[Bonzo Dog]

Barking with the Bonzo Dog Band

by Wilhelm Murg

Edited to remove references that Jim Yoakum regards as objectionable.

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Posted on the Bonzos mailing list...
Date: Sun, 07 Jun 1998 23:15:33 -0400
From: beagleperson
I wrote to Wilhelm a long time ago because I couldn't find a copy of his magazine. He just wrote back to me and included a transcript of the issue I asked about. Wilhelm says that he doesn't mind having his articles forwarded (as long as it's not for profit). So if you haven't already read the article, scroll down and enjoy.


From: clearsky@galstar.com
Date: Sat, 06 Jun 1998 19:34:47 -0700
Subject: wilhelm's response
X-URL: http://www.ebolamusic.com/home1.html

Sorry I wasn't able to get back to you sooner, but it's been a VERY hectic time; too many deadlines, too many relatives and friends going crazy, and too many pups appearing out of my Dog's womb (part beagle, I might add). Sorry to hear that you're having trouble finding the magazine, but neither I nor Dana, my editor, have seen a copy on the stands yet, either (and we're moving a couple of thousand copies of each issue!)) Check the COOL & STRANGE website for information on how to get a copy, or better yet, subscribe so you won't miss a single heart-pounding issue. We seldom have any back issues available after a couple of weeks!

To compensate (and to keep this from sounding like a "give me a dollar" promotion), here's my section of the Bonzo article in all it's glory (further insighful short contributions were added to it for publication by master Fantagraphics cartoonists Wayno and J.R. Williams of CRAP comix fame), along with some reviews. Unfortunately, you will be missing out on the rest of what FACTSHEET FIVE calls our "bold design, fabulous articles, and reviews of all the coolest and strangest records out there" in their rave review of the magazine in their "Editors' Choice" (thank you very much), but then it's free (Ironically, in the same issue, they refer to an article I did for OKIE LOAD about my crank addicted cousin as "Gripping" and "Brutal"; somewhere in between is the sublime, I think).

The only tidbit I had to cut is the story is about mixing "I'm The Urban Spaceman." Dudgeon went to the EMI studios in England at noon. Apparently, at that time in England, everybody went to lunch at the same time, so the building was empty. Dudgeon went into a studio where Tom Jones' production team was working. He marked all of the positions with masking tape and mixed the Bonzo song, then moved all of the switches back to their original positions and left, successfully mixing a Bonzo project on Tom Jones' dime. Personally, I think this might have been Tom's greatest contribution to civilization (with the possible exception of saving the earth in MARS ATTACKS). I also didn't mention that Neil Innes wants all his fans to check out the works of Man Rey.

By the way, this is the raw, original version of my piece, so forgive any lapses in spelling and grammar; I no can prooof read my own work.

From every source I can find, DOUGHNUT... was retitled "URBAN SPACEMAN," NOT "I'M THE URBAN SPACEMAN" (which was a song on the album, not the title of the album). Please let me know what you know on this.

What I was trying to get through in the article, without coming out and saying it, was that the genius of the Bonzos (and any other artists worth their salt), is that they were able to eloquently communicate their vision despite any technical limitations (and even the greatest artists have limitations).

Also: information wants to be free. As long as it's not for profit; I allow anyone to copy or E-mail my articles to their hearts content, as long as my copyright and credit are included, and I allow any and all posting on the web (if it is for profit, cut me in). It would be nice if a link to the COOL & STRANGE MUSIC! MAGAZINE webpage were added to it, but not mandatory. That webpage address, by the way, is:


Personally, I'm not on the web; this is coming to you from CLEAR SKYY MUSIC, the CD store I use for all my video and audio needs (plug, plug). If you ever have trouble finding something, E-mail Roger at this address; cheap prices, fast friendly service, mail order, and quite a few suprises. As for the next issue, I'm working on "Once is Enough," a review of records that you really only need to hear one time. So far, I'm tackling the sex education records by Dr. & Mrs. Willke from the 1960s, like SEX: SHOULD WE WAIT? and Mr. T's brief attempt at a rap career (in which, in one swoop, he knocked down the myth that all black men can rap).

Thanks for your interest.



Copyright 1998 By Wilhelm Murg

Exploding parrot heads, life-size robots . . .

During their short run (1966-1970) The Bonzo Dog Band was a very influential group that never received much recognition beyond their rabid fan base. They were "a live band" visually the way we think of The Grateful Dead as "a live band" musically, but there is no known footage of any of the legendary Bonzo shows. They worked with, and influenced, both Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Beatles, but many of the fans of those two groups can't name a single Bonzo song.

Lead by the song writing team of Neil Innes and the late Vivian Stanshall, the Bonzos pounded out a surreal mixture of hot Dixieland jazz, beautifully crafted pop music, tongue-in-cheek psychedelia, twisted children's ditties, painfully executed doo-wop, British dance hall tunes, and non-sequential humor on an orchestra that included a complete horn section, musical spoons, ukulele, banjo, slide whistle, harpsichord, xylophone, violin, mellotron, accordion, glockenspiel, carrots, Conga drums, and a "Theremin leg." Their live shows were a mixture of musical concert, Dadistic "happening," explosions, and tap dancing exhibition. The Bonzos blended all of these ideas and objects into an instantly recognizable world of freeform humor and thoroughly entertaining music. Sometimes the seams showed, sometimes they didn't; in retrospect, it doesn't matter. On their four classic albums, The Bonzos' exuberance and nonstop imaginations burst forth like an action painting being ripped apart by a pack of poker playing dogs. Within the ever changing lineup there were five basic members: Innes, the mad pop tunesmith; Stanshall, an outgoing, vicious wit who could find the core of absurdity in any kind of music; Legs Larry Smith, a classic, babbling, tap dancing clown and rhythm master; Roger Ruskin Spear, mad stagecraft scientist, and Rodney Slater, saxophonist extraordinaire and master reciter.

The band has been compared to some of their American contemporaries, such as The Mothers of Invention, The Fugs, and the multilevel comedy group Firesign Theater, but none of those comparisons really work. "I think they ought to try to compare it to other dogs," Neil Innes said in a recent COOL & STRANGE interview.

As art school whelps, the band loosely formed and found it's name in the mid-1960s. "The name came from Viv and Rodney who shared a place in Brixton, in South London, " Innes said. "They were trying to think of a name, and they were both keen on the postcard character of 'Bonzo Dog' (created by G. Studdy in the 1920s) and that name went into the hat. And various other, you know, things went into the hat, 'Dada' the anti-art movement went into the hat, and so did 'band,' because they were looking for a band name. Somebody must have been logical at one moment in this experiment with randomness. And so they plucked around in the hat and they came out with 'Bonzo Dog,' ' Dada,' 'Band.' . . I remember that story because of Dada. Being an art student myself, I was a huge fan of the Dadaists and Man Rey. . . I spent a lot of time trying to explain Dada to a people who hadn't heard of it, and somewhere along the line (the name) came to be changed to 'Doo-Dah.'"

"I was living in the same house as (early Bonzo member) Vernon Dudly Bohay-Nowell," Innes said. "Vernon Duddly came home one night and said 'I met these amazing people called The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and they're looking for a pianist.' And I said 'Well, I can play piano.' And we went along to the Royal College of Art in Kensington and there was (early Bonzo members) Sam Spoons and Wally Roger Willkes, you know, a host of others, relaxing and playing rikki-tiki silly music. Well, this is the origin of the Bonzos."

"The only problem with The Bonzos is that they weren't the best players of their instruments," Bonzo historian, archivist, and confidant Jim Yoakum said in a recent COOL & STRANGE interview. "They did fine, I guess, compared to The Electric Prunes, but they were not, like, virtuosos."

"(The first shows) were more visual than musical, that's for sure." Innes said. "If you brought along an instrument, whether you could play it or not, It didn't really matter, all you needed to do is want to stamp your foot to a very fast tempo, make a lot of noise, and get up and show off... It was a very young student kind of band; everybody should remember that. You have to look at that as 'grunge' or something.

"From a student band, we were discovered and put onto this kind of strange cabaret circuit where people were trying to be Tony Bennett, juggle, or use their muscles. It was wonderful. It was the perfect step down from the world of high art in art school. And so we gained a certain amount of notoriety. And at that time a very young and talented TV producer, Humphrey Barclay, was casting around for children's television (the legendary British television series "Do Not Adjust Your Set") and he heard about this wacky kind of Dada band and he brought us all together you know, there (were future Pythons) Eric Idle, who came from the Cambridge Footlights, and there was Michael Palin and Terry Jones from Oxford, and there's more interestingly, Terry Gilliam, from hanging out with Robert Crumb."

Many of the songs performed on "Do Not Adjust Your Set" came from the Bonzos' first album, GORILLA (1967), a record that joyfully bounces all over the place, from Stanshall's sleazy lounge persona on "Cool Britannia," and "The Intro and The Outro," to Innes' wonderfully crafted pop tunes like "The Equestrian Statue." There are two children's songs on the album that sound like they come from old black and white cartoons; "Jollity Farm" and "Mickey's Son and Daughter" (about a birth in the famous Mouse family). There's the calypso song "Look Out There's a Monster Coming" that ends with a duet for Theremin and distorted robot vocals, and the Dixieland-cum-Spike Jones sound of "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold."

Perhaps the best known track from GORILLA is the splatter platter "Death Cab For Cutie." The Bonzos should have gotten their big break when they performed the song in a Beatle film. Unfortunately, the Beatle film in question was the poorly received MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Amid the surreal orgy of midget wrestling, Eastern mysticism, and stuffed cows, Stanshall warbles his best Elvis impersonation to the tune while a young woman performs a striptease. Ironically, The Bonzos' cameo made more sense than the rest of the movie.

"I love it," Innes said. "It was a perfect example of people at their worst. People at their worst throw stones at things they don't understand. As the world gets colder it's one of the fires you'll want to be around." Innes later satirized the film as the "Tragical History Tour" in The Rutles' epic ALL YOU NEED IS CASH.

"The early GORILLA Bonzos, yeah, I can see the sort of City Slicker stuff, you know, sound effects, running around blowing whistles," Yoakum said. "But after that there was 'mock Two,' which was a psychedelic rock band."

The second litter of Bonzo songs was DOUGHNUT IN GRANNY'S GREENHOUSE (1968), retitled for U.S. released as URBAN SPACEMAN. The album features the Bonzos' only major U.K. hit "I'm The Urban Spaceman," pseudonymously produced by Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon. After that, the album blasts off with "We Are Normal," an interesting work of psychedelia that begins with a man on the street interviewing "normal" people as drums slowly play backward and a saxophone is speeded up faster and faster until it breaks into a garage anthem of "We are normal and we want our freedom." "Hello Mabel" is a perfect 1920s- style dance hall piece, complete with barnyard animal sounds. There's the blues tune "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?" about the problems a middle-class white man has singing the blues, and the out of control Little-Richard-on-laughing-gas dance song "Trouser Press" (the inspiration for the moniker of the famous magazine). "Rockaliser Baby" is a perfect Bonzo Dog song; it's dead pan combination of motorcycle sounds, a policeman having a heart attack, and a story about an electric iron, all held together with a mixture of accordion, electric guitar, and trombone. "Rhinocratic Oaths" is a be-bop jazz score to Viv reciting stories about (among other things), a man turning into a dog and another man clipping a poodle into a the shape of a coffee table.

"So you had the second wave of hard rock, psychedelic Bonzos, and then for a brief time, in the middle of that, they reverted to early Bonzo, because Roger Ruskin Spear wanted to go back to that sort of stuff," Yoakum said. "That's where TADPOLES comes in. Which is back to silly stuff. They did all the songs they did on their television show."

TADPOLES (1968), has a strange perfection about it. Most of the tracks evoke the bygone era from between the two world wars, but with a Bonzo edge. "Hunting Tiger Out In 'Indiah'" and "Ali-Baba's Camel" are early novelty tunes ran through the Bonzo treatment (like having Ali-Baba searching for LSD). The jazz pieces "Laughing Blues" and King Oliver's "Doctor Jazz" are both performed "straight," but recorded in mono with drop outs added to give a sense of Lo-Fi authenticity. "Tubas in The Moonlight" and "By The Waterfall" are throwbacks to the straw hat dance songs. There is one hard rock track, a cynical ode to the man in the comic book muscle ads, "Mr. Apollo."

"So Spear got tired of the hard rock version of the Bonzos and he wanted to go back to the wacky era," Yoakum said. "And they said 'Screw that,' and they went immediately back to KEYNSHAM.:

The fourth release, KEYNSHAM (1969), is The Bonzos' SGT. PEPPER, a magickal concept album built around an absurdist fairly tale created by Stanshall (his extensive LP notes are available on the web). You get the wistful "Quite Talks and Summer Walks" and the beautiful, complex "Keynsham," with Joycean word runs like "lipstickgleamhexachlorafine," in between such absurdities as The Rutlesque "You've Done My Brain In" and Stanshall's Wildman Fischer-sounding steroids attack of "Tent" ("I'm gonna getcha in my tent, tent, tent, tent, tent, where we can both experiment, mint, mint, mint , mint!") There's the mock Tudor madrigal about the odd boy who doesn't like "Sports." "What Do You Do?" (the answer is "I don't know, but I know I do it every day,") is a George Harrison-styled psychedelic chant that intelligently replaces Eastern Mysticism with nihilism. "Mr. Slatters' Parrot," a throwback to their children's songs, is about a talking parrot that sounds like the Pepperpot ladies from Monty Python (or vice versa).

One song, "Noises from The Leg," needs some explaining. Within Stanshall's fairy tale, The Leg is a sacred entity. In the context of something slightly closer to reality, Spear came up with the concept to build a Theremin inside of an artificial leg. Rather than playing the leg like one would hear in a science fiction film, Spear made the Theremin sound like air escaping from a balloon. At the end of the song, the wave pitches lower and lower until it sounds like it has run out of gas.

Unfortunately, at the time, the same could be said for the band. In spite of their successful tours and the critical acclaim, The Bonzos were through. Due to bad management, dishonest promoters, and an indifferent record label, the band never received much money. The Dogs had been run ragged, working on their television show, recording their albums, and making live appearances with very little to show for it. Tragically, Spear's wife had a miscarriage, but management kept the news from the band for fear that it would effect the tour. The party was over. The Bonzos gave their last performance in January 1970.

A fifth album came out in 1972, LET'S MAKE UP AND BE FRIENDLY. Though it is officially a Bonzo Dog Band release, the album is mostly Stanshall and Innes with a kennel full of studio musicians. Legs Larry Smith contributed one track with Yes-member Tony Kaye, the haunting "Rusty (Champion Thrust)." Even though the album doesn't have the kinetic magic of the earlier records, there are moments that rival anything released during the bands heyday. Stanshall contributed the dance song about constipation, "The Strain," and the western one-step about an amputee gun fighter, "Bad Blood." Innes' wrote the wimp anthem "The King of Scurf", which sounds like one of The Beach Boys getting sand kicked in his face, and two fascinating instrumentals; the modern classical composition "Turkeys," and my personal all-time favorite Bonzo song, "Slush".

"Slush" is a short, simple, wistful dirge for organ and mellotron with a tape loop of maniacal laughter repeating over and over, even past the end of the music. It's beautiful, annoying, haunting, psychedelic, disturbing, and funny all at the same time. It's what muzak must sound like after a lobotomy. The original absurdist liner notes about the song allude to the bitter sweet finale of a silent Jaques Tati film that ends in madness. Jim Yoakum mentioned the song's similarities to the madcap laughs that would later appear in Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. As the last song on the last Bonzo album, it's an eloquent and twisted ending to the band's recorded works.

After LET'S MAKE UP The Bonzos went their separate ways. Along with his solo career, Innes went on to become the unofficial seventh member of Monty Python and he still performs with The Rutles. "You know how some people own the same car?" Innes asked. "I happen to have a similar sort of voice as John Lennon... I'm not a Brian Wilson, and I'm not a Paul Robeson. It's in that same range. And The Rutles were meant to be a joke, a passing joke." Unfortunately, some people took it a little too seriously. When Michael Jackson bought The Beatles catalogue, a judge decided The Rutles went beyond satire, so The King of Pop also owns the early The Rutle catalogue. [Since sold to Sony - IMK]

Legs Larry Smith went on to become a party animal with the late Keith Moon and lived to tell the tale. Smith is currently writing songs, working on film scripts, and is primed for another round of stardom. Three decades later, he can still tap dance his way into your heart.

Rodney Slater is back in production, working with new groups. Along with early Bonzo members Big Syd and Sam Spoons, Slater also performs with The Bill Posters Will Be Banned in England.

The brilliant Viv Stanshall is probably best remembered for his spoken intros on Mike Oldfield's classic rock symphony TUBULAR BELLS, and his lyrics on Steve Winwood's ARC OF THE DIVER. One of his last releases was a twisted rendition of The King's "(There's) No Room To Rumba In A Sports Car" on the tribute album THE LAST TEMPTATION OF ELVIS.

But the story of The Bonzo Dog is not over. Bonzo fans DO have a sixth album to look forward to. Jim Yoakum is currently working out the logistics for a Bonzo tribute/reunion album, set for a Christmas release: IT WAS A GREAT PARTY UNTIL SOMEBODY FOUND A HAMMER (the title comes from an unreleased Bonzo track). Yoakum has been talking to some great people about the project, such as Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Wreckless Eric, The Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, Negativeland, Ken Nordine, John Cale. Gene Pitney, Eric Idle, and others. I was lucky enough to hear a demo of the "Doin' The Bonzo Dog" by George Harrison and Jim Capaldi, and it's one of the best post-Beatle songs to come along.

"I know, going in, the problems with these kinds of records, and the problems with trying to update material and trying to satisfy the old fans," Yoakum said. "It's a fine wire to walk, but since 'I'm not only the president for the Hairclub for Men, I'm also a member,' I understand the dichotomy of trying to satisfy the fan and to satisfy the commercial aspect." Yoakum is going to great lengths to make sure that this compilation does justice to the band. "It's not just an excuse for people to be nutty and to be Bonzo. That's certainly a part of it, but part of it is also to have people cover great tunes, like "Don't Get Me Wrong," that were never taken seriously because people thought 'Oh, they're suppose to be funny.' But that's not a funny song, it's just a good song."

As for the Bonzos themselves, Neil Innes and Legs Larry Smith are working on new tracks and Yoakum is also trying to get the rights so some unreleased Stanshall songs for the upcoming album. "The Bonzos have had so many people," Yoakum said, "at time 30 and 40 members have been apart of the band. We're going to try to get as many of the Bonzos together as possible all on one track."

"It won't be a reincarnation. It's a kind of, you know, how many of us are left? Is it worth doing? What do we remember? It's going to be grown up," Innes said, while still working on dog metaphors. "(The Bonzo Dog is) going to be so old that people are going to take pity on it and have it put down, the way things are going. But I had a really good day or two with Larry, there's life in the old Bonzo yet. (The fans) won't get anything like they think it might be. That's the fun of it. . . Like getting rid of bodily fluids, it's just as important to get rid of these inarticulate noises we call laughter."

Thanks to Ian Kitching's great Bonzo websites, master cartoonist Wayno and Duplex Planet's David Greenberger for helping with the grapevine, Roger Clear for navigating the web, Legs Larry Smith for being there in spirit, and Neil Innes and Jim Yoakum for their time and memories. Mr. Yoakum is currently looking for live footage and rare photographs of The Bonzo Dog Band to use in the upcoming tribute project. He asks that anyone with such material to please contact him via the COOL & STRANGE MUSIC! MAGAZINE.

[Bonzo Dog]
Contents | History | Tracks | Discography | Gallery | Radio/TV/Films | Links