March 5, 1995 – Vivian Stanshall (Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) was born Victor Anthony Stanshall on 21 March 1943 in Shillingford, Oxfordshire.
Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. He attended Southend High School for Boys until 1959. As a young man, Victor Stanshall (known as Vic) earned money doing various odd jobs at the Kursaal fun fair in nearby Southend-on-Sea. They included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter painting the fairground attractions. To set aside enough money to get through art school (his father having refused to fund this), Stanshall spent a year in the merchant navy. He said he was a very bad waiter, but became a great teller of tall tales
He was best known for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for his exploration of the British upper classes in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (as a radio series for John Peel, as an audio recording, as a book and as a film), and for acting as Master of Ceremonies on Mike Oldfield’s album Tubular Bells.
How do you explain The Bonzo Dog Band to people who have never heard of The Bonzo Dog Band? More complicated, how do you explain Vivian Stanshall?
The Bonzo Dog Band were one of the premier Outrageous/Spoof Rock bands of the 1960s. Alumni included members who eventually became members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and more recently The Rutles. In between, they offered some of the enduring classics, such as Can The Blue Men Sing The Whites? The Intro and The Outro, Canyons Of Your Mind, I Am The Urban Spaceman – and on and on. One of their classic songs, Death Cab For Cutie, was featured in The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour movie and eventually became the name of another band of admirers who are currently making the rounds.
So you kind of know who they are – even if you can’t put your finger exactly on how.
Formed in the early 1960s, the Bonzo Dog Band took to reworking songs of the 1920s and 1930s as their model. They quickly gained a reputation as one of the most outrageous bands to perform on stage, and were subsequently hugely admired by everyone from Paul McCartney to Steve Winwood. Vivian Stanshall’s association with The Who’s Keith Moon became the stuff of legend and Stanshall was later credited as the Narrator on Mike Oldfield‘s legendary Tubular Bells. And that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.
The Bonzos, including Viv, were all art students who formed the band originally as a sort of Twenties-style jazz band which eventually turned into a hilariously anarchic revue. They were the darlings of the college circuit, but quickly became accepted on the rock scene, where they supported such bands as Cream. They went to San Francisco with the Byrds and won a dedicated American following. Armed with robots and dummies, the band’s show became ever funnier and more elaborate. Stanshall’s Elvis Presley impersonations and mimed striptease routine were brilliantly done, and they endeared him not just to their regular audience, but to many starts of the rock fraternity. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Steve Winwood were just some of Viv and Bonzo’s greatest fans.
But the strain of touring and the lack of money contributed to turn what had been fun into hard work and misery. On one famous trip to Ireland on a package show that included Yes and the Nice, the band found themselves expected to play on a football pitch near an abattoir, with only an old electric kettle flex for the band’s power supply. When it blew up on the first attempt to use it, Stanshall chased his manager across the pitch shouting “De-bag the rotter!”
Eventually Stanshall stunned the band and their followers by announcing their break-up after a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom, in London, in January 1970.
It was naturally expected that Stanshall, regarded by many as a genius, would embark on a consistently productive solo career. Yet his life after the Bonzos was mixture of frustrations and disappointments, mixed with some notable successes. In a sense his thunder was stolen by the more organised and better-disciplined Monty Python team. Stanshall, despite his occasional outburst of aggression, seemed to suffer from a lack of self-confidence and often tried to take on more work than he could comfortably accomplish.
Like most of the rock musicians of the Sixties, he became a heavy drinker, enjoying the company of friends like Keith Moon. They set out on many wild forays, perhaps the most notorious being when they dressed up as Nazi officers and headed for the East End, where they caused some shock and dismay. But drinking bouts invariably led to Stanshall’s gaining a reputation for unreliability, and even the most sympathetic radio and record producers began to find him too much of a wayward genius to handle.
One of his most loyal friends and assistants was Glen Colson, who had played drums with the Bonzos during their last tour dates. The Bonzos were managed by Tony Stratton-Smith, of Charisma Records, and were later handled by Gail Colson, Glen’s sister. “It was around that time I got to know him. I was terrified of him, he was such a powerful personality. But he got on very well with my father, as they had both been in the Navy, and would talk about those days.”
Stanshall heard Colson practising his drums and invited him to join the Bonzos to take over from Legs Larry Smith, their regular drummer. “I went out on the road with them. It was after he had shaved off all his hair and told the audience at the Lyceum he was breaking up the band. Nobody knew what he meant and my sister explained they still had some dates to do to pay off their bills. I hung out socially with Viv and he became like a teacher. He was a complete rogue as well. It’s strange – there were two sides to him. There was the very personal, friendly guy and the public side. There was a song he wrote called `Ginger Geezer’, on his album Teddy Boys Don’t Knit, and that’s how I remember him – a big ginger geezer!”
After the Bonzos, Stanshall worked on a variety of projects, acting as the master of ceremonies on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and also writing lyrics with Steve Winwood, for whom he composed “Arc of a Diver”. His most successful solo project was Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, a bizarre tale, narrated on record and at live appearances by Stanshall in his best BBC Home Service manner. This was later turned into a film starring Trevor Howard. “Vivian had a wonderful voice and he could have earned millions doing voice-overs; but he didn’t really want to sell out,” Colson says. There was a follow-up album called Sir Henry at Ndidis Kraal on Demon Records. Viv claimed that he didn’t remember making it.”
Stanshall recorded two solo albums which have recently been discovered by a new generation of admirers: Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974), and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit (1981). There was also a Bonzos reunion album on which he appeared, Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly, released in 1972. During the early Eighties while living on a boat moored in Bristol, with his American wife Pamela, he worked on a stage project called Stinkfoot.
As a surreal humorist Stanshall has been rated alongside Peter Cook, and in the view of his admirers he had the potential to become a successful as John Cleese, if he had not succumbed to personal problems, including excessive drinking and bouts of depression.
“He was an all-rounder who worked in different fields of art, but in the last 10 years he could never actually finish anything,” Colson says. “Most recently he was working on a feature film called Loch Ness, doing the voice-overs, and he had signed to Warner Brothers to do another Sir Henry album. He also had some 25 songs recorded which I hope will be put on another solo album.”
Stanshall remained a wayward rebel, once holding a reporter captive for three hours, until he would listen to his favourite early rock ‘n’ roll records like Link Wray’s “Rumble”. He needed a producer to channel his energies, but always wanted to remain his own boss, having suffered too many perceived indignities in his early experience of the music business.
“He wanted to be really good at everything,” Colson says, “the best actor, musician, poet and painter, and it frustrated him that he couldn’t be best at everything. He was great friends with Stephen Fry, and they were rather similar in their outlook. But he didn’t have many friends in show business, as he was very intimidating. He had an agent, but never wanted to be a rich star. He just wanted to be himself.”
After The Bonzos called it a day in early 1970, Vivian Stanshall along with ex-Bonzo’s Dennis Cowan and Ruger Ruskin Spear formed the short-lived Big Grunt in March of that year.
A band that defied description, but achieved major cult status over their relatively short period of existence. Originally put together as a take-off on the 20’s craze in the 60’s, and known as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, they quickly morphed into more of an art-school band run amok and replaced the Doo-Dah with Da-Da and eventually just became known as The Bonzo Dog Band.
Though they may not be familiar to some today, you might hear aspects of them via Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which shared the involvement of Neil Innes and Vivian Stanshall, the Bonzo’s co-founders and musical brains behind the Pythons.
Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’. Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.
On 5th March 1995 this wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent, victim to a house fire. Stanshall was found dead on the morning of 6 March 1995, after an electrical fire had broken out as he slept in his top floor flat in Muswell Hill, North London.