“Why should I talk to you?” I asked Rodney Slater, formerly of the Bonzo Dog Do0-Dah Band and Michael Livesley who, in the last few years, has revived Vivian Stanshall’s 1978 epic Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.
“Because,” said Michael, “of our wonderful new collaborative CD effort Parrotopia.”
“You sound like,” I told him, “a Northerner trying to be posh by using long words – collaborative, indeed!”
“But it IS collaborative!” he insisted. “The crazy thing about this CD is that, without any kind of planning, it has 12 tracks, six of which are mine and six of which are his. We then cross-pollinated it, of course.”
“You’re using big words again,” I told him. “So the music is random?”
“Yes, it’s very random,” Michael said. “I suppose, if it has a genre, it might be front step.”
“That is a pun beyond my ken,” I told him.
“The young folks,” Michael told me, “have something called ‘dubstep’. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe that was ten years ago or more.”
“A couple of days ago,” said Rodney, “I got a magazine from PRS and I didn’t know what they were talking about in it.”
“It’s been a helluva lot of fun,” said Michael. “A gestatory nine months.”
“You’re at it again with the words,” I said. “But why another CD? Artistic inspiration or the lure of more filthy lucre?”
Rodney laughed: “Gross money is pouring out of our pockets! Why did we do this?”
“Because,” Michael told him, “we couldn’t not. Let’s be honest, we’re never going to become rich doing this. As it is, we’re selling teeshirts as well as the CDs to get money back. We do the music and the songs because we have to do it. Essentially what happened was we started talking during the Bonzo’s Austerity Tour last year, as things got increasingly more fraught…”
“In what way ‘fraught’?” I asked.
“It was nice amongst us,” said Michael. “Lovely among the players… Let’s not talk about it.”
“So the new CD… Parrotopia.” I said.
“The initial spurt,” explained Michael, “was that Rodney bought an iPhone and, all-of-a-sudden, you could email him. And there was no holding him after that. Pretty soon, we were sending each other stupid things about long-dead Northern comics and long-dead, obese footballers. Just tittle-tattle in general.”
“It’s just a collection of stories, really,” said Rodney. “Stories we wanted to tell that happened between 2016 and when we finished it in June this year. Our reaction to what was happening in the world and what was particularly happening to us in that context.”
“Not,” I checked, “what was happening politically in the grand scheme of things, but…”
“There was a sprinkling of that,” said Michael.
“You can’t get away from that,” added Rodney, “because that’s the time we were doing it.”
“Well, Parrotopia was almost like a coping mechanism, wasn’t it?” Michael suggested.
“It’s all about stories,” said Rodney. “Stories we tell ourselves. All of us. Fantasies we enact in our own heads when we go to bed at night. Michael said to me: We’ll make the album that we want to listen to. And that’s what has come out.”
“Why is it called Parrotopia?” I asked.
“Mr Slater’s Parrot,” said Rodney.
It is a 1969 song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
“What we said we were originally gonna do,” Michael explained, “was to declare ourselves The People’s Republic of Parrotopia, because there was stuff going on – and that name stuck.”
“Cultural Revolutionary,” Rodney said, apparently thinking out loud.
“There is,” Michael continued, “a song, one line of which is: Reflecting feudalist tags. That’s the general disjecta membra that is left over.”
“Oooh!” I said.
“Did you make that up?” asked Rodney.
“No,” Michael told him. “It’s a real word. In many ways, we were sort of living this madness through a shared past. A strange shared past, because Rodney is older than I am, but I was brought up by my nan – my grandmother – and she was brought up around the same time as Rodney’s parents. So we maybe both have a similar outlook. We see what we’ve done as very much as a continuation of British music hall and The Goons and The Bonzos.”
“Are you going to do a musical tour of Parrotopia?” I asked.
“Costs money,” said Rodney. “It would need a cast of 10 or 12. We would need some man with a lot of money who was honest, which is a very rare thing in this business.”
“Any videos?” I asked.
“Well,” said Michael, “we talked to John Halsey – The Rutles’ Barry Wom – who plays drums on our CD – and we discussed making some films – particularly a little silent movie of a track called Fatty – who was a goalkeeper for Sheffield United in 1902. Rodney as the referee with a twirling moustache and a top hat.”
“I think,” I told him, “you should write a song called Rodney Bought An iPhone.”
Rodney responded: “Writing used to be a slow and laborious process by hand. Now, if we have an idea, rather than me learning it, I hum something, he plays it on the keyboard and there’s the dots.”
“It’s a very quick way of working,” said Michael. “I can come up with a melody, I play it on the keyboard into the iMac computer and literally just press a button and the music dots are there for him to play. The computer is the real paradox here. Well ‘irony’ is better. Rodney has this disdain for computers and…”
“I don’t want a computer,” Rodney emphasised.
“But you have an iPhone,” I said. “That’s a computer.”
“I know it is,” he replied, “but it’s not a two-way mirror quite as much.”
“Would you care to expatiate on that?” asked Michael.
“It’s too intrusive in one’s life,” said Rodney. “It’s like walking around naked. It’s just my way of thinking about it. It’s like radio. Originally, radio was a wonderful, educational tool. All manner of communication. It’s when the arseholes get hold of it and then the big money comes in. I have utter contempt for the people running these things. Utter contempt because of what they’re doing with it. I’m not very good technically. I manage an iPhone; well, part of it.”
“One of the tracks on the CD,” said Michael, “is One Step Behind where Rodney sings about Who harvests your data? He was telling me about opinions being shaped and formed by…”
“Algorithms,” said Rodney. “I’m very interested in all that. The way it shapes human behaviour. I don’t like the sort of society that these things are making. The parallel worlds that we all live in. I prefer to go down the pub and play darts and crib and have a fight.”
“What attitudes are being formed that are bad?” I asked.
“Isolation,” he replied. “Parallel lives. Self-centred interest. What really pisses me off is that people are totally inconsiderate of the consequences of their actions on other people. They don’t think about that.”
“Are you going to do a second Parrotopia album about it?” I asked.
“We are doing another one,” said Michael.
“Parrot-toopia,” said Rodney.
“And when is that out?”
“Maybe next year,” replied Michael, but this one is riddled with it. Virtual reality. Augmented reality.”
“I just think, as I get older,” said Rodney, “it is time to write things down. I’m not a grumpy old man. I don’t write grumpy old man songs. I write reality, looking from now to what I’ve known, which is 76 bloody years. It’s a bloody long time. I was born at the beginning of the Second World War and I saw all that social evolution…”
“You retain a lot of optimism,” said Michael.
“A lot of optimism,” said Rodney, “from a bad beginning.”
“There is a lot of attitude on the CD,” said Michael.
“You have had a haircut since we met last,” I observed to Michael.
“Yes,” he said. “I went to Chris the barber near where I live. It is in the back of a garage. You go through his car sales bit and there’s a shed and you sit there surrounded by Classic Car Weeklys.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Between Andover and Southampton.”
“I think there is a stuffed cat museum in Andover,” I said. “In tableaux.”
“I don’t think so,” said Michael.
“Maybe it’s in Arundel,” I said.
“There’s a pencil museum up in Keswick in the Lake District,” suggested Michael helpfully.
“And a vegetarian shoe shop in Brighton,” I said.
“I know,” said Michael. “I popped in once.”
I looked at him.
“I was starving,” he added.
Parrotopia was successfully financed by crowdfunding, using this video…