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The Vivian Stanshall albums you should definitely own

Vivian Stanshall
Vivian Stanshall and friend in (Image credit: David Redfern/Getty Images)

Vivian Stanshall has an indisputable place among the Great English Eccentrics. I first met him at St. Martins School Of Art. He was part of the ban-the-bomb-bird raver subculture of trad jazz and Victoriana. The dumb commercial end was Acker Bilk; the Temperance Seven were smarter, but still a commercial novelty. Stanshall, however, was in the totally bizarre Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose Dadaist jazz and Roger Ruskin Spear’s surreal robots made them unwitting precursors of steampunk.

Five years later, in 1967, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performed the song Death Cab For Cutie in The BeatlesMagical Mystery Tour. The Bonzos were already residents on the kids’ TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set and had appeared on Blue Peter. They came from the same post-Goon Show Petri dish as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A year after their first album Gorilla, they actually made No.5 in the UK singles chart with I’m The Urban Spaceman (I Got Speed) that Lemmy swore was about him.

The Bonzos did two tours of the USA. The first, with The Who, raised mayhem levels but hardly made them American idols. After the second, they jacked it in. The Americans may have cottoned on to the dead parrot sketch, but My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe left them baffled.

Viv participated in two Bonzo reunions, one in 1972 and another in 1988, but the post Bonzo years were far from happy. He became a full-blown alcoholic and subject to bouts of major depression that were treated with Valium – with disastrous results. Mercifully, though, his creative output continued uninterrupted.

Before releasing his first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, in 1974, Viv recorded a voiceover for Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and worked with Robert Calvert on his Captain Lockheed And The Starfighters project. Sessions with John Peel on Radio 1 developed his Sir Henry Rawlinson saga on the eccentricities of the Brit upper classes. The Rawlinson concept would mutate into two albums, a book, a film and, finally, a beer commercial.

Viv also released a non-Rawlinson solo album, Teddy Boys Don’t Knit. What might have come next is debatable. His work seemed to be drifting away from recorded music and more in the direction of radio, writing and film. Alas, Vivian Stanshall was found dead on March 6, 1995 after a fire at his Muswell Hill flat.

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The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse (Liberty, 1968) (opens in new tab)

The instruction on the gatefold sleeve of the Bonzos’ second album reads: “The noises of your body are a part of this record”, and the music that went with the bodily noises were Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band at their recorded peak. 

It contains the majority of their live favourites including We Are Normal, Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?, Trouser Press, My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe and Rockaliser Baby. Five extra tracks were added to the 2007 CD release, including the hilarious Canyons Of Your Mind and a demented version of Blue Suede Shoes.

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Vivian Stanshall - Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (Charisma, 1978) (opens in new tab)

This solo album released in 1978 was ground zero of what would grow into the absurdist Rawlinson franchise. Based on the John Peel BBC recordings, Stanshall talks and sings his way through the lunatic history of Sir Henry Rawlinson, his family, its retainers (like Old Scrotum), and the denizens of the local pub, the Fool & Bladder. Stanshall also plays a plethora of instruments.

Assisting with this production that set Stanshall firmly on the road to Great English Eccentricity were Steve Winwood (opens in new tab) and two Stanshall children. The story as described on the album was used as the basis for a 1980 film with the same name.

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Bonzo Dog Band - Keynsham (Liberty, 1969) (opens in new tab)

Keynsham is a small Somerset town, made famous by a character called Horace Batchelor who swamped Radio Luxembourg with commercials claiming you could win a fortune on the football with his amazing Infra-Draw method.

He became a running joke with rock radio fans, and inspired the title of the Bonzo’s fourth album, which included some of Stanshall’s finest Bonzo compositions, including Mr Slater’s Parrot, Look At Me, I’m Wonderful and The Bride Stripped Bare (By The Bachelors). This time the sleeve notes warned: “Mothers with children please note. This record is inedible”.

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Vivian Stanshall - Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (Warner Bros., 1974) (opens in new tab)

Let loose on his own, Stanshall created a record that is either brilliant or simply barking crazy. Idiosyncratic in the extreme, the songs/poems on …Umbrellas... are highly – and sometimes disturbingly – personal, with repeated references to the Stanshall penis.

Dense African percussion provides a foundation for the free-form jazz rock that’s provided by the likes of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi (opens in new tab), Ric Grech and Doris Troy. For years this album was a greatly sought-after rarity, until it was finally reissued as a limited-edition CD in 2010.

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Vivian Stanshall - Teddy Boys Don’t Knit (Charisma, 1981) (opens in new tab)

Believe it or not, as a teenage Teddy boy in Westcliff-on-Sea Viv bewildered his mates by taking up crocheting as a hobby.

This is possibly the most fully developed musical album of Stanshall’s solo work. It still has the wordplay, the surrealism and some scathing observations on the rock lifestyle, but with an ensemble around him that again included ace players like Richard Thompson, Neil Innes (opens in new tab), Rick Wakeman (opens in new tab) and Ollie Halsall, it seemed more solid than the previous solo record. Standout tracks include Ginger Geezer, The Cracks Are Showing, Terry Keeps His Clips On and Flung A Dummy.

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Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band - A Dog’s Life (EMI, 2011) (opens in new tab)

A bit of cheat in that this is actually a box set containing the Bonzos’ five classic albums, plus the hit single I’m The Urban Spaceman. But head for the statutory bonus tracks where you’ll find some long-lost quirks from the early days. 

There you'll find a genuinely unearthed 1920s novelty called My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies, the barely explicable I’m Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight and the later but equally peculiar Stanshall/Eric Clapton (opens in new tab) collaboration Labio Dental Fricative. And who could live without the Bonzos’ version of Alley Oop?

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The Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band - Gorilla (Liberty, 1967) (opens in new tab)

The Bonzo Dog’s first album, a low-budget creation in which Stanshall played a major part, clearly shows how the band were determinedly divorcing themselves from their Temperance Seven trad raver roots, and instead moving in the direction of an ultra-British Mothers Of Invention.

Death Cab For Cutie is probably the most outstanding track, although Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold featured some of the most deliberately gruesome improvisations ever committed to vinyl as the Bonzos broke with the past. The record states: “Dedicated to Kong who must have been a great bloke”.

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Bonzo Dog Band - Tadpoles (Liberty, 1969) (opens in new tab)

The third Bonzo Dog Band album was primarily drawn from the material from their resident band gig on the TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set. The Neil Innes composition I’m The Urban Spaceman garnered most of the critical attention and became the band’s only hit single. 

But the final track, Canyons Of Your Mind, is beyond doubt one of Viv Stanshall’s best tunes from the Bonzo era in the way that it transcends psychedelic parody to almost become the real thing. The US version had a slightly different tracklisting from the UK version, oddly removing UK hit I’m The Urban Spaceman and adding the B side, Readymades.

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Bonzo Dog Band - Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly (United Artists, 1972) (opens in new tab)

The Bonzos’ fifth and final album was made under serious duress. The band had split, but United Artists Records made it clear that contractually they owed the label another album.

The resulting Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly wasn’t exactly dreadful, but the sense that none of the band really wanted to be there and they were cutting a redundant album permeates the entire work. The only real point of interest is the track Rawlinson End that features the first appearance of Sir Henry Rawlinson, who would later be more fully developed with John Peel for his show on Radio 1.

Plus one to avoid...

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Vivian Stanshall - Sir Henry at N’didi Kraal (United Artists, 1972) (opens in new tab)

In the second 1984 Rawlinson album (the fourth and final solo album by Stanshall) Sir Henry goes to Africa to locate a lost tribe, and it proves to be an unmitigated disaster both in fiction and fact.

Stanshall considered the record, almost all spoken word, to be sub-standard, and it was released without his permission or even his knowledge. Taking advantage of the fact that he was drunk, depressed and ill while making the album, the record company rushed it out, presumably to recoup their studio outlay in case his health – both mental and physical – deteriorated any further.

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock issue 185, in May 2013