Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Gorilla , 7.5/10
Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse , 7.5/10
Tadpoles , 7/10
Keynsham , 6.5/10
Let's Make Up And Be Friendly , 6/10

The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band was one of the greatest groups in the history of British rock, despite the fact that they were essentially a cross between the music-hall of the 1950s and the theatre of the absurd. Their songs were parodies of musical styles of the past, with lyrics that mocked various aspects of British life, but the eclectic collage of their repertory was, as a whole, much more than a mere parody. Albums such as Gorilla (1967) and Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse (1968) drew from every genre that came to hand, but in particular from everything that was "kitsch", running the gamut from operetta to doo-wop, from TV commercials to marching bands, from Broadway showtunes to big-band swing, from folk ballads to patriotic choruses; and employing a stunning variety of instruments and vocal registers. Their endeavor was, in fact, very similar to the post-modernist sabotage carried out in California by Frank Zappa. Miraculously, such a unhortodox cauldron of musical ingredients coalesced in songs that were concise and catchy. Tadpoles (1969) tried to sell to the masses that hidden pop appeal. The baroque clockwork mechanisms of Keynsham (1969) and Let's Make Up And Be Friendly (1972) were primed to detonate a random sequence of irresistible melodies and sound effects. Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974), the first solo album by Bonzo Band leader Vivian Stanshall (1), was no less anarchic. They were the greatest nonsensical artists since Dada, the musical equivalent of Monty Python and, perhaps, the best arrangers of their age. Slush (1972) is their testament: someone laughing in heaven, surrounded by angelic violins and organ.
(English translation by Norman Riding:)

The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were one of the greatest groups in the history of rock music, despite the fact that they were always essentially a schoolboy joke.

Formed in London in 1965 by a group of art students, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were not meant to be a rock group and still less a band with a well-defined line-up (for some gigs as many as thirty of them showed up), but over the course of two years a nucleus of "musicians" took shape: Rodney Slater (saxophone), Roger "Ruskin" Spear (all sorts of objects and machines), Vivian Stanshall (vocals, trumpet, ukulele) and Neil Innes (vocals, guitar, keyboard).

These jokers were inspired explicitly by Tristan Tzara (Dada) but, from concert to concert, the Bonzo Band became an act in the purest tradition of English music hall. While scenographically they went back to the theatre of the absurd, to Dadaism and futurism, their songs were all parodies of musical styles of the past, with lyrics that sent up various aspects of British life.

The Bonzo Band drew from every genre that came to hand, but in particular from everything that was "kitsch", from operetta to doo-wop vocal quartets, from TV commercials to old "78"s of the twenties, from Broadway musicals to swing, from rural folk music to military marches, from patriotic choruses to Merseybeat pop songs. The operation was in effect very similar to that being conducted by Frank Zappa in California, but with a sense of humour more ingenuous than sardonic.

Of no less importance was the variety (and execution) of the instruments employed, practically the whole encyclopaedia of music, including the most auto-ironic synthesiser of the decade. Miraculously, this heterodox tumult of musical ingredients crystallised in songs that were concise and catchy. Although they were hardly a serious group on stage, all their songs were chiselled down to the least detail. As arrangers they could have instructedGeorge Martin (another self-taught genius coming from the culture of the music hall).

The parody thus proceeded on two parallel planes: the visual-gestural and the sound. Their shows recaptured the canvas of the strolling players. Stanshall played the showman, alternating jokes with pantomime. Roger Spear furnished a laboratory of mannequins and robots, as abstruse as they were useless, while the others sang and danced decked out in clownish fashion.

It took two years for the group to realise the artistic potential of this show and to transfer it from suburban pubs to the recording studio.

The first album, Gorilla (Liberty, 1967) opens the ball with colourful vignettes like Jollity Farm (banjo a` la New Orleans steamboat, oompah-oompah trombone, children's nursery rhymes, onomatopoeic chorus of voices and instruments which imitate animal cries, and finale with a cartoon march) and Mickey's Son (Disneyland band to a ragtime rhythm), with stylistic parodies like Big Shot (a jazz film-noir soundtrack), and two surreal instrumentals in Jazz and Music For The Head Ballet. And a hundred more miniature tracks of irreverent irony, tons of tasteless and absurd bubblegum. But all ingenious ideas, arranged with surrealistic relish, with nonsense sound effects which suddenly cut across the melody. On the whole, rock music's most audacious and finished experiment in sound collage, even though done by an amateur band.

Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse (Liberty, 1968) may be classified more properly as a rock and roll and rhythm and blues album, fortified with more resolute and enthralling arrangements. Alongside hard-rock parodies of the freaks (We Are Normal) and DJ rhythm & blues (Trouser Press) stand more resolute and hyper-arranged versions of their demented choruses (Rockaliser Baby, with classical piano, noises, and beat choruses); and outlandish electronic blues-rock songs like(Can Blue Man Sing The Blues) are followed by nostalgic evocations like My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe (Parisian accordion, tenor chansonnier, ragtime pianola, circus trumpet and trombone, and the inevitable gag-finale with a tip-tap on the xylophone and an interminable top note); with a refined and exhilarating vertex in the swing-band music of Hello Mabel ("shooby-da-shooby-da wah-wah-wah" with delicious saloon bar piano solos, xylophone, trumpet la Armstrong, tip-tap, chorus of sheep, ragtime dance band); and culminates in the stately sabbath of Eleven Moustachoed Daughters.

Tadpoles (1969) marks a turn towards commercialisation. Less paradoxical and more pop, the album unveils chart hits like Mr. Apollo (a parody of rock stars, with a pub chorus to a hard rhythm) and especially I Am The Urban Spaceman, parody of the superheroes (a march with flute, banjo and trombone), with a satirical vertex in the impassioned crooning la Elvis Presley of Canyons Of Your Mind (and anything but delicate lyrics, swinging pianola and demented howling). But there are too ostentatious celebrations in the British mould like Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah, with bewitching clarinet, jungle noises and a martial pianola rhythm; a Monty Python-style parody of opinion polls (Shirt), and free evocations like the smoky and decadent night-club jazz of Laughing Blues.

Keynsham (UA, 1969) further refines the material. Every track is now a baroque clockwork mechanism, primed to detonate a succession of sound effects: the frenetic tip-tap of Mr. Slater's Parrott (with alarm clock, swing dance band, parrot voices, whistling); ceremonial funeral music for synth and cornet (Noises For The Leg); an epileptic rhythm and blues (Tent). The masterpiece is perhaps the nostalgic Sport, a Renaissance fanfare with a serious chorus of alpinists.

Neil Innes decided to venture into psychedelic rock, and the chain reaction produced denser and sharper songs, with varied instrumental hailstorms: the vertiginous country & western of Labio Dental Fricative (the 1970 single), the 9-5 Pollution Blues in the style of Cream (single by Innes, 1970), the acrobatic collage of Release Me (single by Spear, 1971), one of their little poems on the clown's melancholy, the absurd doo-wop, with operetta choruses and country violin ofKing Of The Scurf, on Let's Make Up And Be Friendly (1972). A large part of their material was released by occasional impromptu groups formed by one or other of the leaders (Sean Head Showband, Gargantua Chams, Giant Kinetic Wardrobe and the like).

The Bonzos were alone in Great Britain in making music that proceeded by accumulating gags in the manner of Frank Zappa, even if with less awareness and socio-political engagement. In their case the music of the absurd serves above all as an exorcism of the past. They were the ultimate representatives of English music hall, which had already infected in different ways the Kinks and the Family.

The sense of a similar operation, a message for posterity, is contained in a brief song entitled Slush (1972): a delicate organ which opens the vault of Heaven, paradisiacal violins, peace and silence; except for a laugh, which recurs ceaselessly, always identical, which hovers over everything, and which remains when everything else, organ and violins, has disappeared, to repeat itself immutably for eternity in the absolute void.

The Bonzos were the musical equivalent of Monty Python. They formalised and brought to perfection the satirical seam of rock which was born with Chuck Berry and, passing through the Kinks and Zappa, reached them under false pretences. They made it however their declared objective and an end in itself.

History Of The Bonzos (UA, 1974) is a fantastic and exhilarating anthology. Cornology (1992) is a boxed set of three CDs which assembles all the albums.

Not by hazard the two leaders of the parody group par excellence can really be counted amongst the most original provokers of decadent rock. After the dissolution of the Bonzo Band, Vivian Stanshall alternated little minstrel-show operas escaped from the deluge, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (WB, 1974), an absurd concept, rich in vocal gags and outlandish rhythms, dedicated to one of his imaginary characters Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1978).

Meanwhile Innes dedicated himself to television satire, recorded How Sweet To Be An Idiot (WB, 1973), worked with Monty Python and directed the TV show of the Rutles (1977), a comic parody of the Beatles.

Stanshall, the last of the great British eccentrics, died in a fire in 1995.

La Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band fu uno dei massimi complessi della storia della musica rock, a dispetto del fatto che fu sempre e soprattutto uno scherzo da liceali.

Formata nel 1965 a Londra da un gruppo di studenti d'arte la Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band non era nata per essere un complesso rock e tanto meno un complesso con una formazione ben definita (ad alcuni concerti si presentarono in trenta), ma nel giro di due anni si delineo` un nucleo di "musicisti": Rodney Slater (sassofono), Roger "Ruskin" Spear (ogni sorta di oggetti e macchine), Vivian Stanshall (canto, tromba, ukulele) e Neil Innes (canto, chitarra, tastiere).

I mattacchioni si erano ispirati esplicitamente a Tristan Tzara (Dada) ma, di concerto in concerto, la Bonzo Band divenne un numero nella piu` pura tradizione del music-hall inglese. Se scenograficamente si rifacevano ancora al teatro dell'assurdo, al dadaismo e al futurismo, le canzoni erano tutte parodie di generi musicali del passato con liriche che prendevano in giro aspetti della vita britannica.

La Bonzo Band attingeva a tutti i generi che capitavano loro sotto mano, ma in particolare a tutto cio` che era "kitsch", dall'operetta ai quartetti vocali doo-wop, dai commercial televisivi ai vecchi 78 giri degli anni '20, dalle commedie musicali di Broadway allo swing, dal folk rurale alle marcette militari, dai cori patriottici alle canzonette del Merseybeat. La prassi era in effetti molto simile a quanto stava facendo Frank Zappa in California, ma con un senso dello humour piu` ingenuo che sardonico.

Non da meno era la varieta` (e competenza) degli strumenti utilizzati, praticamente tutta l'enciclopedia musicale, compreso il sintetizzatore piu` auto-ironico del decennio. Miracolosamente, questo tumulto eterodosso di ingredienti musicali si cristallizzava in canzoni concise e orecchiabili. A dispetto della scarsa serieta` del gruppo sul palco, ogni canzone dei loro album era cesellata nei minimi particolari. Come arrangiatori potevano insegnare a George Martin (altro genio autodidatta proveniente dalla cultura del music-hall).

La parodia procedeva quindi su due piani paralleli: quello visivo-gestuale e quello sonoro. I loro spettacoli riprendevano il canovaccio dei guitti. Stanshall faceva da imbonitore, alternando barzellette a pantomime. Roger Spear allestiva un laboratorio di manichini e robot tanto astrusi quanto inutili, mentre gli altri cantavano e danzavano abbigliati in fogge clownesche.

Ci vollero due anni perche' il gruppo capisse il potenziale artistico di quello show e lo trasferisse dai pub di periferia agli studi discografici.

Il primo album, Gorilla (Liberty, 1967), apre le danze con vignette colorite come Jollity Farm (banjo da battello di New Orleans, trombone umpa-umpa, filastrocca per bambini, coro onomatopeico di voci e di strumenti che imitano i versi degli animali, e finale con marcetta da cartoon) e Mickey's Son (banda di Disneyland a ritmo di ragtime), con parodie di generi come Big Shot (colonna sonora jazzata da film-noir), e due strumentali surreali come Jazz e Music For The Head Ballet. E cento altri brani-miniatura d'ironia dissacrante, tonnellate di bubblegum scipito e demenziale. Ma tutti spunti geniali, arrangiati con gusto surreale, con eventi sonori nonsense che attraversano d'improvviso la melodia. Nell'insieme, il piu` audace e compiuto esperimento di montaggio sonoro del rock, seppur dovuto a una banda amatoriale.

Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse (Liberty, 1968) si classifica piu` propriamente come album di rock and roll e rhythm and blues, forte di arrangiamenti piu` grintosi e trascinanti. Alle parodie hard-rock dei freak (We Are Normal) e rhythm and blues dei disc-jockey (Trouser Press) unisce versioni piu` grintose e iper-arrangiate dei loro ritornelli demenziali (Rockaliser Baby, con piano classico, rumori, e coretti beat); e a bislacchi blues-rock elettronici (Can Blue Man Sing The Whites) fa seguire evocazioni nostalgiche come My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe (fisarmonica parigina, chansonnier tenore, pianola ragtime, tromba e trombone da circo, e l'immancabile finale-gag con un tip-tap allo xilofono e un acuto interminabile); con un vertice raffinato ed esilarante nella musica da swing-band di Hello Mabel ("shooby-da-shooby-da ua-ua-ua" con assoli deliziosi di piano da saloon, xilofono, tromba alla Armstrong, tip-tap, coro di pecore, orchestrina ragtime); e culmine nel sabba maestoso di Eleven Moustachoed Daughters.

Tadpoles (1969) rappresenta una svolta verso la commercializzazione. Meno paradossale e piu` canzonettistico, l'album sfodera hit da classifica come Mr. Apollo (parodia dei divi rock, con un coro da pub a ritmo hard) e soprattutto I Am The Urban Spaceman, parodia dei super-eroi (una marcia con flauto, banjo e trombone), con vertice satirico nel crooning appassionato alla Elvis Presley di Canyons Of Your Mind (e liriche tutt'altro che delicate, pianola swingante e urla demenziali). Ma non mancano pompose celebrazioni di stampo britannico come Hunting Tigers Out In Indiah, con clarinetto incantatore, rumori di jungla e una marziale cadenza di pianola; una parodia alla Monty Python dei sondaggi d'opinione (Shirt), e libere evocazioni come il jazz da night-club fumoso e decadente di Laughing Blues.

Keynsham (UA, 1969) raffina ulteriormente la materia. Ogni brano e` ormai una barocco meccanismo ad orologeria, caricato per detonare effetti sonori a catena: il tip-tap frenetico di Mr. Slater's Parrott (con orologio a sveglia, orchestrina swing, voce di pappagallo, fischietti); musica cerimoniale funebre per synth e cornetta (Noises For The Leg); un'epilessi rhythm and blues (Tent). Il capolavoro e` forse la nostalgica Sport, una fanfara rinascimentale con un coro serioso di alpini.

Neil Innes decide di spingere sul tasto del rock psichedelico, e la reazione a catena produce canzoni piu` corpose e graffianti, con grandinate strumentali varie: il country & western vertiginoso di Labio Dental Fricative (il 45 giri del 1970), il 9-5 Pollution Blues in chiave Cream (45 giri di Innes, 1970), il collage acrobatico di Release Me (45 giri di Spear, 1971), uno dei loro piccoli poemi sulla malinconia del clown, il doo-woop assurdo con cori da operetta e violini country di King Of The Scurf, su Let's Make Up And Be Friendly (1972). Buona parte del loro materiale viene divulgato da complessi estemporanei costituiti per l'occasione da uno dei leader (Sean Head Showband, Gargantua Chams, Giant Kinetic Wardrobe e similia).

I Bonzo sono gli unici a realizzare in Gran Bretagna una musica che procede per accumulo di gag alla maniera di Frank Zappa, anche se con meno consapevolezza e piu` disimpegno . Nel loro caso la musica dell'assurdo vale soprattutto come esorcismo del passato. Sono gli estremi rappresentanti del music-hall inglese, che ha gia` contagiato per vie diverse i Kinks e i Family.

Il senso di una simile operazione, il messaggio per i posteri, e` racchiuso in un breve brano intitolato Slush (1972): un organo soave che apre la volta del cielo, violini paradisiaci, pace e silenzio; salvo una risata, che si ripete senza sosta, sempre uguale, e che si libra sopra tutto, e che rimane quando tutto, organo e violini, e` scomparso, a ripetersi immutabile in eterno nel vuoto assoluto.

I Bonzos furono l'equivalente musicale dei Monty Python. Formalizzarono e portarno alla perfezione il filone satirico del rock che era nato con Chuck Berry e, passando attraverso i Kinks e Zappa, era arrivato fino a loro sotto mentite spoglia. Loro ne fecero invece l'obiettivo dichiarato e fine a se stesso.

History Of The Bonzos (UA, 1974) e` una fantastica ed esilarante antologia. Cornology (1992) e` un boxset di tre CD che raccoglie tutti gli album.

Non a caso fra i piu` originali provocatori del rock decadente si conteranno proprio i due leader del complesso-parodia per eccellenza. Dopo lo scioglimento della Bonzo Band, Vivian Stanshall alterno` operine da minstrel-show scampato al diluvio, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (WB, 1974), a concept demenziali, ricchi di gag vocali e di ritmiche bislacche, dedicati a un suo immaginario Sir Henry At Rawlinson End (1978).

Innes si diede invece alla satira televisiva, registro` How Sweet To Be An Idiot (WB, 1973), lavoro` con i Monty Python e allesti` lo spettacolo televisivo dei Rutles (1977), una comica parodia dei Beatles.

Stanshall, l'ultimo dei grandi eccentrici Britannici, e` morto in un incendio nel 1995. Innes e` morto alla fine del 2019.

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