November 3, 2001
THE NON-BESTIALITY OF THE BONZOS, a 'blog' By Marcello Carlin
The Bonzo Dog Band's biggest handicap was being viewed as a "comedy band." A children's TV novelty group, which they only very, very partially were. They were simultaneously the most savagely unforgiving and most humane of pop bands - certainly the Brit equivalent of the Mothers of Invention, but crucially with a love of humanity replacing Zappa's cynical misanthropy, thus again reminding us of what the latter COULD have achieved with the subtraction of bad jazz-rock and the addition of a heart. And they were blessed by two visionary geniuses - Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes. Like Lennon and McCartney, they tended to work in parallel to each other, and the later Bonzo records, as with the later Beatles records, do seem like two separate albums bolted together, but there seems never to have been any hatred or acrimony between the two, an achievement in itself when you think of poor bloody Viv Stanshall, a man used by others and who, like Peter Cook and Kenneth Williams, was bound to destroy himself sooner or later. We tend to forget that the Bonzos started out at art school as a sort of Dadaist variant on the post-modern danceband-isms of the Temperance Seven, and most of their early repertoire consisted of fairly obscure '20s and '30s songs which they felt would lend themselves to their particular approach, later reaching out to rock & roll and doo-wop. When Neil Innes joined in '65 and brought his still underrated songwriting genius to bear on the band, their pendulum gradually swung more towards "nowness."
Their 1967 debut album Gorilla was very much a portrait of a band in flux, caught between their old Temperance Seven incarnation and Innes' love of warped pop. At the time the line-up still included relative purists like Sam Spoons and the splendidly-named Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, who didn't have much time for pop and left pretty smartly before the Bonzos' second album. But back to Gorilla; although the set kicks off with "Cool Britannia," the album includes fairly straight readings of pre-war songs like "Jollity Farm" and "Mickey's Son And Daughter." Stanshall's "I'm Bored" is in the same vein, but his brilliant, off-key ennui-laden delivery elevates the song, as does Innes' already evident interest in quick-fire song quotations and references. There are extremely vicious jibes at things they were forced to play on the cabaret circuit, like the one-liner reading of "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" with its cliched supperclub audience applauding every line of the lyric, the assault on trad that is "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold" which sounds like Kenny Ball's band hijacked by the Globe Unity Orchestra, and the truly vicious, beyond atonal kicking meted out to "The Sound Of Music." There are also a bunch of exquisite mod-goes-psych pop songs from Innes, including "The Equestrian Statue" (which, as with most of his songs, the likes of Damon Albarn would kill to have written), "Piggy Back Love" which spotlights Stanshall's rarely heard falsetto, and also strange instrumental interludes like "Music For The Head Ballet." The best-remembered moments, though, are three Stanshall set-pieces; "Death Cab For Cutie," a mordant Elvis tribute (which works well, especially when listened to in tandem with Presley's reading of "Long Black Limousine") which they subsequently performed on Magical Mystery Tour, the brilliant pulp fiction pisstake "Big Shot" with excruciating puns, Stanshall's wavering American accent/patently absurd tough-guy persona and Roger Ruskin Spear doing his Archie Shepp thing on tenor, and above all "The Intro And The Outro," surely a massive hit single had it not been relegated to the B-side of "Statue." Its references may seem rather tame to contemporary audiences ("Adolf Hitler on vibes...Princess Anne on sousaphone") but Stanshall's deadpan delivery never fails to make me fall about in hysterics. Note also how the music slowly develops very cleverly, with each ludicrous addition ("We welcome Val Doonican as Himself....Hello dere!") adding to the textures, so that what starts out as a homage to Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" ends up as something more akin to Terry Riley's In C.
With 1968's The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse, Stanshall and Innes largely jettisoned the pre-war fixations (the only remaining evidence of the latter being Innes' charming Ink Spots tribute "Hello Mabel") and thrust the listener into possibly one of the most remorseless and violent assaults on suburban "normality" ever heard on a pop record. Indeed there are few more uncompromising opening tracks than the freeform psyched-out kaleidoscope of "We Are Normal" with its backwards beats, its not completely ironic homage to Love's "The Red Telephone" ("We are normal and we love Bert Weedon") and its vox pop cut-ups of accepted "norms" ("short back and sides") this is both brutal and considerably ahead of its time, sonically. Innes' "Postcard" is a requiem for a bleak holiday, rather akin to "Everyday Is Like Sunday," although here there is resignation and poignancy rather than unabashed loathing. An attempt to understand why "normals" get pleasure out of such activity. Note the horn riff which will later appear, slightly modified, in "Rhinocratic Oaths." Tender and forgiving pop. As well as the fairly straight Beat pop of "Beautiful Zelda," Innes proves how adventurous he is with the astonishing "Humanoid Boogie," a song at least a quarter of a century ahead of its time with its proto-Vocoderised vocals, a surprisingly strong breakbeat and what appears to be the same string sample which Dr Octagon uses on "Blue Flowers," and also the berserk "Rockaliser Baby" in which the seaside facade is gleefully demolished with police sirens, guitar feedback, Evan Parker-esque squalling soprano saxes and seagull noises. Stanshall puts the boot in fairly solidly, too, with his OTM assessment of rich Home Counties kids wanting to be black in "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites" (which he rhymes with "hypocrites"), the Jacques Brel-type assault on suburban "decency" and banality that is "My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe" with its savage, defiant pay-off line of "I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life, and I will baffle you with cabbages and rhinoceroses and incessant quotations from Now We Are Six through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty's giant POISONED ELECTRIC HEAD!" (Snooty had appeared "tap dancing" on "Intro/Outro") and the proto-Rawlinson End musings on dead lives in "Rhinocratic Oaths." The latter is more chill than funny. The record ends with "11 Moustachioed Daughters" wherein Stanshall conducts an orgy (listen out for a blink-and-you'll-miss-her cameo from Germaine Greer) over what sounds like Peter Brotzmann's band getting their breath back in Tangiers.
Why this strand tends to be missed out in assessments of the Bonzos is because at this time they (a) signed up to be the resident band on proto-Python kids' TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and (b) had an unexpected hit with "I'm The Urban Spaceman," a song in which Stanshall played no part. This phase is recorded on 1969's Tadpoles. This latter was never viewed by the band as their official third album, but rather a compilation of songs performed on DNAYS (rather like Scott Walker's Sings Songs From His TV Series, not part of the "canon"). It did illustrate a retreat back to their Gorilla days; indeed, a 1966 recording of "Laughing Blues" is included, sounding remarkably like Carla Bley having a crack at Dixieland (Lenny Williams' trombone is very Roswell Rudd-like), as are fine readings of things like "By A Waterfall" and "Monster Mash." The latter sets Stanshall off on a fiendish, murderous cackle which on the album segues into "Urban Spaceman" (thus explaining the laughs in the intro). A sad song, the latter; Innes musing on human perfection but realising that such a thing doesn't exist; and this idea extends into "Mr Apollo" where a forever puny Stanshall makes ludicrously inadequate claims for the Charles Atlas formula ("Stare over walls! Play beach ball! Wrestle poodles...and WIN!"), but it's still ultimately a lament. The highlights here, though, are the extended sketch "Shirt" (the dry-cleaners' interlude sounds like a dress rehearsal for Python's Dead Parrot sketch) and the imperishable "Canyons Of Your Mind" - again thrown away as the B-side to "Spaceman;" if released as a follow-up, it might have got them a number one - where Stanshall takes an existing absurd metaphor (borrowed from Bob Lind's "Elusive Butterfly") and extends it to the point of mentalism. Innes famously plays the world's worst guitar solo, and listeners may note how Stanshall invents Gary Glitter in the closing section.
Although perhaps Neil Innes' most poignant song of all only ever appeared as the B-side to "Mr Apollo" - "Readymades," a beautiful miniature of a rundown city park which asks us to sympathise with the misfits and losers who inhabit it. The long, yearning instrumental fadeout (the French horn sounds as though it's crying) is one of the most poignant moments in British pop.
Keynsham, also released in 1969, was the band's "real" third album and fearlessly takes up the slack from Doughnut. It is certainly the Bonzo's finest and most consistent album, starting with a trio of killer Innes pop songs - the breakbeat-driven "You Done My Brain In," the phenomenal title track which more or less invents Super Furry Animals (indeed Innes' voice reminds me of a less gruff Gruff Rhys), the gorgeous, feather-light "Quiet Talks and Summer Walks" - not to mention straighter pop like "I Want To Be With You" and "Busted" and the odd dislocated ambience of "Junk Shop Man." Hardly anyone celebrates what a great pop band the Bonzos were, as well as everything else. This does tend towards being an album of two halves, but Stanshall's half is equally brilliant; the mutated rock & roll of "Tent," the brilliant deconstruction of Northern working men's clubs in "The Bride Stripped Bare By 'Bachelors'" (again a bitter recollection of the kind of treatment they got in their early days on the Batley circuit) and the astonishing "Sport (The Odd Boy)" which starts out as a medieval plainsong and halfway turns into the Bay City Rollers with a sinister ringing bell somewhere at the back. There is sadness and melancholy here, too; the spoken vocal links indicate an underlying despair ("Let's go back to your childhood"), finally leading to the unfathomable "Noises For The Leg" with its freeform theremin solo. Even the Gorilla-style "Mr Slater's Parrot" is very oddly constructed, fading out for no logical reason and then returning with a series of squawked "hellos." Could they have gone any further? It would appear not. The band split in January 1970 but reconvened (at least in part) for 1972's contractual obligation of an album, Let's Make Up And Be Friendly. Really it was pretty much Stanshall and Innes with hired hands, and the occasional input from other members is unmemorable - Spear's "Waiting For The Wardrobe" and drummer "Legs" Larry Smith's "Rusty (Champion Thrust)" which spends seven minutes going nowhere particularly amusing or interesting. "King Of Scurf" a song about nits, is quite passable (though really a partial rewrite of "Mr Apollo") and again spotlights Stanshall's falsetto; on other tracks like "Straight From The Heart" and "Fresh Wound," one could almost be listening to the Tindersticks.
There are three tracks, however, which make this album indispensable: above all, the nine genius minutes of Stanshall's first venture to "Rawlinson's End" which of course later expanded into a full-length album and film. Chris Morris probably learned everything he knows from this. There are also the two disturbing avant-garde instrumentals with which Innes bookends the album; "Turkeys" is Bartok meets Mingus (when heard in tandem with what Roy Wood was coming up with at the same time - e.g. "Music To Commit Suicide By" - this indicates an avant-muzak strain in early '70s pop which has never been properly followed up). And there is "Slush."
Barely two minutes long, scored for string synthesiser, organ and piano, an unbearably poignant (could almost be Angelo Badalamenti) melody arises. To this is added a loop of Neil Innes laughing. It repeats over and over, long after the music itself has ended. To what exactly is this a goodbye? It is the most disturbing piece of music the Bonzo Dog Band ever recorded. You can't reach me. I can see you. You can't stop me. This really is music to commit suicide by. The bleakness hinted at in their work all along now becomes apparent. Stanshall has already gone, en route to his own eventual pitiful pyre of an end. Innes will soon be gone too, to the Rutles and eventually popping up jamming with Yo La Tengo. There is no one left in this landscape. It's like a house after it has been emptied. One final look back. The sudden echo you hear in the front room. The emptiness. This could be anywhere. Not somewhere where once you were warm and cosy. The house has died. I'm too tired to think. Drop the keys through the letterbox and just go. Go away. How far can you get without looking back? Without thinking about it every second of the day?
Posted on Tuesday, December 03, 2002 , at 9:45 am.