The Bonzo Dog Band - Biography
By J Poet
Rock music and comedy don’t usually mix well. Most acts that attempt to blend the two fail miserably because they’re not funny enough and not musical enough. The notable exception is The Bonzo Dog Band, AKA Bonzo Dog Dada Band, AKA Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. for six brief years between 1967 and 1973 they were the reigning clowns of rock’n’roll, putting out seven albums that ranged from brilliant to forgettable. Their blend of music and humor could have only been conceived in England, as it combined the traditions of the British music hall, vaudeville, Dixieland jazz, calypso, cabaret, blues, drag, camp and rock and roll into a heady intellectual stew that was both danceable and laugh out loud funny.
The Bonzos got their start on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a British children's television show that started in 1967. The actors on that particular show - Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and animator Terry Gilliam – went on to become Monty Python's Flying Circus, but the kids tuned in mostly for the music, supplied by Neil Innes, 'Legs' Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Rodney Slater, Vivian Stanshall, and Roger Ruskin Spear, who also amazed the kids by building robots that inevitably exploded. They were named after Bonzo the Dog, a British cartoon hero of the 1920s.
The children’s show supplied the income and visibility for the band to continue to develop their stage show and anarchic musical pastiches. They made a few singles for Parlophone, including a risqué 1920’s style parody ‘I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight” but they went nowhere. At first they were parodying the conventions of British music hall, vaudeville and 50s pop. Goeff Stephens contacted them in 1967. He’d written a song, “Winchester Cathedral,” which had become a big hit. He’d recorded it with session musicians as the New Vaudeville Band and anted to hire the Bonzos to tour the single. Only one Bonzo left, sax man Bob Kerr; when the New Vaudeville Band appeared on Top of the Pops, they performed the act the Bonzos had been developing for years. They shifted gears and started writing bizarre rock’n’roll songs, one of which, “Death Cab for Cutie”, caught the ear of Paul McCartney. He put the Bonzos in a film he was making called Magical Mystery Tour and their brief performance of “Death Cab” struck a chord. Liberty Records inked them and released Gorilla (1967 Liberty) as the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band. The album included a calypso about a Jamaican undergoing plastic surgery to look more posh (white) “Look Out There’s a Monster Coming”, a nasty send up of piano bar singers “The Sound of Music’, a great Dixieland jazz instrumental “Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold”, “Death Cab for Cutie”, and “The Intro and the Outro” an instrumental that allegedly introduced the band, but when on and on with topical music biz in jokes “Mike Oldfield on Tubular bells, the Count Basie Orchestra on triangle and looking very relaxed on vibes, Adolph Hitler.”
They continued working on Do Not Adjust Your Set, and in the days before cross marketing, oddly did noting to link their TV popularity with their gigs or albums. Their first hit single, “I'm The Urban Spaceman”, a song about taking speed and spacing out, became a #5 pop hit. Paul McCartney produced it, although that information didn’t leak out immediately, but for some reason Liberty didn’t put the tune on the band’s next album The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse (1968 Liberty). Initially they didn’t release it in the US either. Granny's Greenhouse hit #40 on the British album charts. Urban Spaceman (1969 Liberty US) is Granny’s Greenhouse with a slightly different cover and the inclusion of their big bit. It also contains their attempt at creating a new dance craze “The Trouser Press”, which became the name of one of American’s best underground rock magazines. The toured the US opening for The Who and The Kinks.
Tadpoles (1969 Liberty) came out in different versions in the US and UK. The British album includes “Urban Spaceman” and “Canyons of Your Mind”, the song that includes the world’s worst guitar solo.” It’s a seamless blend of rock, music hall, jazz noir and other influences. “Mr. Apollo” the tale of a skinny guy who builds his body using the Atlas dynamic tension method included the famous like: “Once I was a four stone apology. Now, I am two separate gorillas.” Other hits are parody of British imperialism “Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah”, the disturbing “Laughing Blues” and a cover of “The Monster Mash.” The album briefly charted, just as the news came that Do Not Adjust Your Set was to be cancelled. Keynsham (1969 Liberty), possibly their best album, followed; the music was sharper, the satire more pointed and poignant but they were falling apart. Constant touring and the pressure of a weekly TV show took their toll; they splintered to embark on various solo projects.
With solo careers going nowhere, the Bonzos reunited for one last outing Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (1972 United Artists). It included “The Strain” and ode to constipation and “King Of Scurf”, which sounded like a commercial for a psoriasis ointment as orchestrated by Brian Wilson. Then they broke up for good, almost. Neil Innes maintained the highest profile, collaborating with Eric Idle on the Meet the Rutles mocumentary and album (1978 Warner, 2007 Rhino). In 1987 there was a brief reunion to record “No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In”, but it was not released until 1992. Vivian Stanshall died in a fire in his home in 1995. Since their demise, they’ve been constantly anthologized and reissued, so check track listings before you buy more than one Best of.
In 2005, Bob Carruthers, a British filmmaker who produced a Bonzo documentary Inside the Bonzos, broached the idea of a reunion gig and helped assemble as many of the original members as possible for a concert at The Astoria in London, on January 28 2006. It’s out on DVD as The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band 40th Anniversary DVD (2006 Classic Rock Legends UK) and CD as Wrestle Poodles…and Win! (2006 Classic Rock Legends UK). The reunited group went into the studio again to cut Pour L’Amour Des Chiens (2007 Phantom Sound UK) a CD/DVD set of new songs that are just as wise assed and sophicticated as the stuff they did in their heyday.