Monday, 12 May 2008

Vieux Chiens

Before I start this post I'd just like to apologise to anyone who's emailed me recently. I've not checked my email regularly for a while - my job requires me to look at a computer all day, and so I'm not so keen to carry on doing so when I get home. I currently have a few hundred emails to get through, so if you need a reply you will get one, but probably not for a few days.

Anyway, I recently discovered that late last year, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band released their first new studio album in 35 years, so obviously I had to get it.

For those of you who don't yet know the joys of the Bonzo Dog Band,they are often described as the missing link between the Beatles and Monty Python, and to a first approximation that description works as well as any. Certainly they had connections with both groups - Paul McCartney produced the band's biggest hit, they appeared in Magical Mystery Tour, George Harrison wrote a song about their drummer, and the band appeared in the pre-Python show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and main songwriter Neil Innes contributed music to Python albums, films and stage shows.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started out in the mid-sixties as a trad jazz/vaudeville revivalist band - a project of art students poking affectionate fun at the popular music of a generation before by performing once-popular novelty songs like I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight. The original lineup - Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, "Legs" Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and Bob Kerr made two singles - covers of My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies and Alley-Oop, before Kerr left (in acrimonious circumstances) to join The New Vaudeville Band, taking the band's stage act with him and forcing them to rethink.

Their first album, Gorilla, was an odd mix of trad jazz songs and new originals, but after this they dropped Spoons, Bohay-Nowell, the covers (apart from third album Tadpoles, which included some covers they'd done for TV) and the 'Doo-Dah' from their name, concentrating on original material, both musical and comedic.

The vast bulk of the band's material was written by the band's two leaders, Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes. Stanshall was an eccentric genius, the harder-edged of the two as well as being the more surreal, while Innes was softer and more whimsical but also a better craftsman (think of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic, or Cleese-Chapman/Palin-Jones). Stanshall was also a mesmerising performer, and one of the most versatile vocalists (both as a singer and an actor) I've ever heard.

Stanshall died in 1995, so the idea of the Bonzo Dog Band reuniting was always problematic, in much the same way as the Beatles reuniting without Lennon or Monty Python reuniting without Chapman - the others would certainly be capable of doing good work without him, but there would be an important spark missing.

The band actually did reunite, however, in 2006 - all the surviving members of the original 'Doo-Dah' lineup, including Kerr, for an oddly successful reunion show (available on DVD and CD). Most of the band hadn't kept up with their instruments, so they were augmented by Innes' touring band, freeing the band up to provide horn section, sound effects, and shambolic slapstick. That show was essentially a show of two halves - the first half was the cover versions and novelty songs from the early years, with everyone getting a turn to sing the second half the Innes and Stanshall originals. Innes providing some of the Stanshall vocals and with many guest comedians filling in on odd songs. The guest comedians were sometimes inappropriately blokeish, but it all sort-of worked.

For the tour that followed, the shows were more successful. The vaudeville songs were cut down (though still present), the two guest comedians who toured with them (Adrian Edmondson and Phill Jupitus) were better integrated into the band, and the rather wonderful David Caitlin-Birch (a former Stanshall collaborator and also 'Paul' in The Bootleg Beatles) did a very good job on some of Stanshall's vocals, making the show less of an Innes solo show by any other name.

This touring band, including Jupitus, Edmondson, Caitlin-Birch and also guest Stephen Fry, have now released the first studio Bonzo Dog album since 1972's Let's Make Up And Be Friendly.

Unsurprisingly, given the line-up, it bears most similarity to the band's first album, Gorilla, with much of the album being taken up with cover versions. Innes, who co-produced the album with touring keyboardist Mickey Simmonds, provides a through-line for the album, however, by bringing in a lot of the little sketches and jingles he used in his own Ego Warrior solo shows, giving the album a coherent feel, with repeated jingles for products from 'Fiasco' supermarkets bursting in, such as the one for 'Cock-a-doodle-tato/the really big potato/with a chicken inside', or L'essence d'Hooligan.

Unfortunately, that coherent feel is a slightly grumpy one, and funny as the album is at times, one feels like the album must have had a song written for it but left off the finished version about how the kids today don't show any respect and won't get off my lawn. The jokes about consumerism , while pointed, give a cumulative feel of someone who wishes everything was the way it was when they were young.

I won't go through every song here, as the album is overlong - 28 tracks (though many of these are little one-minute jokes or jingles), and many of the cover versions are clearly only there in order to give every band member a spotlight - the world really didn't need an amateurish cover of Tiptoe Through The Tulips that's too earnest to be funny but not competent enough to be good - and this album would be much better and more interesting at half the length. But I'll touch on the highlights. Before I do, I must point out as well that the cover (a dog's skull made out of whipped cream and penny sweets) is the best album cover art I've seen in decades.

Many of Innes' songs here, incidentally, have already been released either on his last CD, Works In Progress, or as free downloads on his website , but it makes sense for him to re-record them here, with a decent budget and a decent chance to actually have an audience for them.

The album is bookended by Pour L'amour des Chiens/Jean Baudrillard, one of Innes' cod-French trifles. After a vaudeville cover it goes into Hawkeye The Gnu, a reworking by Rodney Slater of Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham's XI, an excuse for a lot of puns based on Scots/English dialect differences.

Innes' Democracy is the first 'new proper song' on the album, and is pretty good - but it's an Innes solo song, it doesn't really feel like the Bonzo Dog Band and doesn't feature any of the other members noticeably.

I Predict A Riot by 'the old Geezer Chiefs' on the other hand doesn't really work - there have been far too many novelty cover versions recently for one to be at all funny at this point, and this one isn't funny on its own merits. My wife Holly likes this one though, and it's done with enthusiasm. I suspect it'll work better live.

Stadium Love, a parody of big singalong stadium rock cliches, is quite amusing, but is one of several examples on this album of the band gesturing at their own past (they repeat "We are free because we're normal")

Mornington Crescent, by Mickey Simmonds, is a rather fun little collection of puns around underground names ("are you the one who made the kings cross?" "Are you the one who tried to turnham green?") over a trad backing track. Humph would have approved.

Early Morning Train was the best track on Innes' solo Works In Progress, with some really excellent descriptive writing ("the man with the Dan Dare eyebrows"), a gorgeous little ballad. It could do without the synth strings, and again this is essentially a solo track (apart from some spoken interjections from Adrian Edmundson), but this is a song that deserved a wider audience.

My Friend's Outside is a Roger Ruskin Spear song that suggests that Innes isn't the only one digging into his own back catalogue rather than writing new material - it's a parody of Gary Numan and early-80s electro in general. Unfortunately, one of the things it's parodying is their repetitive nature, which it gets over rather too well.

For The Benefit Of Mankind is the highlight of the album - an old Innes attempt at a Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche, the arrangement (and Innes' pseudo-German accent) pitch it weirdly somewhere between G&S, Brecht & Weill and Danny Kaye, and this is the only one of Innes' contributions here that really makes use of the rest of the band.

Beautiful People, Adrian Edmondson's songwriting contribution to the album, is surprisingly good. While the sleeve-notes to the album describe it as 'pure essence d'Bonzo', this is actually far more Pythonesque - specifically it sounds like a Palin/Jones song from the early 80s, somewhere between Every Sperm Is Sacred and Finland. Either way, though, it's one of the better tracks on the album.

Innes' Ego Warriors is the most blatant example of the individualism and anger at today's homogenous culture that Innes threads through the album - a call to arms for 'ego warriors' to thumb their nose at conformity.

Sweet Morning, "Legs" Larry Smith's main contribution to the album, is one of the bigger disappointments - essentially a rewrite of The Bride Stripped Bare By Bachelors but through a haze of nostalgia, to a synth-pop background. Singing about past glories is never a good idea, especially when the music is as plodding, and the rhyme scheme as predictable, as this.

Now You're Asleep is a song Viv Stanshall co-wrote with David Caitlin-Birch before Stanshall's death. Unfortunately, like many Sad Songs by Dead Geniuses that Take On Extra Weight Because They're Dead, it really can't support the associations. It's a pleasant enough song - it sounds a little like Nick Harper, actually, but it's half-formed and not really anything in particular, with some nice ideas, but aimless and structureless. A couple of good lines ("in the eiderdown seas where I swim in my sleep") don't make up for the general 'meh' feeling of the song.

If this album had been half the length - keeping the best of the originals, all the little jokes and jingles (by far the best bits of the album - Stephen Fry reading a recipe for Salmon Proust and Phill Jupitus' Sudoku Forecast being particularly amusing) and ditching almost all the cover versions - it could have been a very good album. Not great - there's nothing here of the quality of Piggybank Love, Sport (The Odd Boy), Equestrian Statue, Look Out There's A Monster Coming, Canyons Of Your Mind, Mr Apollo or I'm The Urban Spaceman - none of the truly great songs that made them one of the greatest bands of the 60s - but there's a good 13-track album struggling to get out of this flabby 28-track one.

Still, the Bonzo Dog Band have more than justified their existence already, and many of us love them dearly. Those of us who do will enjoy even the lesser tracks on this, as letters from old friends. Those who don't have that affection already would probably be best off buying the original albums before this, if they buy this at all. I'll probably rip this to MP3 at some point, and listen only to the better tracks, and it's worth it for those tracks.

The version I have comes with a bonus DVD of live performances - these are not substantially different from the versions on the 40th anniversary concert, but are still quite nice to have.