Graded on a Curve:
Bonzo Dog Band,
Top Gear Session 29th July 1969

Celebrating Rodney Slater on his 80th birthday.Ed.

Had Monty Python decided to turn their attentions wholly to making music, they might—and I stress might—have been as funny as The Bonzo Dog Band, or The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band as were earlier known, that bunch of cracked Dadaists whose most prominent members, Neil Innes and Vivian “The Ginger Geezer” Stanshall, dabbled in rock, pop, trad jazz, cabaret, vaudeville, and any other genre they could lay their madcap fingers on, invariably turning out tunes that were as lyrically weird as they were musically unconventional.

All four of their studio LPs, recorded between 1967 and 1969, were utterly hilarious, chockfull of absurd one-liners (check out the great vaudevillian band introduction on “The Intro and the Outro,” where players include “the Count Basie Orchestra on triangle” and, “looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes”), as well as some deliberately awful music (check out the brilliantly ear-jarring sax solo on “Big Shot”).

The very English “Hunting Tigers Out in India” is one of my personal favorites, opening as it does with the lines, “With big tigers table manners have no place/After they have eaten you they never say their grace,” followed by a conversation in which one tiger hunter says, “I say, J.O, it’s jolly frightening out here,” to which J.O. says, “Nonsense, dear boy, you should be like me.” “But look at you,” replies hunter number one, “You’re shaking all over. What’s the matter with you?” To which J.O. replies, “Shaking? You silly goose, I’m just doing the Watusi, that’s all.”

If you’re looking for a sample of The Bonzo Dog Band’s brilliance, a taster as it were, I highly recommend The Top Gear Session 29th July 1969. The EP includes five brilliant cuts by the band, and my only regret is that it wasn’t released with the previous Top Gear Session of 29th April 1968, which includes that classic salute to the Motown-style dance craze that is “Do the Trouser Press,” which opens hilariously with a funky beat and a guy who says, “Come on everybody clap your hands/Aw, you’re looking good/Are you having a good time?/”Yeah yeah!”/Do you like soul music?/…. “No.” But the singer carries on, and proclaims the Trouser Press as being “much better than a prefabricated concrete cold bunker.”

It also includes the very catchy “I’m an Urban Spacemen,” a straight-up (sorta) rocker produced by Paul McCartney (aka Apollo C. Vermouth) that improbably rocketed to number 5 on the English pop charts, to say nothing of a mock torch song called “Canyons of Your Mind,” in which the singer promises to plant a Union Jack on the “mountains” of his beloved’s chest and utters those immortal words, “And I kiss your perfect hair/The sweet essence of giraffe.”

As for the 29th July, 1969 sessions, they open with the bizarre “Tent,” a raw-boned and sax-powered rocker in which the singer proclaims, “I’m gonna get you in my tent/Where we can both experiment/Yeah it’s so convenient/Let’s take a taxi to my tent.” He then pumps out the lines, “I’m gonna/I’m gonna/I’m gonna/I’m gonna/I’m gonna/I’m gonna/I’m gonna get you in my tent,” growing more crazed all the while, letting out howls and screams as the sax wails and the song fades out. One of the LP’s two odd men out is a straightforward cover of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “The Monster Mash.” The Bonzo Dog Band do nothing weird with it, add no hilarious additions, and all I can surmise is they were on the prowl for a novelty hit, which didn’t happen.

“Sofa Head” opens with some classical piano, to which an oboe playing some Middle Eastern hoo-hah joins in, before segueing into a raucous and ragged rocker about a boy with a head full of hair, “Not like a hamster, more like an armchair.” His mother asks him why he wears his hair so long and he shouts, “Kick out the jams, mother!”, after which “They had marmalade/And kicked the pantry out into the street/And lived happily ever after.” Then, from out of nowhere, a voice intones, “I think that silence is appropriate/And it shall remain appropriate,” after which the band dissolves into free jazz skronk and Sofa Head’s father says to him, “My son, I give to thee/The total of my lifetime’s work/An alcoholic legacy/The ballpoint blue of old tattoos/The shrieks of a drunken whore/The wine-red stains on both the plains/A slip on the lavatory floor.” The song then morphs into a closing segment in which Sofa Head proclaims, “They say that I’m unusual, but I don’t think that’s true/In fact I’m just as usual as any of you.”

The LP’s highlight is a wickedly funny parody of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” entitled “Give Booze a Chance,” on which it is unfortunately impossible to make out the deliberately garbled verses but is a major league larf all the same. The choruses are a hoot, someone prominently belches, and an unintelligible conversation between a man and another man pretending to be a woman is carried on. The song then ends on a lovely note, with a brief instrumental section that could almost pass for free jazz. Screw peace, was their message, not gonna happen. I’ll take the booze, thank you very much.

“We’re Going to Bring It On Home” is a total anomaly, a Beatles-style ballad that shows not the slightest trace of humor but is an excellent song nonetheless. A nice shuffle of a tune with a very catchy melody, it boasts one cool sax solo that highlights the instrumental section, and all I can say, and it astounds me to say it, is that this one could have been a hit, despite the kazoo solo (the song’s only oddball touch) and the long take-out. Indeed, it’s possible The Bonzo Dog Band was looking for a hit, and were even willing to sacrifice satire, sarcasm, and wit to achieve this nefarious goal.

As is only appropriate for a band that believed in good old dada mayhem, much confusion surrounds these recordings. All were performed and recorded on John Peel’s Top Gear show on BBC Radio One, but two (i.e., “Sofa Head” and “We’re Going to Bring It On Home”) don’t appear on the 1995 Top Gear compilation LP Unpeeled, and some of the recording dates on Unpeeled differ from those on Top Gear Session 29th July 1969. I suspect, however, that the dates on the EP are accurate, as the Unpeeled LP lists “Give Booze a Chance” as having been recorded on February 10, 1968, more than a year before Lennon recorded “Give Peace a Chance.” Oh well. I’m no detective, and I shall have to continue to live in confusion just as I have my entire life.

The bottom line is that the Bonzo Dog Band never failed to amaze, whether they were recording a song called “Shirt” (on which Stanshall asked people on the street for their opinion on “the problem of shirts) or “Ali Baba’s Camel,” which opens with the great lines, “You’ve heard of Ali Baba, forty thieves had he/Out for what we all want, lots of L.S.D.” Their wit and inventiveness holds up every bit as well as that of Monty Python, and while both Stanshall and Innes went on to other, equally wonderful projects (recordings and hilarious radio plays in the case of Stanshall, and collaborations with members of Monty Python and writing the music for and performing in The Rutles in the case of Innes) I can’t help but wish The Bonzo Dog Band had carried on, instead of calling it quits after the relative failure of their final LP and an audience-befuddling tour of the United States. Lord knows, the world needs all the laughs it can get.


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