60s Today contributor Ian Mole recalls the experience of seeing the Bonzo Dog Band live in 1969.
When you went to see a group in a theatre in the late 60s, there’d usually be at least three other acts supporting the headliners and you’d be sure of some variety. In March 1969, I saw the Bonzos headlining a show at the Empire Theatre in my hometown of Sunderland, and they were supported by three other acts: Mad Dog, Yes and Roy Harper.
I’d never heard of Mad Dog before. They were introduced as, “From London, Mad Dog!” I don’t recall much of their short set, apart from the lead singer’s habit of holding his right arm aloft and beating the air with it during every song. They did a cover version of Moby Grape’s popular song ‘Can’t Be So Bad’, that had been on the very successful CBS compilation ‘The Rock Machine Turns You On’ in 1968. That was the first budget-priced sampler and my big brother had bought it. As it had happened, I’d been expecting to see Moby Grape at Newcastle City Hall about a month before, but the gig was overrunning and the audience had voted for Family to fill the only time-slot left. That had rankled me, as Family were playing in Sunderland the following night while Moby Grape never came to the UK again. That’s democracy for you. By the way, Family were great, and I saw them three more times in 1969.
I’d never heard of Yes, either, but I enjoyed their set. The line-up was Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Peter Banks and Tony Kaye. They did a version of ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story, which might sound strange, but it was great. I was 14 at the time and very impressionable, and I thought Bill Bruford wiping his face with a towel between songs looked good. My mate and I would imitate this for a while afterwards when we were playing out rock star fantasies. Yes weren’t rock stars yet at that time, but they didn’t have to wait long.
In addition to the first two acts, I’d never heard of Roy Harper either. He had very long hair and I think he wore a cowboy hat. I thought he was probably part of the Bonzos’ act, as when the curtains opened to reveal him, he made some quip and appeared to spit something onto the stage. He sat on a stool and I think he only did two long songs while accompanying himself on a semi-acoustic guitar. These were ‘She’s the One’ and ‘McGoohan’s Blues’ from his 1969 album ‘Folkjokeopus’. He was mesmerising and I became a fan.
The first time I remember seeing the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was on a popular TV show called “Thank Your Lucky Stars” around 1965. In those days, their TV image at any rate was very similar to a popular group of the time called the Temperance Seven, who were a pastiche of gentile 1920s popular music. The next time I saw them was on a great kids TV programme called “Do Not Adjust Your Set” in late 1967, and they’d really loosened up that image a lot by then. Several of the future Pythons were involved in that series, and it was just the sort of wacky stuff that my 13-year-old self loved.
By the time of the show at the Empire, they were known as the Bonzo Dog Band, which was usually shortened to the Bonzos. Their two main songwriters were singer Viv Stanshall and guitarist/pianist/vocalist Neil Innes, but drummer Legs Larry Smith was also a key member, as was Roger Ruskin Spear who played sax, as well as operating robots and all sorts of unusual stuff. They didn’t just play their funny songs, but there were a lot of gags going on between songs. There was a sofa on the drum-riser to Legs’s right, and a few songs into the set he went and sat on it while Viv was talking to the audience. He started smiling and waving to us as if he was the Queen. It was a very simple gag but very funny.
A bit later, Viv did a short sketch with another member of the band, maybe Legs again. I don’t remember the details exactly, but I think they were playing the parts of an upper-class Englishman and his Indian servant during the time of the Raj. The dialogue was about the Englishman accusing his servant, whose name was possibly Sanjeev, of going into his wife’s bedroom and ended something like this:
Viv: In her bedroom you took off my wife’s dress.
Sanjeev: Yes, master.
Viv: Then you took off my wife’s petticoat.
Sanjeev: Yes, master.
Viv: Then you took off my wife’s bra.
Sanjeev: Yes, master.
Viv: Then you took off my wife’s pants.
Sanjeev: Yes, master.
Viv: …..and Sanjeev….
Sanjeev: Yes, master?
Viv: Don’t ever wear my wife’s pants again!
Viv also did a piece of mime, in which he was a stripper with an enormous par of boobs. He pranced around the stage juggling them and flipping them over his shoulders with a look of fear on his face as they hurtled back to collide with him.
As regards to the music, they sang their recent big hit ‘Urban Spaceman’, with Viv blowing through that long plastic tube while swinging it round his head. They did the rock and roll pastiche ‘In the Canyons of Your Mind’, which ended with Viv burping loudly into the mic. There was also ‘The Equestrian Statue’, ‘The Intro and the Outro’ and ‘Jollity Farm’, among many others. They were certainly good players, as well as being very funny.
In August of the same year, I saw the Bonzos again at a different venue in Sunderland. It was located in the Locarno Ballroom but had recently acquired a new name: the Fillmore North. Due to the great efforts of local promoter Geoff Docherty, many top bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin played there. Among the support acts that night was Election, whom I enjoyed and I think they had a wah-wah bass. The ballroom layout created a much more intimate atmosphere, with the audience pushed right up against the low stage. There was a large plastic tree at either side of the stage, and I heard Roger Ruskin Spear say to a bandmate, “I see they’ve tried to palm us off with a couple of trees.”
The Bonzos were a large group with a lot of gear, so they were almost spilling off the stage into the audience. I was right near the front and I heard Neil say that he thought he’d blown another speaker. They played many of the same songs from the Empire show but the gags were different, and one of Roger’s robots started blowing bubbles into the audience. Near the end, they inflated a gigantic plastic tube and guided it into the crowd, who wrestled with it and generally went berserk – a mate of mine went home that night with a bit of it in his pocket. At one point, Viv read a poem that included the line “Kick out the jams, mother.” It was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever been to.
There’s a rather sad coda to all this, in that the last time I saw Viv perform, in October 1975, it was all a bit of a shambles. It was at the CCB Theatre in Gordon Street, at the annual Freshers’ Ball at University College London. He was performing solo and was clearly drunk. In contrast to his very suave manner and appearance at the two aforementioned gigs, he was shambling, and looked very different with his long, straggly beard, while he appeared to be wearing a dressing-gown. Anyway, despite fluffing his words here and there, he was carried along by the goodwill of the audience, and even just about got away with a couple of African drummers making an impromptu accompaniment to his classic finale ‘Big Shot’. But Viv was by no means finished; great success lay ahead for him with ‘Rawlinson End’, released in 1978.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.