Vivian Stanshall was the strikingly eccentric ringleader of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, often described as the UK’s version of the Mothers of Invention. Affecting the manner of an aristocrat, Viv actually hailed from London’s East End, and his kindred spirits were Keith Moon and Paul McCartney, who produced the closest thing the Bonzos had to a hit single. Gary Lucas, former manager of Captain Beefheart and member of his Magic Band, had some memorable encounters with Vivian Stanshall, whom he compares favorably with Don Van Vliet. He tells the tale for PKM.
What kind of name is that for a BOY to have, anyway? Well, for one thing, Vivian was originally a boy’s name. Its Latin origin connotes “life,” as in vivid, vivacious, life ‘o the party VIVIAN.
Not until the 19th century, around the time of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, did the name Vivian undergo a sea change, or rather sex change, into Vivien– the designated first name of Tennyson’s “Lady of the Lake”. At that point, Vivian as a name for a boy kind of fell off the map with the advent of your Vivien Leighs, your Vivien Merchants– not forgetting the immortal Vivian Vance.
Just when things were getting squared away in the cisgender department regarding which sex could legally be assigned the name of Vivian, along comes the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the mid-‘60s. That’s when the V-word regained major Man-currency in the form of their 6 foot-something, ginger-haired geezer / frontman / ringleader—the one and only Vivian Stanshall.
I mean, nobody but nobody (well maybe his friend and running buddy Keith Moon) could possibly convey anything much livelier in the old rockosphere than manic nutter-about-town Vivian Stanshall. (Unless it was The Pretty Things’ drummer Viv Prince, who was apparently also quite a cut-up…maybe there’s something about that name that does something to a man).
Vivian Stanshall sprang fully formed out of the forehead of Zeus. No, that’s not really true–although you could easily convince yourself of that upon observing him up close and personal for the first time—he was a truly imposing beastie in the corporeal flesh.
Actually, Vivian Stanshall emerged out of a long and venerable anarchic-satiric tradition in the English Beaux-arts–a roll-call of honour that includes Spike Milligan and the Goons, Monty Python, Tony Hancock, Stephen Fry, Marina Hyde, Richard Lester, John Lennon, Wyndham Lewis, Ray Davies, Kenneth Williams, Mick Farren, Evelyn Waugh, William Hogarth, Beyond the Fringe, Donald Cammell, Derek and Clive, Ken Russell, George Melly, Benny Hill, John Lydon, That Was The Week That Was, Mr. Abusing, Kenneth Tynan, Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Mike Leigh, Alexander Trocchi, the Barron Knights, Thomas Rowlandson, Rowan Atkinson, Julie Burchill, Edward Lear, Susan Williams, Private Eye, Mark E. Smith, Lindsay Anderson, Peter Greenaway, Savage Pencil, and of course, Spiggy Topes and the Turds—a veritable nation of piss-takers!
Now that we’ve settled that, the obvious question arises: What exactly is a Bonzo Dog? You earn 10 points and a free trip to the geriatric ward if you can possibly recall Bonzo the Dog, a beloved British cartoon character created by George Studdy (good name) in the 1920s.
To saddle this particular band with that peculiar cognomen (Bonzodogdoohdah) was not an a priori christening move by their fearless leader Viv Stanshall like Reagan’s corny Bedtime for Bonzo flick—no sir, these fellas were referencing the Classics!
And, finally, what is one to make of Dooh-Dah? Why, that’s both what dogs doo, and also the song that Camptown Ladies sing.
So the BDDDB moniker is a kind of a trans-Rees-Mogg-riffication by Viv and his bandmates referring both to the funny papers and Camptown (The Bonzos were plenty camp, in the form of Legs Larry Smith)—and to the name of their favorite art movement, Dada—an offshoot of Surrealism, held in close regard also by the likes Brian Wilson (“I Love to Say Dada”), German new wave trio Trio (“Da Da Da”)—and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). In fact, Don Van Vliet once spoke excitedly about a novel he’d written entitled “The Night My Typewriter Went Daaaaaaa…”.
I have to say from the outset here that I love everything remotely connected with Vivian Stanshall— the Most Original Genius Personage (I wouldn’t use the word musician—although he was that also) I’ve ever met, après Beefheart—damned artistic down to his painted toenails.
After checking out Gorilla, the Bonzo’s first album on the Liberty label—“dedicated to King Kong—who must have been a great bloke”—I was hooked.
In fact, I used to play hooky in my final year of high school and mosey on over to the house of my pal David Bernstein when his parents were absent, specifically to listen to the Bonzos—because their skewed absurdist weltanschauung never failed to cheer me up in a world growing insufferably greyer by the day (Syracuse, where I grew up, had more overcast days per annum in the late 60’s than Greenland).
Gorilla was such an apposite title for their debut—a synecdoche for their ferociously cheeky stance, while simultaneously connoting David Warner’s incredible turn as “Morgan-A Suitable Case for Treatment” in Karel Reisz’s 1966 UK black comedy of the same name—a film about a jilted lunatic English artist who at one point dons a gorilla suit in a misguided attempt to terrify his ex-wife and her swain.
“Lunatic English artist” fits Vivian Stanshall to the proverbial fucking tee. And never more so than on the Bonzo Dogs’ best song ever, “I’m Bored”. Here, Viv adopts a decadent dandy-ish pose contemptuously dismissing all around him right, left and sundry over music that, in its very clever and over-the-top arrangement, references “Strangers in the Night”, “The Sound of Music”, “Roll Out the Barrel”, “La Marseillaise”, and more off-the-wall and on-the-fly quotations—many of which only registered with me years after the fact, they come at you so fast and thick in this song.
“I’m Bored”-Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band, from Gorilla:
Here the basic Bonzo Dog ensemble—a revved-up psychedelicized version of English trad jazz groups like The Temperance Seven and the New Vaudeville Band mixed with a soupçon of Spike Jones—crank out their banjo / rhythm pole / sousaphone-inflected oompah, while Vivian holds forth in the most pukkah upper-class accent ever and ticks off a long list of things he despises, giving a vocal raspberry to each of them one after the other in a peppy call and response with the band: “I’M TIRED OF ART! (Drawing Board)…SEX IS A DRAG! (In a Boarding-House, I daresay)… I’M BORED TO DEATH (Like, Mortar-Board)”.
There are about ten cool things going on at once in every pun-filled lyric and musical second of this little ditty.
And after I thought I’d finally understood it all, it took my pal Peter Hammill (a big Bonzo’s fan) to further elucidate many years later the line: “This is boredom you can afford from Cyril Bored” — a play on a well-known (in the UK anyway) TV advert which boasted the memorable refrain: “This is luxury you can afford from Cyril Lord”.
The Bonzos were probably just too English and too damn recherché for Yankee tastes, although they did tour over here, deploying their theatrical prop-laden hokum at the Fillmore East and other venues. Despite their outlandish costumes and make-up, broad satiric thrust and Pop-Art ready-mades (exploding dummies and mannequins, courtesy Roger Ruskin Spear—they were a bit like the early Mothers in that way), they never really caught on in the U.S., despite copious amounts of praise by folks like Paul McCartney, who produced the closest thing they had to a hit single, “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth.
“I’m The Urban Spaceman”-Bonzo Dog Band:
That track was written and sung by Vivian’s main creative rival in the band, Neil Innes, who eventually achieved larger recognition for his song-smithery and on-screen appearances with the Monty Python troupe and the Rutles.
They never really caught on in the U.S., despite copious amounts of praise by folks like Paul McCartney, who produced the closest thing they had to a hit single, “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth.
In any case, the Bonzos in their heyday were given much exposure in the UK on the telly, on the radio, and in print— I mean, once seen, who can forget the indelible image of Vivian as rock star / aesthete being unzipped by a randy, topless Germaine Greer on the cover of OZ Magazine March ’69?
The lads also appeared appear in the televised ’68 Boxing Day japery Magical Mystery Tour, performing “Death Cab for Cutie” on location at louche Soho fleshpot the Raymond Revuebar before a gaggle of leering Beatles.
“Death Cab for Cutie”-Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band on Monty Python Flying Circus:
After the band split up, Vivian went it alone, and recorded a series of daffy and downright eccentric solo albums and one-off oddity singles under shingles like Vivian Stanshall & biG GRunt, and Vivian Stanshall and the Sean Head Show Band. Viv’s plummy upper-class voice (quite affected, as he grew up in the East End) is probably best known to the masses though through his memorable guest-shot on Virgin Records’ first ever album release, where he announces a roll-call of emerging instruments that ends side one of Mike Oldfield’s mega-platinum Tubular Bells: “Man-do-LIN!”
Really though, just a gloss on Gorilla‘s “The Intro and the Outro” track, wherein the band vamps on the “Hold That Tiger!” riff as Viv announces each incoming instrument in his best American show-biz accent as they pile up in the mix: “Over there, Eric Clapton, ukulele!” (frenetic uke strumming and then a cheery “Hi Eric!” from Viv)…”Roy Rogers on Trigger” ( the sound of a horse urinating copiously)…”Session gorilla on vox humana” (the sound of a gorilla bellowing)…and so forth.
“The Intro and the Outro”-Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band, from the Gorilla album:
When I held down a summer shift on WYBC FM in New Haven in 1973 with a show entitled “The Sounds from England (and other delicacies)”—the “other delicacies” consisting of Captain Beefheart, Can, and Tim Buckley— my theme song was the Bonzos’ “Cool Brittannia”—and I never failed to begin my program by spinning it first.
“Cool Brittannia”-Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band:
Flash forward to 1979, and I’m at this point employed by CBS Records as a copywriter in their Creative Services Department. Part of my job was writing radio spots for new albums released through CBS Masterworks, the company’s classical music division. They would run these spots on FM classical stations all over America (in NYC, that would be WQXR).
We had a couple of mainstay voiceover guys we gave a lot of these classical spots to (Lloyd Moss, mainly, and also Michael “Mendy” Wager). The spots were produced out of the penthouse studios of Tom Clack, a cheerful stocky Englishman with a walrus mustache and a pronounced taste in scatology.
Clack Studios on West 45th Street was a mecca for famous NYC-based voiceover talent —I can recall casting a hungover and droopy-eyed Bill Murray during SNL’s heyday, also adenoidal “Betty Boop on steroids” Fran Drescher (The Nanny, Spinal Tap), madcap Bob McFadden (Milton the Monster), and gravel-voiced Jackson Beck (Take the Money and Run, also the voice of Brutus in the last Popeye cartoons).
One day I’m up there at Clack and my buddy, Doug DiFranco, the main engineer and one half of early sampling duo Double Dee and Steinski, casually lets drop:
“You’ll never guess who we just had in here—Vivian Stanshall from the Bonzo Dog Band.”
“Yeah, he came up here looking for voiceover work. He’s staying in town for a bit. He looks kind of frazzled and a little bit lost to tell you the truth.”
“Oh man!! Vivian is one of my fucking heroes! I’m gonna write a spot for him.”
“Cool. He’s staying at the Hotel Iroquois around the corner on 44th Street—here’s his number.” He handed me a hotel card Viv had left there on which he’d written his room number.
Later that day I rang his room, and this gentlemanly bloke with the most cultured and mellifluous speaking voice answered:
“Good ahf-ternoon…Vivian here.”
“Vivian, this is Gary Lucas from CBS Records. I’m delighted to speak with you. I’m a huge fan blah blah blah…”
“Well, cut to the chase, dear boy! Shall we?”
“Yes, sure. Basically—could you come up to Clack Studios tomorrow morning at 11 and do a voiceover for me, for a new radio spot I’ve written specifically for you to read? It’s for a new album on our classical label.”
“Sounds enchahnting–see you shortly. Ta for now!”
The next day Doug and I are sitting in the front room of the studio by the mixing board when the elevator door opens and out struts this gangly, balding, long-haired, stork-like figure with a ginger beard dangling 4 inches down from his chin and ending in a neat point—dressed in a tattered slept-in tee-shirt, wearing a pair of scuffed red trainers, and sporting a pair of hideous lime-green “loon pants” (flares, basically—the kind they used to sell through the small ads in the back of Disc and Music Echo circa 1973).
Vivian’s trousers especially stick in my mind. It was sort of your standard-issue English rockstar clobber of a few years previous that had seen better days, to put it bluntly.
But Vivian was keen, he was alert—he was all fired up and ready to rock!
I leaped to my feet and extended my hand:
“Vivian, Gary Lucas. You’ve already met Doug.” We shook hands all around.
“Pleasure! What’s this all about then, Gary?”
“I’ve written a radio spot for an upcoming album on CBS Masterworks—a new recording of Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death”, sung by Russian opera star Yevgeny Nesterenko.”
That was a mouthful even for me, a bit difficult to get my vocals cords around. How would Vivian fare?
“Okay, perfect. Let me have a go at it!”
Vivian shoots into the booth, puts his phones on, and we get a level on this ultra-florid and intensely theatrical vocal wunderkind.
“Take one!” Doug intones into the mic.
And Vivian goes into his–or rather my–spiel:
“The hour is here. The time is—forever! The power and the majesty of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Daunces of Death” lives on again in a new recording from Russia with Love–sung by Bolshoi opera great Yevgeny Nesterenko. Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Daunces of Death”– by Yevgeny Nesterenko. On Columbiaaah…Mahster WORKS! “
This verbal cascade tripped effortlessly off Vivian’s tongue, in one take. Every syllable of every Russian name flawlessly enunciated and dripping with Vivian’s rich and fruity special sauce. And please note Viv’s super anglicization of the word “Daunces”, as well as his dramatic pause after rolling out “Columbiaaah”, then resuming the rising closing cadence, which ended the spot on a perky uplifting note, after all that Death.
I could write that kind of horseshit all day long (and frequently did). And Vivian was born to read it! He was truly to the manner born—he could have been another Alexander Scourby, at the very least–maybe even a goddam Orson Welles (who plied a nifty sideline in voiceovers)—if he put his mind to it.
But, of course, it was merely a means of paying the bills–as it was for us all. But let Vivian be Vivian, in all his outrageous splendour—a capital idea! So much so that the BBC frequently put his mouth where their money was, lucky for Viv. Left to his own creative devices, who knew what sort of bewilderbeeste might pop out of this madman’s cranial soup next?
You want a dotty, Joycean spoken-word dissection of basic English upper class aristo? One part dextrous verbal folderol, one part mentholated spirits, served hot with an herbal tea, and spritzed with an opium chaser? Then get your mitts on a copy of Vivian’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End album, which comprises some of the best bits from his long-running BBC radio show of the same name.
Or better yet, try and find the DVD of the1980 fugitive film of the same name, starring Trevor Howard (at this point in his career, a long way down from The Third Man) as Sir Henry— which played for exactly two days at the Quad Cinema here in NYC before they gave it the hook. Pity, as I was one of the lucky handful of folks who went to see it there.
“Rawlinson End”-Vivian Stanshall:
And I can tell you that it is one of the greatest comic masterpieces of all cinema, sporting choice cameos from folks like Patrick Magee (Marat/Sade) and Vivian himself. There’s even some mention of this fellow “Ron Vliet” in there.
Anyway, I was so knocked out by Vivian’s superb performance in the studio (which the Masterworks folks adored once we put the spot together with music), that I invited him round my apartment that evening for a home-cooked meal, which he readily took me up on.
It was a Malaysian-style yellow chicken curry with potatoes and raisins specially prepared in Vivian’s honor by my then wife, Ling, a fiercely independent Cantonese woman born in Penang who knew the proper way to cook a curry, and then some. Vivian showed up on time and in somewhat more formal attire (he’d given his loon pants a rest)—and he and Ling took to each other right away. Ling had her own line in playful silliness (she got on quite well with Don Van Vliet), and after dinner we talked into the wee hours about this and that, Viv abstaining from any alcohol consumption, only occasionally popping a little pill for “a spot of tachycardia”.
I told him I was an old friend of Don Van Vliet’s, who he expressed admiration for. In fact, they reminded me of each other in many ways. Like Don, Vivian was one of the most fascinating conversationalists I’d ever met, overflowing with ideas and startling and usually hilarious perceptions.
Vivian Stanshall was one of the most brilliant and creative people I’ve ever known– a volcanic genius, a real Character and a true Original. An authentic Soldier of Humour, a giant who once walked this earth.
Ling, who was then working for GP Putnam’s, presented Viv with a gift of several new books just out that we had on hand, including one tracing the lineage of an English aristocratic family in photos and text, which Vivian jumped on immediately. He told me the next day he’d been up all night in his hotel reading this book and laughing uproariously, especially the bit about “the mad nephew” who liked to dress up and sport a Bakelite crown on his head.
Vivian returned to England shortly thereafter to his houseboat on the Thames near Chertsey, and we stayed in touch—and received some lovely Christmas cards from him, one emblazoned with a woodcut in the form of the malevolent Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White with an appropriate accompanying poem.
A year later, Viv rang me in NYC out of the blue: “Gary, old boy, Vivian here!! Delighted to hear your voice again. I’ve had an absolute cracker of an idea about forming a new band, sporting a three-man lineup—consisting of myself…old Mac (Mac Rebennack, a/k/a Dr. John)…and Don! What do you think of that eh?”
“Vivian, I think it’s an, uh, interesting idea. But please let me spare you the aggravation. There is no way in hell Don would ever, ever agree to such a notion—not in a million years. I know him too well. He just won’t go for this.”
Vivian then got kind of shirty with me: “Let ME be the judge of that, Old Man— and let me make my proposal to him directly. What’s his number?”
This I balked at giving out to anyone without first running it by Don himself– standard policy while I was acting as Van Vliet’s manager (That’s another story).
“I’ll tell you what, Vivian—I’ll inform Don that you rang me, and that you asked me for his number–and I’ll get back to you on that.”
Vivian then said something even ruder to me—and I suddenly got a taste of a darker, more volatile side of this very complicated personage. Which kinda goes with ye olde artistic temperament, don’t it? But I mean, it wasn’t like I was trying to thwart Vivian’s great Eureka moment here. Far from it.
Although, frankly, at this point in my life it was getting kind of tedious to act as a go-between for various swell-headed music biz divas trying to further their artistic agenda. I just knew that Don possessed—maybe? just a little bit?— an even bigger ego than either Vivian…or “old Mac”.
I called up Don and told him what had recently been proposed by Vivian.
His reply was a terse: “That old fool!“
He’d met Vivian once some years previously at a Warner Brothers function back in the day—and he just didn’t want to go there.
A few months later, I was in London staying in the flat of a friend based in Ladbroke Grove getting ready to commence a European tour with Beefheart and co. I rang up Vivian to say hello the day before I was due to pick up Don and the band at Heathrow with our tour manager.
I told Vivian I was sorry for the delay in getting back to him, that I had spoken with Don– but that he just wasn’t into Viv’s idea.
Vivian was even frostier to me then as he was the last time I’d spoken with him: HOW DARE I–a mere scribe–even think of going on the road with his “good friend” Don, basically. What an upstart I was! The idea.
I felt bad about this, in my mind, egregious dressing-down from someone I still looked up to— but you know, life is too damn short. And there are just some folks who are eventually not worth wasting time over, even on a good day.
A couple years later, my friend Susie Honeyman from the Mekons told me she’d visited Viv in his new digs in Muswell Hill, and I told her to say hello—and she proposed we go up and visit him next time I was in London.
Then I got some terrible news: Viv, in poor health every which way, had given all these criminal low-lifes in his new neighborhood unfettered access to his flat. They duly went in there and proceeded to rip him off blind of most of his possessions over a short period of time.
And then one ghastly night, an electrical fire broke out in Viv’s flat when he was there all alone— which took him out of the picture permanently.
How horrible. And what a stark and tragic way to go, considering all he’d achieved.
Vivian Stanshall was one of the most brilliant and creative people I’ve ever known– a volcanic genius, a real Character and a true Original. An authentic Soldier of Humour, a giant who once walked this earth.
There is so much more I could write about his work and point you to—but trust me, it’s all good, and yours to discover.
Hopefully, he’s finally convinced Don Van Vliet and “old Mac” to join him in that projected threesome of his, up there in Viv’s Blue Heaven.
But knowing Don as I did–I kind of doubt it. More’s the pity…