The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
by Robin Bell
One group stands out among the craziness of the 1960’s. In an era of rock’n’roll excesses, anything goes attitudes and pure insanity no collection of human beings could top the Bonzos.
Like so many of the great performers of the time, the Bonzos had their roots in art colleges. Luckily for me I was attending a technical college in south London at the time, just up the hill from Goldsmith’s Art College. Needless to say, the aura and vibrations arising from Goldsnith’s were much more appetising than the smell of oil and grease from South East London Technical College.
The most recognised of the Bonzos has to be Vivian Stanshall, variously described as “the court jester of the underground rock scene in the Sixties” by the late John Peel and as a “unique and inspired comic genius” by Stephen Fry. The classic track “The intro and the Outro” from the album Gorilla features Viv introducing, after the other members of the Bonzos, various celebrities of the time, such as Roy Rogers on Trigger, the Count Basie Orchestra on Triangle, Quasimodo on Bells – you get the idea.
Other notable Bonzos mentioned in The Intro and the Outro include Legs Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Roger Ruskin Spear, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Rodney Slater and Neil Innes.
The Bonzos began simply as art college students gigging together in pubs around south-east London and the north-east of England club circuit. Building on this success, they graduated to night clubs, such as The Flamingo in London. They began to attract the attention of other personalities and after their first album, the afore-mentioned Gorilla, they never looked back. They were a part of the Beatles ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour and indeed it was Paul McCartney, under the alias of Apollo C. Vermouth who produced their only chart hit – I’m The Urban Spaceman - in 1968.
Their fan base increased to include Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton as well as the Beatles. Under the somewhat simpler name of The Bonzo Dog Band they released their second album in 1968 – The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse - which earned them an appearance at the Isle of Wight festival with Bob Dylan and they toured America supporting Sly and the Family Stone.
Their exposure increased even more with regular appearances on the childrens' TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was on this series that they worked together with the embryonic Monty Python team of Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
But it all became too much for Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes and in January 1970 the Bonzos played their last gig together. But individually they continued into other areas: Viv Stanshall narrated Mike Oldfield’s classic Tubular Bells and produced the book, album and film Sir Henry At Rawlinson End before his tragic death in a house fire in 1995.
Neil Innes carried on with The Rutles, based on the group that had appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour film. During their time The Rutles were proud to include the likes of George Harrison, Michael Palin and John Belushi. Legs Larry Smith worked with Elton John, George Harrison and John Cale, among others. Roger Ruskin Spear formed Roger Ruskin Spear & His Giant Orchestral Wardrobe and worked with Sam Spoons before working as an art lecturer. Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (say that quickly three times) had a small role in the film The Rawlinsons while Rodney Slater appeared with various groups such as the Infamous New Titanic Band but is now a social worker.
George Harrison summed up : "What should have happened is that the Bonzos and the Beatles should have turned into one great Rutle band with all the Pythons and had a laugh..”
What a gig that would have been.
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