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Members include Dennis Cowan (joined in 1968), bass; Victor Dudley Bohay-Nowell, guitar, banjo; Neil Innes, vocals, piano; Rodney Slater, saxophone, trumpet; Roger Ruskin Spear, saxophone, mechanical props; Vivian Stanshall , vocals, trumpet; "Legs" Larry Smith, drums; Sam Spoons, percussion.
As its name might indicate, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was a rock group with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. During its brief but productive heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the British outfit emphasized satire and sheer nonsense in its songs and stage performances. Though they achieved only limited attention in the United States, the Bonzos were a popular and influential outfit in the United Kingdom. The Beatles and Monty Python's Flying Circus were among those who worked with the band or collaborated with its individual members. For all their lyrical absurdity and bizarre sonic tangents, chief songwriters Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes and Roger Ruskin Spear brought an adept musical touch to the Bonzos's madness, earning them a cult following.
The band was launched in 1965 by a loose assemblage of London-area college students. Some 30 members drifted in and out of its ranks before it coalesced around singer/trumpeter Vivian Stanshall, singer/pianist Neil Innes, saxophonist/kazooist/mechanical prop artist Roger Ruskin Spear, saxophonist Rodney Slater, guitarist Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, drummer "Legs" Larry Smith and percussionist Sam Spoons. The group was influenced by the British "trad jazz" movement of the 1950s, which revived dixieland and 1920s dance music styles. The Bonzos-to-be particularly took inspiration from the Alberts, a comedic trio whose mixture of old-fashioned tunes and strange stage props anticipated the group's own performances.
The group derived its name from a 1920s-era British cartoon character created by George Studdy. At first, it was known as the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, underscoring its link with the aggressively absurdist Dada art movement of the post-World War I era. Eventually, the name evolved into the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and, finally, into the Bonzo Dog Band. The Bonzos began to attract attention as a live act around London, enlivening their shows with Spear's elaborate robots, mannequins and gadgets. That summer, they were asked to tour as the New Vaudeville Band, a studio-only "group" then enjoying an international hit with the nostalgic tune "Winchester Cathedral." The Bonzos turned the offer down and decided to move away from old-fashioned jazz sounds toward a more modern pop/rock approach. Signing with Parlophone Records, they released "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies" as their debut single. The song attracted little attention, as did its follow-up, a cover of the Hollywood Argyles 1960 hit "Alley Oop."
The Bonzos' fortunes began to improve after moving to Liberty Records and releasing their first album, Gorilla,in 1967. This whimsical assortment of tunes contained such highlights as the jovial "Jollity Farm" and an irreverent remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound Of Music." The band's public profile grew noticeably after they performed "Death Cab For Cutie" on the Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour television special later that year. Regular appearances on the British children's TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set beginning in January 1968 helped to swell their audience further. The Bonzos' manic routines and off-kilter songs played out well on the small screen, and helped to pave the way for the likes of Monty Python's Flying Circus a few years later. (Future Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam honed their comedic craft on Do Not Adjust Your Set as well.)
After the completion of Do Not Adjust Your Set's first reason, bandmembers Spoons and Bohay-Nowell left the fold, with bassist Dennis Cowan joining soonafter. In December 1968, the band scored its only British hit single when "I'm The Urban Spaceman" reached number five. Written by Innis, this characteristically odd yet catchy number was produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. It paved the way for the success of the Bonzos' second album, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse, released in late 1968. The LP, which reached number 40 on the British album charts, proved to be both funnier and more musically polished than its predecessor. Reviewing the album in the 1995 edition of the All Music Guide to Rock, Richie Unterberger wrote that "the Bonzos' second album was probably their best. Although they were hardly a rock or pop group in the traditional sense, the Bonzos couldn't help absorbing some of the vibes of British psychedelia, and the heady ambience of the era is reflected in the recklessly diverse and outrageous material." "Hello Mabel" and "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites" satirized the blues and British music hall genres, while such spoken routines as "Rhinocratic Oaths" were exercises in inspired gibberish.
The group's momentum continued with Tadpoles,which made it to number 36 on the British charts after its release in mid-1969. This album marked something of a return to the Bonzos' jazz/vaudevillian focus of its early days, with such tracks as "By A Waterfall" and "Tubas In The Moonlight" delving into pre-World War II musical forms. Comedy skits like "Shirt" (featuring Stanshall interviewing ordinary citizens about their taste in clothing) and a cover of Bobby Pickett's 1962 novelty hit "Monster Mash" rounded out the LP. By the end of the year, the Bonzos were back with Keynsham,a more rock-oriented song collection. Stanshall and Innes contributed more heavily to this effort, matching pop hooks with a mocking lyric edge on such tunes as "You Done My Brain In" and "I Want To Be With You." The group supported both albums with an active tour schedule, sharing the stage with Led Zeppelin during one noteworthy San Francisco concert date.
Keynsham failed to reach the sales level of the band's two previous albums. Uneven commercial success and differing musical tastes contributed to the band's break-up in early 1970. Its members embarked on a variety of solo projects and collaborations from that point on. Smith, Spoons and Bohay-Nowell joined forces with early Bonzo member Bob Kerr to form the Whoopee Band, a humorous old-time jazz combo which continued on into the 1990s. Innes launched a band called World, while Stanshall assembled the group Big Grunt with assistance from Cowan and Spear. The most curious Bonzo spin-off was Roger Ruskin Spear & His Giant Kinetic Wardrobe, which featured a troupe of robots as part of the act.
To fulfill its contract to Liberty, the Bonzos came back together in 1971 to record Let's Make Up and Be Friendly. Stanshall, Innes, Smith, Spear and Cowan managed to revive some of the hilarity of the Bonzos' heyday on this album, which charted at number 199 in the United States. The reunion was only temporary, however, and the LP proved to be the final one. Various compilations, most notably the two-disc The History Of The Bonzosand The Best of The Bonzo Dog Band, kept the group's music in circulation. The Bonzos reformed once again in 1987 to record a single, "No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In," which remained unreleased until 1992.
Though the band was put to rest, the various ex-members brought the Bonzos' antic spirit to a host of other endeavors. Stanshall branched out from recording into other media, hosting Viv Stanshall's Radio Flasheson the BBC and creating a feature film, Sir Henry of Rawlinson End. He also contributed lyrics to Steve Winwood's 1980 album Arc of a Diver. Innes released a series of solo albums, wrote several humor books and appeared in such films as Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky. In 1977, he and Monty Python member Eric Idle created the Rutles, a Beatles parody that spawned a television special and album. Most of the other members continued to work as backup musicians, occationally collaborating with Stanshall, Innes or other Bonzo alumni.
In 1995, Stanshall died in a fire in his London apartment. It was a tragic postscript to the story of rock's most mirthful band. Still, for an enduring faithful, the fun of the Bonzos' music has remained timeless. New Tricks,a collection of remastered original recordings released in 2000, brought the band's zaniness to yet another generation. "The marriage between rock and comedy has always been a shaky one, reliant as it all too often is on topicality," wrote Dave Thompson in Record Collector."However, the Bonzos somehow managed to transcend such limitations and much of their best material has survived the passage of time unscathed."
by Barry Alfonso
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's Career
Group formed in 1965, with shifting membership; line-up solidified, 1966; signed with Parlophone Records, released first single "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies," 1966; signed with Liberty Records, released first album Gorilla, appeared in Beatles television special Magical Mystery Tour, 1967; performed regularly on British children's television show Do Not Adjust Your Set, released hit single "I'm The Urban Spaceman" and The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse album, 1968; toured United States, released Tadpoles and Keynsham albums, 1969; group disbanded, 1970; re-formed to record final album in 1971, disbanded again later that year; released reunion album Let's Make Up and Be Friendlyon United Artists, 1972; released History of the Bonzos compilation album, 1974; various members occasionally revived band for live performances; released single "No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In," 1992.
- Selected discography
- Gorilla Liberty, 1967; reissued, One Way, 1993.
- The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse Liberty, 1968; reissued, Edsel, 1987.
- Tadpoles Liberty, 1969; reissued, One Way, 1993.
- Keynsham Liberty, 1969; reissued, One Way, 1993.
- Let's Make Up and Be Friendly United Artists, 1972; reissued, One Way, 1994.
- The History Of The Bonzos United Artists, 1974; reissued, BGO, 1997.
- The Best of the Bonzo Dog Band Rhino, 1990.
- New Tricks Right, 2000.
- Bonds, Ray, editor, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1982.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
- Pareles, Jon, editor, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Rees, Dafydd and Crampton, Luke, Encyclopedia Of Rock Stars, DK Publishing, 1996.
- Record Collector,December, 1987.
- "Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band - a History," http://bridge.anglia.ac.uk/~systimk/music/bonzos/history (August 2, 2000).
- Neil Innes website, http://www.neilinnes.org (August 2, 2000).
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