There Are No Coincidences: Interview with Rodney Slater of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (Part 1)
Those who only know their major hit I’m the Urban Spaceman may be inclined to underestimate the Bonzos. They were, in fact, the (admittedly rather loud) ghost in the machine of the sixties and seventies counterculture, permeating the atmosphere in a subliminal way and leaving traces of ectoplasm on everyone from Monty Python to David Bowie. They parodied musical genres including interwar novelty jazz, opera, lounge singing, and hard rock, but in a way that transcended mere pastiche, with a lightness of touch some way removed from their Dadaist instigators, the result classifiable under “ineffable Englishness.” So it was a great delight, earlier this year, to spend a Sunday afternoon chatting to Rodney Slater, erstwhile Bonzos saxophonist and there from the very start of the band’s inception. At eighty-one Rodney is tremendous fun, cheerfully profane and given to uproarious laughter, his larger-than-life jollity only very slightly dimmed by the restrictions of the Covid era. As I discovered, he has an extraordinary ability to recall the details of a wildly chaotic time more than fifty years ago—which may be connected to his vibrant humour. (Of course, another remarkable character inevitably springs to mind in the Bonzos context, but due to his tendency to take over any article that he is allowed into, it was decided to split this interview into two parts. Rodney’s memories of the great Vivian Stanshall will appear in the autumn.)
To begin we discussed Rodney’s childhood and youth. He was born, as he puts it poetically, “in the wide horizons of Lincolnshire in 1941, and there wasn’t a lot else to do other than commune with nature.” His interest in music came later when the family moved to Peterborough: he took part in the obligatory church and school boys’ choirs until his voice broke in adolescence. The grimness and repression of postwar England threw children back onto their friends to work on the same things, like sport or music, and they were united by the camaraderie that came from being “in the same prison, which was school” (followed by “the ultimate escape,” leaving for university or art school, and freedom). Rodney’s family were of modest means, and he had the dubious good fortune to get “a scholarship to an already fatally-wounded independent school which, having survived the war, was able to continue its ethos of supplying colonial administrators in perpetuity, thanks to being bailed out by the 1947 Education (Butler) Act.” It had plenty of arcane and absurd rituals and rules about wearing grey on Sunday and not walking on certain bits of grass, all of which made Rodney, as he puts it, “a bit gobby.” When I later ask him if he agrees that a major theme of the Bonzos (and also of some Pythons-related material) was parodying imperial masculinity, I am startled by the vigour with which he agrees. He explains that it wasn’t so much sport as the belief system that went with it that were being satirised —the stiff upper lip and endurance of hardship that were drilled into him as a boy, so that he could go off to far-flung British possessions and be hard on colonial peoples in turn. The gist of the experience was captured by the Bonzos’ ridiculous cover of the interwar novelty jazz number Hunting Tigers Out in India, a satire of the system and the “silly buggers” who insisted on going off and “getting eaten by tigers.” Rodney attributes his survival and preservation of perspective to being a day boy rather than boarder —scholars were rare and most of the boarders were servicemen’s children whose parents were deployed somewhere.
Rodney’s rebellious attitude motivated the school to get him out of its hair as quickly as possible by accelerating him through his A-levels, and he found himself at St Martin’s in 1959, having decided on art even though he was equally good at history and geography. Rodney soon discovered others there who were interested in music (he was playing guitar very badly at that point) and he formed a little trad jazz band which was the beginnings of the Bonzos — he learned saxophone while rooming with a saxophonist (but would really have preferred the drums). He points out that though he went off to study art, he ended up actively involved in music, but that this was a common pattern: a lot of the best sixties bands came from the art schools. When I probe as to why he thinks that was, he admits that he doesn’t really have a specific explanation, but explains that young people in general wanted to express themselves. They were frustrated by a period of postwar austerity, and wanted “to break out from all these grey figures with an over-endowed sense of responsibility and no sense of bloody fun, who seemed to be running the world.” (However, the catharsis that comes through in the Bonzo recordings is more apparent to Rodney in hindsight, and it was certainly not an aim).
Art school seemed to particularly attract polymaths, also a phenomenon in that generation. Lots of people including Rodney could write, paint, draw, play music, and pursue sport concurrently. Everyone he knew was “immersed in life” and “wanted to get on with it” —and also “overthrow hypocrisy,” which particularly irked Rodney as a boy. The phenomenon of postwar kids getting hold of an instrument and teaching it to themselves in a joyful autodidact spirit, often by ear from records, was also a sign of the times. Rodney himself had some formal musical instruction at choir and school, but was not taught how to play saxophone as such and has some rather harsh things to say about the way that gifted instrumentalists were hot-housed through the formal education programmes, which he sums up as spending ages “staring at bloody dots, going cross eyed.” In general, his generation started out with making a noise on an instrument and then pursuing more advanced knowledge through experience rather than study —which he describes as “a great trip,” in which you learnt something new every day “on the front line.” He sums up himself and his colleagues as characterised by a general curiosity about how the world worked, and whether that was really the only way to do things. Rodney’s famous affinity with parrots (as immortalised on Mr Slater’s Parrot) was also not that unusual in those days—parrots, he reminds me, were a general postwar preoccupation, often brought back by relatives who had been in the Navy, and they held a particular place in the nation’s affections. At one time almost every family had a parrot story. They were particularly treasured for the way they expressed an iconoclastic spirit, particularly their tendency to swear when the vicar was round for tea.
The art school experience was at first “full-on” in terms of the studying, but the lunchtimes in the pub gradually got longer and longer, which he thinks was a typical pattern. Eventually Rodney reached a point at which it was much more important to play music than to focus on the art programme. The Bonzos were at different London art schools and they were staggered in age from approximately seventeen to twenty, while Vernon Dudley Bowhay Nowell was actually a teacher. Rodney finished up his qualification before the others, and in 1966 Neil Innes, Vivian, ‘Sam Spoons’ (Martin Stafford Ash), ‘Legs’ Larry Smith, and Roger Ruskin Spear all qualified at the same time. The art school environment directly shaped Rodney’s band and the later Bonzos. Clarinettist Alan Cooper of the vintage jazz revival band The Temperance Seven was Rodney’s sculpture tutor, and Rodney remembers being hugely impressed by the Seven’s “Edwardian clobber, cigars and playing of vintage jazz,” all of which, he points out, was performance art, though it wouldn’t have been called that at the time. The Seven and those like them seized upon and glorified “all the artefacts out of pubs and fashionable houses which were just being thrown out at that time.” Rodney also felt that vintage clothes were “too good to waste” and that one should get hold of them and use them against the Establishment, by being “young wild ruffians” attired “like the older generation.” (It was a similar manoeuvre to the later, ironic flaunting of military uniform by sixties rock stars). This was the origin of the Bonzos’ famous neo-Edwardian aesthetic. Rodney reminisces happily about cruising the junk shops and street markets, full of the contents of cleared homes, and very cheap in the days before these things became fashionable.
After a period of imitating The Temperance Seven, the Bonzos eventually developed their own style, reaching the phase described by one of Rodney’s great idols, bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, that after a while instead of playing it, it would play you. (Later in life Rodney experimented with bebop saxophone). In the early years they went through a period of addictive nostalgia for the craziness of twenties novelty jazz records like Jollity Farm (also found at street markets) —jolly, happy music which had them all convulsed with hilarity when they first heard it. They often learned the tunes by ear (which could make the end result a bit more off-kilter) and sometimes they chased up the sheet music. Rodney calls the Bonzos’ reinterpretations of this material “acoustic music,” which they made “even wackier” though creativity and incompetence. Imitating novelty jazz with the amateur approach allowed him and the others to distort instruments’ sounds in a way that better players simply can’t, and this led him to Albert Ayler and others who were bending saxophone sounds —Rodney did early imitations of the bagpipe clarinettists. When I ask what the older proponents of trad jazz and dance band music —Kenny Ball and co— made of the Bonzos’ parodying of their sort of music, Rodney says that they loved it. They very much appreciated the Bonzos sending up the genre and being free, because in many ways they themselves hadn’t been as free or laughed as much as they would have liked. The Bonzos got on well with them all, in particular the dance bands of the twenties and thirties, excellent musicians who were still working and whom they often encountered on tour. They were all over the radio in the early sixties, when the only way to listen to rock was to tune into pirate radio stations like Radio Luxembourg. So, although the Bonzos were in part a product of a more general generation gap, from another point of view they were reviving the interwar frivolity begun by a particular older group of colleagues; after a long and melancholy hiatus, the party had resumed.
When the Bonzos chose material from between the wars, it was apparently the ridiculous lyrics that most attracted them. By the time of Button Up Your Overcoat, a prime example, they “had Viv, who could do it and send it up simultaneously with his voice, which was completely unique,” combined with an extraordinarily irreverent presentation. He wasn’t just parodying the style of Whispering Jack Smith, a velvety American crooner of the twenties and thirties, but pretty much everything. The Bonzos’ covers of vintage jazz were both satire and affectionate homage, and although they eventually grew out of that phase and started to write their own material, the vintage jazz stuff persisted all through their live act, which consisted of two different one-hour sets: they were contracted at night for forty to fifty minutes which they would always extend to an hour, with enough encores to keep it going. (Though Rodney points out that university gigs involved going on three times in eight hours, sometimes performing at six o’clock in the morning, by which point there were maybe three couples propping each other up and the band would be thoroughly drunk from having to stay awake all night.)
He is delighted when I bring up the influence of music hall: “what a very English band we were, we were really in love with Variety, as it was called then…. even the funkier things we did still retain that spirit, I’m glad to say, or I think they do.” The nonsense tradition of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, which Rodney appreciated when it manifested itself in Lennon’s later lyrics, was also an influence on the Bonzos. (Of Lennon’s nonsense output, he comments that it tends to be dismissed as the product of drugs, which it was, but it was also wonderful.) The absurdist, surreal way of looking at life popularised by the Goon Show “gripped everybody” whom Rodney knew, including himself, and sent them on a quest for ‘rubbish’ —a term which they used in the positive sense popularised by the quirky duo The Alberts, two brothers who packed in West End audiences to the ‘revue’ (if such it can be called) An Evening of British Rubbish and were responsible for coining the famous catchphrase “It may be rubbish but by jingo it’s British rubbish!” (Those in search of material will find some footage on YouTube which captures the warmhearted anarchy of The Alberts’ brand, including a display of dustbin dancing which suddenly interrupts a so-called ‘English folk song’ about dustbins, its tune more than a little reminiscent of the First World War music-hall hit Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty.) The Goons’ and Peter Sellers’ influence on The Beatles and John Lennon in particular is well-known. I was intrigued to know whether the Bonzos’ spoken word cover of Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones, bringing out all sorts of disconcerting unintended implications in much the same way that Sellers did for A Hard Day’s Night and Can’t Buy Me Love, was at all inspired by the latter. Rodney thinks not —it was just the sort of idea that came naturally to the sixties mentality, in a general heady atmosphere of irreverence and silliness.
Like homegrown surrealistic influences, Dadaism was also a foundation for the band. Rodney learnt about it in art history lessons at art school, and they were all very taken with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917 and the concept that found objects could be art and have different meanings depending on how you look at them —like Rubin’s Vase, the picture of the vase that simultaneously depicts two faces. Life, Rodney points out, is simply like that, and it depends on how you use this ambiguity and proteanism: benignly to help people, or to spin and misshape things, the vacuum of integrity that can accompany post-modernism. While Dadaist influences were shared by Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Rodney, like me, doesn’t understand why the Bonzos are sometimes described as England’s answer to the Mothers —they were simply parallel movements. (Overall, however, he thinks that it is a lot easier for the English to understand American culture than the other way around, simply because the English are exposed to so much American material). I wonder whether the extremeness of American society in the sixties explains why the Mothers are far more disturbing and menacing than the Bonzos, and Rodney agrees that the Mothers’ social criticism just reflected American culture. He personally loves Zappa’s music, far more “modern and boppy than the Bonzos’ output and fused with rock in a lovely way.” The Bonzos never met the Mothers or Zappa, and Rodney admits that he would have been frightened if they had, since they were a lot harder-edged than the Bonzos. In contrast, he feels, the Bonzos’ way of doing anarchy was significantly more fun-oriented, with a picaresque streak. Rodney noticed much more hard-core drug use in the States than in England, and disliked the horrid smells that he encountered there when on tour. He thinks that the reason why the sixties in the States seemed more extreme, druggier and less playful was partly that they had advanced further along the timeline: they had already had rock in the fifties, so that American kids had liberated themselves several years earlier than their counterparts in England. It took The Beatles and the art school bands to kick-start England’s revolution with rock n’roll.
Rodney notes that, indeed, from his point of view Swinging London didn’t start until about 1967-68. (This chimes with my father's memories--he commuted to Central London to work in the civil service every day in the mid-sixties and complains that there was nothing swinging about it.) Before then London was just “a good place to be” because it had a vibrant cultural scene and cosmopolitan population, with lots of educational institutions. Although later the same sort of spirit became entrenched in Liverpool and Manchester, albeit with unique regional flavours, overall London was the place where “it was all going on….on every level.” When I ask whether the Bonzos were aware of being part of a burgeoning counterculture, he replies that he often thinks about the counterculture and the mainstream in the sixties, and that it wasn’t exactly a case of parallel universes. They all just assumed that the counterculture would eventually take over and were bitterly disappointed when that turned out not to be the case with the advent of the Thatcherite reaction. In 1970, when the band broke up, the movement was already becoming too clever for its own good and the changes that people had longed for didn’t materialise as they had hoped. (However, at another point he notes that in the sixties a massive, capitalist consumerist culture was also developing and sucking everyone in, and the Bonzos were active in sending it up against a background of surreal humour. He also has pointed things to say about the absurdity of rock n’roll knighthoods.) When asked whether the Bonzos felt contrarian even towards the counterculture itself, he ponders deeply and answers that overall, although they satirised it, they felt (and wanted to be) part of it. That did not include mind-expanding drugs, however. Rodney always felt “high enough on being part of the drive forward,” adding comically that “beer and fags were good enough.”
1967 was a pivotal year for the Bonzos, suddenly forced to differentiate themselves from the very similar newcomers the New Vaudeville Band. I wonder whether the sudden changeover to rock and psychedelia sat well with the Bonzos’ developing tastes: was it a challenge for musical skills that, up until that point, had been jazz-based? The leap from My Brother Makes the NoisesFor the Talkies to You Done My Brain In seems enormous, but Rodney assures me that “it didn’t hurt that much.” He had always prided himself on being able to play a large number of styles in a superficially convincing manner, and he worked at it by practising. Rodney had always enjoyed rock and rhythm-and-blues, and he already had the necessary skills, so it was easy to make the transition. Neil Innes was very in tune with current developments and began to write more mainstream-oriented music, especially influenced by The Beatles, and the group did well with that but still kept the music-hall spirit and view of the world.
In 1967 the Bonzos were signed to Liberty in the United States and were asked to appear in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film, which Rodney describes as “an experience.” They enjoyed meeting The Beatles, whom they had previously seen only in passing at the EMI studios in St John’s Wood. By collaborating on the film they actually “got to talk, and Paul McCartney took me to his barber’s, so that I could get my hair cut in the appropriate manner for what we were doing,” a memory which still makes Rodney laugh heartily. Even more memorable was the launch party for the film at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, where they entered an enormous room containing “table after table” of poured drinks, “so bizarre, you can’t imagine” —whiskey and sodas, rum and Pepsis— "lines and lines of them, like toy soldiers.” These disappeared rapidly and were instantly replenished, so it was “a very drunken evening,” and the Bonzos had to perform in a Darlington cabaret the following night, making an unpleasant drive North in a Commer van. Rodney is droll on the personal connections between the other Bonzos and The Beatles, forged in the early hours of the morning in “the four clubs where Swinging London met” such as The Bag O’Nails—a scene which Rodney himself skipped, preferring to go to bed at a decent time. Neil was quite close with George Harrison later, in the seventies and eighties, while ‘Legs’ Larry Smith became Harrison’s concierge, and Vivian was friendly with John Lennon. Although the Bonzos have been credited with influencing McCartney’s sentimental slice-of-life lyrical style, Rodney thinks that if there was an influence it was probably the other way around, in that Neil imitated McCartney’s romanticism on songs like Piggy Bank Love, but suggests that it was far more likely, again, that both were responding individually to the sixties Zeitgeist. Similarly, he does not believe the rumour that the Bonzos influenced Sgt Pepper and thinks that it was more the other way around, even though this sort of creativity was in the air. (Rodney adds his assessment of Lennon-McCartney, that Paul was more extroverted and interested in writing stories about other people, while John was harder-edged and much more into himself.)
Also in 1967 came Rediffusion’s surrealistic humorous revue Do Not Adjust Your Set, debuting on Boxing Day and running until May 1969, with the Bonzos providing the musical interludes traditional on comedy shows at the time. Although meant for children, adults would rush home from work to see it—it remains wild and brilliant fun today, testament to the influence of music-hall anarchy and containing such gems as Denise Coffey’s barrister sketch. (Sadly, Coffey, who also appeared in Stanshall’s film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, passed away in March while this article was being prepared.) The Bonzos contributed some of the most scintillating moments, including Vernon’s tiny marionette banjo-player on Jollity Farm, still extraordinarily eerie and magical after all these years. Rodney explains that Vernon had made the puppet at art school, but at this point Rodney can no longer remember its name. Rodney himself wore his wife’s clothes and roller-skated on Love Is A Cylindrical Piano. (“I spent the whole bloody day skating round the studio and nearly squashed my saxophone.”) I ask Rodney whether he sensed that the show, which featured Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones in their TV debuts (alongside “young pros” Coffey and David Jason) was going to lead to great Python things, and he agrees fervently. That nationwide exposure laid the groundwork for Python and also helped David Jason to become a very successful individual performer. Eric Idle later said that the Bonzos and particularly Viv were a major influence on the Pythons’ humour, and Rodney is very pleased about this, but adds that the influence also went the other way. In the 1980s Rodney encountered Idle again, when he (Rodney) was playing in a hotel band, and they had a nice little chat (and when Rodney was a social worker in Gospel Oak, he was just around the corner from Michael Palin, who was living there at the time).
The association with McCartney continued when he produced the Bonzos’ Top Five hit I’m the Urban Spaceman in 1968. Rodney reminisces about the experience of working with McCartney on that track. He was basically “in the control room suggesting things” and he just “got things done,” as The Beatles did when they had thought of something (though Rodney points out that they did have George Martin to help them). McCartney was “giving ideas” over one to two days, which was all the time he needed to produce the track, though he himself usually went into the studio for a week to two weeks at a time even then. When Viv suggested playing the garden hose on the record, McCartney said (Rodney does his best laidback Scouse) “Yeah, that’d be great, go for it.” The sound engineer found a way to make it work by putting a microphone in every corner of the room, and then Viv stood in the middle to whirl the hose round his head, and everybody ducked. Rodney explains that it was the same principle as the Wurlitzer effect in a Hammond organ: you couldn’t get the sound if you didn’t whirl the hose. Neil is quoted as feeling that the song only became a hit when it got out that the producer Apollo C. Vermouth was in fact a Beatle, and that it was too glossy and not chaotic enough for the Bonzos, so I take the opportunity to get Rodney’s reaction. He disagrees with both of Neil’s comments. The hit had got going long before McCartney’s identity was revealed, and it wasn’t too glossy —the band were deliberately aiming for something different, a better, harder product. The hit got the band “an awful lot of work” and contributed to the overload “that in the end just ground us down, and we couldn’t carry on.” But, as he points out, “that was the 1960s —one thing after another, you either survived or you bloody didn’t.” The life of most sixties groups was generally quite short, about five years, he thinks, probably due to the accelerated speed of the decade. In the case of the Bonzos, they were doing live performances every night and contending with international travel as well. They moved constantly, covering the Southern university circuit and the North-Eastern cabarets, which they first approached with trepidation, expecting to be beaten up or at least get the bird. However, even when they played miners’ clubs the audiences identified with the Bonzos’ antiauthoritarianism and weren’t at all antagonised by seeing a group of long-haired Southern students. It was good for the Bonzos, who hadn’t experienced other peoples’ ways of living and thinking by that point, to play to more age-mixed and older audiences in the North-East and be exposed to a different cultural world.
Urban Spaceman additionally brought them work in the two great dance-hall chains (the Meccas and Locarnos) because back then, when “you got a hit record, you were up there every Saturday night,” somewhere in England. This heightened their profile, as did Do Not Adjust Your Set. However, they could still use the Tube and walk around without being bothered a lot by fans. There was a period when they had transport problems so they started using first class rail, all crammed into a train compartment together, and there was a surreal episode in which “a ruddy great soldier” suddenly appeared and Blimpishly announced that his regiment requested the pleasure of the Bonzo Dog Band’s company in the bar —so they all had “to go and have a drink with these squaddies, but it was all so good-humoured and respectful.” Rodney finds that experience particularly amusing in retrospect. It sounds like a pleasant, manageable level of fame, in contrast to what The Beatles had to contend with (Rodney notes that the Bonzos were never forced to buy houses in Weybridge “and opt out of the world”). The Bonzos had a fairly big staff at their peak, but certainly not as big as The Beatles,’,and Rodney can’t remember whether they had a fan club or fan magazine. They did have a publication called DaDa Excursions which promoted “what you’d now call merch,” he says, and hoots, and otherwise there were “various freaks” who produced little magazines about the band, but nothing official.
The Bonzos, like The Beatles, essentially burned out from overwork. Rodney is keen to emphasise that musicians have never worked harder than in the sixties: every success just meant extra effort on top of the existing workload. It is hard to know how much of this was due to the avarice of A & R men and how much to the pent-up inherited energy of a generation released from the starting blocks by the Education Act of 1947, eventually exhausting themselves through hyperactivity. In any case, the “white heat” of the famous Wilson speech was certainly not confined to science and technology. In Rodney’s account, the vertiginous speed with which advances were made in music and fashion accelerated towards the end of the decade, when things began to get fairly disturbing and prone to disintegrate. (Even in this end-of-decade vortex, however, England never approached the frightening level of anomie of the United States).
By 1969 the Bonzos’ career was beginning to whirl out of control with the American tours. Rodney admits that these began to get a bit “heavy” without him realising it, but at the same time he’s happy that he got to go to America and see things that he otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. The band also dropped Doo Dah from their name at that point and became the Bonzo Dog Band, which was more in keeping with the time. (The original name was restored in later years for the reunion tours in the 2000s.) Rodney looks back with bewilderment and delight at the experience of supporting The Kinks at the Fillmore East, which he describes as a bit Alice in Wonderland. They held their own on the first tour, with excellent audience reactions, and there are lots of badly recorded bootlegs of those gigs floating about. The Bonzos didn’t achieve great commercial success in America, unlike some other English groups —nor, Rodney points out, did Ed Sullivan call— and Rodney is a bit ambivalent about that. At the Boston Tea Party Festival, also in 1969, the Bonzos performed to 19, 000 people, which was like “playing into a wall of sound,” and Viv’s ukulele slipped out of his fingers and dented Rodney’s saxophone. Some of the Bonzos became disillusioned with the less successful second tour (“I don’t know whether we were homesick?”) When Roger’s wife got ill and he had to go home early, Rodney decided to go with him.
In 1969, the Bonzos also played the legendary Isle of Wight festival, at which ‘Legs’ Larry Smith arrived late so that Jim Capaldi of Traffic had to fill in for him on drums, but then created a sensation with his tap-dancing. It was, Rodney says phlegmatically, “a good festival with a good vibe,” and despite the size of the crowd they were still able to play well. Rodney normally hates festivals because they are usually so chaotic that you “don’t get the detail that you need to do a good show.” He can’t recall much of the festival otherwise —as it was so hard to get about, he didn’t see many other performances. (This leads to a reminiscence of the ghastliness of playing Glastonbury some years ago with Three Bonzos and a Piano, on three different stages: they had to lug their gear in the dust and heat and masses of people, and encountered truly horrific sanitary arrangements, so that once it was over Rodney hopped into his car and got out of there “like a bat out of hell.”)
As Rodney has often described the Bonzos as more of an arts collective or arts lab than a band, I was curious to find out more about their creative process once they moved to producing original material. “The main writers were Viv and Neil, as different as chalk and cheese in terms of what they wanted to write about.” Viv came up with highly unusual lyrics but (at that point) couldn’t write music, so that was supplied by Neil, who also wrote his own songs for the band as well. Sometimes Viv would contribute to these, but overall “Neil had his own direction.” Neil actually discovered the title of You Done My Brain In, a Ringoism uttered by one of their roadies. Mr Apollo was a genuine joint collaboration between Neil and Viv, while the words on Sport are entirely Viv’s, though Neil is playing the harpsichord. Busted is a particular favourite of Rodney’s, who by that point was playing electric saxophone and experimenting with odd psychedelic sounds. Occasionally they did covers of more recent material in addition to novelty jazz: their version of The Monster Mash is significantly more fun than the original, with Viv’s crazy vocal and hysterical laughter, and Rodney remembers that the song appealed to them because it not only had “such a great tune” but was “so far fetched and ridiculous.” (Rodney’s high-pitched, squealing solo is particularly remarkable.)
Roger Ruskin Spear wrote some material but essentially had the luckless George Harrison role in the Bonzos, battling to get his songs included on the albums. However, he made a considerable contribution with his robotic animations, such as the trouser press. When they did Trouser Press on stage Roger would whip off his trousers and put them in the trouser press (which had speakers attached), the trousers would start to smoke, and then the whole thing would explode —Rodney tells me that it had to be seen to be believed. Roger also contributed a theremin in the shape of a leg and the case to go with it, as well as a number of exploding dummies. The great appeal was the unreliability of all these inventions, which then had to be repaired on stage when they weren’t working. Rodney himself didn’t write anything till much later (for Three Bonzos and a Piano, and Parrotopia by Rodney Slater’s Parrots). The Bonzos themselves were never overtly political, but as Rodney got older he became more politically concerned and started producing allegorical material. He collaborated in this work with Mike Livesley on the Parrotopia project, which allowed him to take advantage of the new recording advances. (Covid restrictions got in the way of his wish to make Parrotopia 2 and Rodney thinks that it is unlikely to happen now, since he has stopped playing sax and bass clarinet and hasn’t felt inspired to write anything lately either. Social media and the other possibilities of the internet, on which people have relied during the Covid era, are no replacement for the happiness of standing on stage in a club and “belting it out.”)
In retrospect the band presents a paradox of chaos and professionalism, and Rodney thinks that by 1968 they had learnt “how to hold things together” sufficiently to be able to get through a punishing amount of work, appearing on Do Not Adjust Your Set and touring the UK and the Continent. Neil was extremely competent and very good at doing “simple things correctly,” while Roger “thrived on chaos,” and Viv could be chaotic but also “the ultimate professional as well.” (Viv was not more anarchic than the others —he just had a higher profile and got into the press more often— but Rodney thinks that “we were all pretty difficult” and being in the Bonzos had the effect of drawing anarchy out of people). Disorder and efficiency in fact went very well together and that dynamic was probably the basis of the group’s success: it was simply a question of having the right kind of people, and Rodney and Dennis Cowan were also stabilising influences. I put to Rodney Mark Jones’s question about their shows’ spectacular bizarreness and how much of this was planned. Most of it, according to Rodney, had a fairly well-established foundation, and they did actually learn some stagecraft, especially in the North of England. Sometimes spontaneity got a bit too much for the band and they were occasionally unable to resist upstaging other performers. They certainly could not refrain from making mischievous diva requests of bookers and TV producers (once even asking for an empty petrol tank—though, considering the nature of their performances, they might actually have had a good reason for this). Rodney has said before that German audiences seemed to understand the Bonzos’ theatricality a bit more than homegrown audiences. He remembers that most of them spoke good English, but he thinks that like other Continental Europeans they were also more tuned into the visual and might have been more primed to look for things in the Bonzos’ act because of this cultural difference. (He feels that there is less high culture in England compared with the Continent anyway and that as a result English audiences are less aware of the visual aspect.) Their work in Germany was quite large-scale—although they played a couple of clubs, it usually involved a German TV company taking over a whole village and broadcasting a big commercial show from a stadium or some other venue, which Rodney describes as “a big event.”
There were only six Bonzos in the final two years, during which the group was becoming increasingly tired. Rodney notes that, contrary to the rumours, they hardly ever had guest musicians on their recordings (and they certainly never included Eric Clapton on ukulele). Neil was on guitar and keyboards, and Rodney on saxes and brass. Dennis Cowan was a great bass player who was there for about eighteen months towards the end. Larry was a good drummer in the early days and later morphed into ‘Mr Wonderful,’ but stopped dancing and drumming after they finished touring. Sam Spoons was a very amusing little athletic man, running around playing spoons and leaping on and off tables, while Vernon was “just extremely unusual”—both were fundamental in developing the band’s unique sound. After the Bonzos broke up in 1970 Rodney became a psychiatric social worker (which, he stresses, was not inspired in any way by Vivian Stanshall’s problems but simply by a genuine interest in doing something other than art), and moved into systemic family therapy. Then in 1991 he took early retirement at the age of fifty, having negotiated a good severance package, and went back on the road with Viv.
James Turner was particularly interested to hear about the group’s various reunion projects. Though the group had been forced to put out a reunion album in 1971-2 by contractual obligations to Liberty, Rodney simply refused to be involved and decided that he wanted “a complete break.” The 1988 reunion project No Matter Who You Vote For The Government Always Gets In was Neil’s project and Rodney was involved in the recording, but was not active on the promotional side because he was still working. (On the political side, I take the opportunity to confirm that the Blair administration did not ask for permission before using Viv’s coinage ‘Cool Britannia’ for their rebranding of pop-cultural Britain.) Then there was the big reunion in 2006-2008, involving performances with Stephen Fry, Phil Jupitus, Paul Merton and others taking on the Stanshall role. Pour L’Amour des Chiens, their album from 2007, contained a hilarious sendup of I Predict A Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs, which was Roger’s idea. The Bonzos then decided to do a couple of tours, but this was a fairly chaotic and frustrating experience which led to acrimony, and Neil decided that he didn’t want to be involved any more. The project was picked up a few years later in the form of Three Bonzos and a Piano with Rodney, Roger, and Sam (and Larry and Vernon on the bigger shows) over a period of about five years as “a sort of cut-price” version of the Bonzos, as Rodney puts it. They had planned another show involving Neil, partly to raise money to cover the costs of the two-year litigation to which they were subjected when a third party attempted to trademark their name (which also prevented them from touring), but after the deaths of Sam and Neil, Rodney didn’t want to go on officially with the Bonzos without them. In the last few years there was one private party performance, which Rodney describes as a lot of fun, a Parrots show in September 2019, and since then Rodney has had to grapple with a cancer diagnosis and (successful) treatment, followed by the frustration of Covid isolation. (He has spent the time gardening and teaching himself to play the baritone ukulele very well, so that he can perform Bonzo songs on it.) However, throughout the decades EMI have never stopped putting out and selling compilations, and later this year Snapper Records are releasing everything that the Bonzos ever recorded, in a massive box set with literature and notes —a prospect which seems to both gratify and boggle Rodney.
Although Rodney is surprised that there is a market for such a massive compilation, his modesty once again leads him to soft-pedal the Bonzos’ cultural importance. With their carnivalesque elements and their obsession with having a good time, the Bonzos are perhaps the liveliest incarnation of the desire, on the part of the sixties generation, to make a racket and drive the postwar winter away.--Isabel Taylor