Fond Memories of a Ginger Geezer: Interview with Rodney Slater of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (Part 2)
Vivian Stanshall, known as “the last great English eccentric,” was the most high-profile member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. From time to time a photograph surfaces on the internet of Viv and a baby tortoise confronting one another with mutual surprise, which, for those lucky enough to find it, conveys an instant impression of his unique personality. In his time he was extremely famous, rising even to the level of a deranged photo shoot with Germaine Greer for the notorious Oz magazine.
The American literary critic Edmund Wilson posited the theory that the creative impulse usually emerges from a psychic wound experienced in childhood. While this does not stand up to inspection in every case, it certainly seems to be applicable to Vivian Stanshall, whose very early childhood with his mother he remembered as idyllic —until his father came back from the war. A lot of his own creative output for the Bonzos seems to have to do with the class neurosis that his father and his wider environment forced upon him, code-switching between Cockney on the streets of Walthamstow and talking posh at home, both compulsions enforced by the threat of physical violence. By the time he joined the band he seems to have become permanently plummy, but in a self-satirising way. “It was an extraordinary accent, wasn’t it?” says Rodney. He finds it highly unlikely that the accent was really the result that Viv’s father was aiming for and that Viv was probably deliberately exaggerating it as a way of sending it up and rebelling. It was not that he ended up identifying with the class that he was projecting, but the accent simply became a part of him, without (for him) any class associations. Having said that, however, Rodney points out that “the spooky thing was that his brother spoke in exactly the same way.” (At the funeral reception his brother gave everyone a fright by coming in talking, and for a moment it seemed as if Viv had come back from the dead.) This adds weight to the paternal tyranny theory for the origin of Viv’s accent, since the two boys “were never really close.”
Rodney never actually met Viv’s notorious father, whom he describes cautiously as “a very great influence, in lots of things.” Viv’s mother would always ensure that his father was out of the house when his friends were coming round, so as “to avoid an altercation.” I suggest that when Viv was not performing, he had the same sort of melancholy look that John Lennon also had when he wasn’t ‘on.’ Rodney feels that this melancholy became much more pronounced in later life, past the age of forty, when Viv had gone through a lot. In earlier life he was almost always in entertainer mode, keeping other people amused with hilarious anecdotes and “an answer to everything.” Viv was in some sort of character or other all the time. He presented all his friends to other people “as if they were characters from a play” as well: Toe-Rag, Pete the Pirate, the Brigand, the Artist, and a particularly important influence, Arthur the Scrumpologist (an older, irascible, alcoholic academic who was a drinking buddy of Viv’s from The Royal, where they would consume raw cider together —Rodney thinks that he was a replacement father figure for Viv.) Rodney never actually met any of these characters, but the stories about them were very interesting. He finds my suggestion plausible that Viv was grappling with an ongoing identity crisis due to the class psychosis that he had been brought up with, and notes that Viv was a very “exuberant, outgoing person who was hiding the frightened lad inside—but my God, what an entertainment.”
Rodney first caught a glimpse of him —sporting rubber ears— during a wild party in an abandoned church, of which the St Martin’s sculpture department had commandeered the basement to live and work in. On this particular Saturday night “half of London seemed to be in there” and was, as Rodney puts it, “raving,” while Rodney and his “funny little band” were sharing the stage with much more professional, older musicians. Eventually the police inevitably appeared and cleared everything out. Viv had come down from Southend with his mates and his rubber ears and although Rodney noticed him, he didn’t get to talk to him because the party was broken up beforehand.
The actual meeting came a few weeks later, the famous encounter on the 25th of September when Rodney’s flatmate Tom Parkinson met a homeless Vivian —who had just come up to the Central School of Art— in the pub The Pillars of Hercules and brought him home to live with him and Rodney. (Viv stayed until they all got kicked out of the flat because of Viv’s disastrous attempt to make cider in the bathtub, amongst other reasons). At this first meeting the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band got its name via a Dadaist cutups game, and the boys stayed up into the small hours to listen to the radio broadcast of the boxing match between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, which, Rodney notes, was an example of the profound American influence on English youth at the time. Rodney’s already existing trad jazz band, which consisted of himself, Tom Parkinson, two others from the Royal College of Art, and another student from St Martin’s, instantly saw Viv’s potential as frontman, and Rodney is still proud of how right he was in this assessment. Although the Bonzos' origins were in 1959, the group didn’t really begin to gather momentum until the mid-sixties. Rodney took a year out for farming in 1963, though he would go up to London every week and see Viv for a rehearsal, a Chinese meal and a lot of pints, until things reached the point where he realised that he had to move back to London because something was starting to happen with the band. Even though it took a long time and a lot of “blood, sweat, and tears” to get there, the band eventually “settled down” into a stable form after Rodney came back from his hiatus in 1964.
When I ask about reports that Vivian and Rodney bonded over having both gone through a teddy boy/funfair phase, Rodney explains endearingly that all that was simply “what you did in those days,” part of the original wave of rock n’roll. He hastens to point out that he and Viv were both fascinated by clothes, and affectionately looks back on the teddy boy aesthetic as “flamboyantly wonderful.” Rodney adds the caveat that the look was not actually sartorially “correct at all,” and that he and Viv were even more attracted to the real Edwardian stuff. Viv in particular had “some bloody good stuff,” and they began, as was de rigeur, by buying bespoke tailored suits. They ordered “genuine Edwardian cuts” with high, stiff, starched collars, and Rodney reminisces happily that they “absolutely loved it.” In those days there was a bespoke tailor on every high street, and Viv and Rodney eventually got bored with normal suitings and switched to suits made up with deckchair and furniture coverings, which was the look for their early stage shows. If there was an official costumer it was Viv —“he liked to design things for himself, and occasionally he’d say, ‘ooh, you’d look good in this, I’ve got just the material for you’ ”—and they would dictate their clothes to TV producers.
Concerning the rumour that Viv was good friends with John Lennon and that they would get together and be silly, Rodney comments that this probably went on for a couple of weeks, but that they weren’t intimate for any great period of time. They probably met in one of the Swinging London clubs, a scene in which Viv (unlike Rodney) was interested. I comment that the relationship, even if short-lived, is intriguing because of the way Viv and John mirrored each other on the class neurosis front —Viv was working class but sounded posh, John had come from a respectable part of Liverpool and deliberately Scoused up his accent. Rodney comments that both were “very troubled personalities in many ways.” John and Viv were similar in another way, and that was their lyrical gift and perceptiveness. Rodney notes that Viv had “such an unusual vision of ordinary life that he could transform into wonderful writing,” not all of which Rodney understood, and that he was often mesmerised by the images that Viv came up with. Viv was heavily into social satire, such as on the boarding-school send-up Sport, in which he expressed his hostility towards his father. (It was, as Rodney remarks, a song that helped turn Stephen Fry onto the Bonzos, since he wasn’t good at sport either.) Rodney emphasises that Viv didn’t just imitate posh types: he also loved the Cockney villain archetype, with which he had a lot of fun on later work like Ginger Geezer. We talk about My Pink Half of the Drainpipe and its remarkably even-handed satire of two opposed social types, the normal Norman with his Spanish bull-fight poster (Viv made Rodney play Norman on the record —“I used to get a lot of those roles off him, yeah”), and the outraged intellectual who lives next door to him, both trapped respectively in complete lack of imagination and pretension. At the time of the Bonzos Viv was not writing music, but Rodney much appreciated his later, quite complicated output, written on a mini soprano ukulele (“He had a unique one which someone had made for him, which you could just sort of stuff in your side pocket—very thin, very narrow”).
I note that although Viv claimed to hate his father he also said, when he went solo, that his great aim was to write tunes that his father could whistle, that sounded as if they had come from the music-hall stage, and I wonder whether this musical taste of his father’s —which belied his class ambitions— was a point of contact between the two of them. “Well,” says Rodney, “I think when you’ve got a father whom you feel rejected by, you do your utmost to impress him, and you never stop.” He doesn’t know whether they ever did reconcile as Rodney got older. However, at this point in our interview —and to my great excitement— Rodney discovers Viv’s dad’s snooker cue behind the radiator, which Viv insisted that Rodney should have. Rodney recalls that around that point, Viv’s father had let him into his club and was playing snooker with him. (Viv “was the biggest cheat you can imagine, you couldn’t turn your back on the table because the balls would be in a different position when you came back.”) Rodney feels that Viv would have done anything to not have a fractious, deeply unhappy relationship with his father, but it was unavoidable and so Viv coped by making it into entertainment.
Rodney can no longer remember any major incidents in which Viv’s eccentricity impeded the band. He “never really got up my nose with anything at all,” although Viv did drive Neil mad sometimes with his attention to detail. I ask about the rabbit hutch episode, related by their manager Gerry Bron, and Rodney takes the opportunity to set the historical record straight: It was Roger Ruskin Spear with the rabbit hutches, and not Viv. Bron had leased the Ballet Rambert’s rehearsal hall for a week to encourage the band to come up with new material, but most of the time Roger built rabbit hutches for his famous rabbits and Viv made vivariums for his tortoises (“I mean, this is typical!” says Rodney with exasperated affection, “though it wasn’t as bad as it sounds” as they did come up with some new songs). It was, Rodney recalls, a pleasant time, probably the break that they needed at that point. The band were so exhausted that rabbit hutches and vivariums were “all they were capable of, so that was what they did—they had this space and time, so they did that.” Bron was apoplectic at the wastage of rehearsal money, which, as Rodney points out, belonged to the band anyway.
It was the stress of Viv’s performing career on top of his troubled childhood that brought about his breakdowns. Rodney speculates that perhaps being an entertainer “was not the sort of thing he needed,” though from another point of view he did. Rodney doesn’t think, as has been theorised, that the second American tour was the coup de grace, unsettling Viv to the extent that he became addicted to prescription drugs —“I don’t think you can blame that on America —it was a general buildup of pressure. He couldn’t handle his own genius.” Viv started to deteriorate in 1968, with panic attacks which led him to shave his hair off. He could get quite difficult in the phase when he had started drinking too much on account of anxiety, and it would reach a point where Neil would say, “Viv, you’re slurring your words, I’m not talking to you.”
Rodney didn’t know that the Bonzos were breaking up until it was announced by Viv at a New Year’s Eve gig in 1970. However, they kept in touch afterwards through everything that followed. A particular highlight was the Rawlinson End project, beginning with surrealistic episodic radio slots written and voiced by Viv and culminating in the 1980 cult film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (reviewed by this magazine, with some bewilderment, back in 2007). This was inspired by Wodehouse’s bucolic comic Blandings novels (“I always think of it as Blandings Castle on steroids,” says Rodney), but also by the serial/unintentionally surreal fiction published in installments in women’s magazines at the time —with disorienting effects on the reader who happened to pick up a story in the middle— and the related interminable, uneventful soaps then broadcast on the BBC. Rodney explains that “The Rawlinsons were first heard as one of those awful middle class families who appeared on BBC daytime domestic dramas —‘The Rawlinsons are coming over tonight’ was a line we heard over the airwaves that reduced us to hysterics. We would repeat it in endless situations, and look what Viv eventually did with it.”
Viv, who had collaborated with his close friend Steve Winwood over many years, helping to write Traffic material and also co-composing Winwood’s hit Arc of a Diver on the famous album of the same name, enlisted his help for the musical interludes on the 1978 spoken word album version of the Rawlinson End saga. (Incidentally, Viv’s son Rupert has made public some of the wonderfully affectionate letters that his father sent him during one of his stints working in Winwood’s famous country studio, which show that Viv was successful in his determination to avoid his own father’s mistakes.) The Rawlinson End story developed by slow accretion, as Rodney explains: “I wasn’t involved in the actual filming but have appeared in all manner of live versions with Viv and other people’s interpretations and witnessed the gradual creation of it over the years. It was a major work, if somewhat under-acclaimed, as one might expect of a surreal masterpiece in the mainstream.” Throughout the narrative “Viv works through all the complications of his own relationships to create such a caste of surreal eccentrics as only his mind and unique humour could imagine.”
Later, when Rodney was working for the council, Viv’s problems got worse and Rodney would find himself on the phone with Viv over whole afternoons dealing with anxiety attacks. The same thing happened to Winwood, who eventually found it overwhelming because there seemed to be no improvement. Rodney became more heavily involved with Viv musically after he had himself retired early from local government in 1991 at the age of fifty, leaving the clinic on the Friday and going on the road with Viv on the Monday. Viv did very well surviving a national tour in fairly small venues, but then he decided to take a holiday in Sicily, although Rodney didn’t want to go and expressed disapproval. As soon as Viv got on the plane he couldn’t resist the complimentary drinks and had a relapse. This happened in 1992, and “he never really recovered from that” nor regained his confidence, although he had lots of offers of work and they did a number of radio programmes together. Rodney notes that the Bristol Old Profanity Showboat enterprise didn’t really turn out the way that Viv would have hoped, partly because of his own demons, but that he did take time off to go back to London and do voice-overs, which helped to re-establish him a bit. Rodney sadly equates the famous project From Essex Boy to Renaissance Man with Viv’s own epitaph. After that Viv went downhill very quickly and died in a fire in his flat in 1995, at the age of fifty-one. Rodney’s affection, sorrow, and retrospective frustration are evident when he talks about Viv’s decline. Rodney often found himself in the position of having to put out Viv’s beard once he had set it on fire with one of his awful roll-up cigarettes —in the end he couldn’t roll them himself, so Rodney had to roll them for him. Viv “was a very confused person for most of his adult life, and it ended in tragedy. He’s been dead for twenty-six years now, and I’m still here. Gawd.”
At the very end of the interview I ask Rodney Mark Jones’s question as to his favourite Bonzos or associated track. After much musing, since it is a difficult decision given the extremely various natures of the back catalogues, Rodney surprises me with his choice. Terry Keeps His Clips On, a solo track by Viv from the seventies, is currently on heavy rotation in the Slater residence: a strange and sad little fable about the folly of setting too much store by paternal advice.--Isabel Taylor