In the USA in late September 1962, presiding world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson stood in the way of Sonny Liston’s ambitions. Patterson was KO’d in round one, the third-fastest knockout in heavyweight boxing history. But while his career was flattened, the fight also provided the catalyst for something wholly original some 4,000 miles away.
Over in London, art student Rodney Slater was tuning in from his shared digs. “Heavyweight contests were big events in those days and they always used to be broadcast live on the radio,” he explained four decades later in 2012. “So I was sitting there, waiting for it to start. My flatmate, Tom Parkinson, had run into Viv Stanshall in a pub in the West End, when Viv had just come up to Central [St Martins College of Art] and had nowhere to stay. So Tom brought him home and Viv and I just started nattering. Then we decided: ‘Right, let’s wait up till three in the morning for this boxing match to start.’ And it was in those three or four hours beforehand that these conversations really began. We played this silly word game, which produced the ‘Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’, with a little bit of fiddling.” (Bonzo the dog, incidentally, was the cartoon creation of popular 20s artist George Studdy.)
A few months previously, Slater and Parkinson had formed a band with trumpeter Roger Wilkes and banjo player Trevor Brown, both students at the Royal College of Art. Their style had much in common with the approach of 20s jazzsters The Temperance Seven and novelty jazz outfit The Alberts. “There were four of us playing around,” says Slater, “so we took Viv down there and drafted him in. There was a very brief and hectic bit between September and December that year where it took off and got going, then suddenly stopped. Various people dropped out and there was a kind of wilderness period where Viv and I were trying to get hold of anybody.”
The next big shunt in the right direction came with the arrival of two figures from nearby Goldsmiths College – lecturer Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and his piano-playing lodger, Neil Innes. “Vernon came back one night,” remembers Innes, “and said: ‘I’ve just met these extraordinary people called the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and they’re looking for a pianist. Are you interested?’ The first meeting was with Rodney and Viv at the New Cross Inn, which is right by Goldsmiths art school. That’s when Viv came in, a bit plump with his Billy Bunter trousers, a frock coat and euphonium and little horrible glasses with a violet-tinted oval shape. And big rubber ears. I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll sign up to this.’ I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band offered a carte blanche alternative to the staid practises of trad jazz. Theirs was a feverish world that drew from the improv of Commedia dell’Arte, pre-war jazz, music hall, the Dada movement and the avant-garde; a theatre of the absurd played out by unruly art-school pranksters. Initially the tuba player, Stanshall recast himself as frontman, versing obscure old tunes – mostly from vintage 78s salvaged from flea markets – like an irreverent Noël Coward.
The rest of the band, meanwhile, chaotically looned about on weird instruments, including those invented by Royal College of Art student Martin Ash, soon to be rechristened Sam Spoons. “Playing the spoons was always a party piece of mine,” he explains. “I played down in Plymouth, when I was a student down there, with all the sailors in the pubs. And I got free beer because they thought it was wonderful. So I brought all that back to the art college. The Bonzos all went: ‘That’s so ridiculous! It’s bizarre!’ And they asked me to join.”
Spoons recalls his first gig with the band: “I went up to Portobello Road and bought scraps of percussion, put it together on a few bits of iron in the workshop, turned up at the gig the following Saturday at Imperial College, and just joined in. I remember getting a fiver for that gig and thinking: ‘That’s a week’s rent!’”
This fledgling version of the Bonzos also caught the temperature of the times. Neil Innes cites The Alberts as a key influence: “They were far more unruly than The Temperance Seven and did An Evening of British Rubbish , where they tapped into the kind of ‘Look, the war’s over and there’s no more National Service’ thing. The embryonic peace movement was happening, questioning authority and whatever, and The Alberts were at the forefront of that.
“We’d go down to Portobello or Deptford market and get these old 78s for tuppence, on the lookout for the ones with the silliest titles, like I’m Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight. I remember others too, like Oh Donna Clara and Give Yourself A Pat On The Back. It was all this wartime propaganda, cheer-up-England stuff. Plus the junk shops were full of British Empire Raj uniforms and Victorian frock coats. It was easy and cheap to dress up in this kind of stuff. And you could buy a second-hand euphonium for about a quid. Being part of this Bonzos set-up was a statement against everything being all a bit fuddy-duddy.”
One of those who caught wind of the Bonzos’ self-styled “ballet for the vulgar” was Roger Ruskin Spear, the son of celebrated painter Ruskin Spear. At a loose end after the break-up of his Duke Ellington-style big band, he was introduced to the spectacle by his banjo player, Sid Nicholls. “Sid said, ‘Come down to the Kensington Arms. There’s a band there that’s getting away with murder!’” recalls Spear. “So I went along with my trumpet player, Lenny Williams, and had to push my way in because it was so crowded.
“It certainly was a horrendous noise, but just about suited my current desire to break free from the confines of ‘serious’ music. As far as I was concerned, this was the kind of British culture that was interesting me at the time. We’d moved on from The Goons to Pete and Dud teaching blackbirds how to sing underwater and Jonathan Miller teaching speak-your-weight machines to sing the Hallelujah chorus. When I joined, our idea was to play as loudly and badly as possible until someone took notice. Which they did when the Bonzos played every Sunday evening at the Tiger’s Head in Catford.”
Soon, everywhere they went in London publand, the Bonzos would have punters queuing round the block. Their live shows became events. “It was all very loose to begin with,” offer Innes, “and in fact Vivian left for a while. But once we started making money, he suddenly reappeared. He’d been up to Edinburgh with [mime and dance teacher] Lindsay Kemp, who’d sort of trained him. And he half- lifted Lindsay’s striptease routine, which became a classic of Falling In Love Again. Viv would unhook this imaginary bra and juggle these enormous invisible boobs. By then he’d slimmed right down and was calling himself ‘Aesthetic’ Vivian Stanshall. He was already messing about with words. There was a picture of him in our first pamphlet saying, ‘Mephistophelean engines of pleasure.’”
Away from regular haunts like the Tiger’s Head and the Duragon Arms, the Bonzos took their act to the provinces in April 1966, a few months after their memorable TV debut on Blue Peter, performing a breakneck version of Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey. A six-week trawl around the cabaret clubs of northern England coincided with the arrival of their first manager, Reg Tracey, brother-in-law of jazz leader Kenny Ball.
The Bonzos, in true Marx Brothers spirit, travelled up the A1 in Vernon Dudley’s Daimler ambulance, perched on dining chairs in the back. Spear recalls playing “far too many Northern cabaret shows for our sanity. Horrendous doubles and horrendous digs. ‘All the top names have pissed in that sink, lads!’ and all of that.”
Innes recalls, “All these places that didn’t exist in the south – cabaret clubs and working men’s clubs, like Greasbrough [near Rotherham]. There are wonderful stories from there. The chairman had a flat cap and used to spit into a microphone [adopts blunt Northern accent]: ‘Kindly oblige, take your empty glasses back to the bar. Hot dogs on sale in the foyer. And now on stage – here’s Jana! Give the poor cow a chance.’ It was a new world for us.”
The audiences loved them. With the Goonery of Stanshall, the novelty of Spoons, Spear’s exploding grandfather clocks and the mad tap-dancing of ‘Legs’ Larry Smith, it was refreshingly new. “We always had this strong visual thing,” says Spoons. “No other band had done that before to the same extent – the use of props and the introduction of art references of one sort or another. Sid Nicholls, who’d never made a prop in his life before, once made this huge papier-mâché hammer. I was out there playing the spoons and he suddenly came up behind me and just walloped me with it. And although it was only made of papier-mâché, the weight of it just squashed me flat. It was very funny for everyone but me.
“A lot of people turned up just to see what we could get away with, the sheer bloody nerve of it all. We were always able to communicate with our audience without really trying. There was an immediate rapport. There was nothing slick about it; we weren’t pretending to be very good at what we did. If it amused us, chances are it would amuse the audience.”
The following year saw the release of debut album Gorilla, alongside a spot in The Beatles’ own attempt at celluloid Dada, the Magical Mystery Tour. This was followed by a residency on pre-Python TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and brief chart success with I’m The Urban Spaceman in 1968. But by then relations within the band had started to sour. Those formative years playing the hostelries and cabaret clubs of Britain were, it seems, the real boon times.
“It was just jolly good fun,” chuckles Rodney Slater today. “And utterly chaotic. The enthusiasm was contagious. Our first manager, Reg Tracey, wanted to make us into all-round entertainers, but there was no way we were ever going to be that. The Bonzos never wanted to be showbiz people.”
Witness: Lyn Birkbeck
Friend and associate producer of 1967’s Gorilla recalls working with the band
“I first saw the Bonzos live at some club, maybe in Wimbledon somewhere, and I was just bowled over. Watching that show was like taking a drug. It dropped you out of your normal sense of reality. Paradoxically though, none of them took any drugs. There was some boozing, but not even that much. And in the studio they were pretty serious. Most of them were artists and had an almost earnest attitude to the whole Dada movement.
“When I was rehearsing them for Gorilla I was travelling around the country with them. I remember them playing somewhere up in the north. It was one of those clubs were people had food served as well, a cabaret-type setting. The Bonzos got so pissed off at everybody clattering their knives and forks that they suddenly stopped playing, came and sat at their tables and started eating their food. It was audience participation, whether they liked it or not!
“Their manager, Gerry Bron, was a control freak. I remember once, after the Bonzos hadn’t done something they were supposed to have done, Gerry summoned the band to his office to give them a dressing down. And they all turned up wearing animal heads!
“I was split, because I was Gerry’s associate producer, but really I was absolutely pissing myself. That time with the Bonzos was an amazing two years of my life.”