The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band at the RNCM, 18/11/16

How do you put on a show by a band whose lead singer is dead, whose most famous member is no longer interested in performing with you, whose third-most-prominent member is also doing his own thing instead, and where the rest of the band consists of a saxophonist, a drummer who doesn’t play drums much any more, a spoon player, a player of the musical saw, and a trumpet player who quit the band after their first single?

The answer, if you’re Rodney Slater, the de facto leader of the current iteration of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, is “very well indeed”.

The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band were one of the great bands of the late 60s. Starting out as a trad jazz comedy band, playing novelty songs from the twenties and thirties, they switched to playing rock and roll when their trumpet player, Bob Kerr, quit after their first single to be in the New Vaudeville Band and took their entire act with him.

After their first album, Gorilla, percussionist Sam Spoons and banjo/musical saw player Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell left the band (and at the same time the band dropped the “Doo-Dah” from its name, becoming just the Bonzo Dog Band), and for the remainder of their career they consisted of frontman Vivian Stanshall, one of the most astonishing but undisciplined performing and songwriting talents of his generation (John Peel once said that he was one of only two actual geniuses ever to go into rock and roll, the other being Stanshall’s friend Captain Beefheart); “straight man” Neil Innes, the most musically disciplined member of the band and the other principal songwriter; saxophonists Roger Ruskin Spear (who also wrote a song or two per album) and Rodney Slater; and tap-dancing drummer “Legs” Larry Smith, along with various bass players (they seemed to go through bass players like Spinal Tap through drummers).

The band’s recording career was relatively brief — four albums between 1966 and 1970, plus a contractual obligation “reunion” album from 1972, Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly, which was a Stanshall/Innes duo album in all but name — but covered an immense stylistic range, from covers of novelty songs like “My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies” and “The Monster Mash”, through jazz-rock (“Keynsham”, which sounds for all the world like Zappa’s “Son of Mr. Green Genes”), surreal spoken-word comedy (“Rawlinson End”, “Big Shot”, “Rhinocratic Oaths”), and straight Beatle-esque pop (“I Want To Be With You”).

They remained popular enough to reunite, complete with Doo-Dah, in 2006, sadly without Stanshall, who had died in 1995. All seven surviving former members (Innes, Spear, Slater, Smith, Spoons, Bohay-Nowell, and Kerr) got together for a fortieth-anniversary reunion tour (the band had actually formed in 1962, but the anniversary was dated from their first record), and a subsequent album, Pour l’Amour des Chiens, which was a good fourteen-track album struggling to escape from a mediocre twenty-eight-track one.

But there were tensions between Spear and Innes about the direction of the band — they were performing with a large backing band and several celebrity guest vocalists to cover for the absent Stanshall. Spear wanted to do shows as just the original members, which Innes thought unworkable, and so the band split up again. Innes continued to tour solo and with the Rutles, and the other members went back to their previous projects (Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band and the Bill Posters Will Be Band) or performed as Three (or sometimes five) Bonzos And A Piano.

There was a fiftieth anniversary reunion last year, without Spear (who currently performs with his own Bonzo Bills band), and on the lines Innes wanted, with guests including Tim Brooke-Taylor and Brian Blessed. But Innes has once again bowed out, and the band now consists of Slater, Smith, Kerr, Spoons, and Bohay-Nowell.

One might think that this would present something of a problem, but rather astonishingly the remaining Bonzos manage to pull off a show which is, if not as innovative and astonishing as their best work, still more than enjoyable enough to qualify as one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.

About half the show is, essentially, one of those tribute acts that feature an original band member. When the show opened (with “Death Cab For Cutie”, the song the Bonzos performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film), the band on stage consisted of Slater and Kerr on horns, along with David Caitlin-Birch (a Paul McCartney impersonator who also collaborated with Stanshall in his last years, and covered Stanshall’s parts on the previous reunion tours) on guitar, John “Barry Wom” Halsey (of the Rutles, among other bands) on drums, keyboardist David Glasson (who has worked with various Bonzos since the 70s, most notably as the piano in Three Bonzos and a Piano), bass player Michael Sked, and vocalist Michael Livesey.

This band all know the Bonzos’ music well — and Slater’s uniquely skronking horn sound is, other than Stanshall’s vocals, the most distinctive aspect to their music — and if you closed your eyes you could often be listening to the recordings. The one weak link is Livesey. Livesey is a huge fan of Stanshall (I didn’t recognise him on stage, but he’s been responsible for the recent stagings of Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End), and vocally is spookily similar to him.

Unfortunately, Livesey has a blokeish stage presence which really doesn’t fit the band at all — the band’s image when Stanshall was frontman was always of a slightly camp, shoddy, decaying glamour, and most of the band in their own ways kept that image last night. Livesey, though, was a rock frontman — a fat, bearded, man (there is nothing wrong with those things — he physically resembles me quite a bit) wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a joke about lager on it, and banging a tambourine. Vocally, Livesey is stunningly accurate, but the Bonzo Dog Band need a frontman with something of the character of Jarvis Cocker, and Livesey just doesn’t work in the role.

(My recommendation would be that they let Caitlin-Birch take over the role, as he did for large portions of the 2006 shows. He is less vocally similar to Stanshall, but he’s got the right stage manner and look, and is a better singer than Livesey).

Edit: Livesey has, in the comments to this review, pointed out that his stage costume was lost in transit that night, and he normally appears very different. So disregard that one criticism. My judgement of his stage persona was coloured by something out of his control, and as I said, vocally he was stunningly close to Stanshall at times. I don’t have enough information to say what impression I would have had he been in costume.

But to concentrate on one bad point gives the wrong impression. For the songs where those seven people were on stage without the others (half the set, give or take), what we had was an extremely good, straight, performance of songs like “Keynsham”, a medley of “Rawlinson End” and “Rhinocratic Oaths”, “Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming”, “Busted”, and “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe”, as well as a couple of Slater’s songs from the Three Bonzos and a Piano albums, “Senior Moments” and “Ginger Geezer”.

But when the show really came alive was when the other three members were on stage. The other three Bonzos (two of them in their seventies, and Bohay-Nowell in his mid-eighties) sang their fair share of vocals (Spoons on “Jollity Farm” and “Hunting Tigers”, Smith on “Canyons of Your Mind”, Bohay-Nowell on “Falling in Love Again”, and Smith and Bohay-Nowell doing a wonderful duet on “We Were Wrong”, among others), but their main role was to act as clowns to the backing band’s straight men.

The comedy elements they added were, for the most part, the kind of music-hallisms that would seem a bit dated even for I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (a typical example is “Legs” Larry Smith’s joke (in his pseudo-American “Mr Wonderful” voice) “what could be better than roses on a piano? Tulips on an organ”), or slapstick (Spoons setting up a plank and log as a see-saw, stepping on one end, gesturing for Kerr to jump on the other end and send him flying, and the plank breaking). But these are people who’ve been doing this kind of thing for more than fifty years, and much as with I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue the appeal is at least in part in the audience and performers all knowing how corny the material is.

Sam Spoons, in particular, is a revelation. He’s not only still a surprisingly good percussionist (on spoons and washboard, and also playing second drum-kit for a reasonable proportion of the set), but he’s a terrific physical comedian. His routine as a ventriloquist’s dummy during “Little Sir Echo” was a highlight of the 2006 tour, and worked even more effectively here, but he also took on a good part of what had previously been Spear’s prop-comedy role (though without Spear’s “robots”), as well as dressing up in a variety of outlandish costumes, whether as a monster during “The Monster Mash”, a big-game hunter on “Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah”, or the eponymous bird in “Mr. Slater’s Parrot”, running through the audience putting the mic in their faces and getting them to say “hello!”

The backing band may have been what made the music sound like the Bonzos, but it was the performances of Spoons, Smith, and Bohay-Nowell (and of Slater, who had less opportunity to mess about as he was playing sax or clarinet throughout) that turned the show from a tribute show which would have had too reverent a feel into a proper Bonzos show.

Innes and Spear are clearly missed (and obviously no-one could ever replace Vivian Stanshall), but other than the lack of Innes’ vocals on a handful of songs this was actually more enjoyable in many ways (if more shambolic at times) than the 2006 tour. There’s only a couple more shows on this tour, but if they tour again and you’ve been doubtful about seeing them without those two core members, take the opportunity.

(Oh, and one thing that has nothing to do with the show, but was fun. I took my mum along to see this, and was mentioning to her that at pretty much every gig I go to I see someone I know in the audience. And then it turned out that Ste, the singer from my old band, was sat two seats away from me.)

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4 Responses to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band at the RNCM, 18/11/16

  1. Stephen says:

    Good review, and thanks for the mention! I agree with pretty much every word here. I find Livsey’s choice to neither dress nor move like Stanshall particularly odd because, as you can see from his own website (http://www.sirhenrylives.com/) he is perfectly capable of doing so! Maybe it’s a “not feeling worthy” thing, or wanting to be something different to a tribute act whilst with the Bonzos? Either way, it was the biggest downfall of the show for me. Probably the only one, to be honest.

    Two other points: “But there were tensions between Spear and Innes about the direction of the band — they were performing with a large backing band and several celebrity guest vocalists to cover for the absent Stanshall. Spear wanted to do shows as just the original members, which Innes thought unworkable, and so the band split up again.” – I honestly didn’t know that this was the reason for Innes disappearing. I can see it making sense, though.

    Oh, and you credited ‘Ginger Geezer’ to being a ‘Three Bonzos’ track. It first appears on Stanshall’s one great musical album – Teddy Boys Don’t Knit. I think this should link you to a stunning ‘nearly live’ version of the track, with you-know-who on sax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcL5984ynmo

    Btw had a chat with Roger after the gig. The core of the band – being Roger, Dave, LIvsey, Caitlin-Birch, Barry Wom and Whoopee Band bassist Malcolm Sked are known as “Rodney Slater’s Parrots” and perform the odd gig down South. Rodney has also been recording with Michael Livsey, and will be releasing something in the new year. Could be good, could be awful. And that’s the gamble you take with the Bonzos :)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I should have realised that about Ginger Geezer — I have lots of Stanshall’s other stuff, but oddly not that album, even though as you say it’s regarded as his best. I really must fix that.

      That bit about the reasons for the disagreement came from a few interviews with Spear I’ve read over the years. The one I still have in my browser history is a Three Bonzos interview — http://www.terrascope.co.uk/Features/Three_Bonzos_Feature.htm , where the way he says it is:
      “The two ‘Bonzo Dog Bands’ that caused the original split were starting to appear once more on stage and were incompatible – making the final June show at the Astoria an unpleasant experience for all concerned. Neil was the first to crack and announced his departure, pre-empting my own thoughts by a few days. Then it became obvious that the ‘professional comedians’ (Phill Jupitus and Adrian Edmondson) had so many personal commitments that we had no choice but to go it alone. I made a proposal that we should forego the need to have a ‘hands-free front man and vocalist’ and copious session men to bolster our own feeble musical efforts and just perform the show as only we know how- by ourselves. This met with derision from Neil and the management so we shelved the whole thing.”
      That’s a bit different from some of the other interviews, where he has that as the only cause, rather than one of several causes.

      I assume in your last paragraph you mean Rodney, rather than Roger. I had to keep going back and changing that in my own review — it’s annoying that the two sax players had such similar names (and now Rodney even has a Roger-esque beard).

  2. Due to logistics my costume was lost in transit, hence the wearing of ‘street clothes’. It is now back in my sweaty mitts for the remainder of the tour. As for your other criticisms, well, your entitled to your opinion, and I, literally, have a very thick skin so I don’t need my ‘safe space’. Happily others seem to enjoy what I do, as do my fellow band mates, and unlike you they don’t judge me on my appearance. Otherwise a nice review. Namaste

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      If you read the post as me judging you on your appearance, I apologise for that. That certainly wasn’t my intention — as I said in the post you actually rather resemble me physically (except you have more hair), so any judgement of your appearance would reflect on me at least as much. If it seemed like I was attacking your appearance, I apologise absolutely and unreservedly. I should actually not have mentioned your weight at all, in particular (I’ve been ill this week, and not very good at editing my rambling into coherence, as the length of this comment will attest), but that certainly wasn’t intended as a criticism. Reading back, though, I can see how it might strike someone as being. That was thoughtless of me, and I apologise.
      My criticisms were of your stage persona, and in particular the rather blokeish air you gave off on stage. However, a lot of that was down to what you were wearing, which I interpreted as a deliberate choice (or at least a lack of consideration on your part) rather than an unfortunate mishap. I suspect my impression would have been *very* different had you been in costume. Like I said, vocally you were superb.
      I would suggest that should this ever happen again you mention the problem during the show, as it makes *such* a big difference. Had I known before writing the review that you usually perform in costume, I would have said that, and little or nothing of the rest of what I said. But without knowing, one can only judge by what actually happens on stage. (This judgement is not helped by the fact that for many, many, rock band frontmen, what you were wearing *would* be their normal stage attire.)
      I hope that I get a chance to see you perform again, in the *correct* costume.
      Also, my apologies that you were tagged into a conversation about this on Twitter, and so pointed to the review. That was not something I would ever do myself — I don’t think one should hold back in reviews in order to avoid hurting the performers’ feelings, but equally one should never point a performer to a review they may find upsetting. I apologise for that, as well.

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