Shirt – Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
Good morning, could I have this shirt cleaned express, please?
Yes, that’ll be three weeks, dearie,
three weeks? But the sign outside says 59-minute cleaners
Yes, thats just the name of the shop love, we take three weeks to do a shirt
Just the name of the shop?
Yes, that’s if theres an R in the month otherwise its four weeks
Your name does begin with a P, doesnt it?
Well, no, actually, of course its, uh
Well, that’ll be five weeks, then,
five weeks? Blimey !
The above absurd dialogue nestled in the central section of this “song” – a series of sketches and musical ideas linked only by the title – “Shirt“. I never fail to enjoy this song when I hear it, there are elements of true genius at work. The man’s voice you can hear doing the interviews on Willesden Green – “yes brrr it is a bit chilly..” is the one and only Vivian Stanshall, lead singer of the Bonzos, professional glint-eyed fool, ginger geezer, effete prankster, florid purveyor of onomatopoeiac confabulations, and educated yobbo. Britain’s zaniest pervert.
I first saw him as a youth, watching our black and white television, a show entitled “Do Not Adjust Your Set” on Thames TV in 1968. This comedy sketch show starred David Jason, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Denise Coffey and Terry Jones – three of whom would go on to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.
Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Denise Coffey, Eric Idle, David Jason
The house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set were the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band who performed one song per week, and whose performances were notable for the large number of goofy props and comedy eyeballs, fluffy sticks and signs saying “Where?” and “Why Not?”. They were a seemingly unrehearsed surreal happening marshalled with charm and glee by the suave Vivian Stanshall.
I loved them. When I discovered that they actually made albums I went and bought one called Tadpoles which was a compilation of the TV stuff. In 1968 they’d had a hit single called I’m The Urban Spaceman written by Neil Innes and produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth, with The Canyons Of Your Mind on the B-side (“in the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labelled “Shirts”). The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were a mixture of many things – musicians Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Legs Larry Smith and Sam Spoons and mischief-makers Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell, Vivian Stanshall and Roger Ruskin-Spear could all play something musical and based their sound on trad jazz, 1920s pop and vaudeville croons, peppered with music-hall and of-the-time psychedelia, all overlaid by comedy and foolishness. They rarely did a straight song in a straight way, although Tubas In The Moonlight may be the one exception – on the same LP.
The early LPs – Gorilla, The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse, Keynsham, and Tadpoles are endlessly listenable nonsense, both musical and funny. For me the peak moments were always provided by Stanshall’s invented posh accent (described as talking complete nonsense at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party). In this track he actually interviews members of the general public about “Shirts” and the results are there for all to hear.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
The Bonzos split and reformed at least seven times after 1970, and their most recent incarnation Three Bonzos and A Piano starred my friend and band member Charlotte Glasson’s dad David Glasson on The Piano. I went to see them a few times in the Brighton area and their ramshackle anarchy and sense of unrehearsed surrealism was still intact and a joy to witness, even though Stanshall had passed and Innes was elsewhere.
I had the opportunity to meet Viv Stanshall in the late 1970s and I grabbed it. By then we were all listening to the John Peel Show late night on Radio One, playing punk, reggae, and some spoken word segments entitled Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, with all characters voiced by Vivian Stanshall. Some shrewd folk were taping it straight from the radio – and it remains one of the finest and funniest things I’ve ever heard. Sir Henry was an old-school colonial racist and Rawlinson End was his country pile inhabited by a random selection of strange characters including Mrs E and Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer. Vivian was lined up to perform the entire show at the LSE Old Theatre. I think it was 1978. Someone from the LSE student rag “Beaver” had to go down and interview Mr Stanshall in his houseboat near Roehampton. Crikey. I stepped into the breach and took directions down.
Viv Stanshall on the Thames towpath in 1978
The boat was called The Searchlight and was moored near Shepperton. The door was answered by Pamela Ki Longfellow his american girlfriend, I was made a cup of tea, introduced to Viv, sat down and off we went. I recorded the man talking to me for almost three hours – about Leigh-On-Sea in Essex, teddy boys, rococo theatres, turtles and “losing the cosy” before Pamela broke it up and said that Vivian was feeling tired. It was probably the most thrilling three hours of my life up to that point. What joy I took away with me. Sitting with my hero in his house, doing comedy voices, talking nonsense, making me laugh, making me feel stupid, but mainly, making me feel happy. I asked him about Shirt and he revealed that he had done all those interviews. What a joyous man.
I travelled back to London in a bit of a daze. I still have the C120 tape that I interviewed Viv on, my chirpy young gauche voice and Vivian’s world-weary cultured tones and quips.
The interview was written up for the student paper, and a sold-out Old Theatre welcomed Vivian Stanshall a few weeks later. I distinctly remember two things he said to me – first when he asked me what The Old Theatre was like, and I immediately answered “It’s definitely cosy” – he arched his eyebrow and quizzed further : “Ah. But is it rococo?” Then when I tried to ask him about Sir Henry and those wonderful stream-of-consciousness narratives therein he held up his hand with a smile : “Nonsense dear boy, I worked on those pieces for bloody hours, days even. They are painstakingly put together and worked on, re-written and polished…stream of consciousness my arse!!”
He was difficult to work with sometimes, became full of rage in later life, disowned the LP of “Sir Henry…” as being rushed out and unready – and in truth it never did match the peerless John Peel sessions somehow – and eventually died in a house-fire in Muswell Hill in 1995. A true and endearing National Treasure, massively influential, intelligent, compassionate, bored and funny as fuck. There’s a fellow out there – Michael Livesley – doing “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” live – I saw it a few years back and can reveal that it is a loving and very good tribute to the man. As for the Bonzos, their remnants appear and re-appear, split and re-form and will doubtless continue to do so. They have also brought countless joy to many.