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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (3,497 words)
In 1993, interviewers from the psychedelic music magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope stood on Viv Stanshall’s stoop, wondering if he would answer the doorbell. Stanshall’s friend, who set up the meeting, was just beginning to apologize when she turned and gasped: A frail and obviously drunk Stanshall, according to the article, “staggering down the road clutching a carved stick and a white plastic carrier bag containing a freshly purchased bottle of Mr. Smirnoff’s elixir,” lurched toward the house.
“Vivian, you look awful!” the friend said. “Where’s your shoes?”
Stanshall ― artistic polymath and quintessential English eccentric― had just lost another round in his decades long battle with anxiety. He proceeded into his London home muttering, “We must give these gentlemen a cup of tea or coffee,” and plunked down on the couch. “I don’t think you’re going to get the kind of interview you want,” he began, before pouring himself a stiff drink.
Thirty years before, Stanshall established his career by co-founding a seminal musical comedy group, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The Bonzos, as they would become affectionately known, started out covering novelty numbers from the 1920s and touring the pub circuit. They went on to have a top-10 hit in Britain and appear in a Beatles film. Hilarious, absurd, vaguely threatening, and anarchic, the Bonzos had an enormous influence on the sketch comedy group Monty Python. They released four albums before initially breaking up in 1970. Another project, an ambitious if nonsensical review called Brain Opera, was shelved.
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Stanshall was the face of it all. Playing by turns a bumbling compère and crooning frontman, he wrote songs with simple melodies and intricate wordplay. His humor was somehow both dry and camp. He would soliloquize in a posh accent while wearing ping pong ball eyes, or sing a ballad like an addled Elvis before reciting the spoken word lyric in an oversized mask. By the time he collaborated on Brain Opera with fellow English oddball Arthur Brown, Stanshall was at a critical juncture of anxiety and ambition: unable to tour because of stage fright and addicted to drugs and alcohol, he was nevertheless fully invested in the British pop star lifestyle. For their part, the Bonzos were less than a year from dissolving after three years of overwork and underpay.
The Brain Opera is a case in point that some projects can never be realized. What fragments we have of it are demented and chaotic. The men who conceived it weren’t able to see it through, and even if they had, the group who would have performed it were disintegrating, and even if they weren’t, the managers and label people who would have allowed it out into the world would have never.
Victor Anthony Stanshall was born in 1943 somewhere in the East End of London. He lived with his mother until his father, who was serving with the Royal Air Force, returned from World War II. The reunion was not a happy one. The father, Victor Stanshall (changed from his given name Vivian), was distant when not being outright cruel.
“Although I don’t sound it, I’m an East-Ender,” Stanshall told the Ptolemaic Terrascope. “Grove Road. And my father came back from the war full of swank, determined that he was officer class — which he wasn’t! So I went through this horrible period when I went out speaking in an East London accent otherwise I was gonna get hit, and when I got home it was ‘Hello Mama’ and ‘Hello Papa.’ To some extent I forgive him that. What I don’t forgive him is his intolerance. …Although he’s been dead for two years I’m still terrified of him now.”
The family moved to an Essex coastal town around 1953. After a stint in the Merchant Navy, Stanshall earned money doing odd jobs. “I worked as a fairground barker,” he remembered. “In the winter I painted the pictures for the fairground horses, in the summer I was a busker and a bingo caller.”
Rejecting the name his father gave him in lieu of the name his father was given, the young Stanshall now called himself Vivian.
Stanshall met saxophonist Rodney Slater as a student at the Central School of Art in 1962. “Rodney had this bloody great band at the Royal College of Art,” Stanshall said in the Terrascope interview. “I don’t know, about forty of fifty of them.” The two men bonded, formed a group, and divined the band’s name using a cut-up technique, whereby words were written down and arranged by chance. One of the phrases that appeared was Bonzo Dog/Dada, the former a popular cartoon from the 1920s, the latter an avant-garde art movement which formed as a response to the horrors of the First World War. Thus the Bonzo Dog Dada (later “Doo-Dah”) Band was christened.
Though often crowding the stage with guest musicians, the Bonzo personnel ultimately coalesced around Stanshall, Slater, songwriter/pianist/guitarist Neil Innes, multi-instrumentalist Roger Ruskin Spear, and bon vivant “Legs” Larry Smith, known and adored for blowing kisses onstage. Their early sets consisted of madcap covers of old 78 records.
“Look at this!” Stanshall would say to Slater, holding up another flea market score. “I bought it for a penny but it’s worth twice that!” Increasingly, the Dada influence crept in, and the stage shows became even more surreal.
“It became like a well-written sitcom,” Innes said in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers. “There were regular characters. Larry was a flamboyant, show business character ―’look at me, I’m wonderful,’ tap-dance with false breasts on and things like that. Viv had this kind of stage presence you couldn’t ignore. He walked onstage, he looked dangerous; you just didn’t know what he was going to do, and for the most part we didn’t either. Roger was crazy with his robots. Rodney used to hurl himself into blowing every kind of thing that had a hole in one end, and a noise that came out the other.”
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Fame came to the band contrariwise. A music producer, recording with an ad hoc group, scored a hit with 1966’s tin-pannish “Winchester Cathedral.” He approached the Bonzos with an offer to tour the single, which only the trumpet player accepted. The group he formed, the New Vaudeville Band, stole the Bonzo’s act and look, and took it on television. “We’d hardly finished our six weeks of cabaret when people would come up…saying, ‘Hey! You’re like that New Vaudeville Band!’” Innes remembered.
Stanshall had a more vivid description of the defecting Bonzo’s group: “The shitbags!”
“This caused quite a rage within Viv and Legs that this had happened,” Innes continued. “I think it was ‘Legs’ Larry Smith who said, ‘Why don’t we play anything?’ ‘Cause he’d been batting on about that. And we said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So we just turned our sights on the whole musical scene, and that’s how it evolved.”
With rock and psychedelia now part of their repertoire, the Bonzos could satirize the entire British Invasion. In 1966, with the cultural dominance of all musical things English, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. The group bought electric guitars and concentrated on writing original compositions.
Things happened quickly: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s debut album, Gorilla, was released in October, 1967. British Pathé documented their vaguely idiotic dance arrangement to “Music for Head Ballet.” The band mimed the Stanshall/Innes-penned song, “Death Cab for Cutie,” during a striptease scene in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour television special, as John Lennon heckled from the audience.
The Bonzos performed their radio parody “The Craig Torso Show” in November 1967 on a BBC program hosted by now-legendary culture maven John Peel. Formerly confined to touring the pub circuit, this brought the group before a mass audience.
“You see, before that time you didn’t have anything apart from thrashing,” Stanshall confided to the Terrascope. “Not that I’ve got anything against thrashing.”
“I have to admit that I was slightly alarmed by Vivian in the flesh,” Peel remembered, “not only because of his sometimes unusual behavior, but by the feeling that I was face to face with someone who’s thought processes were not only very different to mine, but vastly superior.”
The day Magical Mystery Tour premiered on television, December 26, 1967, coincided with the debut episode of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children’s comedy show featuring the Bonzos as well as future Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and, later, Terry Gilliam. The Bonzo’s elaborate musical set pieces, like their version of “Hunting Tigers Out In India,” made an impression.
“The Bonzo Dogs were on every week and they were the most bizarre group of people you’ve ever seen,” Idle recalled in Episode 1 of Monty Python: Almost the Truth. “There were 14 of them the first week, then they pruned themselves down to seven or eight.”
“They’d play the washboard and they’d play the Hoover,” Idle continued. “And they would do really weird and bizarre situationist songs. It was Dada, really. The Doo-Dah band was a Dada band. And that I think influenced us enormously. Their influence on Python was huge. We were doing these tight little sketches from Cambridge, but they were doing weird. It was situationally weird.”
“There is a link,” Innes said about the two groups. “When the band first met Eric and Mike and Terry, there was a certain mutual suspicion, ‘cause we were crazy guys just coming off the road. They’d come from Oxford and Cambridge, and were young, up-and-coming writers; they’d written stuff for David Frost. It was a kind of cross-fertilization that took place over a couple of years. We all became very good friends.”
In 1967, the band hired a manager, who told them they needed a hit. Innes had just written a song which fit the bill, but the manager was also the producer and would only allow the Bonzo’s three hours’ studio time to record any given song. While having drinks at The Speakeasy Club in London, Stanshall complained to his friend Paul McCartney about the Bonzo producer’s constraining methodology.
“And [Viv] said, ‘Now we gotta go in and record this bloody single,’” Innes remembered. “So Paul said, ‘I’ll come and produce it if you like.’ And that was perfect, because that was the only way we were going to get [our manager] off the control desk, to have somebody like Paul, who wasn’t known as a record producer. But he was known. So he came and produced that, and it took eight hours.”
McCartney regaled the band with his brand new composition “Hey Jude,” which he played all the way through (the Beatles’ single version of the song was over 7 minutes long). “And of course, the people watching the clock are going absolutely apeshit,” Innes said. “We did things like double-track the drums, and Viv wanted to blow his trumpet mouthpiece into a garden hose, with a plastic funnel on the end, whirling around his head. The engineer said, ‘I can’t record that.’ Paul said, ‘Yeah you can. Just put a microphone in each corner.’ So that took twenty minutes.”
For the session, McCartney borrowed Stanshall’s ukulele. When asked if he was playing a poor man’s violin, he quipped, “No, it’s a rich man’s ukulele.”
In what appears to be a genuine desire to sabotage success, the band refused to have McCartney’s name on the single, instead coming up with the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. Released in October, 1968, “I’m the Urban Spaceman” peaked at number 5.
The mounting pressure strained Stanshall, the de facto leader. He told the band’s manager that the group needed time off to rehearse songs for the next record, and after much insistence, was given a rehearsal room and a few weeks’ cleared schedule. After ten days, the manager dropped by and demanded to hear the new material, only to find Stanshall had used the time to build hutches for his rabbits, although there’s reason to believe there were never any rabbits.
Having shortened their name to the Bonzo Dog Band, the group toured America twice in 1969. The shows were well-received, if poorly planned. Stanshall’s behavior began to change.
“I think something happened to him between the two tours,” Innes said. “I don’t know what, but he began to drink more to steady his nerves. I think he lost his nerve a bit, and I don’t know what caused that. …When we went to pick Viv up, to actually go to the airport for the second trip, he answered the door with his hair completely shaved off. And he didn’t look at ease at all.”
“He got locked into Valium, which I didn’t really understand about Valium in those days,” “Legs” Larry Smith remembered, “but he was apparently prescribed lethal doses early on, which made him all the more dependent on the stuff.”
Although medical professionals admit that combining alcohol and Valium may intensify their calming effect, it can have disastrous results. Doing so routinely must have had devastated Stanshall’s mental and physical health.
Touring had become a grind, with little return. In Ireland, the band performed on a football pitch near a slaughterhouse. The only power supply cable was originally for an electric kettle. When it immediately failed, Stanshall chased after his manager across the field, yelling “Debag the rotter!”
These are the unstable conditions in which the Brain Opera was conceived. Most of the work was done by Stanshall and Arthur Brown, of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown had a huge hit with 1968s “Fire,” and was known for wearing flaming helmets on stage. The fruit of this collaboration was going to be nothing short of fascinating.
“The Crazy World did quite a few gigs here and there with the Bonzos, and were great admirers of their humor and theatricality,” Brown told me recently. “That led to Viv and I having meetings up.”
To the extent that it can be understood, Brain Opera is set in an alternate universe, where “The Craig Torso Show” is an enormous success, and features, according to The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band: Jollity Farm, “German surgeons vying for cash and prizes and the chance to work in America.” Stanshall wrote a libretto, and Brown composed the music.
“We gradually started talking about doing things together, and he wanted to do something about a cosmic slug,” Brown told me. “It kind of developed from there, and the idea was maybe the slug could get a human brain implant or something. My band had been playing a section which went
We want your brains to pay for further education
We want your brains, they belong to the nation
“This led Vivian to make the connection that we could bring certain of our ideas together. We started talking about it and working on it.”
Stanshall described Brown as “an incredible singer and…a freak.”
“I think Viv was capable of being the rudest person I ever met,” Brown told me. “Somehow he had some second sense of people and he would just say things that would make them either want to hit him ― and sometimes did ― or they’d collapse.”
“Christ, we went down to…I don’t know where,” Stanshall told the Terrascope. “Arthur was on drugs and I was on booze.” At this point in the interview, Stanshall sent his friend to find a painting of “a leonine monster holding a maiden,” which, produced after much searching, he briefly studied and set aside without comment.
“We came up with all these strange ideas,” Brown continued. “There was going to be a silver slug that came across the stage. It was going to be a very surreal and adventurous piece. We discussed, about, the first act. I said to Vivian, ‘Look, most of my stuff at this time has a sort of mystical content. So it’s going to have a mystical content which would be carried by the surreal element of it.’ And then of course, with it being Vivian, it was also going to be quite funny. But that was about as far as it got, really. He was at the time drifting in and out, and I was doing one of my bands, and we got temporally pulled apart.”
The project would have involved the Bonzos and Brown, “and we would have had other people as well,” Brown said. “Some female parts. Really, we didn’t get around to discussing the sort of technicalities or too many of the actual personnel. It was a very interesting prospect. And the…you know, some of those things just disappear. Not because you decide they’re not good or you’re not going to do them, it’s just things carry you other ways.”
“I don’t know. Whatever happened, happened,” Brown told me about the end of the project. “I decided I wanted to form a new band, Kingdom Come. Probably because of that I didn’t get in contact with Viv. Sometimes working with him was impossible. In his down phase he was just lie in bed — that was it, full stop.”
An excerpt of Brain Opera, performed by the Bonzos and recorded for John Peel’s radio broadcast, has surfaced. “I’d lost interest in the direction the band was taking by then, so I don’t know,” multi-instrumentalist Roger Ruskin Spear said recently. “I know Pete Townshend said in the press at the time he was planning a ‘Brain Opera’ which rather inhibited our thoughts on the subject.” (Townshend later called his project Tommy.) In the same interview, Rodney Slater claimed to remember nothing about Brain Opera.
Stanshall was given co-writing credit and recorded backing vocals on the recording of “Brains” for Kingdom Come’s 1971 Galactic Zoo Dossier album.
The Bonzos management rejected Brain Opera out of hand ― “They likened it to an end-of-term revue by medical students,” Spear noted ― and pressured the band for another single. They broke up instead. The Bonzo Dog Band performed for the last time in March, 1970.
“We weren’t destined to go on year after year like the Stones, no way,” Innes said. “One of the problems is, I think, we stopped arguing with each other. We became better friends. We were more sympathetic to each other. But before, we used to fight tooth and nail for ideas. The only way to get an idea in was just to do it and not tell anybody. If it got a laugh with the audience, it stayed in.”
“Life was becoming a nightmare with the Bonzos,” Stanshall remembered. “I had no time to do anything. The phone used to ring so much I’d just leave it off the hook.”
“They were on the cusp between humor and music,” Paul McCartney told MOJO in 1995. “In a way I don’t think they ever got it sorted out. They didn’t ever fall fully into music or into comedy, but that was their charm really.”
Neil Innes went on to have a brilliant career, contributing music for Monty Python and becoming known as their “seventh member.” The Rutles, his and Eric Idle’s satire of the Beatles, was largely well-received by the Fab Four. Their publishing company, however, sued.
“Did you know there are 14 songs hidden away in the vaults of International Copyright that are credited to ‘Innes, Lennon and McCartney’?” Innes told Dangerous Minds. “It’s all there in black and white! However, under no circumstances am I to be credited for writing any ‘part’ of these compositions. What’s more, I am forbidden to tell anyone this! Yes! It’s all there in the so-called Settlement Agreement. So, if anyone wants to cover one of the first Rutles songs, remember: it has to be just ‘Lennon/McCartney’ on the cover or the label.”
Stanshall, also believed to have a stellar solo career ahead of him, kept his strangeness close. In addition to forming sundry musical projects and guest-starring on rock stars’ records, he took an idea germinated during the Bonzo’s career, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, and made it into a serialized radio project in the mid-1970s. As shown by the opening sentence to the sixth installment, his ingenuity with wordplay was undiminished: “English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal-water, nestling in green nowhere, armored and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling, opsimath and eremite, feudal-still reactionary Rawlinson End. The story so far.”
In the 1980s, Stanshall and his second wife Ki Longfellow created Stinkfoot, a comic opera which takes place under the boardwalk of a seaside town much like the one where Stanshall grew up. “I’d like to think that it’s as jolly as stuff that I did with the old Dog Band,” Stanshall said, “but it’s based on my own recovery from tranquilizers, which was a particularly difficult period and I could’ve quite easily suffocated in my own wailing and self pity.”
“Vivian always had this thing in his mind: He wanted to write songs that his father could whistle,” Stinkfoot musical director Peter Moss observed. “And so therefore everything that he wrote he wrote on ukulele and whistled.”
Stanshall died in a house fire in 1995. “You see,” he once said, “I’m not different for the sake of being different ― only for the desperate sake of being myself. I can’t join your gang: you’d think I was a phony, and I’d know it.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.
Editor: Aaron Gilbreath
Fact-checker: Steven Cohen