The Bonzo Dog Band tonight – variously referred to as The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Bonzo Dog Band, The Bonzos, they were an institution. Unfortunately, they never caught on in the States, even though they did one tour here in 1969, as opening act for The Who. Ironically, there would be peripheral collaborations with another group of like-minded lunatics; Monty Python. By the 1970s, the world was ready for them – but by that time the Bonzos would be no more
It would make perfect sense that The Who’s drummer Keith Moon would, occasionally become a defacto member of the band – as did many luminaries in the Rock world of the 60’s. Paul McCartney, under the moniker of Apollo C. Vermouth would produce their only single “(I Am) The Urban Spaceman”, which got them promptly banned on U.S. radio because of the reference to “speed” in the lyrics.
There was no one like them – reading about them and listening to their records doesn’t quite do them justice – The Bonzo Dog Band were a band that needed to be experienced.
This session, done for John Peel at BBC Radio 1 is a natural as Peel (like just about everyone else) was a fan.
A little background in case you arrived at the party late
The Bonzo Dog Band was initially 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 the public attention through a 1968 ITV comedy show, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
The Bonzos’ upward career trajectory continued in a flurry of activity during 1968, thanks in no small part to their frequent exposure on television and radio. 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 had begun to set their sights on America. 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 Bohay-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.
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.
I suggest you just hit the play button and bask in the outrageous afterglow of “Give Booze A Chance”.