The Bonzos were formed in 1962 when Vivian Stanshall and Rodney Slater became friends. Rodney Slater (saxophone) had been playing trad jazz in a college band and their preference was for the more orthodox sound of The Alberts and The Temperance Seven. The band line-up was complete with Viv Stanshall (tuba, but later lead vocals along with other wind instruments), Chris Jennings (trombone), Tom Parkinson (sousaphone), Roger Wilkes (trumpet) and Trevor Brown (banjo). Being Art students Dada was the in-thing and reference to it would have to be in the band’s name Bonzo the dog was a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s and so the group were called the Bonzo Dog Dada Band.
Later Dada became Do Doh and the group entertained with a combination of elements from music hall, trad jazz, psychedelic rock, and avant-garde art. Like a proverbial concertia the bands numbers grew and fell in quick succession. Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and Neil Innes (piano and songwriter) joined their ranks as the original drummer, Tom Hedges was replaced by Martin Ash (aka Sam Spoons). The Bonzos got their first pub gig and were spotted by artist and inventor Roger Ruskin Spear. Spear joined the group as resident performance artist and gadget maker. More lineup changes came when Roger Wilkes and John Parry (trombone) were replaced by Bob Kerr and "Big" Sid Nichols. "Legs" Larry Smith joined in 1963, as a tuba player and tap-dancer (he later played drums). The Bonzos were a popular novelty around the UK pub and college circuits until eventually they signed with Parlophone Records in 1966. Their first single "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies" / "I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight" was considered too risqué for radio.
Their follow up single "Alley Oop"/"Button Up Your Overcoat" also met with much radio indifference.
Keen to break away from the stereotype of The Temperance Seven and The New Vaudeville Band and establish themselves in fun rock. The Bonzo took the bold step and changed record labels. Their first release with Liberty Records was an excellent album called Gorilla.
The album contained a mixture of satirical songs like "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold" which was a savage parody of "trad" jazz in the UK, plus surreal ditties. The majority of the tracks were written by Neil and Viv. They surpassed themselves with a gem of a title track entitled "The Intro and the Outro" in which every member of the band was introduced and played a solo. As the song progresses imaginary members of the band are added to hilarious effect.
"I'm the Urban Spaceman" was somewhat of a surprise hit single in 1968 for the Bonzos. The track was produced by Apollo C. Vermouth (aka Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon) and its commercial appeal was obvious and brought the group to the attention of the general public. The Bonzos were a favourite of fellow musicians like Stevie Winwood (Spencer Davis Group and Traffic), Keith Moon, Captain Beefheart and Paul McCartney. The group also appeared in Magical Mystery Tour performing "Death Cab for Cutie."
Their on-stage bazaar antics had not just appeal to the student fraternity but also a younger television audience and the group were asked to become a resident feature on a children's television programme called Do Not Adjust Your Set.
The Show also featured Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin who would go on to become Monty Python's Flying Circus. David Jason (Open All Hours, Fools and Horses, and Frost) was also in the cast. Unlike the Temperance Seven and their clones the Bonzos’ songs parodied parochial suburban British attitudes and were very much in keeping with the satirical times of the 60s when “That was the Week” Attitude prevailed. Their international appeal was however limited but they did tour the US with The Who and appeared at the Fillmore East with The Kinks. They were not without influence on US culture however and Neil Innes was particularly successful with Eric Idle and George Harrison in the spoof, The Rutles.
The group broke up in 1970 but did come back to make an album a year later. Subsequently there have been several reunions with surviving members and many notable comedians and musicians joining their ranks.
Worth a listen
My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies (1966)
Alley Oop (1966)
I'm the Urban Spaceman (1968)
Mr Apollo (1968)