The Bonzo Dog Band

The Bonzo Dog Band was an English comedy rock act that released four albums on Liberty between 1967 and 1969.

Members: Roger Ruskin Spear (tenor saxophone, trumpet, vocals), Rodney Slater (alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, bass saxophone, clarinet, bass, clarinet, trombone, 1966-70), Vivian Stanshall (trumpet, wind instruments, violin, vocals), Neil Innes (vocals, piano, guitar), Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (electric bass, banjo, saxophone, 1966-67), ‘Legs’ Larry Smith (tuba, drums, vocals), Sam Spoons [Martin Ash] (drums, string bass, percussion, 1966-67), Rob Kerr (harmonica, vocals), Joel Druckman (bass, vocals, 1967-68), Dave Clague (electric bass, 1967-68), Dennis Cowan (electric bass, guitar, vocals, 1968-72)


Background

The Bonzos formed in late 1962 when Central School of Art and Design student Vivian Stanshall and saxophone–clarinet player Rodney Slater bonded over the September 25 boxing match between heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and challenger Sonny Liston, who beat his opponent in the first round, broadcast internationally from Chicago’s Comiskey Park. They met through a mutual friend, sousaphonist Tom Parkinson, who played trad jazz with Slater in a ramshackle group with trombonist Chris Jennings and two Royal College of Art attendees: trumpeter Roger (‘Happy’ Wally) Wilkes and banjo-player Trevor Brown.

Stanshall joined on vocals and euphonium. He renamed their act the Bonzo Dog Dada Band: inspired by two phenomenons of the 1920s — Bonzo the Dog (a cartoon character by English comic strip artist George Studdy) and Dada (the European art movement). They rehearsed as an octet until the autumn term expulsion of Slater and Parkinson for overspent grants and unpaid rent.

In 1963, Slater and Stanshall reunited with Wilkes and two new members: banjoist–contrabassist Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell (a Goldsmiths College lecturer) and pianist–songwriter Neil Innes (a Goldsmiths fine art student). Innes brought cohesion to the group, whose mix of vaudeville and music hall mirrored The Alberts and The Temperance Seven, both purveyors of retro-’20s comedy jazz. Stanshall cultivated a period look with pince-nez glasses and Victorian frock coats.

Slater on-boarded drummer Martin Ash (aka Sam Spoons), who secured a Bonzos residency at The Kensignton, a Notting Hill pub where attendee “Big” Sid Nicholls entered the fold as a second banjoist. Big introduced them to Roger Ruskin Spear, an electronics whizz who joined on saxophone and trumpet. Spear summoned trumpeter and former Jungle Orchestra bandmate Leon “Lenny” Williams, who replaced Wilkes.

Through 1964, the Bonzos performed as a ten-piece composed of Innes, Slater, Stanshall, Bowhay-Nowell, Ash, Nicholls, Spear, Williams, tuba player Raymond Lewitt, and trombonist John “Pazz” Parry, who soon resigned to an auxiliary role (he later co-founded the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, a perennial retro-1930s swing big band). Lewitt cleared for tubaist “Legs” Larry Smith, a friend of Stanshall from Central College of Art. Smith took his nickname from the 1960 historical crime film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, which stars Ray Danton as Jack Diamond, a Prohibition-era NY gangster whose “Legs” nickname derived from his ability to escape authorities.

The Bonzos gigged around London and gained club residencies in Homerton (The Deuragon Arms) and Catford (The Tiger’s Head). They impressed Reg Tracey, a showbiz manager who found them steady work on the Northern Working Men’s club circuit.

In February 1966, the Bonzos performed a cover of Bobby Darin’s “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” on Blue Peter, a BBC children’s show hosted by John Noakes. Soon after, Sid Nicholls left the band and Leon Williams cleared for harpist Rob Kerr.

Tracey linked the Bonzos with Parlophone, which issued the band’s April 1966 debut single “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies,” a 1920s cover backed with “I’m Going to Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight.” In Octobet, the Bonzos released their second single: “Alley Oop” backed with “Button Up Your Overcoat.”

The Bonzos impressed music mogul Gerry Bron, who wrested the band from Tracey and secured them a deal with Liberty Records as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Legs proposed an update to their sound.

Meanwhile, Kerr’s friend, producer–songwriter Geoff Stephens, scored an unexpected hit with “Winchester Cathedral,” a retro-’20s music-hall ditty credited to The New Vaudeville Band! With public demand for the fictional group, Stephens asked the Bonzos to assume the identity of the New Vaudeville Band for TV and live appearances. Kerr obliged but the others rebuffed Stephens’ proposal, only to find their retro-aesthetic thunder stolen by the ramshackle New Vaudeville Band, which had a Stanshall-clone singer (Alan Klein, aka ‘Tristam, Seventh Earl of Cricklewood’) and stole the Bonzos’ cutout speech balloons.

In light of this slight, the Bonzos heeded Legs’ suggestion and fused their music-hall leanings with the burgeoning psychedelic sound. Paul McCartney, who imparted a similar balance of styles on the Beatles‘ recent output, cast the Bonzos in Magical Mystery Tour, a late-1967 television film with surreal vignettes tied to Beatles songs. The Bonzos perform the Innes–Stanshall original “Death Cab For Cutie” in the film’s penultimate part, in which a go-go dancer boa-slithers around Vivian as he croons the hookline “Someone’s gonna make you pay your fare.”

The Bonzos served as the resident band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children’s comedy show that ran for 29 episodes between December 1967 and May 1969 on the ITV network. The show’s cast included three comedians (Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) who subsequently formed the Monty Python comedy troupe with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Terry Gilliam.


Gorilla

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band released their debut album, Gorilla, in October 1967 on Liberty. It features “Death Cab for Cutie” and individual contributions from Innes (The Equestrian Statue,” “Music for the Head Ballet,” “Piggy Bank Love”) and Stanshall (“Look Out, There’s a Monster Coming,” “The Intro and the Outro,” “Big Shot,” “I’m Bored”), plus the co-written intro “Cool Britannia.”

Side A contains the group-written “Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold” and an interlude of the Tony Bennett standard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

A1. “Cool Britannia” (1:00)
A2. “The Equestrian Statue” (2:49)
A3. “Jollity Farm” (Leslie Sarony) – 2:29
A4. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (1:04) George Cory. Douglass Cross
A5. “Look Out, There’s a Monster Coming” (2:55)
A6. “Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold” (3:11) lampoons their earlier ramshackle trad-jazz configuration with intentional ineptitude.
A7. “Death Cab for Cutie” (2:56) is a musical pastiche of “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” by Elvis Presley.
A8. “Narcissus” (Ethelbert Nevin) – 0:27

B1. “The Intro and the Outro” (3:04) is a member-by-member showcase (based on Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues”) that name-checks each player (with corresponding solos) and a host of imaginary guests, including ‘John Wayne’ (xylophone), ‘Harold Wilson’ (violin), and ‘Adolph Hitler’ (vibraphone).
B2. “Mickey’s Son and Daughter” (Eddie Lisbonna, Tommy Connor) – 2:43
B3. “Big Shot” (3:31)
B4. “Music for the Head Ballet” (1:45)
B5. “Piggy Bank Love” (3:04)
B6. “I’m Bored” (3:06)
B7. “The Sound of Music” (Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers) – 1:21


Discography:

  • Gorilla (1967 • Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band)
  • The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (1968)
  • Tadpoles (1969)
  • Keynsham (1969)
  • Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (1972)
  • Unpeeled (archival, 1995)

Sources:

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