The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (also known as The Bonzo Dog Band) 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 the public attention through a 1968 ITV comedy show, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Formation and early years (1962–1966)
On 25 September 1962, Vivian Stanshall (tuba, lead vocals and other wind instruments) and fellow art student Rodney Slater (saxophone) bonded over a transatlantic broadcast of a boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Slater had previously played in a trad jazz band at college with Chris Jennings (trombone) and Tom Parkinson (sousaphone). Roger Wilkes (trumpet) was the founder of the original band at the Royal College of Art, along with Trevor Brown (banjo). They slowly turned their style from more orthodox music towards the 1920s-style sound of The Alberts and The Temperance Seven. In the early 1960s comedic pop records by artists such as Charlie Drake, Spike Milligan and Bernard Cribbins were popular and enjoyed chart success, along with pop parodies by The Barron Knights.
Stanshall was their next recruit and on that day in 1962, he and Slater christened them The Bonzo Dog Dada Band: Bonzo the dog after a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s, and Dada after the early 20th-century art movement. In the 2004 BBC Four Vivian Stanshall: The Canyons Of His Mind, Slater claims that the name was inspired by a word game played on 25 September 1962, which involved writing phrases onto strips of paper, tearing the strips in half and re-combining the pieces. One of the phrases created was "Bonzo Dog Dada Band". The band was formed shortly thereafter, at 164a Rosendale Road, West Dulwich, where Stanshall was living at the time.
The band soon added two more faces to the line-up: Goldsmiths College lecturer Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and his lodger, songwriter/pianist Neil Innes. According to Innes' website, the Bohay-Nowell was added to Vernon Dudley's name by Stanshall, although this can be seen 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'. Hence Vernon always had been Vernon Dudley Bowhay Nowell. It seems unlikely that Vernon ever used this in 'real' life before Stanshall's suggestion. Vernon's son Toby also goes by "Bowhay-Nowell".
The band had been working with drummer Tom Hedge before Rodney found Martin Ash, who later took the stage name of Sam Spoons and shortly afterwards got them their first pub gig, where they were noticed by Roger Ruskin Spear, the son of the British artist Ruskin Spear. With his interest in the manufacture of early electronic gadgets/objets d'art and sound-making systems soon became an integral part of the band.
The line-up changed again with the departure of Roger Wilkes and John Parry, the trombonist. The two were replaced by, respectively, Bob Kerr and "Big" Sid Nichols. However, this runs contrary to Rodney Slater's memory that the album Tadpoles contains two tracks "made on a reel-to-reel at the Forest Hill Hotel – 'back to the roots,' real Bonzos Erectus with Sid Nicholls, John Parry, Raymond Lewitt, and Lenny Williams in the line-up," obviously implying that both John Parry "and his replacement" 'Big Sid' were in the lineup at the same time!
The final 'classic' band member, "Legs" Larry Smith joined in 1963, as a tuba player and tap-dancer (but later as a drummer), on Stanshall's invitation. The band's fortunes began to increase when Reg Tracey secured them a deal with Parlophone in April 1966. 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. According to Neil Innes, the band learned a lesson in 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.' "
From 1965 the band had a regular gig at The Deuragon Arms in Homerton, East London. The band made their TV debut in February 1966, performing "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey", introduced by John Noakes on the BBC children's show Blue Peter.
Move from jazz to rock (1967)
Although the Bonzos had started out playing jazz, they decided to embrace rock in order to counter claims that they were beginning to sound like The Temperance Seven and The New Vaudeville Band. (In fact Geoff Stephens asked the Bonzos to perform as the New Vaudeville Band. They declined. Former Bonzo Bob Kerr joined The New Vaudeville Band and went on to create his own band, Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band.)
As the Bonzo Dog band's popularity increased, they were asked by Paul McCartney to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film at the end of 1967, performing "Death Cab For Cutie". Around the same time, they were hired as the resident band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, an afternoon children's 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 savagely parodied their early "trad" jazz roots and featured some of the most deliberately inept jazz playing ever recorded. The record label allowed two hours of studio time per track, so it was completed in a single take to allow for the far more complex "The Intro and the Outro" in which every member of the band was introduced and played a solo, starting with genuine band members, before including such improbable members as John Wayne on xylophone, Adolf Hitler on vibes, and 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 backing track was from a snatch 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 non-band "personnel" were simply faded in and out.
Several years later, Stanshall was to provide the voiceover on Mike Oldfield's first instrumental album, Tubular Bells, which echoed the style of "The Intro and the Outro".
"Urban Spaceman" and beyond (1968–1970)
They had a hit single in 1968 with "I'm the Urban Spaceman" produced by Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon under the collective pseudonym "Apollo C. Vermouth". The Beatles were fans of the group. The anarchic twelve bar blues "Trouser Press" — featuring a solo by Roger Ruskin Spear on a genuine trouser press he had fitted with a pick-up – gave its name to an American anglophile rock magazine Trouser Press. "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?" wistfully teased (British) blues intellectuals, and tap dancer/drummer "Legs" Larry Smith was an on-stage hit with his lubricious dancing (he had actually trained as a child in tap dancing). Many of their songs parodied parochial suburban British attitudes, notably "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" on the album The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse (a euphemism for an outside toilet, still common in the United Kingdom at the time).
In 1969 they released their third album Tadpoles. Most of the songs on this album were also performed by the group on Do Not Adjust Your Set. The same year they also released their fourth album Keynsham and appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival. Keynsham is a small town near Bristol in south-west England. According to Neil Innes' account, 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".
The Bonzos toured the United States with The Who and also appeared at the Fillmore East with The Kinks. Introduced as a "warm-up act" for the real show, the Bonzos rushed out and did a series of frenetic calisthenics. True to the dada spirit, Stanshall performed a mock striptease and Roger Ruskin Spear, with a platoon of robots (including one that sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" while actually blowing bubbles), did whatever he did without regard for what the rest of the band was doing. They undertook another American tour at the end of 1969. The band had a meeting and decided to split up on their return to the UK. In January 1970 the group played their penultimate gig at Leicester and their final gig at Loughborough.
First reunion (1972)
While the group formally disbanded in 1970, their record company compelled them to reunite in late 1971 to fulfil a contractual obligation and record a final album. Titled Let's Make Up and Be Friendly, the album was released in 1972. The edition of the Bonzo Dog Band that made the "Friendly" LP featured only Stanshall, Innes and bassist Dennis Cowan from the "classic" earlier line-ups, although Roger Ruskin Spear appears on one track, and "Legs" Larry Smith on two. Rodney Slater is also listed as appearing "in spirit" in the album's credits.
The band also did live appearances in the UK in 1974, appearing (at least) at Rutherford College, part of the University of Kent, and Goodricke College, part of the University of York.
Second reunion (1988)
Various members of The Bonzos (including Stanshall and Innes) reconvened in 1988 to record a new single, "No Matter Who You Vote For the Government Always Gets In (Heigh Ho)". The recording was meant to tie in with a current British election, but was not released at the time; instead, the single came out just prior to the next British general election in 1992. It was also Stanshall's final recording with the band; he died in a house fire in 1995.
One of the Bonzos' song titles, "Cool Britannia", was revived as a media label for the Culture of the United Kingdom throughout most of the 1990s, inspired by 1960s pop culture and associated with the Labour government of Tony Blair.
Third reunion (2006–2008)
On 28 January 2006 most of the surviving members of the band played a concert at the London Astoria, to celebrate the band's official 40th anniversary. Neil Innes, "Legs" Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, Bob Kerr, Sam Spoons and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell appeared. There were also a number of special guests attempting with various degrees of success to be Vivian Stanshall, one of two members of the band not still living (the other being bass player Dennis Cowan). The various Stanshall impersonators included Stephen Fry, Ade Edmondson, Phill Jupitus and Paul Merton (who needed to read the words to "Monster Mash" from cue cards at the show). The classic Bonzo stage antics were in evidence, including performances on the Theremin Leg and Trouser Press. The show was filmed and was broadcast on BBC Four and also released on DVD in May 2006.
A countrywide tour, with Ade Edmondson and Phill Jupitus, followed during November 2006, starting in Ipswich and ending with two nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire, where Paul Merton and Bill Bailey joined in for a handful of songs. David Catlin-Birch (lead guitar and vocals) joined the band for the tour; Catlin-Birch has also been a member of World Party and The Bootleg Beatles.
Officially calling themselves The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band again, the group released a live double CD of the Astoria concert titled Wrestle Poodles... And Win! on 13 November 2006.
On 10 December 2007, the band released their first new studio album in 35 years, a 28-track album titled Pour l'Amour des Chiens.
The reunited line-up were due to perform again in 'The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Christmas Show' on Friday 21 December and Saturday 22 December 2007 at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, but the shows were postponed without explanation. The shows were later played in 2008.
An ultimatum with Innes around this time forced his hand and he stepped down as band leader, leaving the rest of the Bonzos 'in charge'.
Recent events (2008–present)
Whilst Vernon allied with Bob Kerr to play as 'Bonzomania', Roger, Rodney and Sam remained together and joined up with pianist David Glasson (ex Whoopee Band) and performed as Three Bonzos and a Piano. Since October 2008, they have undertaken regular gigs. They have included appearances from "Legs" Larry Smith and Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell. Three Bonzos and a Piano launched a new CD Hair of the Dog at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London on 6 February 2010, featuring new numbers from all band members and some re-workings of older favourites. Larry and Vernon were at the Bloomsbury gig. In 2012 they released another CD, Bum Notes.
Innes toured the United States in 2009 and 2010, having performed a number of shows in 2009 in the UK. He currently plays with the Idiot Bastard Band, along with Phill Jupitus, Adrian Edmondson, and Raw Sex drummer Rowland Rivron. They play a mixture of original comedy songs and covers, including some Bonzos numbers.
In 2009, Angry Penguin Ltd published the first history of the band, Jollity Farm, written by Bob Carruthers and edited by David Christie, with comprehensive interviews with all the core members of the group. The first release also included a limited edition DVD featuring the band's 2007 reunion performance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, which included several performances from that show which had not been previously released.
A configuration under the name 'Almost the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band' performed from 2012, more regularly featuring Legs and the now 82-year-old Vernon. This grouping played their final gig together as a five piece, alongside Andy Roberts, Dave Glasson and the eleven-piece Keynsham Town Band in Milton Keynes. The following week, Sam Spoons' "Bill Posters Will Be Band" played their last, and the week after, "Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band" (with Vernon guesting) also petered to a halt.
The core members of the group for most of the band's career were:
Vivian Stanshall (1943–1995): trumpet, lead vocals
Neil Innes (b. 1944): piano, guitar, lead vocals
Rodney "Rhino" Desborough Slater (b. 1944): saxophone
Roger Ruskin Spear (b. 1943): tenor sax and various contraptions
"Legs" Larry Smith (b. 1944): drums
The band's onstage line-up varied, sometimes on a weekly basis, and they also invited a number of guest musicians into the recording studio. Additional members of various duration include: Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Martin "Sam Spoons" Ash, "Happy" Wally Wilks, Tom Parkinson, Chris Jennings, Claude Abbo, Trevor Brown, Tom Hedge, Eric Idle, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Leon Williams, John Parry, Raymond Lewitt, Sydney "Big Sid" Nicholls, James "Jim Strobes" Chambers, Bob Kerr, Dave Clague, Joel Druckman, "Borneo" Fred Munt, Chalky Chalkey, Dennis Cowan, Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Capaldi, Anthony 'Bubs' White, Andy Roberts, Dave Richards, Pete Currie, Dick Parry, Hughie Flint, Tony Kaye, and Glen Colson. Keith Moon, who became great friends with both Stanshall and Smith, played drums for part of The Bonzo's set at the 1969 Plumpton Festival (The Who were headlining that night).
Stanshall and Innes were the band's principal songwriters, with occasional contributions from Spear, Slater and Smith. After the band's demise, both Innes and Stanshall became founding members of Grimms along with the members of The Scaffold and The Liverpool Scene.
Indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie took their name from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song of the same name, and the psychedelic rock band Poisoned Electrick Head took their name from the last three words of the Bonzo's song, "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe".
Television and film
The Bonzos appeared weekly on the Thames Television show Do Not Adjust Your Set. Recordings of most of their performances still exist, with the first series having been released on DVD. As well as famous songs, the last episode of that series featured the still unreleased track "Metaphorically Speaking". Two songs from the band's set on BBC 2's Colour Me Pop have been repeated on television regularly, with a third, "Mr. Apollo", shot by a fan at home with a 8mm cine camera pointed at the screen. Various other shows, including New Faces, Blue Peter and German TV's Beat-Club can also be found easily. More recently, the last ever TV appearance by the original band, performing "Noises for the Leg" in December 1969 on the BBC, has surfaced.
As well as their appearance in the Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour, the band made a short "silent" film Adventures of Son of Exploding Sausage in 1969. With a soundtrack of only music. The film culminates with a live performance of "We Are Normal" on a farm. An early feature, in an Autumn 1967 Pathé Newsreel, has the band miming to "The Equestrian Statue" and "Music for the Head Ballet", shot in London's Speakeasy.
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