Bonzo Dog Band Neil Innes interview, Part 2
by Richie Unterberger
Q: Paul McCartney once commented that he thought the Bonzos fell right between comedy and music. Did you view yourselves that way too, or prefer one element or another when you blended them?
Neil Innes: The tradition of doing the musical comedy thing on the old music, I think, naturally went on to rock'n'roll things. The second album, with "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?," that's a sort of typical thing that Viv would do with lyrics, and make a kind of comedy record out of a blues record. The third album, Tadpoles, which was a kind of TV album, 'cause we'd done all sorts of things on television by then--"Do Not Adjust Your Set," with the early Monty Python people, before they became Monty Python. You can get some videos off the website, I think. 'Cause they've got more stuff than I got. That was a kind of mixture of things.
Keynsham, I think that's where we... I think we were much more into rock'n'roll and stuff like that then, certainly. I remember suggesting the theme of that album. We were in a dressing room somewhere, and I said to everybody--it was one of those quiet moments--"I wonder if this is really happening to us, or whether we're all in some kind of mental home or something, and we imagine it's all happening." And everybody seemed to pick up on the same thing. So we gave it a kind of unreal twist, Keynsham thing, those little voiceover things.
Q: It's sometimes written that Keynsham was a concept album, though the concept isn't that clear. Was that what you had in mind?
Neil Innes: I don't think we thought it would be a concept album as such. But obviously it was, and I suppose obliquely it was influenced, yeah. But you couldn't say the concept was definable, you know what I mean? We didn't bother to define whatever the concept was. But I suppose there was a kind of loose strand going through it. It gave us all a focus, 'cause we could all go back to the fact that, you know, we all could be in a mental home and imagining all this. 'Cause we'd had, as I said, five years and no holidays.
Q: "We Are Normal" is one of the band's best songs. How did that develop?
Neil Innes: Did it come from the Marat Sade? It did, I think, "we are normal and we want our freedom." It was a big play and a film, "we are normal and we want our freedom," and we thought...that's the first time we kind of workshopped something. Viv drew a kind of graph and we'd start off with these sort of, what's the word, sort of like a primordial soup noise, and things come out of it. And it just turned into a kind of terrible row. We actually did it live with Roger wearing his black-and-white-striped T-shirt, like a long tall chimney over his face, sort of four-foot long. And he had an extra long arm, and an extra long guitar. In the middle of all this kind of Zappaesque thrashing and jamming, his head would explode, the top of the chimney would explode. And that would be a signal for Viv to come in, and we'd all go into "Blue Suede Shoes." That was a kind of workshop thing, but to a graph. It had a visual plan--down here, that happens, and about there, that happens.
Q: Viv has an image of a raving loony, so it's hard to imagine him plotting a song out in an organized fashion on a graph.
Neil Innes: No, he was disciplined. The thing is, if he had a fault, he wouldn't--it's like a chimpanzee painting, you know. He'd get it really good and you'd say, "That's really good, Viv." No one had the power to take it away from him. He had to keep fiddling and changing words, and in fact, he'd often smudge it up again. That was the way it was.
Q: On the same album as "We Are Normal," I think "Beautiful Zelda" had some potential as a hit single.
Neil Innes: It's pretty awful. We did it tongue and cheek, like everything, really, with all those sort of "yeah yeah, yeah" and all that stuff. It was a kind of homage to that kind of record, really. I suppose we all loved those kind of sci-fi movies where terrible things came out of swamps and came to Mars. And there's usually some poor girl. All the guys are trying to desperately handle levers and saying, go to something or other. She'd come in and say, "You guys want some coffee?" It was all that kind of nonsense.
Q: And "Can Blue Men Sing the Whites" is one of your best-known parodies.
Neil Innes: At one time, there were so many British blues bands--Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, Savoy Brown, John Mayall, you name it. There were so many British blues bands. It was just us lampooning our own peer group, saying, well hey, where did this stuff come from? And where does British guys get to be so good at it suddenly? So that's all that was about, really. A bit of fun, you know. And in fact Joel's playing harmonica on that. And if you listen closely, the harmonica comes in and Viv says, "Not yet, man."
Q: "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" is one of my favorites.
Neil Innes: That was probably one of the few ones Viv and I really collaborated on. He hadn't got a clue for the tune. He had an idea for the title, and we semi-knocked out this kind of Frenchy kind of...well, it's French to me, you know. I've always adored French music, and things like "Shoot the Pianist" and "Jules and Jim" movies. So I was just trying to do some sort of French melodies, and that suited Viv's flow. And he sort of, "You who speak to me across the fence"--it's sort of Edith Piaf, isn't it, really. And those little snippets [of sound effects], again, were kind of things we liked to do--suddenly bring a bucket of cold water on the general flow, and put something else in, and then come back to it. Much more of a collaborative one, that one.
Q: "Intro and Outro" is one of your famous numbers, where you introduce all these outrageous characters in an orchestral big band.
Neil Innes: "Intro and Outro" live--We did it on a four-track machine, believe it or not. So we did the basic track, and then played with nothing going on for about three minutes. Then we all did it again with the next pieces. So Viv had done the guide vocal. It had to be kept on a separate track. We literally kept bouncing two tracks onto one, and then another track back onto the other one. A very good engineer to have done it. This is before they really had multi-track equipment, just four-track. It's a classic, isn't it? Some day they ought to do a video of it. Pull back to reveal all of these people on a wonderful bandstand, lookalikes and whatnot.
Q: I think the Bonzos are an overlooked influence on Monty Python, especially because you were regulars on the show "Do Not Adjust Your Set," whose cast had some of the Monty Python guys just before Monty Python's Flying Circus started.
Neil Innes: You've got to remember that the Bonzos did 26 television shows with Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. I think Eric's acknowledged that there was an influence from the Bonzos in terms of the anarchy. But they then brought Monty Python. Afterwards, you didn't have to have a punchline. You could go into something else, you could do that. 'Cause John Cleese and Graham Chapman joined everything here.
There is a link. Because when the band first met Eric and Mike and Terry and whatnot, there was a certain mutual suspicion, 'cause we were crazy guys just coming off the road. And they'd come from Oxford and Cambridge, and they'd written stuff for David Frost, and they were young, up-and-coming writers. We took them out to Indian food in the evening, and they took us out to Chinese food. It was a kind of cross-fertilization that took place over a couple of years. We all became very good friends.
Q: And then you got involved with a bunch of Monty Python projects yourself.
Neil Innes: It was odd, because we didn't realize that--it was only later. When we went to America, it was after the second series of Do Not Adjust Your Set. So we came back, and we suddenly found there was a thing called Monty Python's Flying Circus going on. It was in 1970, I think, when Eric rang me up out of the blue and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm doing some producing, I'm doing a bit of this and that." He said, "Do you want to come up to the television set when we're doing the show and do the warmup for the audience?" I said, "I don't do warmups!" He said, "it's 25 quid," which is a ludicrous little amount. And I thought, well, it'd be nice to see him anyway. So I said alright, done. So I just went down and played a few songs to the audience. Then they said, would you like to help us with the albums and things like that? So I never really lost contact with them.
But the Bonzos had gone in so many different directions--Python wouldn't have been Python, I think, if a lot of them hadn't worked with the Bonzos. I'm not saying that the Bonzos taught them everything they know. But they were more disciplined than the Bonzos. They knew how to get cameras to point at things. But we certainly had the anarchy ingredient, which I think they found attractive, or useful to them.
Q: There's not much of the Bonzos on film. What were your best visual gags onstage?
Neil Innes: It's very hard to pick one bit out. But the whole show just seemed to sort of dovetail from one thing to another, and you were always kept guessing. One of the classic things is Viv's striptease thing. Larry's tap-dancing, Roger's head exploding--it's really hard. It's a kind of be-there thing. We played the Fillmore East with the Kinks and Spirit, and we said to Bill [Graham], let's be in the middle. But neither the Kinks nor Spirit wanted to open. So we said alright, we'll come on as the warmup band. And we got them to put a record on, I can't remember which record, but we came out in sort of kind of gym gear, vests and shorts and trainers, and [ran] around and did all this kind of pseudo-gymnastic stuff, and then went off. They showed Bugs Bunny, and then we came on as the Bonzos. And Bill thought it was a good wheeze, [and] said "Look, I can't really offer you any money, but I'll fly you out to San Francisco to Fillmore West."
So we went, and when we got there, everybody was so laid back. The audience were all laying on the floor, and it was Joe Cocker, the Byrds, Pacific Gas & Electric--I mean, there was so many names on the bill. And we came on and started with "We Are Normal and We Want Our Freedom." Roger's head exploded. And people were, [in shock] "aa-aah." There were people going up and down saying, What do you want? Uppers, downers, diagonals, whatever. This is 1968. But then Viv comes out in his shiny suit, and we go into "Blue Suede Shoes." And halfway through the number, the band start miming. Viv is left stranded--no band. But we all look as though we're playing. So he kicks the stage, and then the music starts again. And people's heads were just done in by this whole show. At the end of it, everybody in the place stood up, shouting, "Bring 'em back, Bill." It was definitely a show to watch, and it's really difficult to describe. It really, really is a shame that it's not on film anywhere.
On TV we were like caged animals, really. But onstage, we were the animals. We were free to do what we needed to do. We didn't have to worry about cameras, or staying in one space.
Q: Do you think the British nature of your humor was a factor in why you didn't become bigger in America?
Neil Innes: No, I don't think so. Because, I mean, Monty Python's British humor certainly didn't affect them. They were worried about it, too, you know. Cricket jokes? Who's gonna get cricket jokes? And things like that.
And we were worried--we played Detroit, and we used to do a moment where Roger would put a helmet over his head with two white eyes, and have a white rubber ring, and have a straw hat, and he became Al Jolson in a second. And we just threw it in for a couple of nights (starts singing): "Mammy, how I love you, how I love you my dear old swammy." And that was it, you know, just a quick gag. Big black security guards were killing themselves in the end, saying, that was really wild. They helped us load the van. So I don't think anything of our material off the wall.
Q: So what were the chief reasons the band didn't become more well known in the States?
Neil Innes: I think because we went in 1968, it was overkill. Agents and managers were killing each other for places to play. And it just hit us, when we just didn't want to know about any kind of...we turned our back on a coast-to-coast TV show when we left. They said, "this is national TV!" "So?"
We were always really a dada band. We weren't going to play the show-biz game, and be obsequious. So when we found out that Roger's wife had had a miscarriage and they hadn't told him, Roger said, "well, I feel like going home." And I said, "well, we're all with you." We all said, we'll go home. We needed just one little thing to sort of make it, "That's it. Had enough of this scrambling, scuffling." It was a bad year to go to America. If we'd gone in '67, it would have been better. But we couldn't get the manager at the time...he thought it was impossible. It was like he hadn't heard of airplanes.
Q: Sometimes you've been compared to the Mothers of Invention, particularly in the theatrical aspect of your live shows. Did you see any similarities?
Neil Innes: I certainly was aware of the Mothers of Invention. Maybe we were the Mothers of Convention. One of my favorite albums is We're Only In It For the Money. But I mean, again, Zappa's far more musical than the Bonzos ever were. I think some of the Mothers who we met out in L.A., and got to know quite well, were quite close to the sort of wackiness that we used to do onstage. But we were nowhere near them musically. We had our own kind of quirky thing, where we didn't really care. If somebody played a bum note, it didn't matter. Whereas I think Zappa would have gone through the roof.
Funny enough, it was in a club in L.A. where Jimi Hendrix came down to see us as well. I remember, I went into the gents. Jimi was in there. It was just the two of us, sort of taking a leak. And he said, you know, we're doing the same thing. I said, what, you mean, having a leak? He said, "No--I mean onstage." 'Cause he felt part of his act was getting almost as daft as the Bonzos, with having to light things.
Q: You interacted with a lot of groups that were straight rock, rather than satirists or comics.
Neil Innes: In many ways, that's where we were sort of certainly good friends with the people who were having to do it for real. Eric Clapton always wanted to come out onstage with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder. But he can't, opposed to saying "Clapton is God," you know. The management is saying, no, you do what you're told to do. So we were the expression of fun for a lot of people at that time.
Q: Did you think you had an influence on, or at any rate were sort of kindred spirits, to bands that did incorporate humor into their work? The Who and the Beatles, for example.
Neil Innes: I think, yeah, the way the Bonzos sort of said hey guys, you can have a laugh. I think most musicians do like to have a laugh. When we did Top of the Pops for the third time, we decided to do it as a television program here called Come Dancing, which is not as rude as it sounds. They had people wear ball gowns and evening dress with black tie, and they'd dance around. Half the band wore ball gowns, and the other half were DJs with black tie, but boxer shorts, and with numbers on their back. And at the time, Marmalade, who had a hit with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"--they'd said that if we get to #1, we'll come on television wearing our kilts. And of course they were #1. So it was knock on the dressing room door. And we said, "come in." And it's Marmalade. And they come rushing in--"hey, Bonzos! We're wearing our kilts!" They saw us in our Come Dancing outfit, and they went, oh no! It was a license to laugh, as well.
The Bonzos did free up a few things like that. I'm sure people had fun where they could, 'cause they could say, well, look at the Bonzos or something. Most musicians I know are funny guys, and they like to have a good time as much as really getting into the music. I mean, any musician who's totally serious all the time is probably a bad musician.
Q: Why did you get together after you had split to record one last album, with Let's Make Up and Be Friendly?
Neil Innes: We had to get together again, because we couldn't go our separate ways. Because the record company said, you owe us four more tracks. And we were all signed as a band and individually. So I couldn't go and get a solo deal, and neither could anyone else. So I rang everyone up and said "look, this is the situation. We have to get together. Let's make a whole album." And this time on the album, we had friends, like Stevie Winwood and Hughie Flint on drums. Dick Parry on saxophone; Tony Kaye came down. So it was more of a party atmosphere.
They were the very first people to use Richard Branson's studio in the Manor in Oxfordshire. We were only booked in there for a couple of weeks, and we ended up staying there five weeks at no extra cost, because the studio was having teething problems. So it was really nice. There were snooker tables, and we made the album. I suppose it's the least like any other Bonzo album, because it's got other people in there. But there's some wonderful playing. Once the band had broken up, it couldn't be put back together again. It would never end up being the whole thing again. I think that album was about right. We had to come back, so it was good to bring other people in, and do what we had to do.
Q: So why did the band break up at the beginning of the 1970s?
Neil Innes: We'd felt we'd gone as far as we could. Viv and I talked about it and said, well look, we're pretty high now. If we go on without any real ideas and things like that...let's leave it while we're high, at a high point. That's why we all agreed, and we played again. We played about five or six gigs. We announced it on New Year's Day or something like that at a gig in London, and we had a few more gigs to do. And loads of people came to them. And they turned into sort of like jamborees.
But at the end of the last gig, I felt a certain sadness--you know, "that's the end of something." But as fate would have it, we're just coming towards London, the dawn was coming up, and we went, "no, it's not the end of something, it's the beginning of something else." That's the way I looked at it. I wouldn't take those years away, I was so glad I had those years. But I think--we weren't destined to go on for year after year like the Stones, no way.
Q: Looking back on the Bonzos, is there anything you wished had been done differently?
Neil Innes: Musically, I wish we could have spent more time getting a little bit better. Yeah, we could have had a more disciplined approach to the business. But that wouldn't have been us. It really wouldn't. It had to be the way it was. So I don't really have any regrets. I mean, the whole thing was a laugh. Until we got tired. And when we decided to end it all, it was a laugh again.
One of the problems is, I think, we stopped arguing with each other. We became better friends. We were more sympathetic to each other. But before, we used to fight tooth and nail for ideas. The only way to get an idea in was just to do it and not tell anybody. If it got a laugh with the audience, it stayed in. So it was what it was. No, I don't really have any regrets. It wasn't designed to be a career band. It was a Bonzo Dog Dah Dah Band. It was anti-art. It was letting off steam from art school. It would have been wrong to suddenly say, "oh no, really, we're serious. We're serious installation artists or something like that." I think we did it all honestly. No regrets.
Q: Viv Stanshall had a lot of psychological problems toward the end of the Bonzos era, and then throughout the rest of his life. Did you have any hint as to how serious those were back in the 1960s?
Neil Innes: I remember before we went on the second tour to the States, something must have happened. Because we went to pick him up, and he came out of the door, and his head was completely shaved. And that sent a shiver through me. I thought, this is 1968, and you've shaved your head bald, that's a statement. You look around today, you see lots of shaved heads. And I don't know whether he was starting to have a kind of crackup then or not.
But he certainly got the wrong prescription from the doctor. The doctor prescribed him Valium, 'cause he was having anxiety attacks. I think he became addicted to Valium. And he liked to drink. And drink and Valium just don't go together. And so progressively after the one band split up, he began to have more and more periods where he was completely inaccessible. And then he'd pull himself out of it. He had this constitution like an ox. He'd go from being overweight to really skinny. Gradually what happened was the periods of inaccessibility got longer, and the periods of lucidity got shorter. He was terrible to everybody who tried to help him. He was beyond help in the end.
It's one of those tragedies of life, in a way. Somebody who has so much talent, who couldn't actually handle it himself. Whether you blame drugs like Valium--they've since realized they shouldn't have prescribed them in the way they did. It's like, what seems a good idea at the time ten years later's a bad idea. Like asbestos was a good idea at one time, now it's a terrible idea. Science is full of that stuff, and I hate scientists because of that. Because they're so cocksure about what it is at the moment. They don't even look back at all the other examples, where it's not necessarily that good.
So it was a slow decline, and in the end, the only way I could deal with it was if he was sober and he rang me up, I'd talk to him. And if he was slurring, I said "Viv, my rule is I won't talk to you like this, 'cause I've done it. I've been on the phone for two hours. And it's no good for anybody. If you need to speak to me, Viv, you have to be clear." It was like that just before he died. He rang me up, I suppose, a couple of weeks beforehand, and he was slurring. So the last thing I said to him was, Viv, I'm not talking to you like this, you know. Straighten out.
When he died, it was a shock, but it wasn't a surprise. Rodney will tell you, he'd been round there. He wasn't alone, you know. People tried. Rodney's actually said, "I've put his beard out before, [when] he's fallen asleep with a cigarette." And sat there, just sort of taking care of him. Rodney was always--every time he came out of a treatment, Rodney would always be there. I don't know.
Q: Of the Bonzos' recordings, which are your favorites?
Neil Innes: If I have a favorite album, it has to be Gorilla, because it was also new and exciting doing all that. I think in many ways, a lot of things we were doing there were very fresh. If there's a favorite track, something that sums up the spirit of the Bonzos is "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold." I can't really separate the other ones out, because I like them for different reasons. But if you want to have an idea of what it was like to be in the band, play that track (laughs).
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