OBITUARY : Vivian Stanshall
Tuesday 07 March 1995
Seen by some as a wild eccentric, and a powerful personality who could be both charming and intimidating, Stanshall was perhaps too large a figure even for the music business to handle. "He was a Renaissance man, who did so many different things incredibly well," his friend and business adviser Glen Colson said.
Stanshall was one of the key figures in the Bonzos, the hugely entertaining comedy revue band who could outdraw many of the biggest names in rock in the late Sixties. A showman, singer, mime artist, compere, trumpet player and composer, he was also a painter, sculptor and writer, blessed with a fevered imagination and a great love of manipulating words and images.
Stanshall was full of contradictions. His voice was decidedly posh, plummy and deep to the extent that people thought he was putting them on. Yet he could adopt the most aggressive cockney accent and prided himself on his ability to belch at deafening volume. As he explained himself, his father, an ex-Army man, insisted that he speak in genteel, modulated tones in his presence. Out on the streets, in his home town of Southend-on-Sea, he could talk as rough as his Teddy-boy mates.
He delighted in adopting different personae, to confuse and amuse. One minute he was an effete hedonist, adopting the airs of Oscar Wilde, the next an irascible peer, or a drunken down-and-out. Sometimes he would don all three guises at once, and in a smart restaurant would demand of the wine waiter: "Do you have any meths?"
Stanshall was born in 1943 at Shillingford, in Oxfordshire. He served in the Navy before attending Central School of Art, in London, where he met Legs Larry Smith, with whom he helped for the Bonzos.
With the Bonzos he swiftly attained a cult status, as he sang with a jaunty and precise diction such songs as "Look at Me, I'm Wonderful", "Canyons of Your Mind", "Jollity Farm" and "Hunting Tigers Out in India", although it was his musical partner Neil Innes who gained the Bonzo's biggest success with "I'm the Urban Spaceman", a Top Five hit in 1968.
The Bonzos, including Viv, were all art students who formed the band originally as a sort of Twenties-style jazz band which eventually turned into a hilariously anarchic revue. They were the darlings of the college circuit, but quickly became accepted on the rock scene, where they supported such bands as Cream. They went to San Francisco with the Byrds and won a dedicated American following. Armed with robots and dummies, the band's show became ever funnier and more elaborate. Stanshall's Elvis Presley impersonations and mimed striptease routine were brilliantly done, and they endeared him not just to their regular audience, but to many starts of the rock fraternity. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Steve Winwood were just some of Viv and Bonzo's greatest fans.
But the strain of touring and the lack of money contributed to turn what had been fun into hard work and misery. On one famous trip to Ireland on a package show that included Yes and the Nice, the band found themselves expected to play on a football pitch near an abattoir, with only an old electric kettle flex for the band's power supply. When it blew up on the first attempt to use it, Stanshall chased his manager across the pitch shouting "De-bag the rotter!"
Eventually Stanshall stunned the band and their followers by announcing their break-up after a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom, in London, in January 1970.
It was naturally expected that Stanshall, regarded by many as a genius, would embark on a consistently productive solo career. Yet his life after the Bonzos was mixture of frustrations and disappointments, mixed with some notable successes. In a sense his thunder was stolen by the more organised and better-disciplined Monty Python team. Stanshall, despite his occasional outburst of aggression, seemed to suffer from a lack of self-confidence and often tried to take on more work than he could comfortably accomplish. Like most of the rock musicians of the Sixties, he became a heavy drinker, enjoying the company of friends like Keith Moon. They set out on many wild forays, perhaps the most notorious being when they dressed up as Nazi officers and headed for the East End, where they caused some shock and dismay. But drinking bouts invariably led to Stanshall's gaining a reputation for unreliability, and even the most sympathetic radio and record producers began to find him too much of a wayward genius to handle.
One of his most loyal friends and assistants was Glen Colson, who had played drums with the Bonzos during their last tour dates. The Bonzos were managed by Tony Stratton-Smith, of Charisma Records, and were later handled by Gail Colson, Glen's sister. "It was around that time I got to know him. I was terrified of him, he was such a powerful personality. But he got on very well with my father, as they had both been in the Navy, and would talk about those days."
Stanshall heard Colson practising his drums and invited him to join the Bonzos to take over from Legs Larry Smith, their regular drummer. "I went out on the road with them. It was after he had shaved off all his hair and told the audience at the Lyceum he was breaking up the band. Nobody knew what he meant and my sister explained they still had some dates to do to pay off their bills. I hung out socially with Viv and he became like a teacher. He was a complete rogue as well. It's strange - there were two sides to him. There was the very personal, friendly guy and the public side. There was a song he wrote called `Ginger Geezer', on his album Teddy Boys Don't Knit, and that's how I remember him - a big ginger geezer!"
After the Bonzos, Stanshall worked on a variety of projects, acting as the master of ceremonies on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and also writing lyrics with Steve Winwood, for whom he composed "Arc of a Diver". His most successful solo project was Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, a bizarre tale, narrated on record and at live appearances by Stanshall in his best BBC Home Service manner. This was later turned into a film starring Trevor Howard. "Vivian had a wonderful voice and he could have earned millions doing voice-overs; but he didn't really want to sell out," Colson says. There was a follow-up album called Sir Henry at Ndidis Kraal on Demon Records. Viv claimed that he didn't remember making it."
Stanshall recorded two solo albums which have recently been discovered by a new generation of admirers: Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974), and Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981). There was also a Bonzos reunion album on which he appeared, Let's Make Up And Be Friendly, released in 1972. During the early Eighties while living on a boat moored in Bristol, with his American wife Pamela, he worked on a stage project called Stinkfoot.
As a surreal humorist Stanshall has been rated alongside Peter Cook, and in the view of his admirers he had the potential to become a successful as John Cleese, if he had not succumbed to personal problems, including excessive drinking and bouts of depression.
"He was an all-rounder who worked in different fields of art, but in the last 10 years he could never actually finish anything," Colson says. "Most recently he was working on a feature film called Loch Ness, doing the voice-overs, and he had signed to Warner Brothers to do another Sir Henry album. He also had some 25 songs recorded which I hope will be put on another solo album."
Stanshall remained a wayward rebel, once holding a reporter captive for three hours, until he would listen to his favourite early rock 'n' roll records like Link Wray's "Rumble". He needed a producer to channel his energies, but always wanted to remain his own boss, having suffered too many perceived indignities in his early experience of the music business.
"He wanted to be really good at everything," Colson says, "the best actor, musician, poet and painter, and it frustrated him that he couldn't be best at everything. He was great friends with Stephen Fry, and they were rather similar in their outlook. But he didn't have many friends in show business, as he was very intimidating. He had an agent, but never wanted to be a rich star. He just wanted to be himself."
Vivian Stanshall, musician: born Shillingford, Oxfordshire 21 March 1943; twice married (one son, one daughter); died London 5 March 1995.
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