Ginger Geezer

Vivian Stanshall

Record Collector , May 1995, issue, no. 189

A great British eccentric is dead. Alan Clayson, one of the last journalists to speak to him, pays tribute. (Photo caption)

Part mystic, part showman, Vivian Stanshall's mad-cap wit endeared him to the Class of '67, who welcomed his surreal, satirical take on life.

Most people will remember the late Vivian Stanshall as the ace face of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a group whose one flirtation with chart success - 1968's I'm The Urban Spaceman - belied their influence on the underground/fringe comedy scene. Some saw the group as Britain's answer to the Mothers Of Invention , with Viv as the front-man, every bit as quintessentially English as Zappa was American.

Both groups traded in pop-Dada junk sculptures of varying musical styles, though the Bonzos exchanged the Mothers' wild satire and instrumental freak-out for a strain of comic lunacy that culminated in Monty Python's Flying Circus - with Stanshall providing the most memorable of the verbal gymnastics. Without criticizing their musical backdrop, his lyrics to Big Shot, Canyons Of Your Mind, My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe and many more could have led as separate a life from chords and melodies as his evocative sleeve-notes.

At the end of the 60s, and with the Bonzos no more, Viv diversified: as house eccentric on a Radio 4 chat show, he aired curiosities from his eclectic record collection; he played euphonium with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra ; portrayed a rock'n'roll has-been in That'll Be The Day ; and, over Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells grandiloquence, intoned a valediction with such perfect enunciation as to make his working-class-posh parents proud.

What they made of their son's arrival for a Melody Maker interview in 1970 with a shaven head dotted with plastic flies is not on record, but if a record needed publicising - on this occasion, it was his fly-by-night Sean Head Showband 45, Labio-Dental Fricative - Viv usually came up with something. (Incidentally, the record featured an old art-school acquaintance, Eric Clapton, on guitar.)

Having been the subject of an episode of One Man's Week on BBC-2, Stanshall issued his first post-Bonzos album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead , in 1974. Much of the supporting cast came from Traffic - and Viv later collaborated on some unBonzo-like songs for Steve Winwood's solo albums. The pair also sketched a soundtrack in vain anticipation of financial backing for a celluloid version of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast . Nevertheless, another film idea (including elements of Gormenghast ) became a reality when his second solo album, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (which had grown from a Bonzo-Era running joke), was adapted for the screen in 1978, with Trevor Howard in the blustering title role.

According to the author, the world had not seen the last of Sir Henry when I spent a rainy September evening in 1987 with Viv in his Muswell Hill flat. He'd taken a rather Falstaffian appearance by then, he was still one of the few people I've ever encountered who could be described as a mystic - even if he'd been extolling the virtues of Cadbury's creme eggs on ITV weeks later. More abiding projects in the pipeline included a libretto to a collage of animal sounds which, from the snatches he let me hear, hinted at an aesthetic, if uncommercial, brilliance.

Viv wasn't very well, not having slept or eaten for several days, and, neither drunk nor sober, he sprawled like a sultan, chain-smoking on a double bed while a silent female filled our glasses at regular intervals. Our somewhat rambling discussion centred ostensibly on Steve Winwood, the subject of a biography I'd been commissioned to write, but it did offer a glimpse into Stanshall's working methods. Everyone knows about Stanshall's comic genius; rather less well-known was the serious side to his craft . . .

VIVIAN STANSHALL : All of my articulacy, my work, has not resulted from any happy accident. I'm entirely self-educated. I didn't get a single 'O'-level. In fact, I was about to be expelled from Southend Grammar, but my silver-tongued mother persuaded the head to recommend me for a place in the local art school. My father was a chartered accountant who used to galosh his way from Southend to work in Moorgate every day. He equated artists with gypsies and ne'er-do-wells, and wouldn't give the requisite amount to fund me to go through art school - so I entered the merchant navy. Then I managed to get into Walthamstow Art School, where I was taught by Peter Blake, who remains a remote friend.

RECORD COLLECTOR : Have you always been so nicely-spoken?

VS : My mother and father were convinced that you couldn't get on in life unless you spoke BBC posh - but if you spoke like that in the streets where I lived, they'd beat the shit out of you. It wasn't until I got to art school in London when I was 18 that I realized that clever people could have Mancunian or Geordie accents. Art schools are levelers. It's not how you talk, it's down to "Are you any good?" It's classless, an emotional commonality that continues today. I can phone up someone like Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and we talk about painting.

I stayed a marvelous week in Los Angeles with the Bonzo Dog Band , the Grease Band, and Janis Joplin's band. The three factions stuck in one hotel was very interesting. You're thinking that's because everyone was on drugs or pissed out of their minds. It was, for the most part, but in the meantime, in the cracks, it was the colloquy between those bands on a much higher level than the average record buyer could understand.

RC : You've written lyrics for some unlikely singers . . .

VS : I can sing in tune and I've got quite a big range, but there are not many people that I've ever wanted to put my words in their mouths. Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker are two. I admired Chris Farlowe, and Dickie Pride and Dave Berry, but I'm not sure how much that had to do with their voices. Recently, I've liked Paul Young very much - Huey Lewis, too. Tom Jones is another who can really sing! He's also unashamed to be himself in public. I wrote Matt Monro a song called Blind Date . I sang it to his manager, who collapsed under the desk. I just couldn't write a straight song.

RC : The numbers you've written with Steve Winwood have more lyrical substance than any others on his solo records.

VS : I've always felt a responsibility that you should know what you're talking about. I'm very careful with every word - mosaic work, almost. For me, it has to be as correct as I can make it and I can justify everything. I weep blood when I write lyrics. There are quite a lot of people I wouldn't write them for. I should also say that there are quite a lot of people who wouldn't ask me (laughs). You focus on yourself and say, "This is as good as I can be at this time," so you lose fear. Arc Of A Diver was effortless. I used to think that there were Lamas in Tibet that could write perfect verse - that, towards the end of his life, Dali could paint and know that he was going to make marvelous and astounding works. I don't think that's going to happen to me. I don't think it happened to them but I think it's a marvelous idea to be able to flow perfectly. I don't know much about Indian mystics but I figured that once you'd got past a certain age, if you could forget nuts and bolts, you could just play, sing or speak. You wouldn't have to consider your words or the next thing that occurs. You could actually do it. Arc Of A Diver is about that.

RC : Backtracking a bit, can you tell me how Dream Gerrard (on Traffic's Where The Eagle Flies ) came about?

VS : I was suffering a severe bout of depression when I was staying at Steve's house, and he said, "We're off to dinner. Are you coming?" I said, "No, I'm reading about this French poet and I don't feel very well." So he went off and I wrote not more than a quatrain about Gerard de Nerval. When he came back, he said, "Right! That's a chorus. We need a verse for that." And he went into the front room and started plonking away on the piano.

RC : What was the difference between writing with Steve and writing for the Bonzos with Neil Innes?

VS : With Neil, we bickered when writing together, or else I attended to the words and he provided the music, or vice-versa. With Steve, it was much closer because of our agreement spiritually - although we have hardly anything in common, we go out for walks and agree philosophically. We have a damn good sort out with each other before we approach whatever the damn thing means.

RC : What did Vacant Chair (for 1977's Steve Winwood ) mean?

VS : Vacant Chair was to do with the death of my best friend, Dennis Cowan. I was appallingly upset for a week and I phoned Gaspar Lawar (musician on Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead ) and I was lachrymose and self-pitying and he said (in Nigerian) "Only the dead weep for the dead". So I said to Gaspar, "That's very cool of you". He said, "No, just get on with life", so the sentiment of the lyric is: although people must die most of grief and mourning is pity for yourself - but it's called Vacant Chair because there are funeral parlours that actually sell floral chairs called vacant chairs .

Steve and I have written about 100 more things than have ever been released. He might have a melody, and I'll say, "I think this feels like this." This wasn't typical, but I wrote verses about Crazy Horse, chief of the Oglala Sioux. Steve read it through and declared that it was singable - after all, a poem is meant to be read and a lyric is meant to be sung. Crazy Horse came out of my interest in the Zulu War which is, of course, half a world away. Crazy Horse is the only mystic I've ever had total admiration for because, being called an eccentric myself, and all other sorts of derogatory versions of that, he stuck it out. After every other Indian was on the reservation and Sitting Bull arrived in Canada, Crazy Horse stuck out and they had to kill him - otherwise they wouldn't have got the railroad through.

RC : Do you have any plans to go back on the road?

VS : I haven't been well enough, but I want to go back on stage. I'm working with Mike Kellie, formerly drummer with Spooky Tooth , and Rosko Gee from Traffic . If you use musicians of that calibre, you don't presume to say to them, "I think you should've suspended the ninth," as with the old band. I'd talk about the emotion - "this is someone crying"; "this is someone who discovered his father wasn't such a bad bloke after 30 years."


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