Ginger Geezer

Vivian Stanshall

Q Magazine , January 1989

" A cup of char, old bean" inquires a voice that's plummy and fruity, rich in Olde Englishe (circa 1930's) charm. The libation-profferrer is a gentleman in his middle forties; he has ginger whiskers and a gleaming pate, and is clothed in the trappings of English eccentricity: red shoes, garish dressing gown and a cravat-creation festooned with polka dots and orangery. He puffs upon a cigarillo as he tempts you with the many fine and exotic blends of tea at his disposal.

He is the kind of cove, one thinks, who should be tugging languidly upon a fraying bell-cord to summon an ancient and devoted manservant to toast muffins at the hearth of some vast and dilapidated country pile. He seems, at first sight and sound, like some anomalous Wodehousian relic, untouched by time as he proposes "a cup of char, old bean?" with no hint of irony in the endearment.

But this is no Blandings Castle. It's a tiny bedsit in Muswell Hill - room enough for two chairs, bed, old gas cooker and little else. However, the tenant of these humble quarters, Vivian Stanshall (for it is he), has made them his own. The walls are lined with his paintings, carvings and art creations. On shelves there are pieces of his pottery - ashtrays (littered with the browning butts of roll-ups) in the form of clasped hands. Strange musical instruments abound: there's a mandolin that "I made with sad eyes and a mustache just like mine"; there's an original Fender Mustang, its body covered with painted childlike creatures of Stanshall's imagining; there are brass oddities and ethnic-looking stringed things that only the master knows how to play. On the floor sits a log that Stanshall has carved into some repugnant totem. He calls it Old Scrotum - the "wrinkled retainer" of his Sir Henry yarns.

The ginger old gentleman casts an eye across his gallery. "I'd be much healthier if I'd stuck to painting. I would have had to mix with awful . But at least I'd be sane." The kettle is boiling for our cups of "char" and there is a roar of the fruitiest laughter. "Haw haw haw ," it goes. "Don't I sound most " frightfully pompous, old bean?"

V ivian Stanshall was an art student when it all happened. It was the early '60's; he was at the Central School of Art and his flat mate, Rodney Slater, was at St. Martin's. Slater had a sizable collection of musical instruments to blow down - clarinets and tubas and sousaphones and the like - and Stanshall, in idle moments, found that he "could get noises out of these instruments", so Rodney asked him to come down to St. Martin's and join in a loose collection of students who, impervious to the delights of beat music, took great pleasure in performing excruciating, but would-be serious versions of jazz and popular music tunes of the '20's and '30's. "Rod and I sat around tearing up pieces of paper to come up with chance names. The Army Surplus Stuntmen was one and the Invented Window Smellers and then we came up with The Bonzo Dog Dada Band and because we both like to study drawings, that was it...."

.The Bonzo Dog Dada Band was a collection of "iconoclastic, new-Dadaist, almost -musicians from various London art schools" who were wont to take the trad-jazz clowning of The Temperance Seven and the The New Vaudeville Band - the "comedy" groups of the day - a little further, into anarchy and surrealism, general jollity, parody, Goon Show-styled non-sequitur mayhem, and a smattering of light "auto-destruction", "Madcap" entertainment...

."It was very often that we had a dozen banjo players and maybe one sousaphone player and me singing. We played boozers and knees-ups at art schools and people kept leaving saying, Bugger this, I'm a painter, I'm a serious artist. So, eventually, it came down to about seven people..."

Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin-Spear, Rodney Desborough Slater, "Legs" Larry Smith, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Sam Spoons. The group became quite a hit at the Bird In Hand hostelry in Forest Hill and at the Blue Angel club in Berkeley Square (the music was "good for guards officers to be sick over Fergie-types to") and one Easter holidays, the manager of the Blue Angel asked them whether they'd care to go on a tour of Northern clubs. "I loved it. Performing, to me, was like translating a drawing or a print or a painting into a palpable, three-dimensional and transient thing, something that was as brief as a rose or a fart. That was wonderful for me. Tremendous juice, I craved it. I always crave exactly what is bad for me.... And how those audiences ever made head or tail of people tearing up telephone directories and singing shopping lists, I really don't know..."

In 1966, through some quirk of fate which Vivian Stanshall has entirely forgotten, the ensemble - now calling themselves "The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band as "Dada" seemed a little too snooty and pretentious (while "Doo-Dah" was soon dropped for being too silly)- acquired a slender recording contract with EMI Parlophone and recorded a pair of singles; My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies (c/w I'm Gonna Bring A Watermelon To My Gal Tonight) and Alley Oop (c/w Button Up Your Overcoat). The sessions were done at Abbey Road while The Beatles were in an adjoining studio recording Revolver. (Neil Innes later tells me: "I felt such a fraud doing all this silly stuff when I could hear George (Harrison) in the next room, I want to teeell yeeoow, and twanging his sitars and being all cerebral...")

"Ringo's drum kit," Stanshall fondly recalls, "was heavily draped and nailed down so that people wouldn't discover the 'secret' of the way he miked it!" Stanshall roars with laughter. "So Larry went and put some meat in Ringo's kit. He slapped some meat in Ringo's drums to foil The Fabs' sound, haw haw haw. Larry used to drape himself in meat - offal and lungs and things. He particularly liked to wear meat in sweaty, hot clubs like The Marquee. It was something to do with the human condition..."


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