I discovered the weirdness of the Bonzo Dog Band in the 1970s when living in a possessed A-frame house that was located at the end of a haunted road. I know, maybe you don’t believe in hauntings. But I lived through them.
Those experiences paralleled my introduction to the Bonzo’s electric giraffe music, and the two are forever intertwined in my life.
The A-frame was on Daleville Road in Willington, Connecticut, past where the road turned to dirt and skirted a small horse farm. It was a few miles from the University of Connecticut campus where I was supposed to be attending classes. I always felt in peril when I walked down that road. Part of my foreboding was caused by a band of gangster geese that lurked at the pond by the road and attacked passersby, hunting for exposed flesh and lunch money. But there were greater mysteries to scare me and my friends, who refused to walk the road at night. An abandoned World War II mother of pearl button factory, where I once stood surrounded by thousands of little buttons, only added to the creepiness.
One cold and starless night I had just gone over the hill past the Willington Oaks Apartments to check my mail. I heard a horse and rider behind me and turned to see them in silhouette at the top of the hill. I turned my back to them, closed the mailbox, then looked to greet the rider – but no one was there. Yet I heard and felt the horse and rider clop past me and my eyes were never wider open than at that moment. Frozen, I couldn’t move until there was no more sound of the rider. I busted for home, the leafless trees reaching for me in the restless wind.
I know many non-believer folks who scoff at such stories. But those and many more are real to all of us who lived on Daleville Road. Mercifully, the A-frame, though not immune to other unexplained goings-on, was also the home of many happier memories and discoveries.
My college roommate Lynn and I lived in the basement apartment, with the homeowners upstairs. Lynn’s musical tastes were more eclectic than mine, and from the first time he played me The Bonzo Dog Band I loved their wacky humor that reminded me so much of Firesign Theater.
The Bonzo Dog Band, originally the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was formed in 1962 by some musical lunatics attending London’s Royal College of Art. Early member Vivian Stanshall (vocals and wind instruments) was recruited by Rodney Slater (sax and clarinet) and Tom Parkinson (sousaphone). Slater and Parkinson were playing in a trad jazz band at the college and soon recruited other musicians they knew, to form a loose unit of revolving players to parody the jazz of the day. They soon morphed into a more comedic style incorporating idioms from 1920s jazz bands.
At the time comic stylings were popular in the UK with artists like Spike Milligan, who was the principal writer and performer in The Goon Show, a TV program that would heavily influence Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Comedy pop records by artists such as Charlie Drake and Bernard Cribbins were all the rage and were influencing musicians and comedians as diverse as the Beatles and Peter Sellers. Such influences were absorbed and twisted by the Bonzos into their own brand of musical mayhem.
The band went through personnel like M&Ms through a puppy. In 1963 they added Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell (banjo, double bass, electric bass) and Neil Innes (songwriter, piano and guitar), members who would prove pivotal to the band’s future development. Innes’ addition would prove particularly fortuitous for his writing and professional approach to the music, as would the hiring of drummer “Legs” Larry Smith, the final key band member.
The following years found the band continually changing styles and members while refining their campy style, which would gain them attention and gigs throughout the UK and later internationally. In 1967 The Bonzo Dog Band got their first big break getting hired as the house band for the popular children’s TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set where they met future Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michel Palin.
In ‘67 they released their first album Gorilla. Here from that album is “Ali Baba’s Camel.”
From the same album came the song “Death Cab for Cutie,” the title later used as the name for that indie band. More importantly. Paul McCartney hired the Bonzos to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film in which they performed the title song.
In October 1968 the band scored a Top Five hit single with “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” produced by Paul McCartney under the nom-de-plume Apollo C. Vermouth.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s name was officially shortened in 1968 to The Bonzo Dog Band and they released The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. This was a musical departure, being more rock-based but still featuring their comedic style. It’s best-remembered for satirizing the then-current British blues-rock craze with the immortal “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”
And “Canyons of Your Mind.” Bravest guitar solo ever.
Doughnut offered some hairy rock and roll while still managing to make fun of traditional and the contemporary music even of the period. Doughnut is a classic, a must have for the eclectic collector. (Remember I coined that phrase!)
1969 found the boys booked on a US tour backing bands like the Who and The Kinks but the tour was badly organized and promoted and didn’t result in real success. In June they released Tadpoles which was the first Bonzo album my roommate Lynn played for me. I can still remember the first time I heard “Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah.” (The ‘H’ is silent, sort of.)
In August the band played the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival where drummers Keith Moon, Aynsley Dunbar and Jim Capaldi sat in while Bonzo drummer “Legs” Larry Smith wowed the show with his famous tap dancing routine.
Keynsham, their fourth and last album from this period, was not well-received but represents a creative peak for the band. Essentially a concept album about a psychiatric hospital, the songs are loosely organized yet showcase Innes’ songwriting growth. Keynsham was the band’s last album of the 1960s.
By then the creative momentum had unraveled. The band continued doing radio and TV appearances and a few more albums in reunion mode, like the aptly named Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly.
The Bonzo Dog Band was an important if decidedly weird band that probably couldn’t have happened in any other decade but the freeform 1960s. Some amazing music came out of that stew and The Bonzo Dog Band was a fun part of all that.
Bonus video: The Bonzos talk of Magical Mystery Tour and Eric Idle and Neil Innes forming The Rutles.