The flu, technology and utter laziness… Three recent enemies of this blog.
On 15th April, I had a chat with former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member Rod Slater and Michael Livesley, reviver of Viv Stanshall’s eccentric epic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. I was going to post a blog the following week. Three days later, the hard drive on my laptop computer corrupted, taking with it the photos I had transferred (and erased from) my phone though, fortunately, I still had the audio recording on my phone.
So I thought the release of the new version of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD on 13th May would be a good excuse to write a blog. Then lethargy and flu set in.
The flu just-about cleared for a 20th May press launch publicising the new Bonzo tribute CD (not the same as the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End one) and their upcoming appearance at the London Palladium on 19th November.
Then flu and lethargy returned until now, dear reader, when mention of the Bonzo Dogs has reappeared here.
“It’s not live,” Michael Livesley told me about the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD (not to be confused with the Bonzo Dog one). We did it in the studio. It’s got Rick Wakeman on it and Neil Innes has done a bit on it. It took bloody ages to do because, when you’re recording a complicated concept album… Well, it’s a really complicated album.
“It’s strange that something which started as an album that I turned into a stage show is now an album again. It’s the first release on Rick Wakeman’s record label Rraw. The whole idea of the album was Rick’s. It comes with a 16-page booklet with all the photos.”
“The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band have really lasted,” I said to Rod Slater.
“Yes,” he told me, “the Bonzo Dog finished in 1970, but it’s just gone on. It started in 1962, for Godsake. I don’t remember all of it that well now.”
I said: “They probably thought Beethoven would be forgotten after 50 years.”
“That’s totally different,” said Rod.
“You,” said Michael to me, “were at the Bonzo’s last London gig, weren’t you?”
“At the Regent Street Poly?” I asked. “No, I didn’t go. I just kept the poster.”
“I remember the very last show,” said Rod. “It was at Loughborough University. It was like a way of life had come to an end. I didn’t want to stop entirely, but some of the others were pissed-off and felt they could do with a break.”
“Pissed-off with what?” I asked. “The travelling and everything?”
“Yeah,” Rod replied. “Just the intensity, I suppose. We’d been doing it for about six years without a break, so it was getting a bit… Well… But, fuck me, I didn’t half miss it when it was over.”
“Was it getting a bit samey for you?” I asked.
“No, it went on developing. I think it came to a premature end, really, but, at the same time, it couldn’t have gone on really, because things were cracking up.”
“It’s usually better,” I suggested, “for things to end too early rather than too late.”
“I think so, yes,” said Rod.
“That’s why it’s great to be doing all this stuff now,” said Michael. “Because it’s worth continuing. It’s good quality stuff. I think we’ve lost sight of what we do best in this country from an entertainment point of view. You can’t blame the influence of America or the rise of dance music or any of that stuff. It’s nowt to do with that. We now live in a world – never mind a country – where it’s cool to be thick and it’s cool not to think too much about things and it’s cool not to question authority. We live in an age of conformity. What Viv and the Bonzos did was as far from conformity as you could get. But it was done with such whimsy and so gently. There was no kicking. It was like a soft anarchy with loads of humour.”
“I think now,” mused Rod, “I would be far more vicious. I am a contrarist by nature, so nothing would ever be right for me. I’m not a confrontationist. There’s no point in getting your bloody head kicked in. But to confront things with humour and present them in a ridiculous way with the very definite clear message You should think about this! underneath. That’s the best thing anyone’s ever said about my work: It’s silly, but there’s something underneath it. I’m very much more like that now. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough in the 1960s to actually…”
“Especially with Viv,” suggested Michael. “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is the biggest examination of our class system and the Empire and everything coming to a screeching halt into psychedelia that you could wish for.”
“What were the other serious issues?” I asked.
“What?” asked Rod. “When? Then?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” said Rod, “we were all likely to be bloody fried, weren’t we? The Bomb. And there was misogyny unlimited. Still is. All manner of… For Godsake, it was a totally different world. You couldn’t get away with a lot of it now, but no-one questioned it.”
“The next thing up,” said Michael, “is Glastonbury. We are doing Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at Glastonbury, which I think is the perfect setting for it.”
“How many people will be performing it?” I asked.
“Seven of us. Six days under canvas. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We are on at 8 o’clock every night in the Astrolabe Theatre.”
“When I went to Glastonbury before,” said Rod, “I couldn’t stand the shit on the shovel.”
“There are different toilets in the artistes’ area now,” said Michael.
“The best place to hang around then,” Rod continued, “was the BBC area. That was where the phrase ‘the remains of the Bonzo Dog Band’ was coined by some girl presenter.”
“After Glastonbury,” said Michael, “we will be gearing up for the Bonzo tour in November.”
“Who are the Bonzos now? I asked.
“Me, Rod, Sam Spoons, Legs Larry, Vernon (Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell).”
“What does the tour involve?” I asked.
“One of the most exciting parts,” said Michael, “is playing the London Palladium on 19th November. That should be fun.”
“And the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End CD is already out,” I prompted.
“Yes,” said Michael, “a good culmination of six years of working with different people. My brief for it was always: Just think of it as a Radio 4 play. The way to really get subversive comedy listened to is to have it masquerade as something else and I think there’s no more innocuous thing than a Radio 4 play. You think you’re going to hear croquet on the lawn with cucumber sandwiches.”
“That’s where the Rawlinsons came from,” said Rod. “We listened to those bloody plays when we were in the ambulance. Viv latched onto that. Those terrible plays and Mrs Dale’s Diary, which you can see in the early Bonzos’ stuff.”
“Ambulance?” I asked.
“Vernon,” said Rod, “bought this ambulance with a concrete floor and it had chairs in the back. Armchairs and all our equipment.”
“Why did it have a concrete floor?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Rod. “but it did. There was a Dinky toy made of it.”
“It had reinforced concrete for the floor,” agreed Michael.
“One day,” mused Rod, “its brakes failed going down Shooters Hill and Vernon, with great presence of mind, pulled on the hand brake, which pulled his shoulder out and he was hospitalised. But he managed to stop the ambulance.”
“It was fortunate,” I said, “that he was in an ambulance.”
“Someone,” mused Michael, “sent me an article from the Fortean Times the other week about the Sitwell family. Dame Edith Sitwell was this early 20th century poetess.”
“Oh, they were all bonkers,” I said.
“They were like the Rawlinsons,” Michael continued. “This George Rersby Sitwell owned a 16th century castle in Spain that he ended up retiring to, because had had enough of the modern world. He made this place like the 16th century. He was even more bonkers than Sir Henry Rawlinson. So these people did exist and they were ripe for the picking in the 1970s.”
“The day Viv died,” said Rod, “there was actually a real Sir Henry Rawlinson who…”
“Yes,” said Michael, “who had died on the same day 100 years earlier. He died 5th March 1895 and Viv died 5th March 1995.”
“It was 5th or 6th March,” said Rod. “They don’t know whether he died before midnight or after.”
So it goes.