1970s and founded the fortune of Richard Branson.