Bonzo Dog Band Neil Innes interview
by Richie Unterberger
If there was ever an equivalent to Spike Jones in rock music, the Bonzo Dog Band were it. Along with the Mothers of Invention and the Fugs, they were the funniest group of the 1960s, and certainly the most lovable and daffy of British eccentrics. Their gently absurdist send-ups touched upon everything from film noir narratives and melodramatic French crooners to science fiction B-movies and white blues bands. As fine as their best records were, the tragedy is that their highly visual madcap stage show, incorporating props, mime, and multiple instruments with a psychedelic vaudevillian humor, was rarely filmed. For just a taste of it, you can see their brief appearance as an unctuous lounge band in the strip club scene of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film.
The Bonzo Dog Band started as a bunch of college students reviving trad jazz from the 1920s for laughs. They were still heavily soaked in vaudeville when they made their first recordings in 1966, and that old-time influence would never completely vanish. However, they quickly began to incorporate rock and pop influences into their work, landing a major British hit single in 1968 with the Paul McCartney-produced "I'm the Urban Spaceman." They were also regulars on the British children television show Do Not Adjust Your Set, whose cast included Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle just before that trio went on to Monty Python's Flying Circus. Undoubtedly the Bonzos' anything-goes attitude influenced the Pythons, as can best be heard on the largely spoken track "Shirt," which sounds quite a bit like an actual Monty Python sketch.
Maintaining a balance between humor and music is always a delicate act, and as the Bonzos became more serious musicians, the humor threatened to dwindle. They decided to call it a day at the beginning of the 1970s (although they reformed for one album a bit later), and several members continued to maintain a high profile in both music and comedy, particularly Neil Innes and the late Viv Stanshall. The pair were the two primary songwriters in the Bonzos, with Innes subsequently becoming familiar to American audiences as an auxiliary member of Monty Python in their films and live shows, and also as "Ron Nasty" (and the songwriter) of the Rutles, the fictional group at the center of the brilliant Beatles TV special spoof All You Need Is Cash. I spoke to Innes about the Bonzo Dog Band in London in June 1999, for my chapter on the group in the book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock.
Q: What was the main inspiration for forming the Bonzo Dog Band?
Neil Innes: The Bonzos, in the early days, was a student band, an art student band. And it was mainly '30s, '20s jazz-orientated. But we used to go to flea markets and things, and look for old 78 records that had silly song titles. 'Cause you couldn't play them until you got them home. On the plus side, they didn't cost more than a penny or sixpence at the most in old money. So when you got them home, if you saw a record that said, for example, "I'm gonna bring a watermelon to my girl tonight," then you'd buy it on the off chance that it would be fairly humorous. So we used to look for funny songs, and learn them and play them. And we used to play them in pubs.
That went on for a few years, until we were invited to become professional, when our college careers ended, around . We then took a shortened version of what we'd been doing in the pubs, with the best gags and things like that, out to cabaret clubs and things in the north of England for six weeks. And we became a big success.
But during that six weeks, a record came out called "Winchester Cathedral." The New Vaudeville Band. Our trumpeter at the time was tight with Bob Kerr. He knew the man who'd made the record "Winchester Cathedral," and this chap rang Bob up and said, "You're working with a daft band. Ask them if they want to become the New Vaudeville Band!" And Bob sort of rushed in and said, "Hey, we could have a #1! It's already up in the Top Ten, this record." And of course, we all said, "No!" But Bob said, well, I'm going. We said, "go! Never darken our towels again!"
So off he went, and the tragic thing was, especially as far as Vivian Stanshall and Legs Larry Smith was concerned...because they'd been responsible for getting the band to look a certain style, which was these kind of gangster suits and two-toned shoes and holding up speaking balloons like in comics. They were cut out of board, and we'd hold them up, [the balloons saying] "Wow, I'm really expressing myself" and things like that. And the singer in their gold lame suit. And when the New Vaudeville Band appeared on television, they got a bunch of people together, and they took the whole look. So you saw these people with these suits, the two-tone shoes, the comic balloon things, and a singer in an army suit. And we'd hardly finished our six weeks of cabaret when people would come up, having seen the New Vaudeville Band on television, and saying, "Hey! You're like that New Vaudeville Band!"
This caused quite a rage within Viv and Legs that this had happened. I think it was Legs Larry Smith who said, why don't we play anything? Let's play rock'n'roll, let's just do anything. And we said, yeah, why not? 'Cause he'd been batting on about that. So we just turned our sights on the whole musical scene, and that's how it evolved.
We'd been quite happy playing all this old nonsense stuff, and it was rather like in the style of the Temperance Seven and another group called the Alberts. It was all British rubbish after-the-war kind of thing. And we were much younger than them, but we were definitely influenced by them. So it was quite a good thing, in a way. "Cause we then developed songwriting and all these other things. Got electric guitars and started swinging, and the lineup actually eventually changed because of that, because Vernon [Dudley Bohay-Nowell] and Sam [Spoons] were sort of squeezed out, really, 'cause they couldn't really adapt.
Q: Had you been writing original material before that point?
Neil Innes: Not before then. One of the first songs I wrote was "Equestrian Statue." Being an art student, I'd been reading Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, which was existentialist rubbish, really. I just thought, who is this guy worried about whether a lamppost exists more than he does? And in a way, not choose something a little more interesting, like an equestrian statue? And I think I was passing some equestrian statues in Liverpool, and I thought, I'll write a song about an equestrian statue. And Viv started writing, and we wrote things like "Death Cab For Cutie," which eventually turned up in--it was on Gorilla, but it also was part of Magical Mystery Tour.
I mean Gorilla was really our first sort of goes at songwriting. I think there's a couple of things on there that--the "Jazz Disgusting, Hot Delicious Cold" was a hark back to the stuff we used to play in the pubs. And it was just one take of anything, and people swapped their instruments around. Rodney played trombone, which he'd never played before. And Viv played trumpet, which he'd never played before. And one take.
Funnily enough, there's a new CD out on Hux called By Jingo, It's British Rubbish. And that's got the Temperance Seven, the Alberts, and the Bonzos on it. And you can compare. The Temperance Seven were very musical. They were much more musical than either the Alberts or the Bonzos. And they played really well. They had #1 hits in this country, like "Pasadena" and, I can't remember the other ones. The Alberts used to do the most insane things. Someone would climb into a fake cannon, and they'd be shot from the cannon. They'd just push a dummy out and [there] would be this huge painted canvas drum about 16 feet across with a painting of the Highlands of the Scotland, and Dougie Gray would play the bagpipes, marching on the spot. And the scenery behind him would be revolved, so it looked as though he was walking along through the Scottish Highlands. So they were doing their own thing. I suppose we were a kind of mixture of the two in the early days.
Q: When I interviewed Arthur Brown, he said that Pete Townshend told him Track wanted to sign the Bonzos but were too late, and wanted to make sure not to be too late to sign Arthur.
Neil Innes: I wasn't aware that Track Records were interested in the Bonzos. I'm not sure they would have been able to do much. But of course Viv and Keith Moon were huge pals, and so was Larry. In fact, Moon came on tour with us for a bit just before a big festival in Brighton, I think. At the time, he had this Bentley with a cassette recorder in it, in the days when not many people had cassette recorders in their cars. He'd had it wired up to the horn of the car. The Bentley has these big horns, you know, that if you pressed the horn, normally you'd get the sort of "BAWWP, I'm a Bentley, make way." But he'd wired up the cassette to it, so you could play Sgt Pepper out of the front.
We played a gig somewhere in Bristol, I think, and he had it parked up in a multi-story car park. We were waiting outside the club, and we heard this "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" coming blasting out of this multi-story car park, going round and round and round like a Lesley. And as we stood there waiting, laughing at this, two policemen were ambling up the street, looking curious. And of course in perfect timing, they sort of [got] halfway up the hill and this Bentley screeched out of the thing. There's all this music playing. The music stops, and the car stops, and the policeman looked in the window and tried to imagine what was going on. Eventually the car slid quietly down the hill to us to pick us up. So we said, "What did you say to him?" He said, "well, I just said I got one of these new cassette recorders in the car." [The policeman] said, "It's very loud, isn't it?" He said, "oh, sorry, officer, I must have had the windows open." But it was that kind of nonsense. Moon sat in and played the drums a few times with us.
We were pretty much contemporaries in those days. Bonzos knew just about everybody who was in a more pop charter than we were. I mean, we were more of a live act. We only ever had the one hit, anyway. And we didn't really want that.
Q: Was it Andrew Lauder who signed you to Liberty?
Neil Innes: I'm not sure if Andrew actually signed us, but he was certainly there. He was an A&R man there. I think there was a chap called Martin Davis, who was the managing director, I think, at the time. It was a deal done by the first manager, I think. Reg Tracy was the first Bonzos manager. He was [traditional jazz artist] Kenny Ball's brother-in-law, and we quickly realized that he wasn't really...you know, he could get us onto the cabaret, but he couldn't do much more with us now that we were recording more and wanted to do different things, change the style. So we went with Manfred Mann's manager, a chap called Gerry Bron. In terms of managers, the third manager was Tony Stratton-Smith, who took us to America in '68, twice I think.
Q: Was it difficult translating the Bonzos' act and material into the studio when you began recording albums?
Neil Innes: The main problems with recording Gorilla was not a shortage of ideas, because we had plenty of ideas for sound jokes. "I'm Bored," for example, I think is a track which, we had a lot of different ideas of how to record. In fact, we were probably a little bit ahead of the engineers in what we could do. The problem was, in fact, Gerry Bron, who was our producer. After three hours, he said, "That's it. We've got to move on to the next track." It was because Gerry was like this, in fact, that's how Paul McCartney ended up producing "Urban Spaceman." Because the record company was saying, "well, what about a single? What about a single?" And we couldn't care less. We were just still being silly art students. We didn't feel that we were in the same business as everybody else. We didn't have teenage fans or anything like that, we were just out for a good time.
So Viv was down the Speakeasy Club, I think, with Paul, talking generally, he used to hang out quite a bit. And Viv was complaining about the fact that Gerry was sort of, "Right, three hours of that, move on." And he said, now we gotta go in and record this bloody single. So Paul said, "I'll come and produce it if you like." And that was perfect, because that was the only way we were going to get him off the control desk, to have somebody like Paul, who wasn't known as a record producer, but he was known. So he came and produced that, and took eight hours.
Q: This is just for "Urban Spacemen"?
Neil Innes: One track, yeah. He produced it in the record session. But in fact Gus Dudgeon, who went on to produce Elton John, actually did the final mix.
But why it took eight hours, was because, you know, Paul's used to sort of spending hours in the studio and hanging out. I remember it was quite funny, because he sat down on the piano and played "Hey Jude" all the way through. No one had heard it then. He'd only just written it. He said, I've just written this, and he played, sang "Hey Jude." And of course, the people watching the clock were going absolutely apeshit. We did things like double-track the drums, and Viv wanted to blow his trumpet mouthpiece into a garden hose, with a plastic funnel on the end, whirling around his head. The engineer said, "I can't record that." Paul said, "Yeah, you can. Just put a microphone in each corner." So that took 20 minutes. Anyway, it was a really good time. He played Viv's ukelele, and Gerry's wife Lillian came up to him at one point and said, "What's that you've got there? A poor man's violin?" And he said, "No, it's a rich man's ukelele." It was just lots of cheek and banter going on.
Q: Was there any thought of using Paul as a producer again? Why didn't he do anything else with you; was he too busy?
Neil Innes: He probably wasn't [busy], actually. He probably would have loved to. But it didn't cross our minds. All that crossed our minds was so we could annoy Gerry even more by sort of refusing to allow Paul's name to go on the record. So we came up with the name Apollo C. Vermouth, and we kept it like that for a good four or five weeks. In fact, the single actually got up to about #17 without anybody knowing he'd had anything to do with it. But by then, the management snapped and leaked the story. Then it shot up to #5. But by then, it had sold over a quarter of a million records in the UK alone. You could sell records in those days. I mean in recent years, I think you've only got to sell thirty or forty thousand to get a #1. But I remember we sold nearly 18,000 records in one day. It's extraordinary. Those were the days. It's probably [why] so many gangsters got into record companies.
Q: The Bonzos changed their lineup a few times, particularly in the first few years you were recording.
Neil Innes: The personnel changes--in the early days, there were a lot of extra people who came and went. There were probably nine or ten people in the pub sometimes--extra banjo player, and somebody wanted to sit in. But it boiled down to a hardcore of eight, which involved Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell on bass and banjo, and Sam Spoons on percussion and drums. As I said, when we needed to move over to rock'n'roll, Sam and Vernon couldn't quite make the shift. So that's when Larry took over on drums, and we needed a bass player. Dave Clague [came in] as kind of like a session man, 'cause we had no bass player 'til we found the bass player we wanted. Dave was a very competent bass player, but sort of kind of stood there. We needed everybody to be daft, you know.
So that's when we met Joel Druckman, who was this mad American. He was a lot of fun. So we said, okay, you're in. And we were very happy with Joel. He lasted, I think, most of a summer. But then, as the summer went, I think he suddenly got homesick and upped and went. We couldn't believe it. He's on Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse as saying, "Here come a couple of normals, they look like Hawaiians," that's Joel. He was a soul brother. I still talk to him, actually. He calls every now and again. He's out in California. We sort of moan about Father's Day and how kids hit you for money and you don't even get a tithe these days.
When Joel left, we then found Dennis. Really, the personnel changes were only in the bass-playing department. But Dennis was a really solid musician, and we really needed somebody who could play bass like him. Because Larry, by then, was a drummer, who would sort of get bored and tired, and rather stand up and blow kisses to people. So we needed the bass to sort of drive along.
In fact, once when we were playing the Isle of Wight, Larry was late, 'cause he'd been mucking around with Keith Moon, and we had no drummer. Jim Capaldi [of Traffic] said, "I'll come up and do it." And it was great, the first four or five numbers. Jim's sort of whacking into it, and Dennis and I are looking at each other, saying, "We can play off the beat, around the beat, do whatever we want." And Larry turns up, and he sort of waggles a tambourine for a bit. Then we get to "Canyons of Your Mind," and Larry goes over to Jim Capaldi and says, "I think I'd better do this one, Jim. It's a bit complicated." (laughs) Dennis and I went, "oohhh, stay there, Jim!"
Q: As songwriters, what were the main differences within the band, and the ways you complemented each other in that regard?
Neil Innes: In many ways, Viv and I were the only ones who were really songwriters. Roger [Ruskin Spear] dabbled a bit. Rodney [Slater] couldn't be bothered. Larry only ever wrote one song, and he wrote that with Tony Kaye, I think it was, from Yes. And that's the track "Rusty (Champion Thrust)" off the very very last album. So he was a very late developer as a songwriter. He actually waits until the band breaks up and there's a contractual obligation album, and then decides to write a song. But Roger must have written about three or four, like "Trouser Press," "Waiting for the Wardrobe," "Tubas in the Moonlight."
But mostly, I wrote songs and Viv wrote songs. I used to help Viv with the chords and melodies sometimes. If I helped him a lot, we'd share the song. And Viv used to suggest lyrics on my songs. And if he only changed a couple of words, he'd take half the song. So some were Innes, some were Stanshall, some were Stanshall-Innes. In many ways, I think everybody must have been happy to go along with that, really.
I see my role in the Bonzos as being the straight man, in many ways. Because it got so crazy, somebody had to say, "Well no, we have to play this sequence for this long. It would be nice to sort of be able to stop together and change together sometimes, you know. We can't all be free-form." We weren't by any means like the Grateful Dead or something, who could just roll on and on and on.
Although we were up for odd crazy things like that. We turned up at a club in Leeds once. The poster said, we were TV's zaniest trad band. Trad is short for traditional jazz. So we thought, alright, if that's what they want. And we played 20 minutes of this song called "Whispering," with little solos and everything. Everyone's tapping along to it, and I said, alright, we've done the trad bit, now we'll get out the guitars. And we went into "we are normal, we want our freedom." And we cleared the room. Fortunately for us, there was another room full of drinkers, the other end of the bill. They heard this row, and we lost one audience and gained another.
Viv was never much of a musician. He could think of a tune, but he always needed help to put the chords together and whatnot. His strength was words and whatnot. But my strength was the musical side.
Q: Could you go into what was so remarkable about the Bonzos' live shows, that wouldn't necessarily be conveyed through the recordings?
Neil Innes: It became like a well-written sitcom. There were regular characters. Larry was a flamboyant, showbizness character--"look at me, I'm wonderful," tapdance with false breasts on and things like that. Viv had this kind of stage presence where you couldn't ignore it. He walked onstage, he looked dangerous. You just didn't know what he was going to do. And Roger was crazy with his robots and everything. And Rodney used to hurl himself into blowing every kind of [thing] that had a hole in one end, and a noise that came out the other. You had bass saxophones, bass clarinets, tenor saxophones. You know like the Who really works, as Pete leaping and doing one thing, and Moon thrashing around the drums, throwing his sticks up in the air, Daltrey swirling microphone around, and Entwistle, nicknamed the Ox. He just stood there, you know--do-do, do-do. And it works--you come to see those things. I suppose Roger had the license to do anything that fitted the venue.
Once we did an encore in a club, and Roger'd had enough. We didn't notice he'd just packed up his stuff. He'd just keep walking across in front of the stage in his bag, saying, "Night guys." We said, "oh, cheers Roger." And just carry on. So I mean, we had to keep amusing ourselves, 'cause we were worked so hard, we didn't really have a holiday in five years. We got three managers, no holidays--that kills off any group. Can't go on. Viv certainly burnt out.
See Part Two of this interview
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