POP / The Bonzos: thanks for the memory loss: Too loud, too bad, too mad? But always entertaining. The Bonzo Dog Band split in 1970, but what with the fan clubs and the re-releases and the video retrospectives, they won't lie down. Robert Hanks reports

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The Independent Online
The authorities who deal with these things haven't yet got round to putting up a blue plaque to commemorate the origins of the Bonzo Dog Band. But that can only, surely, be because they're spoiled for choice.

They could put it, for instance, on the site of the Tiger's Head in Catford, where the group used to play regular dates, and met its first manager, Reg Tracey - he was also Kenny Ball's manager and, according to one version, brother-in-law. Or it could be at the Bird in Hand in Forest Hill, where they discovered that landlords would actually pay them to play. Or at the New Cross Arms, where in 1964, or possibly '65, Neil Innes first met Rodney Slater and Vivian Stanshall.

Slater, the Bonzos' saxophone player, offers the definitive account of the band's origins, however: 'In 1962 at 162a Rosendale Road, West Dulwich - it's got a green door now, it didn't have in those days - right at the end of September. It might have been October.'

In the normal course of things, you wouldn't think anybody would want to commemorate a group who had only one hit ('I'm the Urban Spaceman', Top 5 in October 1968) in eight years of existence, five professionally. The normal course of things isn't somewhere you expect to find the Bonzos, though. They rubbed shoulders with the rock establishment - pally with Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon - but they always stood to one side of it, concentrating on their repertoire of novelty foxtrots of the Twenties, rococo English surrealism and rock parodies.

So the Bonzos have enjoyed an unexpected afterlife of fan-clubs, re-released records and, tonight, the honour of a video retrospective at the National Film Theatre. The video show was originally scheduled for the NFT2 auditorium, but owing to popular demand has been shifted to the larger NFT1. Veronica Taylor, responsible for programming the event, has been alarmed by the intensity of public response: at the time of writing, it was all but sold out.

Pinning down the Bonzos' appeal isn't easy. Danny Barbour is the band's self- appointed embalmer - accumulating an extensive Bonzos archive, answering letters on their behalf, badgering record companies into putting out their records. But ask him why he likes them and he can only say, helplessly, 'They make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.'

This isn't a reaction most people would associate with the Bonzos. It isn't just the variety of stuff they played - to begin with, they played nothing but covers of old 78s, only going electric around 1966. They also just didn't play that well. Roger Ruskin Spear (saxophone, exploding sculptures and papier-mache heads) says that 'The Bonzos started from the throw-outs of various jazz bands. We were all thrown out for playing too loudly and too badly, and we ended up playing together.' He hung up his saxophone in 1982 on the grounds that he wasn't very good. Rodney Slater's assessment of their output is: 'Some of it is quite competent, some of it is bloody rubbish. But always entertaining.'

You can see why Barbour avoids characterising the music too specifically, though. The sheer variety is complicated by a dichotomy between Stanshall (lead vocals, trumpet, etc) and Innes (keyboards, guitars), who between them wrote the bulk of the original music. Stanshall wanted to chase his own fantasies - the nostalgic, very English grotesquerie that surfaced in later projects such as Sir Henry at Rawlinson End and the musical Stinkfoot. Innes, in songs like 'Keynsham' and 'You Done My Brain In', was betraying the leanings towards conventional pop that helped him to write the brilliant Beatles parodies for Eric Idle's Rutles project.

The division was reflected among the other members. 'Legs' Larry Smith (drums, tap-dancing) takes Innes' side: 'Neil was always the stable guy in the band, he was just Mr Nice Guy. Viv was always just appallingly arrogant.' Spear, on the other hand, more or less opted out of the musical side of the band when 'Neil started fancying himself as a sort of John Lennon-cum-Paul McCartney . . . That's when I started saying, 'I can't play any of this stuff, it's rubbish.' So I started making things that blew up, and robots that sort of did things.'

The more obvious comparison with the Beatles would be Innes as a safe, gentle McCartney to Stanshall's fruity- voiced, menacing Lennon. And as in that case, the divisions were fertile. Innes talks in terms of a creative division of labour - 'Vivian had a certain charm, but no shape at all. I could come up with shape, he could come up with inspiration.' He regrets, though, having always been the one who had to work out chord sequences - 'I had to give shape to the group, and that forced me to become this sort of fuddy-duddy.' The way he remembers it, the band started out by arguing terribly: 'Then the arguments stopped; in a curious way we all got tolerant of each other, and that was the writing on the wall.'

The split, which was fairly amicable, finally came in 1970. Afterwards, 'Legs' Larry Smith toured as tap-dancer for Eric Clapton and Elton John. After living in Italy and Holland, he is settled near Henley, and has plans to take a film project to Hollywood. But then, don't we all?

Spear toured for a while with his Giant Kinetic Wardrobe ('A robot version of the Bonzos'), before setting up the Slightly Dangerous Brothers ('A human version of the Giant Kinetic Wardrobe'). Since 1973, he has been teaching three-dimensional design at Chelsea College of Art.

Innes went on to become Monty Python's chief tunesmith, appearing on BBC2 in Rutland Weekend Television and The Innes Book of Records, and on ITV in numerous advertising campaigns. He now writes and presents children's television (including 112 episodes of The Raggy Dolls).

Slater left the music business, to spend 20 years as a psychiatric social worker; but he retired early a couple of years ago and is a full-time musician again.

Stanshall has been involved with various films, records, stage shows and advertising campaigns (notably for Ruddles Ale). He was the only surviving member of the band I didn't manage to speak to; Dennis Cowan, the bass-player, died some years ago.

The former Bonzos have complex feelings about the band, but perhaps Roger Ruskin Spear speaks for them all when he says: 'My impressions at the moment are that something happened a few years ago, and I've forgotten about it.' Just as well everybody else remembers.

(Photographs omitted)

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