In order to discuss this latest offering from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, it is necessary by way of introduction to give a little history of the group.
Formed in the early sixties, The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band (affectionately known simply as ‘The Bonzos’) were a group of art students (and a lecturer) playing trad-jazz in London pubs. The group’s name is said to have come about through a word association game: Bonzo the dog, a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s and Dada, after the early 20th century ‘nonsense’ art movement. ‘Dada’ transmogrified into ‘Doo-dah’ and the name became ‘Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band’. Initially their playing was firmly rooted in trad-jazz and vaudiville, playing covers of 1920’s tunes and songs.
Later in 1967, having achived recognition and a recording contract, the Bonzos started to introduce more dada-esque and anarchic elements into their work. One of the members, Roger Ruskin Spear, son of the artist Ruskin Spear, built electronic gadgets and objets d’art that were used/played on stage and these became an integral part of the Bonzos’s act. Later still, the Bonzos developed a satirical aspect to their songs: mocking English suburbia; the recent emergence of the Britsh blues scene; even parodying their former trad-jazz interests, all in a way that would eventually become known as ‘Pythonesque’. Much of the lyric writing and clever word-play employed was due to Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes, the latter writing much of the music. Vaudiville had by now become burlesque.
Their acts consisted of songs mocking everyday life (especially in Britain) with a zany, almost slapstick and knockabout humour, featuring a number of props – not least Ruskin Spear’s mannequins, whose heads would often explode. All this accompanied by some very accomplished playing.
The band disbanded in 1970, but they reformed in late 1971 to fulfil an outstanding contractual recording obligation; though for the latter only Stanshall and Innes featured throughout, with the other members making the occasional contribution. A brief reunion occurred in 1988 to record a single. Vivian Stanshall died in a tragic accident in his home in 1995. A discography is given at the end of this review.
In 2006 the surviving members performed a 40th anniversary concert, featuring variously Adrian Edmondson, Phill Jupitus, Stephen Fry and Paul Merton filling the gap left by Vivian Stanshall; with various success. Early in December 2007, the band released their first new studio album in 35 years, a 28-track album: Pour l’Amour des Chiens (“For the Love of Dogs”). Featuring the original members:
Neil Innes; piano, keyboards, guitar and vocals
Roger Ruskin Spear; tenor saxaphone
Rodney Slater; saxaphone, clarinet
“Legs” Larry Smith; drums and vocals
Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell; musical saw and vocals
Martin ‘Sam Spoons’ Ash; spoons and percussion
and Bob Kerr (ex ‘Whoopie Band’); euphonium and cornet
with “shiny New Millennium Bonzos”: Adrian Edmondson, Stephen Fry and Phill Jupitus variously performing vocals. Also credited are: Mickey Simmonds (musical director), David Catlin-Birch (guitar and vocals), Johnny Marter (drums and percussion) and Steve Barnacle (bass and jazz guitar).
Without discusing all of the 28 tracks in detail, it is clear that the ‘new’ Bonzos are continuing their tradition of providing satirical comment on life today. The Bonzos have called their CD ‘For the Love of Dogs’ and provide as an image on the cover a canine skull covered with ‘hundreds and thousands’ and sweets, parodying and lampooning the Damian Hurst diamond encrusted human skull sculpture: ‘For the Love of God’. Subtle? – not really, crass? – possibly, but a striking example of the Bonzos not pulling their punches. However don’t let this put you off. Open the box, play the disc and you will find that, fortunately, the songs are very subtle, and ably display Neil Innes’s great writing skill (Innes wrote or collaborated on over half the tracks).
The disc is a delightful mixture of reworked ‘20s classics, a whimsical and quirky cover by Phill Jupitus of a Jim Reeves song or sultry French crooning, songs based on dreadful puns and of course songs making satirical socio-political comment. Since this is their first studio album in 35 years there are plenty of subjects for the Bonzos to aim their ammunition at. A few tracks warrant particular mention:
‘Democracy’, a song done in calypso style, questioning what sort of democracy is it that we ‘enjoy’ today?
‘I Predict a Riot’. The Bonzos’ reworking of The Kaiser Chiefs’s number, featuring Adrian Edmondson in his first riot – and he rather enjoys it.
‘Stadium Love’. Bonzos have a go at stadium rock and speculate how loud the stadium chorus might be.
‘Early Morning Train ’, what starts off as a rather twee song of unrequited love on the early morning commuter train, is rudely brought up to date by Adrian Edmondson reminding us of the social curse of modern technology.
‘My Friend’s Outside ’. What the Bonzos might have done with synthesisers, had the group been around in the ‘80s. No doubt Mr Ruskin Spear would have made his own unique contribution to this genre. A delighful parodying of the work of Garry Neuman, that just stays on the right side of litigation.
‘For The Benefit Of Mankind ’. The Bonzos’ own version of Franks Zappa’s‘Uncle Meat’ is an intreped inventor and investigator of anything and everything that can be for the ‘benefit of makind’. Not often you hear a song on the subject of disinfected aubergines done in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. Did I say the Bonzo’s were quirky?
‘Beautiful People’. Adrian Edmondson’s outrageously non-PC solution to the cult of celebrity, fame and fortune, and in Edmondson’s view, all the downright annoying members of society. This selfish Endlosesung is promulgated in the most sweet and reasonable manner – all without a trace of irony!
‘Ego Warriors’. Neil Innes rails against the creeping homogenisation of society and crusades for the individual. The lyrics here feature some clever word play.
‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’. The Bonzo’s antidote to Tiny Tim’s falsetto version. Here Sam Spoons sings it basso profundo, whilst the song segues into a gentle comment on the ‘plucky’ British attitude to competitive sports, thanks to Adrian Edmondson’s delightfully understated commentary.
‘Now That You’re Asleep’. Unremarkable in itself, but this is the only song on the CD that was written by Vivian Stanshall. A sympathetic memento of the great man himself.
So is this disc for you? Well, if you have never sampled the Bonzos before, then this is a wonderfully well-polished way of retrospectively enjoying their work. It’s not for everyone though – some will not be able to get past the very British whimsy and quirkyness, despite the amazing compositional and writing skills of the Bonzos and Neil Innes in particular. For those of you who do know, and enjoy the Bonzos, buy this disc anyway – it is unlikely that the Bonzos will ever perform together again, let alone record.
The CD is packaged with a DVD showing highlights of the 40th anniversary concert along with a booklet providing notes written by the Bonzos on the various tracks complete with charming illustrations.
Sony CDP XB720E QS player, Quad 44/405 amplification, Quad 57 electrostatic speakers.
Discography of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band
Gorilla (1967) Liberty LBL/LBS 83056 (also Sunset SLS 50160),
The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (1968) Liberty LBL/LBS 83158 (also Sunset SLS 50210),
Tadpoles (1969) Liberty LBS 83257,
Keynsham (1969) Liberty LBS 83290 (also Sunset SLS 50375)
Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (1972) United Artists UAS 29288 (also Sunset SLS 50418),
Pour l’Amour des Chiens (2007) Storming Music CRP2601.
The Best of the Bonzos (1970) Liberty Records LBS 83332
Beast of the Bonzos (1971) United Artists Records UAS-5517
The History Of The Bonzos (1974) United Artists UAD 60071/2, (1997) BGO Records BGOCD376
Some of The Best of The Bonzo Dog Band (1983) Liberty LN-10206
The Very Best Of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (1984) Music for Pleasure MFP 4156801
The Peel Sessions – The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (1987) Strange Fruit SFPSO51 (EP)
The Bestiality Of The Bonzos (1990) EMI EMS 1335 (CDP 7 92675 2)
The Best of The Bonzo Dog Band (1990) Rhino Records R2 71006
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Cornology (1992) EMI CZ 499/500/501 (3 CD set)
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Unpeeled (1995) Strange Fruit SFRCD 134
Anthropology – The Beast Inside (1999) DJC Records DJC008 Previously unreleased material.
New Tricks (2000) Right Records RIGHT010
The Complete BBC Recordings (2002) Strange Fruit SFRSCD108
Discography of Vivian Stanshall:
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974) (out of print)
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1978) Charisma CAS 1139
Teddy Boys Don’t Knit (1981) Charisma CAS 1153
Sir Henry at Ndidi’s Kraal (1984) Demon Verbals VERB 1
Discography of Neil Innes:
How Sweet To Be An Idiot (1973) United Artists UAS 29492 (UK)
Taking Off (1977) Sparty 1004 (UK)
The Innes Book of Records (1979) Polydor Super 2383 556 (UK)
Off The Record (1982) MMC 001 (UK)
Re-Cycled Vinyl Blues (1994) EMI 7243 8 30071 2 7
And by Roger Ruskin Spear:
Electric Shocks (1972) United Artists UAG 29381
© Text Copyright 2010 Barry Hunt.
Album cover art work and photos © Copyright belongs to the original publishers. Photos taken from www.vivarchive.org.uk/desktops.htm
NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.