“VIVIAN, YOU LOOK AWFUL - WHERE’S YOUR SHOES?”
~ an interview with
Some days are made in heaven, some days are made in hell and some inhabit a nowhere-land somewhere in-between. As we stood on Vivian Stanshall’s Muswell Hill doorstep, wondering when he would respond to the ringing bell, we were none too sure which category to place this particular day in. It didn’t take long to find out however. Laura Hayden, Vivian’s friend and former Personal Assistant who had set up the interview for us, was just starting to apologise for Vivian’s apparent absence when she turned sharply and, forgetting the sentence she was in the middle of, gasped.
“Vivian, you look awful. Where’s your shoes?” exclaimed Laura, and we turned to see not the moustachioed erstwhile Bonzo we were expecting, but something sadly different. Laura was right - he did look awful. An apparently elderly man, staggering down the road clutching a carved stick and a white plastic carrier bag containing a freshly purchased bottle of Mr. Smirnoff’s elixir. Mumbling apologies and fending off Laura’s concerned scoldings, he shambled up the steps towards the front door...
Two weeks previously, when the interview had been arranged, Stanshall was, according to Laura, in good shape; happy to be interviewed for the Terrascope and off the booze that has haunted so much of the last twenty-odd years of his life. What had happened to him since, apart from the fact that he was suffering from a cold, was information that we weren’t party to and which we didn’t wish to intrude upon. We followed him upstairs to his flat, all the time wondering if we should call the whole thing off for the time being, but knowing that we had come too far and waited too long to do the sensible thing and leave. We knew that all chance of a structured interview that would chart the works of a genius was now a forlorn dream at the end of a bottle. But still we went on, and what follows are the results of our labours.
While Vivian lurched this way and that, mumbling “we must give these gentlemen a cup of tea or coffee” and while Laura volunteered to search out some mugs, we stood around, taking in the scene. The place was a clutter of musical instruments, tapes, Vivian’s paintings, drawings and works in hand, an empty and dusty fish-tank and gold and silver discs on the walls. We finally plugged in and were ready to roll and with Vivian settled down beneath a framed publicity shot of biG GRunt but looking a shadow of the man in the photograph, we let the interview begin.
VS: I’m sorry I can’t see you, I haven’t got my glasses on. Are you see-able?
PT: I think so! At least, I can see my feet. On the end of my legs.
I don’t think you’re going to get the kind of interview that you want. On the other hand, I positively refuse to do snappy half-liners. If one turns up, which I doubt, particularly since I’ve got such a wretched cold, I just refuse to do it. My old writing partner, Neil Innes, will turn you up the stuff of television. That is not to be derogatory - I kind of envy him being able to do that as I refuse to do it myself.
Do you think Neil Innes has the type of personality that can coast through life and that he can consequently take life easier?
Yes. Yes, I do. [pauses to pour himself a stiff drink]
You were born on March 21st, 1943. Where, though?
I’ve read Oxfordshire elsewhere, that your family had been evacuated out of London.
That’s bullshit. I truly was evacuated out. Although I don’t sound it, I’m an East-Ender. Grove Road. And my father came back from the war full of swank, determined that he was officer class - which he wasn’t! So I went through this horrible period when I went out speaking in an East London accent otherwise I was gonna get hit, and when I got home it was “Hello Mama” and “Hello Papa”. To some extent I forgive him that. What I don’t forgive him is his intolerance. At the time the BBC had a commonality of speech, you didn’t hear accents or dialects.
That continued right through the 1950s.
Mmmm. I mean, he cleaned up Belsen but never spoke about it. The only thing I could speak to him about was snooker, and that only later. Although it doesn’t look it at the moment, I have considerably long hair. I had very long hair and I was a teddy boy. Also, I was clearly an artist. There was no question of my being anything other. I tried, dear God! Although he’s been dead for two years I’m still terrified of him now.
How much, do you think, of your father is in you?
Too much for comfort.
So obviously you were very distant from your father, but what about your mum?
I phone her every night.
Do you think your artistic side comes from your mother then?
And your father...
He was rigid that anything to do with art and fart was worthless. He compared me to a Romany which is odd, because I was nearly married to a Romany princess.
I’ve read somewhere that Ian Dury once taught you at Walthamstow College.
No! Jesus Christ, we’re contemporaries.
That’s what I thought. Did you know him well?
You went to various schools in London. Ian went to Chelsea which was the school for painting. I went to Central because that was the school for printing. And you went to Royal College to get rich! But I did have the choice. We all got pissed in the same place. So I can ‘phone Ian now if I do anything that is of laudable substance.
While you were at art college you had a brief spell in the Merchant Navy I believe.
I had to. Because I had the balls to go up to the Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art with my portfolio and say “take me on”, and at that time you needed ‘A’ levels. My father needed to pay thirty quid which was bugger all. It was all to do with how much he earned. So I came back to Leigh On Sea full of hooray to ask for the thirty quid and he said “You’re not going to become one of those”. And so I went into the Merchant Navy.
To earn the money and continue in art college?
Yeah. I worked as a fairground barker. In the winter I painted the pictures for the fairground horses, in the summer I was a busker and a bingo caller. He absolutely wouldn’t shell out for that. I knew that if I went on the bingo halls or something I would simply drink it away. I would use it on clothes and I would use it on women and probably in duplicate, if I stayed shoreside I would spend it.
How long did you stay in the Merchant Navy?
Just six months. I went round the world. When I came back I was literally a man of the world. I was taught by Peter Blake at one point.
While you were at college you were living with Rodney Slater I believe, is that right?
No. He was at St. Martin’s - I did eventually go to live with him, he had all these instruments lying about. I found that I can, not very well, but I can play anything. The whole place was littered with sarrusophones and helicons, and so I would pick any damn thing up and honk it or strum it.
This would have been 1962, ’63?
1962. Rodney had this bloody great band at the Royal College of Art. I don’t know, about forty of fifty of them.
All on stage at once?
Yes. People kept saying, “we’re sensible, we’re painters” and dropping out. So it came down to about thirty or forty. But I remember with a poignancy that I was playing in a boozer, the Deuragon Arms, with sixteen banjo players, me mincing along the table - I was always a terrible show-off and queen - and one piano.
And the line-up eventually came down to the nucleus of the Bonzos. At what point did it become the Bonzo Dog Da Da or Doo Dah Band?
[Still pursuing a related strand] It never occurred to me to write my own stuff so I was singing telephone directories. Well, we were all at art school. I don’t think any of us took it seriously.
So you came down to a nucleus of people...
They fell about us. As I said earlier, they said, “I’m a painter, I’m a print maker, I’m a this, that and the other”. I felt this was a bloody sight more fun. Moreover, I couldn’t see any difference!
It’s all art!
[An historical interjection. By now the Bonzos were roughly: Vivian, Rodney and Neil with Roger Ruskin Spear, Sam Spoons (Martin Ash), Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell plus, for a while, Leon Williams, Raymond Lewitt, John Parry and maybe Sydney Nicholls.]
What surprises me is that in 1966, when the first Bonzos single is released, it contains covers of ’30s songs when other bands like the Pretty Things are moving from R’n’B to psychedelia.
(A little tangentially, probably referring to Pretty Things reunions) I think it’s desperate. I think what they are doing is desperate. Next year I shall be fifty. Apart from my long hair and eccentric appearances... Even if I had hair on top, I don’t want to go out waving and bashing a guitar - I think it would look bloody stupid.
Was Legs Larry Smith in the Bonzos in those early days or was he a later addition?
No. Legs Larry Smith... I loaned him that tuba and said “Learn that and you get into the band”. He learned two notes, none of them involving a valve... But Legs Larry had a charisma. He came out, waved, blew kisses - people went mad! I recognised that and said, “keep him in the band”. Rodney, who founded the band with me, hated him and I think he still does.
Of course Legs Larry did eventually make it on to drums.
I loved his drums... truly absurd.
Was Bob Kerr in the band?
Who were the Bonzos who left to Join the New Vaudeville Band?
The shitbags! Well you see Neil was the finest musician, although I would dispute that now because Rodney plays wonderfully. I’ve never been a musician... A good composer, but... You can’t see them around here but I’ve got about two hundred instruments.
All of which you can do something with.
Yeah, in certain keys. So when we started, when Neil and I started making our own music, people dropped out of the band unless they could play.
I always saw the partnership between you and Neil as...
Sweet and sour!
And as Lennon and McCartney figures. Neil as McCartney with the nice tunes, and you as Lennon with more... anguish.
How to answer this with grace?
Well without grace then!
Oh yes. You’d like that. I got on with McCartney, and with Lennon particularly. I was living just round the corner from Joe Orton. Lennon was agitating for this homosexual madman which didn’t really affect Brian Epstein save that Brian Epstein had the wisdom to see that if any of the Beatles were involved with homosexuals then it wouldn’t be a very good idea for business. John couldn’t give a shit. Orton lived just round the corner. And in that hideous Rolls Royce he (Lennon) conked out at my place or dropped me off. It depended on how drunk he was. And we had some terrible rows but we got on... Well, we just got on.
Was the Bonzos appearance, singing ‘Death Cab for Cutie’, in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the start of a career proper?
Did that get you through to a greater audience though?
I wish it had done! I think it was pretty blinking good. What really and profoundly pissed me off was that we didn’t get on the LP. I thought it was mean, that. I think it was Paul McCartney! McCartney... Have you heard that oratorio?
Then we can’t discuss it, can we?
Let’s assume then that you don’t think much of it.
No I don’t. I think it’s shit. I mean, for Christ’s sake, if I had Carl Davis knocking out the notes and the pieces - I think I could be considered a genius! Tootling around Liverpool ... I could tootle round bloody Walthamstow! Does that make me Chas ‘n’ Dave?
I hope not!
I’m sorry you said that. I rather like Chas ‘n’ Dave.
So, in 1967, things started happening, You had the Gorilla LP out and the ‘Equestrian Statue’ single...
What? Equestrian Statue? I think it sums up the era.
Maybe it sums up you...
Maybe it does! But at that time you also did sessions for John Peel - The Craig Torso Shows. Was Peel a tremendous help in pushing you out to the masses?
Absolutely. You see, before that time you didn’t have anything apart from thrashing. Not that I’ve got anything against thrashing. It wasn’t so much John Peel, it was John Walters - he did marvellous things. I mean, I’ve played with some rather marvellous men - Danny Thompson, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and I’m honoured, truly, working with people of that ilk.
[Meanwhile, in 1968, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, with regular Bonzo spots, ran for two series on ITV. Sam Spoons and Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell left the band. Two bass players followed in quick succession, Joel Druckman and Dave Clague, before Dennis Cowan stepped in. The ‘Urban Spaceman’ single and the superb ‘The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse’ LP were released in the autumn. The year ended with the Bonzos on ‘Colour Me Pop’ on BBC2 on 21st December.]
One of the people that your name was linked with in ’68/’69 was Arthur Brown. You were reported to be writing the Brain Opera...
Yes we did.
Only a couple of songs on a Peel session and about a minute or so on an Arthur Brown LP ever surfaced. Was it actually completed?
Yeah. I wrote it. But Arthur had something like a four and a half (octave) range, He was an incredible singer and he was a freak.
Did he have any hand in the writing?
But he would have been involved in the performing?
Christ, we went down to... I don’t know where... Arthur was on drugs and I was on booze. Jesus, that’s a fucking awful painting...
[Whilst Vivian sends Laura off to find a painting of his depicting “a leonine monster holding a maiden”, we’ll have another word from our resident historian. 1969 saw two American tours. Peel sessions were, as ever, a regular occurrence. The masterful ‘Mr Apollo’ single was released. The largely retrogressive ‘Tadpoles’ LP was followed by the more serious and desperate (but wonderful) ‘Keynsham’, itself spawning two further singles. But, back to Vivian...]
Have you got it yet, Laura? It’s behind the plastic patient’s bag... blue top. I shouldn’t be making her do this, it’s dictatorial. That’s my father - not very pleasant. It’s ultramarine, Laura. Blue celestial sky...
Can we meanwhile ask you about a Bonzos song called ‘It Was A Great Party till Somebody Found The Hammer’? It was part of your live act and supposedly planned as the B-side of a follow-up to ‘Urban Spaceman’. Was it ever recorded?
Oh, yes it was.
In the studio, or live?
At The Marquee. We recorded it and the recording company... I don’t suppose it matters now but it was very hurtful then. There was no meritocracy. And so whilst I... Jimi and Eric and people are clapping it round my house and equally people like Eric Burdon and Alan Price were making noises... the system in this country.
[Unable to find the painting, Laura came back twice for additional directions. Cautiously arising to his feet, Vivian made his way out of the room to show her where he expected the errant work to be found. After pointing out the vague area in question he slowly returned, followed a couple of minutes later by Laura, triumphantly armed with said painting. Vivian studied it critically for a few moments before putting it to one side.]
There were several short-lived bands, each doing a handful of gigs and Peel sessions, that you put together after the demise of the Bonzos at the end of the 60s. The first of these was biG GRunt, with Roger Ruskin Spear and Denis Cowan from the Bonzos. Why did these bands fall apart?
Because I had thirty Africans working with me. And this is post-’Zulu’. I had Reebop Kwaku Baah and... they were just too African for English people.
That’s after biG GRunt, isn’t it?
You had biG GRunt, Freaks, the Human Beans....
They were all Africans, all playing talking drums.
I saw you on stage in ’75. There was a lot of drumming and drummers, and you still had Bubs White with you - the enormous guitarist from biG GRunt.
Yes, I did.
Whatever happened to him?
He became a physician. And I could never dig him out, because he was the best. I mean, Jesus could that guy play!
[Bubs White played on the Bonzo’s “contractual obligation” album in 1972 entitled ‘Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly’, itself a gem]
Throughout the 1970s you spent a lot of time with Keith Moon. He produced and played on your ‘Suspicion’ single...
We couldn’t get it out of our minds!
Why did the two of you get on so well?
Because he wanted to do what I wanted to do and it was reciprocal. I wanted to play like him. One afternoon in Enfield, in an horrific house, this Tudor place - they had a glass stairway. It was absolutely horrible - Premier delivered to Keith a transparent drum kit and, to their horror, he just beat the shit out of it!
That was his style.
No, no. He wanted to write, and I wanted to drum. There’s the famous story of us going round dressed as Nazis.
Was that misinterpreted?
Oh yeah. I married a Jewess! We went to a couple of restaurants in Soho, I was dressed as Reinhart Heydrich who was responsible for Lidice. I’ve never figured that out.
That was the Nazi’s revenge after Heydrich was killed.
Reinhart was killed in France and they chose to take their revenge in Czechoslovakia. All Nazi-ism is madness. There were only two people that I wanted to work with. Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood. I managed one!
You wrote all the lyrics to Winwood’s ‘Arc of the Diver’ LP and then it got fiddled around with by Island Records until there was only one song left with your lyrics on. Why did that happen?
Because Chris Blackwell said, “What does it mean?” And Winny said, “I don’t know... but it feels good!” So it went down into the basement. It was idiotic, I suppose... One evening, I was reading Gerard de Nerval when he said, “Do you want to come out?” I said, “No. I feel ill.” I was taking a great deal of drugs... “must stay in the house”... You’ll love this, When he came back... “I’ve written the quatrain of ‘Dream Gerrard.” And he said, “That’s fantastic. Let’s have a chorus.” So I wrote him a chorus and he started banging it out on a piano. “Let’s do another chorus. let’s have another verse.” Well, we did and I think it’s remarkable, one of the best songs I’ve written.
In an attempt to break free from an interrogation where the victim has given his name and rank, but forgotten his serial number, Vivian asked, “Have you read C.S. Lewis’?”
Yes. Why do you ask?
Because I want to get off myself!
Vivian agreed to have his photo taken, but only with Laura. [“I want to look as ridiculous as possible.”]
And so we said our goodbyes, bleakly telling Vivian to “look after himself”, and let ourselves out leaving him on the sofa, frail and vulnerable, waiting for Erehwon to envelope him. We knew we weren’t making contact throughout the interview. We wanted to, but couldn’t see beyond our pre-ordained agenda of facile questions. Inside the martyred outer shell was the real Vivian Stanshall watching us, maybe even trying to get out. We couldn’t find him; and, even if hindsight is always 20:20 vision, at the time we couldn’t see what we could have done differently. Another interview on a different day would feature Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, Rawlinson End (LPs, film, book and at least twelve Peel Sessions), Teddy Boys Don’t Knit, Stinkfoot (“an English comic opera”), Rawlinson Dogends and Crank.
In the last Rawlinson End Peel Session broadcast, Hubert Rawlinson believes “that sanity is a compromise”. Perhaps; but anaesthesia is submission and abject surrender. Genius is pain.
Vivian Stanshall interview © Ptolemaic Terrascope, November 1992
Postscript: A few days after this interview took place, Vivian rang me to say, “Dear boy, I’ve been having second thoughts. I wonder if we mightn’t do the interview again?”
We arranged for this to happen, and a no less interesting but far less scurrilous interview eventually appeared in issue 14 of the Terrascope in August, 1993.
Vivian Stanshall died in a house fire at home on the morning of March 5, 1995.