Dec 21, 1967
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The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (also known as The Bonzo Dog Band or “The Bonzos”) was created by a group of British art-school students in the 1960s. Combining elements of music hall, trad jazz and psychedelic pop with surreal humour and avant-garde art, the Bonzos came to public attention through a 1968 ITV comedy show, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Formation and early years (1962–1966)
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was officially formed on 25 September 1962, at 164c Rosendale Road, West Dulwich, when Vivian Stanshall (lead vocals, tuba and other wind instruments) and fellow art student Rodney Slater (saxophone/clarinet) bonded over the late-night transatlantic broadcast of a boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, after being introduced by Slater’s flatmate Tom Parkinson. At the time, Slater was already playing in a traditional jazz band at college with Parkinson on sousaphone, and Chris Jennings on trombone. Trumpeter Roger (‘Happy’ Wally) Wilkes and banjo-player Trevor Brown were the founders of this loose conglomerate at the Royal College of Art, although the lineup is thought to have been exceptionally fluid and constantly revolving, consisting of as many as forty to fifty rotating members if Stanshall’s later recollections are to be believed.
Stanshall would become the band’s next recruit after that day in 1962, when he and Slater rechristened the existing group The Bonzo Dog Dada Band. In the 2004 BBC Four documentary Vivian Stanshall: The Canyons of His Mind, Slater claims that the name was inspired by playing a Dadaist word game using cut-up technique, which involves writing words or phrases on paper, tearing the paper into strips and then randomly re-assembling the strips to form new phrases. One of the phrases created was “Bonzo Dog Dada Band”: Bonzo Dog after Bonzo the dog, a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s, and Dada after the early 20th-century art movement.
In the early 1960s comedic pop records by artists such as Charlie Drake, Bernard Cribbins and Spike Milligan were very popular in the UK and enjoyed chart success alongside pop music parodies by pop cabaret acts such as The Barron Knights, and this fledgling version of the Bonzos was already slowly turning its style from more orthodox music towards the comedy-tinged 1920s popular jazz-style sound of groups such as The Alberts and The Temperance Seven.
This original lineup (centred around Stanshall, Slater, Wilkes, Brown, Parkinson, Jennings, saxophonist Claude Abbo and Drummer Tom Hedge) soon imploded, however, after flatmates Stanshall, Slater and Parkinson had seriously overspent their Autumn Term’s grant money on good food, clothing and musical instruments, which led to their unceremonious eviction in December by their landlord for non-payment of rent (and, thanks to Stanshall’s failed attempt at making scrumpy in the bath, damage to the property).
Stanshall and Slater then parted ways for a while but Slater in particular kept faith in the band’s continued existence and dedicated himself to its eventual resurrection. Things began to come together again in 1963 when the two reunited with Wilkes, and two new faces entered the picture: On banjo, double bass and later bass guitar, Goldsmiths College lecturer Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell and his lodger, songwriter/pianist and later guitarist Neil Innes. Bowhay-Nowell was already familiar with the band’s earlier incarnation and happily came on board. According to Innes’ website, the Bowhay-Nowell was added to Vernon Dudley’s name by Stanshall, although this has proven to be untrue. Vernon’s parents were Walter Nowell and Bessie Bowhay. Unwilling to lose the unusual ‘Bowhay’ part of the name, they gave their children Vernon Dudley and Peter the name ‘Bowhay’ as an addendum to the surname ‘Nowell’. It seems unlikely, however, that the slightly older, slightly more conservative Vernon had used such an affectation in his everyday life before Stanshall’s suggestion, which may be where the confusion arose.
Multi-instrumentalist Neil Innes, meanwhile, would prove pivotal to the band’s continued existence, not to mention their later success. Armed with a musical education and a philosophical bent, he would go on to marshal the band’s disparate talents into something resembling cohesion, whether they liked it or not. However, cohesion and success both still lay some way ahead. Innes has spoken often about his first meeting with Slater and Stanshall in a London pub—Stanshall walked in wearing a Victorian frock coat, checked trousers, pince-nez glasses and large rubber false ears on his head whilst carrying a Euphonium under his arm.
The band meanwhile had been working with trombonist John Parry and drummer Ed Chamberlain before Slater recruited Martin Ash, a percussionist who later took the stage name of Sam Spoons. Shortly afterwards Spoons secured the band their first regular pub gig at The Kensington in Notting Hill, where they were noticed by “Big” Sid Nicholls who would soon join them as second banjo-player. Big Sid in turn introduced Roger Ruskin Spear (son of the British artist Ruskin Spear) to the band. With his interest in sculpture and the manufacture of early electronic gadgets, objets d’art, and sound-making systems, and having already recently played in a one-off impromptu scratch band with Slater and Innes, Spear also soon became a member of the Bonzos. From his own defunct band The Jungle Orchestra, Spear brought with him trumpeter Leon “Lenny” Williams to replace the departing Wilkes.
Band members continued to come and go throughout 1963 and 1964 but by 1965 the band had settled to a stable lineup of Stanshall (lead vocal/mime), Slater (clarinet/saxophone), Innes (piano/guitar/vocals), Bowhay-Nowell (basses/banjo), Spoons (drums/percussion), Spear (saxophone/devices), Nicholls (banjo), Williams (trumpet), Parry (trombone) and Raymond Lewitt (tuba). The line-up changed again later that year with the departure of Parry (who would later go on to be a founder member of The Pasadena Roof Orchestra), and the final ‘classic’ Bonzos band member, “Legs” Larry Smith, joined to replace the outgoing Lewitt. Smith was a long-standing friend of Stanshall’s, the two having been students together at Central College of Art. Stanshall had long had designs on somehow insinuating his erstwhile drinking companion—Smith was a notorious bon viveur—into the band despite his lack of any apparent musical talent, with a view to exposing the world to Larry’s undoubted charisma. While Smith’s musical input at this point was, by his own admission, limited, he still brought a keen sense of showmanship to the Bonzos; strongly influenced by the movie The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Larry adopted the name ‘Legs’ and took up tap-dancing, a skill he developed to such an entertaining level that it would later earn him a solo ‘tap-dance extravaganza’ spot in the band’s stage show.
By this point the Bonzos had turned semi-professional and were playing regular gigs at The Deuragon Arms in Homerton, East London and at The Tiger’s Head in Catford, South London where their performances soon gathered an enthusiastic following. It was around this time that the band were approached by budding show business impresario Reg Tracey, who offered to manage them and introduce them to the dubious but lucrative delights of Northern England’s working men’s club circuit. They proved popular on the club circuit and the lifestyle and steady income generated convinced the band members to turn fully professional. As a consequence they never stopped working and the clubs introduced them to all manner of ‘unusual’ characters who would later populate their song catalogue.
Thanks to Tracey’s contacts, the band made their TV debut in February 1966, performing “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” on the children’s show Blue Peter, introduced by John Noakes. In spring, Bob Kerr replaced Leon Williams and shortly after this, Sid Nicholls left.
In April, Tracey secured them a record deal with Parlophone. Their first single, a cover of the 1920s song “My Brother Makes The Noises for the Talkies”, was backed with “I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon to My Girl Tonight”.
A second single, “Alley Oop” backed with “Button Up Your Overcoat” followed in October of that year. Neither single sold well, and this eventually spelled the end for their hapless manager Reg Tracey when the band came to the attention of rival manager Gerry Bron, whose contacts in the industry were more impressive and held more promise for the now driven and ambitious Stanshall, who had by this point assumed de facto leadership of the band. Tracey threatened legal action for breach of contract and the band had to be bought out of the agreement.
Move from jazz to rock (1967)
Although The Bonzos had started out playing and parodying trad jazz and 1920s-style popular music, by 1967 they were contemplating embracing a more contemporary style of rock music, in order to counter claims that they sounded too much like The Temperance Seven or the fictional, studio-concocted New Vaudeville Band. In fact although they were now exclusively managed by Gerry Bron, The Bonzos were invited to perform live as the New Vaudeville Band in order to capitalise on the fictional group’s recent chart success with “Winchester Cathedral”—an offer The Bonzos immediately declined in favour of retaining their own artistic control. However, Bob Kerr happily agreed to help form a real New Vaudeville Band, allegedly taking the bulk of his former bandmates’ stage act with him, a move which finally forced The Bonzos’ hand over the change of direction (Kerr later went on to create his own long-standing early Bonzos/Vaudevilles-style band, Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band, which included other ex-Bonzos Sam Spoons and Vernon Bowhay-Nowell in its future line-ups). According to Neil Innes, The Bonzos had learned a salutary lesson about the pitfalls of show business:
Our trumpeter then was Bob Kerr, great player, and a fun guy. But he was friends with (songwriter and producer) Geoff Stephens, who’d made “Winchester Cathedral” with session men. And he knew Bob, so he rang Bob up saying: ‘What am I going to do? “Winchester Cathedral”‘s a hit, and I’ve got no band to promote it.’ So Bob came, flushed with excitement, to the rest of us at our digs, saying, ‘We can be The New Vaudeville Band!’ and we said, ‘Certainly not, no way!’ So, Bob couldn’t understand this, so we said, ‘Well, go, you go and do it then, if you want to. Go, never darken our towels again!’, kind of thing. But the next thing, on Top of the Pops, was the New Vaudeville Band, with the singer looking exactly like Viv, in a sort of lamé suit, all the musicians wearing the kind of suits we were wearing, with two-tone shoes. They’d even nicked the cutout comic speaking balloons, which we made out of hardboard, with a fret saw, and painted white, and then wrote, ‘Wow, I’m really expressing myself!’ to hold over somebody’s head while they did a saxophone solo. There was the entire image, and for the next few weeks people were saying to us, ‘Hey, you’re like that New Vaudeville Band!’ And that’s when I think Legs Larry Smith said, “Well, look …’—he’d always been arguing for doing some more modern material, so we all said, ‘Right, now we start writing our own stuff.’ “
The situation proved fortuitous, however, as they were able to capitalise on the burgeoning spirit of the times by combining their jazz stylings with increasingly fashionable psychedelic touches. As their popularity increased (especially among other musicians), they were asked by Paul McCartney to appear in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film at the end of 1967, performing “Death Cab For Cutie”.
Around this time they were also hired as the resident band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, an afternoon children’s television comedy show notable for starring several future members of Monty Python (Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin), Denise Coffey, and David Jason in the cast. The band performed every week as well as sometimes participating in sketches.
After signing with the US-based Liberty Records label, the Bonzos released their first album, Gorilla (1967), produced by Gerry Bron. The LP included “Jazz: Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold” which parodied their early “trad” jazz roots and featured deliberately inept jazz playing. The record label had allowed them two hours of studio time per track, so “Jazz” was completed in a single take to allow more time for the far more complex “The Intro and the Outro”. In this number every member of the band was introduced and played a solo, starting with the genuine band members before including such improbable guest musicians as John Wayne on xylophone, Adolf Hitler on vibes, J. Arthur Rank on gong, Prime Minister Harold Wilson on violin, the Wild Man of Borneo, Val Doonican, Horace Batchelor, and Lord Snooty and His Pals. The music was based on an excerpt from Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues”.
The first album was recorded on a four-track tape recorder, as was typical for 1967. Due to the limited number of tracks, most of the fictional non-band “guest stars” were simply faded in and out as required.
By December 1967, bassist Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell and drummer Sam Spoons had been summarily fired from the band. Vernon had spent much of the year ill and had missed numerous recording sessions as a result, while Sam Spoons’ musical ability in the studio had now been judged unsatisfactory according to Stanshall’s increasingly perfectionist criteria. For all that, however, it was “Legs” Larry Smith who now moved to occupy the drum stool, despite his limited playing experience. Meanwhile, session player Dave Clague, who had deputised for Vernon on various “Gorilla” recording sessions, was hired as replacement bassist.
“Urban Spaceman” and beyond (1968–1970)
The Bonzos began to be featured more regularly on television and radio during 1968. The group also became a popular live attraction off the back of their ongoing tour schedule, continuing with the working men’s clubs and now also taking in the nightclub and university circuits. All this hard work began to pay off when the group achieved a Top Five hit single in October with Neil Innes’ “I’m the Urban Spaceman“, produced by Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon under the collective pseudonym “Apollo C. Vermouth”.
In November The Bonzos released their second album The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (the title being a quaint euphemism for an outside toilet), which showcased a marked change in musical direction from Gorilla. After an introductory series of straight-faced street interviews with bewildered pedestrians (conducted by current bassist Joel Druckman and featuring the public’s reactions to Vivian Stanshall cavorting about wearing only his underpants, shoes and a papier-mache rabbit head) self-proclaimed ‘breezy opener’ “We Are Normal” soon launches itself towards a faintly terrifying Zappa-esque psychedelic crescendo. Elsewhere, “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” rather savagely teases some of the heavy-hitters of the then highly-fashionable British Blues Boom against a reasonably-authentic Brit-blues musical backdrop of its own. Other songs such as “Postcard” and “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe” skewer parochial suburban British pastimes and attitudes, while the anarchic “Trouser Press” — featuring a ‘solo’ by Roger Ruskin Spear on a genuine trouser press he had had fitted with a pickup – later gave its name to the American anglophile rock magazine Trouser Press. 1920s-style croon-along “Hello Mabel” (complete with musical flock of sheep) is the only real reminder of The Bonzos’ original musical style, while “Eleven Moustachioed Daughters”, Stanshall’s darkly tribal homage to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Feast of the Mau-Mau”, closes the LP in an unexpectedly nightmarish manner.
By the end of 1968, The Bonzos wanted to be successful in the US. Their manager Gerry Bron however thought they should be consolidating their success in England before rushing off to conquer The States, and this difference of opinion led to a parting of the ways (although the two parties amicably retained their publishing and agency deals). The band had recently been courted by Tony Stratton-Smith who was more sympathetic to their desire to crack America and promised to deliver what they wanted, and by Christmas he was their new manager.
The 1968–69 period is also known for its personnel changes within the band. Over a single 12-month period, the bass slot vacated by Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell was filled by Dave Clague and then Joel Druckman [an American whose monotone drawl can be heard to humorous effect throughout the “Doughnut” album], before the band recruited the more temperamentally-suitable and amenable Dennis Cowan early in 1969—just in time for the recording sessions for their next album. Clague was surprised at his dismissal and to find that he was only considered a ‘Hired’ musician whilst he was playing with them, despite appearing on every episode of the first series of Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Throughout 1968 and 69 The Bonzos also found time to record a large number of radio sessions for BBC Radio 1’s Top Gear programme hosted by John Peel, where they took the opportunity to try out more experimental works such as the musical suite SofaHead and an extended concept piece co-written with Arthur Brown titled The Brain Opera (which aside from brief excerpts released in 1971 by Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come remained unrealised). These regular appearances on Peel’s show kick-started Vivian Stanshall’s long and fruitful association with Peel and BBC Radio, which continued until Stanshall’s death in 1995.
As 1969 began, it seemed that American success was on the horizon for The Bonzos. In April Stratton-Smith secured them the support slot on a high-profile tour of the U.S. with The Who, and some appearances at the Fillmore East with The Kinks as well as a string of club dates. Gerry Bron’s misgivings were revealed to be well-founded however when Stratton-Smith proved to be out of his depth, and The Bonzos’ first American sojourn was so badly-organised and promoted that the promised ‘tour’ ended up amounting to little more than the Fillmore appearances and a few scattered low-profile club dates, with much twiddling of thumbs in between. The Bonzos’ act had been well received by the few audiences who witnessed it, but it was far from the triumphant adventure they had expected. Upon their return to the UK in May they parted company with Stratton-Smith, and it was now that Stanshall made the ultimately disastrous decision to take on the day-to-day management of the band himself.
By this point the band had also decided to drop the ‘Doo-Dah’ from their name and now became officially known as, simply, The Bonzo Dog Band. In June they released their new album Tadpoles. Most of the songs on this album had already been performed by the group on Do Not Adjust Your Set, and indeed the album had originally been conceived as a kind of ‘soundtrack album’ for the recently ended TV show. As a result, much of the material was something of a throwback to the “Gorilla” era musically, even though most of the songs (with the exception of a few vintage tracks that dated as far back as the 1966 Parlophone sessions) had been re-recorded especially for the LP. Also included was a version of the band’s latest single, the almost proto-metallic “Mr Apollo”. Despite the album’s rag-bag nature and the fact the band themselves didn’t regard it as part of their discography proper, it would ironically prove to be their best-selling original LP.
In August they appeared at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival where tap-dancing drummer “Legs” Larry Smith was an onstage hit with his lubricious footwork, camp ‘showbiz superstar’ persona and rapport with the audience. This part of the act became so popular that guest drummers such as Keith Moon, Aynsley Dunbar or Jim Capaldi were often deputised to sit in for Smith during live performances.
It was at this point the stress of managing the group’s affairs, while simultaneously writing half of their material and performing front of stage, began to take a serious toll on Stanshall’s physical and mental health. Nevertheless, he and the others opted to embark upon a second American tour during September. Innes said that when the band picked him up at his house to drive to the airport, Stanshall answered the door with his head completely shaved, which gave him a startled, almost frightened look. True to bad form, the trip was cut short after Roger Ruskin Spear suffered a personal family tragedy and shockingly no-one from the UK office saw fit to inform him or the others about it until well after the event. An understandably enraged Spear immediately abandoned the tour and returned to the UK. Initially the band attempted to fulfill the remaining dates without him, but the tour really began to derail after a rancorous press interview where Stanshall and Innes complained about recent events and the general lack of support and promotion from their record company. Their candour only led to the band and Liberty Records becoming further alienated from each other. When Stanshall also began displaying signs of a complete nervous collapse under the strain of his duties as front man and manager, he and the band quickly decided to cut the tour short at great expense to their future ambitions. As a collective, they would never return to America.
It was a chastened Bonzo Dog Band who returned to the UK, and with Spear rejoining them they regrouped to complete work on their fourth album Keynsham. The titular Keynsham (pronounced CANE-sham) is a small town near Bristol in south-west England. According to Neil Innes’, the name of the album derived from an oft-repeated advertisement played on Radio Luxembourg in the 1950s and early 1960s, which promoted a method of forecasting results for football matches (and using these results in football pools). In the advertisement, which was of great length, Horace Batchelor, inventor of ‘the amazing Infra Draw method’, would spell his postal address of K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M for those listeners who wished to purchase his secret. Batchelor had earlier been name-checked (alongside “Zebra Kid”) performing on percussion in “The Intro and the Outro”.
As for the “Keynsham” album itself, it is an intense, surreal, but near-impenetrable conceptual piece that depicts the town of Keynsham as an enclosed psychiatric hospital, populated by anxious and disturbed characters in search of meaning or enlightenment. However this only becomes even slightly apparent to the listener once they have read Vivian Stanshall’s original liner notes (which unfortunately are usually omitted from reissues of the album), although there are a few clues to the theme in the short linking passages between songs. Despite the vagueness of the concept, “Keynsham” remains for the most part a strong musical collection. Innes’ songwriting in particular had developed in subtlety and maturity, to a point that equalled many ‘serious’ artists of the era. Stanshall’s songs, such as “Tent”, while still overtly humorous had now taken on a much darker aspect, or, as with “Sport (The Odd Boy)” a new and urgent poignancy. Even “Mr Slater’s Parrot”, Stanshall’s sole concession to The Bonzos sound of old, had an unsettlingly manic edge to it.
Although the band considered “Keynsham” their creative zenith, unfortunately their artistic satisfaction didn’t translate into healthy record sales on its release in November. This perceived lack of success, exacerbated by Stanshall’s continuing problems and the rapidly-deteriorating relationship with Liberty Records, effectively destroyed the group’s morale for good.
Disheartened and at a creative impasse, the core members elected to go their separate ways while they were still on good terms (with the notable exception of founder member Rodney Slater, who claims not to have even known the band were breaking up until Stanshall announced it on stage). In January 1970 they summoned the collective will to go out on a high by embarking on a lengthy farewell tour of the UK. As popular as ever in a live setting and with the creative pressure finally off them, the tour went surprisingly well and The Bonzos played their final gig at Loughborough University in March. […]
In 1968, Paul McCartney produced The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s most successful single, “I’m the Urban Spaceman“, under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth.
Last updated on September 28, 2021