Vol. 1, Issue #19 October 13th - October 26th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

The Persistence of The Bonzo Dog Band

I’m not really big on reunion concerts because it’s usually just a cheap gimmick to recycle music that the bands played better decades before when they were young and spry. Of course if it’s a band you really love putting out the DVD, you don’t mind throwing a few bucks their way, since in your heart of hearts you know they had to snort up their fortunes out of their groupies’ navels (I could have been more obscene) in order to create such great music. Up until recently the only reunion concert in my collection was the Sex Pistol’s “Filthy Lucre Live” from the 1996 reunion tour because (a.) I’m a fan, (b.) I had always wanted to hear a “clean” live recording by the band, (c.) Matlock is a better bass player than Sid Vicious, even if it sounds more like heavy metal, and (d.) they didn’t get paid the first time they recorded these songs.

My concept has changed since the release of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “40th Anniversary Celebration” DVD. I picked it up earlier this year and I was shocked at how good it is; I’ve been slapping it into the player every few days all summer long. This week I posted a 1996 interview I did with Neil Innes, the leader of The Bonzo Dogs, and the musical muscle behind The Rutles, on my blog at MySpace.com/wilhelmurg (plug, plug.) They’re a band that is endlessly entertaining on top of being one of the most experimental outfits in the history of rock’n’roll.

Inspired by Surrealism and Dadaism, the Bonzos came out of the Royal College of Art in Kensington, and the name came from pulling words out of a hat, exquisite corpse-style. Their music was a combination of dance hall tunes, Dixieland Jazz, children’s songs, hard rock, psychedelia, and random noise, all done tongue-in-cheek. Musical spoons, a Theremin built in a false leg, musical saw (which Steve Jones, of Billy Joe Winghead, pointed out to me is like an acoustic Theremin,) bells and whistles, and virtually any other instrument you can think of was mixed into their sound. Their recordings run the gambit from the sublimely psyche-pop of “What Do You Do?” to recitations over cacophony in “The Sound of Music.” Imagine Spike Jones and his City Slickers if they had dropped acid with Paul McCartney, who co-produced the Bonzos’ only hit single, “I’m The Urban Spaceman.”

The Bonzos only released five albums in their brief career, from 1967-1972, but each one is worth hearing. They’ve been compared to The Mothers of Invention, The Fugs, and Firesign Theatre, but just as none of those groups share anything in common aside from a strange sense of humor, The Bonzos are also mavericks with no obvious forbearers (aside from some unholy combination of Louie Armstrong, the Beatles, and “The Goon Show.”)

If you’ve never heard of the band, don’t feel bad; you have to go out of your way to stumble over them. However, The Beatles were fans, and The Bonzos appeared in “Magical Mystery Tour,” the Fab Four’s biggest box office flop, performing a splatter platter called “Death Cab for Cutie,” which is a catchy name, to say the least. Due to that appearance, they gained hundreds of American fans.

After the band broke up Neil Innes became associated with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He appears in five of the television episodes, but is best remembered as Sir Robin’s Minstrel in “Monty Python & The Holy Grail” and “The Protest Song” from “Live At The Hollywood Bowl.” He also turned up as the musical guest when Eric Idle first hosted SNL in 1977, which usually guaranteed a cult following in those early 3-channel television days (as it did for Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leon Redbone, Kate Bush, et al.) but instead of working for Innes, it actually created a cult audience for The Rutles, a satirical, Beatlesque, band which Idle and Innes created as a BBC series, which became a one-shot special on American television as “All You Need is Cash.”

Around the same time another band member, Larry “Legs” Smith, appeared on George Harrison’s “Extra Texture” album on the song “His Name is Leg (Ladies and Gentlemen,)” which confused the hell out of all of us over here on this side of the Atlantic. It took me ten years to find out who Smith was, and why a Beatle would do a tribute to him.
Another reference that took years to run down was The Bonzos’ late Vivian Stanshall’s appearance on Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells, where he introduced each instrument as Oldfield layered them on top of each other at the end of his prog masterpiece. That section was actually the U.S. B-Side to the single edit of “Tubular Bells.” Stanshall was picked because of his introductions on a Bonzo song “The Intro and The Outro.”

Their biggest breakthroughs began when and the title of their song “Trouser Press” became the name of one of the most important American punk/new wave magazines, though it did take a few years for the magazine to catch on. By that time they had received a five star rating in the first “Rolling Stone Record Guide” (1979) for their compilation album “The History of The Bonzo Dog Band.” Suddenly hipper record stores were keeping their albums in stock, pin-back buttons and T-Shirts were being produced.

The next appearance I knew of was my interview with Innes, which appeared in the late “Cool & Strange Music! Magazine,” which still has some resonance on the web. The guy I talked to aside from Innes, Jim Yoakum, seemed sincere, but he talked about a tribute album that was never released. I can still find on message boards where Bonzo fans want to know if the damn thing was ever recorded; it wasn’t, as far as I can tell. I also mentioned a George Harrison song from the album, which finally made it to bootleg, as least.

Now we have the anniversary concert, and like I said, it’s a masterpiece. As the Bonzos were originally inspired by performance art, that have to be seen to fully be understood, and now they can be experienced in your front room. When I went to my local record store to buy it, a younger clerk seemed to think I was making the name up, but when I found it, the aging hippie woman running the cash register smiled and said, “I didn’t think anyone would remember them.” Some of us still do; they are one of the most rewarding footnotes in rock’s history, and it only took forty years to get widely distributed domestic release!

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©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.