Bonzos were usually described as "eccentric" and "crazy", but was there ever a time when the band, or individuals within it, were frustrated at being perceived purely as a kind of counterculture novelty act and less as genuinely knowledgeable guys paying tribute to music they loved, i.e. 1920s and 30s British dance-hall jazz and pop?
Roger Ruskin-Spear: All the time, there was a continual desire to be seen as something we could never be. Neil wanted to be Paul McCartney, Viv wanted to present the most monstrous and lavish theatrical productions, I wanted to be Duke Ellington, even 'Big Sid,' our banjo player, would say to me, "I wish we could play just one number properly" pointing usually toward some form of blues-guitar material. Dear Larry yearned for a Las Vegas style show with him as star. Rodney seemed fairly content with the material we were playing although of course now with the Three Bonzos and a Piano act he yearns to be Charlie Parker. A mixed-up bunch if ever there was one!
Rodney Slater: I have always admired the bizarre and unusual, rejected the orthodox and despised conformity. When Bonzo Erectus crawled from the swamp of London’s art schools in the dying embers of 1950s Bohemia, I was immersed in piles of dusty 78s in tatty shops piled high with the discarded contents of another generation’s homes, escaping into the past from an unsatisfactory present. The promise of ‘50s rock ‘n roll appeared to have died. Little Richard had found religion, the exotic Elvis was neutered by Uncle Sam, Eddie Cochran had inevitably died young and all we [in the UK] had was Sir (to be) Cliff and the Shadows. I discovered the novelty instrumentalists of a past generation and an uncertain future. I abandoned my earnest and principled approach to Jazz Ancient and Modern for the piercing squawk of all the gas pipe clarinettists rolled into one. It was variously described as ‘different’, ‘attention-seeking’, ‘out of tune’ and it frightened little old ladies. I had become an Anarchist and it was GREAT FUN! When you talk of genuinely knowledgeable guys paying tribute to music they loved, I think you mean The Temperance Seven – and they were damned good at it! Got a Number One, didn’t they?!
Sam Spoons: This perception that we were in it for the fun was accurate and precisely what ‘famous’ bands were envious of. No music escaped the treatment as long as we could see it as a vehicle for some theatre of the absurd.
Roger, you continued to explore early jazz novelties on your two solo albums Electric Shocks and Unusual (from 1973), e.g. Whispering Jack Smith's 'All By Yourself in the Moonlight' and Guy Lombardo's 'Love to Bumpity Bump' - and of course Vivian shared a similar inspiration for his 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End', but were the whole band busily rediscovering this music during the early to mid 1960s when the Bonzos came together?
Roger: We all began with that sort of material but rapidly moved on to what I mentioned earlier.
Sam: Yes, of course, as suggested above.
Rodney: The artefacts, attitudes and ambience of the first three decades of the twentieth century deeply infiltrated the work of the Bonzos and gave it the quintessential Englishness it has retained throughout its existence. However, when we had consolidated in the mid sixties, most of us began hearing and responding to more challenging contemporary music and social changes, incorporating it into a third way forward in our original songs and material.
What I'm trying to get to is, was there a time when the realization dawned that people who lived in an earlier age were just as eccentric and "counterculture" in their own way as you were seen to be in the 1960s?
Roger: I don't think there was any 'dawning'- we knew that from the start. They were all bonkers (the really interesting ones) although we would give them the epithet - 'Genius'
Sam: We always appreciated the existence of eccentrics and counterculturalists, e.g., Spike Jones, The Alberts in particular, and yes, The Mothers of Invention.
Rodney: Of course, throughout the previous century, artists, poets, painters and disaffected intellectuals have formed movements in response to Western misdemeanours such as the murderously destructive effects of the Great War and industrial capitalism, which brought forth the Dada happenings. One of my favourite Dadaists was the exiled English eccentric Arthur Craddock, Paris pugilist and poet, whose inebriated lectures caused public outrage, mayhem and chaos. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was to promote and attempt as a ‘happening’ a contest with Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World. He suffered for his art!
Who were some of your other early influences? Did you listen to any of the contemporary esoteric American artists like Zappa & The Mothers (who seem to be not-too-subtly name checked in the ‘Gorilla’ liners for “Cool Britannia”), Captain Beefheart (whose Magic Band may have been responsible for such luminous pseudonyms as “Theremin Leg” and “Perfumed Parlour Snake”?), The Holy Modal Rounders, The Fugs, et. al.?
Roger: No-never listened to any of that stuff. Neil would rave about Zappa - could never see it myself. Personally, my influences included Duke Ellington and quite a lot of dead blokes from the twenties. Tom Lehrer, the Harvard mathematician turned songwriter who was responsible in the fifties for informing me of such Americana as broiled hockey-puck, Levi Jeans and Lead BVD's amongst other rubbish. Not forgetting dear old Gustav Metzger, the visiting American auto-destructive artist who had such an impact upon me and Pete Townshend at Ealing Technical College in the sixties (hence The Who’s guitar smashing routine and the Bonzos' multiple explosions - sadly now silent due to 'elfnsafety)
Rodney: Earliest, Leslie Sarony’s song ‘Ain’t it Grand to be Bloomin’ Well Dead’ found (and denied to be hers) in my mother’s record collection – a first lesson in how to wind up (excuse the pun) adults and to produce a profanity in the lyrics by increasing the RPM. ‘Ali Baba’s Camel’ was in that collection, too. As an adolescent, Spike Milligan’s surreal writing of the ‘Goon Show’. As a student, The Alberts sometimes let me play with them and pointed the way forward with ‘An Evening of British Rubbish’. The Bonzos were well into their stride when we discovered The Mothers. Very American, politically aggressive and in your face. As residents or dissidents in the citadel of capitalism they were saying the right things to me. Joel Druckman, who briefly played bass with us, claimed to know and to have played with them.
Sam: Only Zappa really. Other early influences for me were people I could practise spooning to, like the jovial sounds of Mrs. Mills, Russ Conway, Scott Joplin, and the early trad. jazz of Mr Acker Bilk.
A number of years ago, a compilation was released that collected all of your early Bonzo inspirations into one place (‘Songs The Bonzo Dog Band Taught Us’), with sleeve notes from “Legs” Larry. Do you all still love this olde tyme music and listen to the originals whenever you’re at home relaxing or do you try to catch up with what the “Bonzinos” are listening to these days? What current music do you listen to?
Roger: That was a good, interesting album. It would be quite nice to put together a big band and perform the arrangements on stage. Pipe dreams, I fear. I don't listen to any contemporary music, except maybe perhaps 'I Predict a Riot' by the Kaiser Chiefs.
Rodney: Unfortunately, on that CD, most of the takes and bands are not the ones I discovered and [the originals] were worth twice the money I paid for them. Most cost a penny each! I think I probably have most of them in a crate I put into one of my sheds years ago and have never been arsed to get out again. There’s been so much music in the years since the sixties that I get nostalgic over much later things now. The radio’s on most of the time and when it’s not its wall-to-wall Bird, ‘Trane and Monk, their children, and then Fusion (so long coming) like Weather Report, or The Average White Band and Funk. I applauded punk; rock did become so bloody pretentious and self-indulgent. The best to come out of the seventies, for me, especially with a glass or three of Thunderbird wine, is Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Beyond three glasses there is sometimes the dangerously vain and sentimental attempts to regenerate sensations from my very English youth, when I saw her standing there, wanted to hold her hand and to please, please me – no prizes for guessing who.
Sam: What I term as ‘ricky-tick’ music will always feature in Bonzo works, live or recorded because of the happy jerky sounds, rhythms, varied instrumentation, and nonsense lyrics. I still play all that stuff for sheer amusement. My most recent additions to our act include ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’, ‘The Prune Song’ [off the new album, Hair of The Dog], etc., so we’re still at it!
Speaking of the new generation, do you see young folks turning up at the gigs or is it mostly old fans reliving their youth?
Roger: Absolutely; there are lots of pics of new fans on our website. Of course, we get many as old as us, if that's possible!
Rodney: Today, I introduce my first song with the words, ‘I notice many of you have mastered the art of living longer.’ The rest, 35 – 50 years’ old, are perhaps their offspring, victims of their parents’ records, cascading down the generations. Or perhaps, like we once were, Odd Boys (and Girls) looking to the past in second-hand shops for creative inspiration. Really young ones? Well, it’s like a youth drive in a bowls club – you sometimes get a few!
Sam: Yes to the latter, but surprising numbers of all other age groups persuaded by parents and grandparents that they would see the show as a genuinely novel experience and witness performance art (of course we were all art students).
Several Bonzo creations have entered everyday lexicon, from band names like Poisoned Electric Head and Death Cab For Cutie to Bryan Ferry’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare” album title and the old music magazine, [Trans-Oceanic] Trouser Press, based on Roger’s track off ‘The Doughnut In Granny’s House.’ I also wonder if the beloved ‘Two Fat Ladies’ mightn’t’ve been influenced by the liner note for “Postcard”? Do you recall ever being contacted by these folks to let you know their intentions, or was it a surprise to one day discover these tributes?
Roger: No - never heard from anyone, although I did become aware of the Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press some years back.
Rodney: No-one ever contacts me. I have coal fires, black & white telly, no computer, mobile phone, email address and the only Blackberries grow in the hedge. I am always flattered and surprised by tributes.
Sam: Yes whenever anyone says they have been influenced by my antics I am wonderfully surprised and humbled.
As 1968 unfurled, the Bonzos evolved from dance-hall jazz influences to electric guitars, and in the process changed line-ups a little. “Legs” Larry Smith replaced Sam Spoons during the recording of Gorilla and Dave Clague took over from Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell, only to be replaced himself during The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse. I'd like to hear more of the comings and goings during that era, why people left and where the replacements came from, and what influence these changes had on the band. Was there a conscious decision to avoid being earmarked with tags like "you're just like the New Vaudeville Band"?
Sam: What I liked about recording Gorilla was it was all done by us – no session people. And of course [the new album] Hair of the Dog is all our own stuff.
Rodney: When “Wee Bobby” [Bob Kerr] accepted Geoff Stephens’ thirty pieces of silver, a progressive reorganization set in with the frenzy of a LibCon deficit austerity drive. Original songs and material proliferated. The stage became littered with recycled domestic appliances and instruments that were plugged in to amplifiers and speakers. Musical horizons expanded dangerously. The downside was the emergence of serious personality clashes, artistic incompatibility, expanding egos and ageism, as daily events. Finally, five were left standing, impervious to upstaging, bullying or out-manoeuvring by each other. Eventually, with Dennis Cowan kidnapped from the Rocky Horror Show, we became Bonzo Sapiens. ‘You’re just like the New Vaudeville Band,’ would be my answer to the ‘What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?’ question in Celebrity Q & A for Guardian Weekend magazine.
In fact, I believe that you were originally approached to be the New Vaudeville Band’s touring band, but only Bob Kerr accepted the invitation. Then he formed his Whoopee Band and Vernon and Sam joined him. And now everything’s come full circle with ex-Whoopee Band member Dave “Mr. Piano” Glasson joining the fun! Have you all remained friends through all the changes over these past 45 years or was there a bit of competition in those earlier days as the projects covered similar musical territory?
Roger: I guess we all put our heads down and got on with our own things.
Sam: The New Vaudeville Band was really what is known in jazz circles as a “telephone band” – assembled to promote hit records made by sessions musicians and last as long as the hits were produced, i.e., months rather than years. So Bob (only a Bonzo for a few months) formed the Whoopee Band as a fun jazz outfit, which Vernon joined at its conception. I, meanwhile, was a freelance designer keeping my entertainment activities alive with one Biff Harrison. We called ourselves The Bumper Puzzle Band Kit. Vernon persuaded Bob that the Whoopee Band needed this new dimension to develop a more varied stage act. We successfully toured Europe for 15 years including many TV shows, our own series, etc. This was a part time venture and Bob wanted full time so five original members of the band formed Bill Posters Will Be Band now in its 26th year and of which I’m still a member. During this period I did an increasing amount of lecturing at Chelsea College of Art and retired in 2006, coincidentally the Bonzo revival year!
During these periods David Glasson was a Whoopee Band member. I also played with him in a splinter group that I called Tatty Ollity, and later again he was always a guest with Bill Posters (as were both Rod and Roger). Following the revival gigs and the disappointment of the second tour cancellation, David contacted the two aforementioned and myself to recreate the original Bonzo ideal. Hence, Three Bonzos and a Piano.
Rodney: I have actually never seen the Whoopee Band, so I’ve only known Dave for the last two years as a funny, patient, laid back guy who has worked with Roger and Sam in the past. Sometimes he plays too many notes, but they said that about Charlie Parker! He wouldn’t have to if we could afford a bass player. When the Whoopee Band was formed, we had already lit a sacrificial fire under chairs and banjos. I had a gizmo that turned my sax into a synthesizer and we had taken on Bubs White on lead guitar and Ainsley Dunbar as a second drummer. Mooney [Keith Moon] jumped on either kit if he was in town. We were making a very different racket indeed.
What prompted the decision to shorten the name and drop the “Doo Dah” after the first album?
Roger: Purely the desire to enter the world of popular acclaim.
Rodney: VANITY, and an attempt to be cool and trendy.
Sam: I assume the Doo Dah was dropped when Vernon and myself were dropped. We wanted to develop the theatre of the absurd and not become pop stars – not a wise career move. So we were pressured out – not told about recording dates, etc. I also beat Viv at tennis (I don’t lose ball games, a second poor career move).
You recorded dozens of BBC sessions, mostly with John Peel. Although several different albums were released (one claiming to be ‘The Complete BBC Recordings’), there are apparently still some sessions (or tracks) in the vaults. I have a few tracks in my collection that don’t appear on any of these releases, such as Viv and Arthur Brown’s sublime “Excerpt from ‘The Brain Opera’”. What was it like working with John – several of those sessions sound like he was trying to organize a Chinese Fire Drill or herd cats.
Sam: Yes, I enjoyed the few of these I was involved with. I introduced a grumpy Scots lady into some of the scenes which were well received.
Roger: Actually, John Peel never attended the sessions. It was all overseen by his producer and partner in crime, John Walters. I did several with John under the name 'Roger Ruskin Spear and his Orchestral Wardrobe" with people like Thunderclap Newman, Bob Kerr and Dick Sudhalter in the band.
Rodney: There were indeed countless John Peel recordings, which have all congealed into one big senior moment! I have a vague impression of afternoon sessions in central London, perhaps near Charing Cross, when we would experiment with germs of an idea, half-finished things or pilots for wannabe projects. The Craig Torso Show may have seen the light of day and I vaguely recall the Rawlinson family in earlier manifestations before they took up residence in their aristocratic pile. Old Scrotum was inspired by Vernon.
What was the band’s reaction to ‘Brain Opera’ and had plans ever been in place to finish it and record it? I have read that Viv wanted to record this instead of what turned out to be ‘Let’s Make Up…’.
Roger: I'd lost interest in the direction the band was taking by then, so I don't know. I know Pete Townshend said in the press at the time he was planning a 'Brain Opera' which rather inhibited our thoughts on the subject (his, of course, turned out to be 'Tommy'.)
I did find out about the 'secret' recording of 'Let's Make Up' at the Manor studios which was really Viv and Neil doing their own thing without us irritating buggers messing things up. I think Larry did a bit of drumming and Rod never heard about it at all. I found out and insisted on doing a track (‘Waiting for the Wardrobe'), much to Neil's irritation. I said I had written it on the way down and I think he believed me. He rang me and said he wanted it off the album as it wasn't up to the standard of his and Viv's tracks, but I wasn't having any of it. Viv was strangely ambivalent.
I was influenced by Neil in my view of the track, and have not listened to it since. It's only now that some deranged fans have requested it at our next gig ("It's totally rock and roll!") that I have re-visited it - not as bad as I remember-so we'll give it a try.
Rodney: ‘Brain’ was certainly a favourite in the Bonzo lexicon. Brainiac, Brain Surgery, Brainwashing were referred to whenever possible. ‘You Done My Brain In’ was an original exclamation by Chalky, one of our roadies. Why were we so obsessed by this convoluted nervous substance residing in the skull of vertebrates and sought to elevate it to operatic status? It may have been ‘Tommy’ or ‘Sergeant Pepper’ envy. Had the paranoid propaganda of the Western powers profoundly affected our minds to live in fear of a menace of Orwellian proportions to our way of life? Why do we find it fun to see Roger wear a white coat and stethoscope and electrocute Sam? ‘Have you watered the brains, Igor?’ I clearly remember nothing of the ‘Brain Opera’ and have reverted to lateral thinking to offer some sort of an answer!
The albums are so much fun to listen to – like anarchy locked in a vinyl groove! Was the recording process itself just as fun?
Roger: Not really. The whole thing was pretty stressful.
Rodney: It was a mixed experience for me. We learned as we went along. On the one hand, there was plenty of fun and hilarity with cock-ups galore – occasionally funnier than what was supposed to be done, so was left in. Recording, however, does require a disciplined approach, alien to some of us, and was a serious business, producing tension and stress. By the fifteenth take, what was originally an hilarious clinker is a pressure situation, and no-one is laughing anymore. There seemed hours of boredom, with endless guitar, keyboard and backing vocal overdubs; and nothing else can be done until the rhythm section produces a satisfactory backing track. The point where drummers realize they can’t play in time. As a brass player you might as well stay at home until all this is done. You soon learn to curb your improvisational instinct and play what the writer has written, that’s how rock and pop works. There was only one time that we occupied the studio together and played freely, ‘Jazz Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ – perhaps our finest moment of spontaneous anarchy. Gerry Bron insisted on producing our first album and tension soon arose with the triumvirate of writers, so Gus Dudgeon replaced him.
Was it difficult capturing your original creative juices in a studio setting?
Rodney: The creative juices and forging of a band identity, if indeed there was such a thing, were honed long before we entered a studio, during the hundreds of hours we were confined together in Commers and Transits, veritable mobile universities where conversations between the students are the real learning. And what conversations we had! A hot-bed of Political Incorrectness, Character Assassinations – vulgar, debauched, bizarre and surreal ideas on every subject imaginable, whilst all the time keenly observing the absurd world of the Normals as we sped past. The climaxes of side-splitting, breath-constricting, head-aching hilarity were legion. All was stored unconsciously for future use.
Did the label leave you to your own devices or was there any interference – particularly after the success of “Urban Spaceman” – did the label pressure you for more “hits” and did that interfere with the creative recording process?
Roger: They did pressure us, but we couldn't come up with anything!
Rodney: Any pressure would have come from elements of ourselves and what we thought we should be performing.
Much has been written (most of it not very flattering) about the proverbial “contractual obligation album” Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly. Roger only gets the one track (is it true ‘Waiting for the Wardrobe’ was recorded separately and later inserted into the album with Viv & Neil’s tracks?) and Rodney is only listed “in spirit”. Was there any animosity amongst the members at this point, or was it mostly anger directed at the record label (UA)? Was this one recorded more for the label than the fans? Neil’s closer (‘Slush’) sure seems to be placed at the end of the album to ensure the Bonzos got the last laugh, as it were?
Roger: "Waiting" was recorded live at the same session (with Andy Roberts and Larry).
Rodney: Bonzo Dog – being Viv, Neil, Roger, Larry, Dennis, and Myself – did our last show on 14 March 1970 at Loughborough University. I got off the coach (which was rather subdued that night) and closed the door behind me and that was that. I can’t remember when I was approached, but I didn’t want to know. No-one got heavy about contracts. The keen ones went ahead and did it. I had stopped smoking, rode a bicycle and reverted back to being a full-time student, an ex-Bonzo, free of them all, until a brown envelope from Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes informed me I was one of a partnership and individually owed the balance of £xx,000, as, collectively, some of the other rotters hadn’t coughed up. Make up and be friends – I ask ya!
You appeared on two seasons of Do Not Adjust Your Set with several future members of Monty Python. Do you have fond memories of that programme and can you share any favourite anecdotes?
Sam: I have fond memories of the first series I was involved with and the direction that the Pythons took was the one that I anticipated us following.
Rodney: Doing everything for an entire day in Wembley Studios on roller skates to make sure I didn’t fall whilst playing the sax in drag on ‘Love is a Cylindrical Piano’. My finest Dada moment perhaps? There was an awful lot of corpsing; virtually the entire cast were pathological gigglers. Predictably, in one sketch, the line, ‘I like the cut of your jib, young fella,’ brought the entire studio to a standstill. The Oxbridge boys would produce a ball and have a kick-about during lunch breaks. Neil and I would join in, but it didn’t last – too hard on the trousers. Relaxation for most of the cast and WAGS was an enormous ‘Chinese’ round a revolving table after recordings.
I also note that some of the episodes have been released on DVD. Any chance we’ll be able to relive the entire series?
Roger: Some of the tapes may have been wiped.
Rodney: I think that Archbuild [production company] have collared all the surviving ones.
Is it true the band didn’t officially recognize Tadpoles as a Bonzo album, but rather the hastily assembled soundtrack to ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’? Were you upset with the final result or too busy touring to pay much mind?
Roger: It was conceived as a way to use the material from DNAYS and to include the cast, but it fell apart as it was too complex management-wise. The current 'Three Bonzos and a Piano' show can be seen as the 'Back Cover of Tadpoles Band'! A pretty blatant show of hierarchy if ever there was one. Some see it as our worst -some as our best. Who knows? Since most of my stuff was put on Tadpoles as a way of not interfering with the Innes/Stanshall mainstream of albums, then I would hope for the latter appraisal.
Rodney: That’s bollocks. Who told you that? [The pseudonymous Prof. Harvey J. Satan on what appears to be a Japanese fan site suggested “the Bonzos themselves never considered this
album an actual Bonzo album.” – JP]
There are two tracks made on a reel-to-reel at the Forest Hill Hotel – ‘back to the roots,’ real Bonzos Erectus with Sid Nicholls, John Parry, Raymond Lewitt, and Lenny Williams in the line-up.
You seemed to have a huge repertoire of material to choose from for your live shows and I’ve seen reference to numerous tracks over the years that didn’t make the albums. Do you know if there is still more “Corn” in the Cornology – any recorded-but-unreleased material awaiting the light of day other than what trickled out on ‘Anthropology’?
Roger: I think the towel has been wrung dry.
Rodney: Danny Barbour, the original ‘curator’ of the Bonzos, spent years on EMI’s case and did eventually trawl their vaults. I think he got most of the alternative takes and unreleased material.
Aside from the “Brain Opera”, it’s been written that Keynsham was a thinly-disguised concept album. What are your thoughts? An attempt at your very own ‘Tommy’ or ‘S.F. Sorrow’, perhaps?
Rodney: Did anyone ever think ‘Keynsham’ was anything else? We had to have one, they were all the rage, dontcha know?
Your comments on ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By “Bachelors”’. An homage to Marcel Duchamp or a knock on the popular Irish show band who were quite popular in the mid-60s with girl’s name songs like “Charmaine”, “Diane”, and “Ramona”?
Roger: [Correcting me] 'The Bride Stripped Bare by THE Bachelors' [Although my copy of the album omits the article (“The”) from the song title. –JP] Both. Just having fun with our favourite Dadaist.
Rodney: A protest song, protesting at the mounting physical and emotional cost of being a Bonzos on the road. The title? A recognition of Duchamp’s work and an opportunity to puncture pretensions of self-importance and sentimentalization in pop culture.
You had more than your share of run-ins with the BBC standards police banning songs outright or forcing changes. Being the clever chaps that you are, I’m sure you managed to sneak some secrets past them. Can you divulge any that come to mind?
Roger: No sneakings, but I remember Viv had to change the line in 'Canyons', "I'm in love with you again" from the original "I am pumping you again" for obvious reasons. It was over-dubbed at a tiny studio in Tottenham Court Rd, where at the same session we recorded my 'Wah-wah' rabbits for the intro to ‘Shirt’ with a straight face put on for a visiting Daily Mirror journalist. In our live 'Three Bonzo' shows we do the un-censored line, obviously.
Rodney: I don’t remember any great stand-offs over lyrics. We usually managed quite well with self-regulation. There may be coded messages to be read. Analysts and journalists usually expose them whether they are intended or not, so why reveal them now and spoil the fun for future generations?!
Roger, on the album Unusual, there's a couple of songs where the supporting cast includes Ken Whaley, Richard Treece and Dave Charles, all of the band Help Yourself. I have a long and abiding fondness for the Helps and would love to hear more about your work with those guys. How did you come to meet them and what were they like to work with?
They were also, I believe, with Liberty records and were introduced by our mutual A&R man Andrew Lauder. I think they came out to Pete Townshend’s studio pad on the Thames that I was using, to lay down some backing tracks. Very keen guys, but a little unsure of chords outside the usual blues structure. I had to explain about augmented ninths and diminished thirteenths, etc. I remember I collected them from Martin Ace's gaff in Fulham. (see next question).
As far as I know there were some gigs performed under the Happy Days banner, billed as "Four Hours of Rock Vaudeville" featuring Help Yourself, the Flying Aces and something or somebody called 'The Auspicious Ones', which included a set by 'Roger Ruskin Spear and his Kinetic Wardrobe". Can you please expand on all that? It's long been a gap in my knowledge which I would love to hear more about! The year must have been 1973 or 4 and the tour dates included mostly universities and polytechnics around England.
Roger: Yes, that was an interesting and unusual venture for the time. It was a bit like a rock version of the "Steam Packet" (R&B road show with Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll, Long John Baldry and Rod the Mod Stewart). It had Martin Ace from Man and his wife, George, as The Flying Aces, The Help Yourself guys, and some actors with sketches, etc. It even had a dissertation by the Manager of the show on the vagaries of Rock promoting. And there was my vaudeville act with robots. It only lasted a short season and mainly in college canteens. We subsequently coined the term 'Refectory Rock' to sum it up.
Just after that I was offered a place in a real 'rock circus' set-up with all the vans, etc. painted in circus livery to form a circle in various town squares - never happened though, sadly.
You’ve crossed paths and played on bills with all the big names, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Byrds, the Isle of Wight festival, etc. Did you feel an affinity with these “rock and rollers”? Did you ever get the feeling that some other musicians or bands didn’t take you seriously and were too quick to label you a comedy or novelty act that didn’t belong on stage with the rockers?
Roger: It was all one big happy family - most of 'em envied us our freedom and wished that sometimes they too could roam around the stage trying to play a Tuba - but no, they had their 'right-on' serious image to consider, poor guys. They enjoyed the contrast and it was for this reason that I continued to spend a good fifteen years of professional solo life supporting all the big rock names after the demise of the full band.
Rodney: As we criss-crossed the nation’s infant motorways daily in the dead of night there was always cheerful anticipation as to whose van, minibus or coach would be at the Watford Gap, Blue Boar, or Trowell services, and what news of ’the scene’ they would exchange. It was one big happy family. I have always found an affinity (or an infinity!) with musicians of all persuasions. We all share the same experiences. It’s only by the individual preferences for really expressing themselves that you can tell them apart.
Sam: They did take us seriously and they actually envied our devil-may-care attitude - this attitude shouldn’t extend to Keith Moon’s driving, even on the M1 at 3am! At Abbey Road, George Harrison and Ringo Starr always seemed to call on me to operate the coffee machine!
You had a couple of relatively unsuccessful tours of the States. Do you chalk that up to poor label promotion, the failure of American audiences to “get” your sense of humour, or perhaps their impatience with your type of material whilst awaiting the big headliners?
Rodney: Probably all three, to some extent. Our favourite scapegoats were the ‘Liberty Chimps’, the representatives for our record label.
You recorded during the peak of the Psychedelic Era, but I wouldn’t necessarily classify your material as “psychedelic.” Would you agree and was there any sense amongst any of the band members that you should try to explore that area a little more? Perhaps catering a little more to the prevailing musical styles might have resulted in higher record sales or at least garnered more favourable responses from the audiences at the live performances?
Roger: We did try and move into other areas, notably pure Pop by Neil and bizarre nightmare music by Viv. Far from gaining popularity, people just resented it and wished we would stick to the lunacy, a policy we are adhering to at the moment.
Rodney: We were far more involved with observation and comment than participation with the hallucinogenic drug culture. We made enough reference in props and imagery to extract the maximum absurdity from most passing fashions.
Is the Bonzo Dog Band a “cult” band or just a bunch of blokes out trying to have a good time? I’m wondering if you ever felt your audience should’ve been bigger considering the favourable press the records received, particularly in the early days.
Roger: Could always do with a bigger crowd!
Sam: It should always have been about having a good time.
Rodney: Simply, we were a bunch of blokes having fun in our own unique and informed view of the world. Fans and the media bestow the cult status. A bigger audience? As the French might say (the English translation is funnier), we simply ‘farted above their heads’!
Can you share any anecdotes about your appearance in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’? How did that come about?
Roger: The Beatles originally wanted the New Vaudeville Band as they had heard the hit record 'Winchester Cathedral’, but since we had done some gigs with The Scaffold, Mike McGear, Paul's brother, alerted them to us, saying we were the originals.
It was pretty chaotic with the Beatles essentially looning around all day and some poor people trying to film it all, and get something in the can.
Rodney: Sir Paul insisted on personally escorting me to his hairdresser to restyle my Barnet into the Tony Curtis and complementary Duck’s Arse that had seen me sent home from my posh school ten years’ earlier. It took about an hour and, as the meter ran, we chatted knowingly of wannabe rocker days in Liverpool and Peterborough respectively. Watch the clips on YouTube and you will get unrivalled shots of my 1967 Selmer Mark VI baritone sax, drape, drains and brothel creepers, but nothing at all above the collar.
Sam: I understand Paul had heard about Viv’s Elvis impersonation [in ‘Death Cab For Cutie’, which the Bonzos performed in the film – JP]. My recollections – positive: Ringo liked my fluorescent Perspex drum kit (as did Keith Moon who had a clear one made), negative: the interminable wait with the family at Christmas for the usual fleeting glimpse. Let’s face it, the film was a bit of a flop anyway. [As you may recall, the film premiered on BBC1 on Boxing Day, 1967. – JP]
I understand Jim Capaldi was deputized on drums for your appearance at the Isle of Wight festival. Do you have fond memories of that show or has it disappeared in a fog of purple haze?
Rodney: A purple haze and other colourful combustibles.
Roger: All haze was blown away on the ferry. Larry was off looning with Moon somewhere and stuck on his private helicopter, so didn't show, and Jim Capaldi jumped in at the last minute and was reported at the time to have done a damn fine job. Smudgie may have arrived late and joined in on tambourine.
What was your personal favourite gig and what was special about it that you recall it so fondly all these years later?
Roger: The last one we did [see above]. We’d just about had it by then.
Rodney: I have no favourite gig, even if I could remember it! What I have is an unforgettable memory of a group of chaps whose nightly words and actions have all reduced me to a state of helpless giggling and incontinent inertia. On personality alone, they all fulfil the criteria for membership of the class of unclassifiable people and score the classic Russellian Paradox.
Sam: The most unexpected, as I always hated playing there subsequently: The 100 Club, because half of the East End of London (where we played once a week for a year) turned up and packed the place. I believe it’s their record attendance. They ran out of beer.
Whose idea was it to reunite with Dave and go out again recording the old Bonzos material? Did it stem from all the fun you had when you reunited in 2006-8?
Roger: When the re-union tour of 2008 came to a close, everyone agreed that a great time had been had by all, but even then (to quote Viv) the 'cracks were showing'.
Rodney: Dave approached Roger and Sam to reform Tatty Ollity. Roger and I had talked after the disappointing end to the reunion tours. Roger saw that by inviting me to replace the sadly deceased Dave Knight, both needs could be met. Sam named it Three Bonzos and a Piano. The others bring car-loads of props. I arrive by train with a sax, cuckoo whistle, sing and write songs.
For this go round, you seem to have decided not to go with the “guest” vocalist – the virtual Viv, if you will. Was this a conscious decision to try to give this lineup its own personality – to be enjoyed as a separate entity from the Doo Dah Band? And aside from Viv and Neil not participating, are you legally precluded from calling yourselves the Bonzo Dog Band? Does someone else hold the rights to the name?
Sam: In deference to Viv, Rod felt it would be inappropriate.
Roger: The two 'Bonzo Dog Bands' that caused the original split were starting to appear once more on stage and were incompatible - making the final June show at the Astoria an unpleasant experience for all concerned. Neil was the first to crack and announced his departure, pre-empting my own thoughts by a few days. Then it became obvious that the 'professional comedians' (Phill Jupitus and Adrian Edmondson) had so many personal commitments that we had no choice but to go it alone. I made a proposal that we should forego the need to have a 'hands-free front man and vocalist' and copious session men to bolster our own feeble musical efforts and just perform the show as only we know how- by ourselves. This met with derision from Neil and the management so we shelved the whole thing. It was only when a few weeks later Dave Glasson phoned me out of the blue to suggest re-energising "The Slightly Dangerous Brothers" that we added Rodney Slater (Sam was always with us) and with the occasional guesting of ‘Legs’ Larry and Vernon (Dudley Bohay Nowell) we became 'Three Bonzos and a Piano' and that's where we are today. Andy Roberts completes and enhances the line-up as special guest.
Rodney: Three Bonzos and a Piano is about the people in it, what they did and like most from the Bonzos back catalogue, what they did and wrote in the intervening years and what they are doing and writing now. We are usually backed up by Andy Roberts – a long-time associate of individual Bonzos. ‘Legs’ Larry Smith and the very unusual Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell make occasional appearances at big shows, like when we filled the Bloomsbury Theatre in London last year. There is nothing legal to preclude us from using the old name. Vivian and I built it from a word game in September 1962 – but what’s the point? Everyone knows the name is synonymous with the people who were in it together. Anyway, it just wouldn’t be cricket for anyone to try and grab it. We have all eaten many free lunches as ex-Bonzos. Some just get fatter than others.
So I guess I should really ask if you’ve heard from Neil at all and what was his reaction to you taking the old repertoire out on the road – or have you intentionally left his songs out of the set list? It seems he has a duelling Bonzos show of his own with his solo gigs incorporating his Rutles and Monty Python tunes.
Rodney: It was Neil’s refusal to do the second 40th anniversary tour that has put our noses out of joint.
Roger: Neil left us to finish off a tour that had been organized, telling the management he wished us well, and I've not heard from him since, so I'm not sure what his feelings are about our efforts. He left us to it, so I expect there is no claim to the name other than ours. But, be that as it may, we can't really call ourselves 'The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band' with any conviction because, of course, plainly we are not, although with Larry and Vernon and Andy on board, we feel we're pretty close. If we could call ourselves such, we'd get a lot more money! It would be dreadfully inappropriate to perform any of Neil’s songs in the present line-up.
Sam: No, we don’t do Neil’s songs because he still does them, and does them best his way, as he has been doing since 1970, along with the countless songs he has written as an ex-Bonzo and his collaborations with others during the past 40 years. There’s no common material to ‘duel’ about.
Your new album, ‘Hair of The Dog’ has been garnering incredible reviews and is a wonderful souvenir for gig attendees and those too far afield to make the trek. What was it like to get back in the studio again and recreate that old magic?
Roger: We didn't really 'get back into the studio' in traditional terms because we all live so far apart we had to construct it by a sort of remote control - not possible in the days of ‘Sergeant Pepper’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro', but in this digital age anything is possible using mobile phones.
Rodney: The beauty is, we didn’t need a studio with today’s technology. We just turned up round Dave’s house and played with his toys when we each individually had time. It’s not easy when we all live several hundred miles away from each other at all four points of the compass. I hope we go on creating NEW magic!
Sam: Wonderful! The opportunity to make entirely our own sounds and make fun of issues that at our current age are meaningful – White Van Men, SatNavs, Rubbish Disposal and recycling etc., in a way that covers as wide a musical range as possible – Hip Hop ‘Prune Song’!
Roger, do you manage to fit any of your robotic creations into the act?
Yes, and they are a right pain to drag all over the country! Our act is full of all the old props, etc., and those that have broken over the years have been lovingly re-built and restored. I have in mind things like the giant head Vivian wore on ‘Canyons' on the famous YouTube clip, which the audience like to recognize.
In addition to Roger and Dave’s “solo” albums, you’ve all been involved in a number of projects over the years (with Dave in Tatty Ollity way back in ’79, the Slightly Dangerous Brothers, Bill Posters Will Be Band, et.al.), so there’s a lengthy discography of material ripe for the plucking. Do your current set lists vary from gig to gig or do you mainly try to stick to the fan favourites, while tossing in a few unexpected surprises?
Roger: Yes to your last sentence - that is pretty much is how it happens. We do stick to a pretty fixed show with occasional requests thrown in.
Sam: We are sticking to a basic skeleton of fan favourites interspersed with half of the new album, but of course, never knowingly over-rehearsed!
Quick question for Sam: do the Bill Posters still perform every Thursday at The Bull’s Head (Barnes) or has the new Bonzos and A Piano project filled up your dance card, as it were?
Quick answer: Yes and No!
I noticed that a few old Bonzo friends occasionally pop up as “special guests”. Can fans anticipate continued surprises as long as the schedules permit?
Sam: Of course!
Our sincerest thanks for their time and energy go to Roger, Rodney, and Sam, with a special thanks to Louise Longson for coordinating our conversations with the Bonzos, and of course to the inimitable Mr. Richard Allen for the introduction to this feature.
Written and produced by Jeff Penczak and Richard Allen. Directed by Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online MMXI
You can contact the band at their website, which also includes a shop for Bonzo memorabilia and a full list of upcoming gigs. Be sure to catch them when they come to your neck of the woods!
A link to our own archived interview with Viv Stanshall:
And finally, these good people are worthy of your support as well:
http://www.sirhenrylives.com - a live recreation of Viv Stanshall's legendary 1978 LP 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End' (on tour soon) (c) The Stanshall Estate 2010