Band: Bonzo Dog Doo Daa Band
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Vivian Stanshall died aged fifty-one on 5th March 1995 in a house fire. Viv was found dead after an electrical fire had broken out as he slept in his top floor flat in Muswell Hill, North London, U.K. His private funeral service was held at the Golders Green Crematorium, North London. A few days later his memorial service was held at St Patrick's Church in Soho Square, Central London.
A memorial plaque was unveiled in the Poets' Corner of Golders Green Crematorium on 13th December 2015, opposite that of his friend Keith Moon, by his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and his daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall. Others attending included actor Tony Slattery, singer Linda Thompson and actress Cherri Gilham. The cost of the plaque was met by many of his fans and friends via online crowdfunding.
Viv Stanshall was born on 21st March 1943 at the Radcliffe Maternity Home in Shillingford, Oxfordshire,U.K. and christened Victor Anthony. He lived with his mother Eileen while his father, Victor Stanshall served in the RAF during World War II. Viv Stanshall described this early period as the happiest time of his childhood.
When the war ended, his father returned but the young Viv found him difficult and comparatively stern after having been alone with his mother. The family moved to the father's hometown of Walthamstow, Essex, where Viv Stanshall's younger brother Mark was born six years later in 1949. With six years between them, the brothers were never close. Viv Stanshall studied at Walthamstow College of Art, where he met fellow students Ian Dury and Peter Greenaway.
About this time, the Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. He attended Southend High School for Boys until 1959. As a young man, Viv Stanshall earned money doing various odd jobs at the Kursaal fun fair in nearby Southend-on-Sea. They included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter painting the fairground attractions. To set aside enough money to get through art school Viv Stanshall spent a year in the merchant navy. He said he was a very bad waiter, but became a great teller of tall tales.
Viv Stanshall enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design in London. He joined fellow students in forming a band (including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes, who was studying art at Goldsmiths College). Innes said of their first meeting: "We first met in a big Irish pub in South London, the New Cross Arms ... he was quite plump in those days, and he was wearing Billy Bunter check trousers, a Victorian frock coat, black coat tails, horrible little oval, violet-tinted pince-nez glasses, he had a euphonium under his arm, and large rubber false ears. And I thought, well, this is an interesting character." About this time, Viv Stanshall changed his first name from Victor to "Vivian". This was not made his legal name until 1977. Those who knew him from his student days continued to call him Vic.
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was named after a word game that Viv Stanshall played with Slater, in which they cut up sentences and juxtaposed fragments to form new ones. "Bonzo Dog/Dada" was one result which they liked. The band initially performed under this name but grew tired of explaining what Dada meant and so it became the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a "doo-dah" being a quaint expression that both Rodney Slater's mother and Vivian used to describe everyday objects; later the name was shortened to The Bonzo Dog Band, or just The Bonzos.
According to Gerry Bron, Viv Stanshall had several weeks to write songs for the new professional Bonzo Dog Band. But when band members arrived at his studio, they found he had not written anything, but had instead built a variety of rabbit hutches. Much of the band's original repertoire was based on re-workings of songs from the 1920s and '30s, found on 78 rpm records bought for pennies from local fleamarkets. Bron mentioned in a TV documentary, that he found Vivian making rabbit hutches in a hall in Acton, May 1968, West London. This rabbit-related activity would suggest that these were rehearsals for the Doughnut in Grannys' Greenhouse album. During recordings for this at Morgan Studios, Vivian, wearing just a rabbit's head and underpants, interviewed members of the public in Willesden High Road. On the album track "We Are Normal", an elderly gentleman can be heard saying, "He's got a head on like a rabbit." For a while the band operated semi-professionally, playing the college circuit. After acquiring a manager, they went full-time, and were booked on the working men's club circuit, mainly in the north of England. The band dominated their lives, as they frequently travelled to low-paying gigs in an old van crammed with any number of musical instruments, an assortment of props, and prop robots. In 1967, they appeared in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour television special, where they played Viv Stanshall's "Death Cab for Cutie" during the strip club scene. The appearance led to a spot as the house band on 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', the weekly television revue show notable for early appearances by most of the Monty Python team.
In 1968 the Bonzos scored a surprise top-ten hit with a "I'm the Urban Spaceman" produced by Apollo C. Vermouth aka Paul McCartney. The band toured incessantly and recorded several albums, which led to a tour of the United States that was so successful they were booked for another soon after. Neil Innes remembers that the band were reportedly stopped by a local U.S. sheriff and asked if they were carrying any firearms or drugs. When they denied both, the officer asked how they were going to defend themselves. Stanshall piped up from the back of the minibus, "With good manners!" It was during the second tour that they decided to break up, partly because of Viv Stanshall's growing stage fright—combined with increasing use of valium to help this, but also due to anger with their management, after Spear's wife suffered a miscarriage while he was away, and they had failed to inform him. The band decided to split whilst they were still friends. In March 1970, the band played their last show at Loughborough University.
Viv Stanshall formed a number of short-lived groups during 1970 alone, including biG GRunt , formed while the Bonzos were still on their farewell tour, and including fellow Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear and Dennis Cowan and featuring Anthony 'Bubs' White on guitar. The Sean Head Showband, again featuring Dennis Cowan and Bubs White, Gargantuan Chums, and the slightly-longer lived Bonzo Dog Freaks with Neil Innes and the ever-faithful Cowan and White. Early that year, biG GRunt recorded a well-received session for BBC Radio One Disc Jockey John Peel, and shortly afterwards made a memorable appearance on BBC television. Despite this promising start, biG GRunt dissolved during their first UK tour when Viv Stanshall became incapacitated by the onset of an anxiety disorder that caused a nervous breakdown and would continue to plague him for the rest of his life.
However he soon recovered sufficiently to record and release, on the Liberty label, his first solo single "Labio-Dental Fricative/Paper Round" credited to Vivian Stanshall and The Sean Head Showband, an oblique reference to Stanshall having shaven off all of his hair during his breakdown, and featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Later in the year his single version of Terry Stafford's song "Suspicion" credited to Vivian Stanshall and Gargantuan Chums, and featuring Keith Moon, was released. Featured on the b-side was "Blind Date" the only officially-released track by biG GRunt. However all of Stanshall's backing bands of 1970 featured the same core personnel, so it could be argued that they're essentially the same band masquerading under a variety of names.
In early 1971 Viv returned to touring with a new band, Freaks. This group soon recorded a BBC radio session for John Peel that featured solo numbers by Stanshall and Neil Innes alongside tracks from the Bonzos' yet to be recorded 'Let's Make Up And Be Friendly' contractual obligation/reunion album of 1972. The session is also notable for marking the first appearance in any medium of an episode of Viv Stanshall's magnum opus, Rawlinson End. Viv Stanshall also found time during this period to be a founder member of the performance/poetry/music group Grimms alongside Innes, the members of The Scaffold and associated poets and musicians. Although Viv Stanshall left Grimms, he did perform live with them before they ever recorded.
Throughout this period, still suffering badly with anxiety and now drinking heavily to self-medicate, Viv Stanshall nonetheless continued to write, record and tour with Freaks and then GRIMMS. He was also a regular guest, broadcaster and presenter on numerous shows on BBC Radio.
Despite his ongoing personal difficulties Viv Stanshall never lost his sense of humour. His exploits with long-time drinking buddy Keith Moon, who would become Viv Stanshall's regular partner in crime for much of the 1970s after producing and appearing on Viv Stanshall's "Suspicion" single, are legendary. In one example, Viv Stanshall visited a tailor's shop where he admired a pair of trousers. Moon then arrived, posing as another customer, and admired the same trousers, demanding to buy them. When Viv Stanshall protested, the two men fought, splitting the trousers in two so that they ended up with one leg each. The tailor was understandably beside himself. Then, a one-legged actor hired by Stanshall and Moon would enter the scene, see the split trousers and proclaim: "Ah! Just what I was looking for! I'll buy them!"
Thanks to his association with John Peel, in 1971 Viv Stanshall was asked to fill in for the DJ while he was on a months' holiday. The resulting short series, entitled ''Vivian Stanshall's Radio Flashes'', was recorded under the supervision of Peel's regular producer John Walters and broadcast on BBC Radio One in August 1971. The series of four two-hour shows were a mix of music and specially written and recorded comedic sketches. Out of the original four episodes, only episodes 2, 3 and 4 remain in the BBC archives and these were re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra in 2014, and again in 2016. However, all four episodes and a Christmas 1971 compilation special have circulated among collectors as low-quality, edited off-air recordings since the 1970s. Contributors to the sketches in "Radio Flashes" included Keith Moon, Traffic's Jim Capaldi and actress Chris Bowler. The sketches included a four part serial adventure titled "Breath From The Pit", featuring the surreal exploits of a Dick Barton or Bulldog Drummond-style gentleman adventurer, Colonel Knutt (played by Stanshall) and his working-class sidekick, the 'likeable cheeky cockney, Lemmy'. The serial was also in part a parody of Charles Chilton's Journey into Space, with Keith Moon playing the role of Lemmy.
During 1973 Stanshall recorded tracks for the soundtrack album for the movie 'That'll Be the Day' backed by Moon, Ronnie Wood, Graham Bond and Jack Bruce, and made a memorable appearance as the Master Of Ceremonies on Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells'.
In early 1974, Viv Stanshall wrote, arranged, and quickly recorded his first solo album, 'Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead'. A rather more serious work than many would have expected, its darkly-comic lyrics detailed Viv Stanshall's alcoholism and troubled emotional state, laced with surreal poetic imagery and literary reference. Other lyrics included implicit references to other musicians and the music business, and a rather more explicit satire of the author's relationship with his own penis. Musically, while certain tracks display Viv Stanshall's usual keen sense of rock and roll parody, most of the album has a 'tribal' or 'fusion' flavour. Prominently featuring the Nigerian musician Gasper Lawal and with many tracks infused with richly-textured African percussion and chorus vocal stylings, the album (and its contemporary single "Lakonga") can justifiably lay claim to being an early, unheralded example of world music/rock music crossover. Viv Stanshall's long-standing friends and colleagues Neil Innes, Bubs White, Traffic's Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Ric Grech and Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Doris Troy and Madeline Bell also make notable guest appearances. Deleted after its first pressing and out of print for many years, the album was finally officially re-released on CD in 2012.
Viv Stanshall developed Rawlinson End as a spoken word piece. In the 1970s he recorded an episodic surrealist radio serial, Rawlinson End for BBC Radio 1's John Peel show, elaborating on the weird and wonderful adventures of the inebriated and blimpish Sir Henry Rawlinson, his dotty wife Great Aunt Florrie, his "unusual" brother Hubert, old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer, Mrs E, the rambling and unhygienic cook; and many other inhabitants of the crumbling Rawlinson End and its environs.
Viv Stanshall had been playing with the Rawlinson characters for some time; they were first referred to on the Bonzos' 1967 number, "The Intro and the Outro": "Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone".
In 1978 he released an LP, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which reworked some material from the Peel sessions. It was adapted into a film version in 1980 in which it was produced in a sepia-tinted black and white. It starred Trevor Howard as Sir Henry, and Viv Stanshall as Hubert. Some of the film's music was provided by Viv Stanshall's friend Steve Winwood. A book of the same title by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was published by Eel Pie Publishing in 1980. Nominally a film novelisation, it was distilled from the various versions and included considerable material that did not make it to the film. A projected second book, The Eating at Rawlinson End, was never completed.
A second Rawlinson album, 'Sir Henry at N'didi’s Kraal', recounts Sir Henry's disastrous African expedition, omitting the rest of the Rawlinson clan. Viv Stanshall at the time was living on The Searchlight, a house boat he bought from Denny Laine and moored near Shepperton on the River Thames. He lived on it from 1977 to 1983 and produced the album on it. The album was disowned by Stanshall after its release, as it had been issued without his permission, adding that it was unfinished and the label had rushed it out.
"Sir Henry" was last seen in a television commercial for Ruddles Real Ale, where he is portrayed by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Viv Stanshall reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a poem loosely based on Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat."
Viv Stanshall collaborated on numerous musical projects, including Robert Calvert's 1974 concept album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, and Mike Oldfield's 1973 Tubular Bells, where he played the Master of Ceremonies; he also recorded this role for Tubular Bells II in 1992 although the main album release featured Alan Rickman instead. Viv Stanshall performed with Grimms , as well as occasionally working with The Alberts and The Temperance Seven.
In 1975 he provided the narration for a rock music version of 'Peter and the Wolf', produced by Robin Lumley and Jack Lancaster and featuring, among others, Gary Moore, Manfred Mann, Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, Stéphane Grappelli, Alvin Lee, Cozy Powell, Brian Eno and Jon Hiseman.
The BBC's One Man's Week, broadcast on 9th April 1975, documented a week in Viv Stanshall's life and included footage of him at The Manor Studio recording studio, where he played with Gaspar Lawal, Mongezi Feza, Anthony White and Derek Quinn.
In 1977, Viv Stanshall and his companion, Pamela 'Ki' Longfellow, moved into a house-boat, The Searchlight, moored on the Thames between Chertsey and Shepperton. During this period Viv Stanshall wrote and recorded Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. He wrote the script for a film adaptation of the same name, later produced for Tony Stratton-Smith's Charisma Records company.
Following Sir Henry, Viv Stanshall wrote the songs for his third album 'Teddy Boys Don't Knit', which included two songs about his family and contributed a lyric to Steve Winwood's 'Arc of a Diver'. He and Longfellow married in 1980 and together they wrote some of the songs they later used for Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera.
In 1982, Viv Stanshall provided a spoken word segment on "Lovely Money", a single by The Damned.
The Stanshalls lived and worked on The Thekla, which Ki sailed 732 nautical miles from Sunderland to be moored in the Bristol Docks. Ki had bought the vessel and converted her into a floating theatre called "The Old Profanity Showboat". Viv Stanshall joined her on it in 1983, when they opened the doors of the theatre. By this time he was already suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, having become addicted to Valium while trying to control his anxiety.
In December 1985, the Old Profanity Showboat produced the debut of their Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera. Viv Stanshall wrote 27 original songs for the opera, sharing book and lyric writing with his wife. The show has proved popular over the years. It was revived in London some years later with Peter Moss as musical director. It was produced in concert form in Bristol in July 2010.
Having returned to London alone in 1986 while his wife recovered from an illness, Viv Stanshall saw Stinkfoot briefly, but unsuccessfully, revived at the Bloomsbury Theatre. After this he returned to the stage again, touring in a solo show "Rawlinson Dog-ends", initially with support from musicians including Jack Bruce. When Bruce quit, over a lack of adequate rehearsals, Moss stepped in to provide bass.
On 9th September 1980, Stanshall married Pamela 'Ki' Longfellow, an American writer who had a daughter from an earlier relationship. The Stanshalls had a daughter, Silky, born the year before they married, on 16th August 1979. She was named after Silky Sullivan, a racehorse that was a childhood favourite of her mother. Viv Stanshall celebrated Silky's birth in "The Tube", and his marriage to Ki in the song, "Bewilderbeeste", both included on his second solo album, Teddy Boys Don't Knit. He later gave his wife the name of "Ki" from a dream. Even though their comic opera Stinkfoot was a success in late 1985, Viv Stanshall returned alone to London after the turn of the year while Longfellow recuperated from an illness brought on by overwork and stress. They would later reunite.
In 1991 Viv Stanshall made a 15-minute autobiographical piece called Vivian Stanshall: The Early Years, aka Crank, for BBC2's The Late Show. He confessed to having been terrified of his father, who he said had always disapproved of him. His last television appearance, on The Late Show, was on 27 November 1991.
A programme for BBC Radio 4, 'Vivian Stanshall: Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man' included an interview with his mother. She insisted his father had loved him. Viv Stanshall said on the same programme that his father had never shown it, not even on his deathbed.