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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
BONZO DOG DOO DAH BAND REVISISTED Astoria, London, January 28th 2006
Life’s like that isn’t it? I mean sometimes it’s hard just to know where things went wrong. There I was, a nice lower middle class boy, school rugby team, brought up on roast meat, home grown vegetables (we even had kept hens at one stage, which has now become fashionably chic), Three Way Family Favourites, The Navy Lark and the Sunday Express. And then – whoosh – rock and roll hit me like a disease.
But it didn’t happen like that – it never does. So there was a gradual process of exposure before the infection properly took hold – my chum from the States playing me his West Coast rock records, illicit trips to the Blues Attic (you know, the one that wasn’t really an attic but a function room – “weddings, family parties, funerals” – at the back of the Jolly Weavers), John Peel on the radio (did I ever tell you about the first time I heard Interstellar Overdrive, sitting in the back of the family car in a pub car park in Kenilworth, eating crisps, drinking lemonade and listening to Peel?).
And of course, at the more surreal end of things there was the short lived television programme (1968-1969) Do Not Adjust Your Set, 29 episodes, Thursdays (or was it Wednesday?) at 5.30, featuring the rump of what would be Monty Python, David Jason and Denise Coffey and the mind altering Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (you probably know Serge that they were originally called ‘Da Da Band’, which I think means ‘father’ in your French, but changed it to ‘Doo Dah Band’ to prevent any confusion with your Gallic Dads).
The Bonzos provided wit, music, tomfoolery and an infectious madness. In fact once bitten by this dog you would be deeply scarred for life. Ask me, I know.
The Bonzos had been formed out of a thriving art college jazz scene in London in the mid sixties, but took traditional jazz as their starting point, mixed with a heavy splash of surreal seasoning. However as they developed they pioneered a unique mixture of jazz, rock and roll, satire (readers of this website should try and track down their John and Yoko parody ‘Give booze a chance’), bizarre slapstick (mainly fuelled by Ruskin-Spear’s robots, musical legs, and other mad inventions) and otherworldly humour.
By 1967 they had released their first album, Gorilla, lost a few early members – notably Sam Spoons and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell (who joined another early Bonzo Bob Kerr in his Whoopee Band) – and relatively ‘settled’ into a line-up of Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin-Spear, Dennis Cowan, Legs Larry Smith, and Rodney Slater. Minor chart success (‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’) - several albums (the classic Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, Tadpoles, Keynsham) was followed by two fruitless US tours and near bankruptcy, leading to the break-up of the band in 1971 and a final contract fulfilling album Let’s make up and be friendly in 1972.
In the aftermath only Innes sustained a musical career, performing (sometimes with Stanshall) with Grimms – an poetic scousers amalgam of Liverpool Scene and Scaffold, pursuing a solo recording and touring career, tying up with the Pythons, various TV series, The Rutles (with Python Eric Idle) and most recently co-writing and performing some frankly mediocre radio comedy programmes. Stanshall never lived up to the promise of his enormous talent, plagued by alcohol dependency and illness his work mainly centered on Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (recorded in 1978 and finally filmed in 1980) and various outstanding radio and TV cameos, ‘till his untimely death in 1994. Perhaps most famously he was ‘the voice’ on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Cowan died in 1972; Slater whilst performing occasionally turned to social work; Ruskin-Spear to teaching art (his Dad Serge, is apparently a famous painter), Legs Larry Smith to design and, err, tap dancing. A Bonzos’ reunion? Pigs might fly!
So like most of the aged audience in the Astoria on this coldest of January nights I’m pinching myself, partly to get my circulation going after queuing outside for an hour, but also out of disbelief.
The pickle factory is packed – well not really packed as it’s seated, plastic chair village hall style, so probably only half the normal crowd are in. Maybe partly explains why tickets went so quickly and were so hard to find – changing hands, or so I’m told, for hundreds of pounds (it must be that madness). I’m in the second row! To my left the Chelsea and Kensington set, fur coats, jewels and all – but having a great time (Mrs Chelsea and Kensington was almost word perfect). To my left a man with a weak bladder and pre-senile dementia (I promise I’m not making this up Serge) – so everytime he goes to the Gents the very patient steward has to rescue him as he wanders – lost in his personal Bonzo heaven - around the auditorium trying to find his seat. The excitement and sense of expectation is palpable. The gig is being filmed for TV and a DVD. And we’ve been asked very nicely not to take photographs – a shame, as in the temporary absence of The Photographer I’d smuggled the new Whiskyfun camera in inside my sock (maybe I could be one of Her Majesty’s Spies in Moscow?). So no picture from me boys.
The stage is packed. In the centre is Innes on keyboard and guitars, in so far as it’s possible directing the course of the evening. To the right is the band, Innes collaborators J J Jones (drums) Tom Fry (bass) Mickey Simmonds (keyboards various) and Liverpool Scene veteran guitarist Andy Roberts. To the left are the Bonzos. At the rear Sam Spoons on drums and Bohay-Nowell on banjo and saw. At the front a straight-faced Kerr (quite how he managed this all night is a mystery) on trumpets, cornets and teapot, a very lively Slater on saxophones, clarinet and percussion, and in his own chaos corner Roger Ruskin-Spear, on god knows what. He was so wired up with energy that I feared he might explode. Legs Larry Smith was downstairs putting on his make-up.

Neil Innes
It’s easy to forget what a wealth of material the Bonzos put together, and it obviously proved no easy task to agree the set list, which at two hours challenged the Astoria’s Saturday night curfew. What we got was, roughly speaking, a jazz set, followed by an electric set, both kicking off, in suitably patriotic vein, with ‘Rule Britannia’. The first half included ‘Hunting tigers out in Indiah’, ‘Little Sir Echo’ (with Sam Spoons as the ventriloquists dummy), ‘Ali Baba’s camel’, Bohay-Nowell singing a Euro version of ‘Falling in love again’, ‘By a waterfall’, ‘My brother makes the noises for the talkies’ (with Ruskin Spear on his improvised sound-effects rig), ‘Look out there’s a monster coming’, and ‘Jollity Farm’. Somewhere in the middle of this we caught our first glimpse of Legs Larry Smith – “Hello Mabel!” – “Hiya fellas”, not looking at all bad in his tartan mini-skirt and breast-hugging sweater as he tap-danced across the stage with Ruskin-Spear following at his feet with a microphone.
He reappeared later to perform ‘Three hands’. And Ruskin-Spear, introducing an element of shambolic anarchy into almost everything he did (“are you waiting for me Neil?”, “well yes Roger, but I don’t think I’m the only one”) performed, so to speak, with his Theremin Leg. “Well, that was a surprise to all of us” concluded Innes.
The ‘electric’ second half focussed primarily on the material most readily identified with Vivian Stanshall, much of it from the Doughnut album. To help them out in Stanshall’s absence the Bonzos got assistance from comedian Phil Jupitus, who sang and played on ‘Mr Apollo’ (perfectly), ‘Can blue men sing the whites?’ and ‘Canyons of your mind’. Adrian Edmondson sang the lavatorial ‘Strain’, ‘Tent’, and (excellently) ‘I’m bored’; cavorted around as a parrot for ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’, and turned in an outstanding version of the wonderful ‘My pink half of the drainpipe’, with word perfect narration by Rodney Slater – “have you seen my bullfight poster on the wall?”. Paul Merton sang ‘Monster mash’ (and demonstrated to everyone in the audience that he really can’t dance) while Sam Spoons played a spoon-playing monster to Ruskin Spear’s Frankenstein.
And Stephen Fry was simply perfect – and you should realise how hard it is for me to write that about this usually grotesquely self regarding egotist – but yes, Stephen Fry was simply perfect on ‘Sound of music’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Rhinocratic oaths’. He also added the coda (“the part of old Bill was played by a Frying pan, the rest of old Bill was played by …”) to Ruskin-Spear’s masterpiece ‘Trouser Press’. Quite what the wigged and white-coated Ruskin-Spear was doing is another matter, but fighting with an exploding musical trouser press (which looked, as did most of his props, to be close to the original one he had used in the late 60s) probably best sums it up. Is that clear Serge?

Stephen Fry
I should add that the guests avoided that stage-hogging limelight-grasping behaviour that often happens on such occasions, and that they were anyway all upstaged by Legs Larry Smith performing ‘Look at me I’m wonderful’ and ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’. It was only a shame that someone had decided to end the evening with the recorded version of ‘The Intro and the Outro’ – as the stage filled with costumed family, friends and relations the whole thing became a bit of a mess, and ended with a fizzle rather than a bang, with the Bonzos not even getting an opportunity to line up at the end to take the audience’s fulsome applause. But they’d given us a memorable two hours of under-rehearsed and rather poorly prepared pleasure, full of a somewhat old-fashioned, innocent and naive humour tinged with contagious lunacy. There was a lot of laughter, loads of applause, and not a few tears as the evening went on. But it was probably the expletive fuelled Adrian Edmondson who captured the spirit of the moment for everyone: “I just can’t fucking believe this, I can’t fucking believe I’m here. These guys were my fucking heroes, my fucking heroes …” - Nick Morgan

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