Absurdity is, admittedly, not for everybody. It takes a certain sort of mental ticklishness to recognize the artistic merit in a urinal or the wit in a painting of a pipe over the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Linear thinkers could easily consider the Ministry of Silly Walks just plain silly — which, of course, it was, but crossed with a wildly inventive rejection of the obvious and soused to the gills with irony. Absurd is never irrational. A clown with a water-spouting flower might have been clever once upon a time, but absurdity dies on repetition, which is why Gallagher is stupid and Steve Martin can be very funny. Translated into any medium, the institutionalization of absurdity as the art movement dubbed dada is not simply random-play nonsense, it’s highly-informed and thoroughly considered random-play nonsense. There is, indeed, good dada and bad dada, although good luck finding two people with such similar sensibilities as to agree on which might be which.
That human impossibility is one of the reasons why the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, which had as many as nine instrumental absurdists in its lineup, remains so clearly outstanding in its field — and so impossible to categorize. Lowbrows who consider the British group a novelty act are simply failing to grasp the worthiness of humor, as if making people smile somehow negates the difficulty of creating great art. And the Bonzos’ records are great art, a cornucopia of musical styles from the first half of the 20th century blendered into the freewheeling thrall of the psychedelic ’60s.
Led by daft renaissance man Vivian Stanshall (who died in a 1995 fire), a genius of enormous creative imagination and skill, the Bonzos played a crucial role in the development of British humor (by providing a direct connection between music and comedy, they connected the Goon Show and Temperance Seven to the Pythons, especially in their filmmaking endeavors, for which Bonzo Neil Innes provided much of the music). They also hung out with the Beatles (appearing in Magical Mystery Tour), shared stages with Led Zeppelin, inadvertently provided the name for this journalistic endeavor and introduced dada to rock a good ten years before new wave’s cynical wiseacres came along to need it. How did they do it?
Gorilla (“Dedicated to Kong who must have been a great bloke”) debuts the Bonzos as a septet of Stanshall (vocals etc.), Innes (vocals, keyboards, etc.), Roger Ruskin Spear (guitar, etc.), Legs Larry Smith (drums), Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell, Sam Spoons and Rodney Slater (sax). As with many first albums of the era, a number of the songs are covers, but not of the usual sort. The Bonzos’ twisted traditionalism had other things on its agenda. “Cool Britannia” turns Britain’s anthem into a new groove, while “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is dispatched in barely a minute, and a vicious deconstruction of “The Sound of Music” takes even less platter time, not counting the droll spoken introduction. But a little-known Disney wonder, “Mickey’s Son and Daughter,” and “Jollity Farm” are played straight in recognition of the songs’ intrinsic ironies. Stanshall, whose voice-acting abilities would serve him well throughout his career, narrates the hardboiled shaggy dog story “Death Cab for Cutie” (which became the name of an indie rock band 30-plus years later), prefigures generation slack by a generation in “I’m Bored” and does meet-the-band in “The Intro and the Outro,” going on to include “big John Wayne on xylophone … looking very relaxed, Adolph Hitler on vibes … a sessions gorilla on vox humana … Count Basie Orchestra on triangle … J. Arthur Rank on gong” and many others. Innes, whose classic pop sensibilities would eventually lead to the Rutles, gets swept up in the insanity, delivering “The Equestrian Statue” and the falsetto “Piggy Bank Love.” Ricocheting between jazz, vintage rock’n’roll, show tunes, standards and freakout noise, Gorilla is a shaggy creature that makes plenty of room for itself. In addition to seven bonus tracks, including the band’s 1966 backward-looking debut single, “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies,” the 2007 reissue includes priceless liner notes by Neil Innes that, for the first time, sensibly explain some of the silliness.
The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (“the noises of your bodies are a part of this record”) smooths out the rough edges with a shortened band name, superior studio mastery, more rock, no covers and a smaller lineup (Stanshall, Innes, Spear, Slater, Smith). Writing together, Viv and Neil come up with the album’s best tracks: the man-on-the-street interview insanity of “We Are Normal” (which finally composes itself into a raucous antecedent of the Who’s “Amazing Journey”), the boulevarding Briton house pride of “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe” (cultural absurdity at its finest), the sexy Sha Na Na fragment “Kama Sutra” and the jazzy spoken-word short story “Rhinocratic Oaths.” On his own, Stanshall makes fun of the 12-bar brigade in “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” (going on to rhyme the last word with “hypocrites”), while Innes goes San Francisco sci-fi in “Humanoid Boogie” and shows off his faux vodey-oh-doh facility with “Hello Mabel.” Meanwhile, Spear lisps across with his first vocal and solo original, “Trouser Press.” (Thank you, Roger.) In one of those weirdly typical career stories, “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” a cute-more-than-clever Innes-penned single released the same month as the album (but not included on it) became a Top 5 hit in the UK, at least in part because of the open secret that it had been produced by Paul McCartney. In America, with the song slapped on (as the first track, no less), the album was released as Urban Spaceman. The 2007 Doughnut reissue adds five items, working up from a (nearly) straightforward reading of “Blue Suede Shoes” to a churlish swipe at Cher’s already awful “Bang Bang,” an aptly droll swing through “Alley Oop” and finally a Teutonic release of “Mr Apollo” that ends with Viv freestyling in German.
While the rest of the musical world was being distracted by Woodstock, the Bonzos released two studio albums in the latter half of 1969. Tadpoles, in part culled from the band’s contributions to a children’s show on British TV called Do Not Adjust Your Set, has a nifty yellow die-cut cover on which the face of a new member, bassist Dennis Cowan, joins the others. Arguably a modest addition to the canon (thanks to a high percentage of neither-here-nor-there vintage remakes), Tadpoles nonetheless has the winning bodybuilding jabs of “Mr. Apollo,” a cover of “Monster Mash,” Spear’s ’50s-styled “Shirt” (preceded by another dryly hysterical Stanshall man-on-the-street interview segment, evidently featuring unsuspecting passersby, as well as a Pythonesque routine in a cleaner’s) and “Canyons of Your Mind,” a doowop comic melodrama which was the B- side of “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” (That song landed on the original UK issue of Tadpoles but was omitted in the US, replaced by the wistful acoustic Duchampian “Ready-Mades.” Confusing things only a little bit more, Tadpoles was later reissued in the UK as I’m the Urban Spaceman.) The 2007 CD adds such bonus delicacies as “Readymades,” rescued from the B-side of “Mr. Apollo,” and more of Innes’ wit and wisdom.
Released only four months after Tadpoles, Keynsham takes a different stylistic tack, and isn’t appreciably stronger for it. The group was audibly tired and, in fact, about to collapse. “You Done My Brain In,” which begins the album, is probably truer than it was meant to be. Indicative of the tension, Innes and Stanshall share only two songwriting credits (“The Bride Stripped Bare by ‘Bachelors’,” titled for dada founder Duchamp’s masterpiece, and the forgettable finale “Busted”), and neither man’s solo contributions are first-rate (although Stanshall’s raving rocker “Tent” is certainly a keeper and “Look at Me I’m Wonderful” is a brief and bitter foretaste of Bill Murray). Keynsham goes over familiar ground without laying much new sod (other than Spear’s wiggly theremin solo on “Noises for the Leg”). The 2007 edition adds such extra- curricular undertakings as Spear’s rendition of “When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba Down in Cuba” and Viv’s hack at “The Young Ones.”
That ended the Bonzos, although Stanshall and Innes (with Cowan and contributions from other alumni) did bang out a surprisingly good contractual-obligation epilogue, Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (“…dada for now”). Sounding somehow well-rested and free of the weight that a continuing career engenders, the two go further down their own individual paths than on any previous group album; while they both make good use of the opportunity, it sounds like several unrelated albums on shuffle play. Most of all, they play it for fun, aping country-western (“Bad Blood”), the Beatles (“Don’t Get Me Wrong”), adding a sophisticated swipe (“The Strain”) to a subject only once before essayed in the annals of popular song (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “Constipation Blues”), mining falsetto rock delight from dandruff (“King of Scurf”) and launching, in the nine spoken minutes of fusty soap opera of demented British aristocracy “Rawlinson End,” what would become a major project for Stanshall. The album is egregiously excessive at times (“Fresh Wound” goes on way too long) and not consistently engaged. It bids adieu with a wickedly insidious looped [last] laugh entitled “Slush.” The cover features a vintage postcard of Bonzo, cartoonist George Studdy’s rascally canine for whom the band named itself and for which the album was titled. The bonuses added to the 2007 reissue are, not surprisingly, weak.
That leaves the 2007 reunion album, a good-natured, overly generous (28 songs!) but often delightful undertaking that is commendable for the rousing of the troops to such a creative outpouring at this late date and ultimately impossible for the absence of their leader. It’s largely Innes and Spear’s show, and nostalgic whimsy fills the vacuum of dada invention, but every one gets a turn, and despite a few bouts of rank sentimentality, the old boys make a go of it. Released as a limited-edition box with a bonus DVD, Pour l’Amour des Chiens is an outgrowth of a reunion concert (also available on DVD) which the band did, and so includes contributions from comedian/actor Adrian Edmondson (The Young Ones etc.), actor Stephen Fry, Bob Kerr and a bunch of sidemen.
With the exception of a flimsy reggae-styled one-off political single released in 1992 (packaged as an EP with “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” “The Intro and the Outro” and a new Innes tune called “Them”) and subsequently added to the CD of Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly, the remainder of the Bonzos’ discography is archival, with lots of overlapping releases mining the same library of material. The History of the Bonzos, a lovingly assembled two-LP set with numerous band-related rarities and an ace booklet, is the best compilation (the three-CD Cornology is a complete album archive with some added tracks). B>Bestiality and the Rhino release are adequate but different one-disc compilations; The Best of the Bonzo’s, a slapdash job, still contains 16 solid tracks.
The third of the three BBC/John Peel releases, The Complete BBC Recordings, contains everything (1967 – 1969) that’s on the first two and then some: 20 tracks in all, and none of that exact recreation of studio tracks balderdash acts of less idiosyncratic mien are prone to. Given a mic, a running tape machine and the enthusiastic tolerance of John Peel, the anarchic group does some of its repertoire with varying degrees of fidelity to the originals (the vocals on “Trouser Press” don’t sound at all like Spear; “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” roars with honking slide guitar; “Keynsham” likewise has more juice) and wanders off the rails into raucous parody (“Give Booze a Chance”) and scripted comedy (the five-minute meta-radio romp of “The Craig Torso Show”). “We’re Going to Bring It on Home,” an ambitious Innes pop invention, and Stanshall’s inexplicable “Sofa Head” are not on any of the studio albums. The finale, a 1986 solo Innes rendition of “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (which, it must be said, is a gimmick song whose thin charms diminish with repeated listenings) puts a belated coda on the whole adventure. The cover, a hideous sketch by Stanshall meant to be replaced by a proper painting, is explained in the booklet by an aggrieved note from the artist complaining of the “flesh-tone so violently lox-pink it would only look natural with cream cheese in a bagel!”
Anthropolgy is a mixed blessing of 30 outtakes, rarities, fragments, live bits and who knows what, none of it detailed as to time, place or circumstance of recording. From a horrifically off-key false start “Canyons of Your Mind” to killer versions of “Tent” and “You Done My Brain In,” the disc runs a zigzag course all over the band’s existence. There’s plenty of value for aficionados: Stanshall’s alcoholic confessional “Mr. Hyde in Me” is a must-hear, and the minute-long “National Beer,” a bootleg-quality concert recording, contains a melodic shard of “King of Scurf.” “Sofa Head” and “Give Booze a Chance” are the ones done for the BBC, although “Monster Mash” sounds like yet another version. Not a treasure trove, but definitely a must-hear for serious students.