Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Aug 21st 2009 5:00PM by James Sullivan
An eccentric in the great British tradition, Stanshall became the focal point of England's great eccentric band, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a daffy musical throwback to the 1920s trapped in the forward motion of the 1960s. In its brief run, the Bonzo Dog Band inspired Monty Python's Flying Circus, befriended the Beatles and the Who, and brought prankish irreverence into the psychedelic era.
Originally named the Bonzo Dog Dada Band after an old British cartoon canine and the anything-goes cultural movement known as Dada, the band changed its name to Doo-Dah when members grew tired of explaining what Dada meant. Still, their free-spirited outlook was always dadaesque; the band sometimes numbered a dozen or more onstage, favored spoken-word absurdity and silly costumes, and hired one member as a tap dancer.
But Stanshall, the oddest duck among odd ducks, was the group's acknowledged frontman. The band signed its first recording contract when the surprise success of the New Vaudeville Band's 'Winchester Cathedral' made it clear there was an actual marketplace for the Bonzos' wry brand of music-hall nostalgia. Assigned to write a fresh batch of material, Stanshall showed up in the studio empty-handed: He'd spent the past weeks building rabbit hutches.
'Gorilla,' the band's 1967 debut, featured ridiculous spoofs on 'The Sound of Music' and the band's own traditional-jazz background ('Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold'), as well as an Elvis-style satire that would inspire the name of a future band: Death Cab for Cutie. "I couldn't believe anyone was that bad," recalled Roger Ruskin Spear, who soon joined the Bonzos anyway, bringing along a trunkful of handmade gizmos and exploding robots that added Spike Jones-style sound effects to the musical comedy.
As the Bonzos' popularity expanded, they were invited to appear in the Beatles' 'Magical Mystery Tour' film, and they became the house band on a kids' show called 'Do Not Adjust Your Set,' which also featured future members of Monty Python. In 1968, the group scored its biggest hit with 'I'm the Urban Spaceman,' co-produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. After touring the United States with the Who the following year, however, the group decided to disband. A brief reunion produced the contract-fulfilling album 'Let's Make Up and Be Friendly' in 1972.
Innes went on to collaborate with his friends in Monty Python, writing songs for 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail.' In 1978. he and Python's Eric Idle created the ingenious Beatles parody group the Rutles.
Stanshall, meanwhile, grew increasingly dependent on tranquilizers, supposedly prescribed to offset his stage fright. Despite further troubles with alcohol, he continued to record under various guises, appearing on Mike Oldfield's blockbuster 'Tubular Bells' album and co-writing the title track for his friend Steve Winwood's 'Arc of a Diver.' For several years, Stanshall lived on a houseboat he'd purchased from Denny Laine of Wings. The boat sank at least once. Evidently prone to mishaps, Stanshall died in 1995 in a fire in his north London flat, which was ruled an electrical accident.