‘Bum Notes’ is a varied collection of satire, rantings, humour, whimsy and surreality by the surviving members of one of the most original of all 60s bands.
The current band, now named ‘Three Bonzos and a Piano‘ are the surviving remnants of the 60s pop/art/dada band The Bonzo Dog Band, fronted by the late, great British eccentric Vivian Stanshall and his fellow songwriter Neil Innes (later of the Rutles). You will probably have seen them performing the fantastic ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ (“Across the mountains of your chest, I will stick a Union Jack”) on various 60s shows, or seen them playing ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour” film.
The original band split in 1970, but following Stanshall’s death the remnants reunited for a celebratory gig in 2006, with Stephen Fry, Ade Edmondson and Phil Jupitus attempting to fill in for Stanshall’s various personas. Against all odds a tour occurred, as did a surprisingly excellent studio album. Subsequent work was curtailed due to fractures between the Innes/Comedians axis and the various other sundry Bonzos. And so it was that, having lost Stanshall, the remaining members were left to sink or swim following the departure of Innes in 2008.
Following the collapse of that year’s tour, three of the original band; Roger Ruskin Spear (vocals, saxophones, robots) Rodney Slater (clarinet, saxophones) and Sam Spoons (drums, rhythm pole, juggling) decided to carry on performing. They engaged the help of David Glasson, formerly of Tatty Ollity (which had, in itself, featured both Roger and Sam in the 1970s/80s) and made their debut gig in October 2008, releasing the somewhat variable ‘Hair of the Dog’ album two years later. Live, however, they remained a hugely exciting proposition, even managing to shoe-horn that album’s
better songs into a playlist joyfully heavy with past Bonzos classics.
This time, however, they have made an infinitesimally better hash of recording an album including, perhaps, the first true Bonzos classic since 1971’s sprawling epic “Rawlinson End” in the shape of Rodney Slater’s almost equally epic ‘Hard Luck, John’.
‘Three Bonzos…’. Following the original band’s demise in 1970, he turned his back on the music business and trained and worked as a psychiatric social worker, eventually turning back to session work and performing with Vivian Stanshall towards the end of his life, and subsequently playing a big part in the 2006 reunion. Although he had never written any songs first time ‘round, ‘Hawkeye the Gnu’, his co-written collaboration with Ade Edmonson was one of the highlights of the comeback album. Following the loss of both Stanshall and Innes however, Slater apparently thought he should now “knuckle down” and write some of his own tunes and, in one of the latest blossomings of songwriting talent I can think of, the near septuagenarian contributed ‘Old Geezer Rock’, ‘Senior Moments’ and ‘Taken Short’ to ‘Hair of the Dog’. This trilogy of raging against old age were some of the album’s very best tracks.
This time ‘round, Slater contributes no less than five tracks to ‘Bum Notes’. Firstly, there’s another in his ‘old geezer’ trilogy, ‘Achin’ and Shakin’’ which manages to recall Dylan Thomas‘ dying of the light, as Slater recounts that “I’m raging ‘cos I’m ageing”. The Bonzos may not have ever been Angry Young Men, but they were angered by normality and the ordinary. As one grows older, I suppose the exposure to normality and convention kicks in with even more gusto, unless one continues to rage. Along with the rage, humour does still continue to play a huge part, with Rodney stating that he’s not a “Gaga Doo Dah (haha)”, but reminds us that “a glance in the rear view mirror makes a scene like Tracy Emin’s bed”. At the end, still raging, he enters a mock brawl and audibly hits someone. “Was that Val Doonican?” he is asked. “I dunno, he didn’t say,” retorts the angry old man.
‘Persistence of Memory’ is somewhat less successful, sliding a bit close to the territory of an old man having a go at what’s wrong with today’s youth.
However, ‘I’m Against Everything’, despite potentially ploughing the same field manages to be an embittered, yet witty, diatribe about consumer culture – something tried on the reunion album, but this is something far more pertinent and ultimately successful.
“Stick it up your Das Kapital!” indeed.
Slater still has room for whimsy however, and scatological whimsy, at that. The Bonzos’ final original album (recorded without Slater) included Stanshall’s “celebration” of constipation, ‘The Strain’ which he himself described as “terribly vulgar”. Now it’s Slater’s turn with the ‘Cairo Two-Step’, a lively, jazzy, funny and enjoyably stupid number celebrating the dance-steps performed following a particularly spicy curry. It’s far less puerile than it sounds, but entendre-ridden in the same way that the best of the original Bonzos’ 1920s jazz covers were.
Finally, Slater gives us “Hard Luck, John” a fairly epic tale balancing the story of the “Westminister School for Scandal” and a “party in the City” that’s “showering down their ablutions that ain’t not heaven sent for the 99%” with the tale of the eponymous John, “conscientious, patient, a mind that’s squeaky clean, loyal and patriotic (keeps a portrait of the Queen)”. The former reprobates are accompanied by a “Goldman sax” solo, whilst John is described as the “guardian angel of the status quo”. How does he cope with a world filled with corruption and greed? Well, it’s just “another cup of rosy tea, a slice of Sexton Blake. They must know what they’re doing. They can’t just be on the make”. Because John is “the chump who has to stump
up at the pump”. It’s a character portrait as good as anything Stanshall might have created, and the wordplay on the Goldman sax solo is also straight out of Slater’s old friend’s book. Following the tale, the song builds and builds to epic proportions – and huge success – with layers of synths and strings, clarinets and chants; “Greedy bastards, paranoid bankers”, “I want a nice life,” “all we are saying is give brass a chance” and “We wish you a merry bonus and a happy cashier”.
Whilst Rodney Slater was far more anonymous than either Stanshall or Innes in the Bonzos, fellow saxophonist (and designer and builder of the band’s robots) Roger Ruskin Spear was, by contrast, far noisier. If Stanshall and Innes were the Lennon and McCartney of the group, Spear was very much the George Harrison figure, fighting for his couple of tracks per album and ploughing a very different trajectory from either of the ‘main’ songwriters. His obsessions were generally household objects and his songs ‘Shirt’, ‘Trouser Press’ (performed on a trouser press that he’d fitted pick ups too) and the terrifying ‘Waiting For the Wardrobe’ all correctly pointed the way to an absolutely barking solo career with Roger Ruskin Spear’s Giant Kinetic
Wardrobe and three well received solo works including the fantastic Rebel Trouser EP and very Bonzos-esque Electric Shocks album. Within ‘Three Bonzos…’, he has now assumed the role of frontman, confidently filling Vivian Stanshall’s shoes whilst
still saxophoning and being responsible for Robots.
Unfortunately, while his previous excellent track record on songwriting extended to the 2006 reunion album with choice cuts being the hilarious Gary ‘Neuman’ rip-off synth-drone fest “My Friends Outside” and the bizarre and genuinely laugh out loud funny cover of the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Predict a Riot” with Ade Edmonson, it doesn’t really stretch to the ‘Three Bonzos…’ oeuvre. The debut album featured songs that were either ok such as ‘Keep the Dogs in Mrs. Jones’ (a less good track about the history of the Bonzos than the two that had gone before) or borrowed a little too heavily from the past, such as ‘Shirts 2010’ which although very funny in places, was largely only gigglesome from drawing so wholeheartedly from what had gone before.
On ‘Bum Notes’, Roger’s contributions are equally underwhelming. Firstly there’s ‘I Find Tyres Exciting’ which, although drawn from Tatty Ollity’s own past spends a few minutes not really going anywhere. Likewise the album intro, ‘Er (The In-tray and the Out-tray)’, although quite funny on first listen, does not hold up to too many re-listens as its entire joke is based on the narrator trying to remember whom it was that sang a particular song. Finally, ‘New Music for the Leg’ retreads the Bonzos’ old ‘Noises for the Leg’ track. Whilst both are excellent, this version 40 years on obviously lacks the originality of the original, although then again the comedy value of Spear playing his theremin leg was always far more successful on stage than it would be without the visual element.
Spear used to be a great and genuinely unusual and original songwriter as well as being a fantastic, energetic and charismatic frontman. Now, sadly, he just seems to be the latter. I do hope there’s life in the old dog’s writing talent yet, though.
One real undiscovered talent of the early Bonzos was Sam Spoons. Joining on cutlery and later progressing to drums, he was already on his way out when the group became famous and their sound turned from jazz to pop and rock, although he is audible on most of the debut album and is also (blink and you miss him) on Magical Mystery Tour. Following the 2006 reunion however, he contributed a bizarre and cover of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ (again, with Ade Edmondson) and delivered his country hoe-down ‘Purple Sprouting Brocolli’ which would have surely made Vivian chuckle with its descriptions of lust amongst the vegetables.
The first ‘Three Bonzos…’ album didn’t offer much to get excited about from Sam, but this time ’round he offers a rerecording of ‘Purple Sprouting Brocolli’ that’s just as good as the original, but with even more jovial backing. And some truly horrifying – and hilarious – violin playing.
And then there’s Sam’s masterpiece, the brilliant, hilarious, infectious and poignantly warbled ‘Banned by the BBC’ in which Sam, as narrator, describes the various maudlin, depressing songs he has written, involving a motorcyclist hitting a tree, a girl jumping off Beachy Head after her best friend gets married, etc. each of which have been banned by the BBC which has, of course, made them hits and made him very wealthy because following each ban, “the public knew there was a story to be told, so they all bought my record and turned it into gold”. Apart, apparently, from
one which was played, although no-one bought it because it had a “happy ending and a nice little tune”. It’s a charming and rather clever piece which towards the end has some delightful theremining, courtesy of Mr. Ruskin Spear. Sam seems to be unsure
as to how it’s all gone down though, ending the track with a charming “was that ok?”
For the Bonzos to function, there always has to be a straight man of sorts and with the departure of Neil Innes, this is provided in the form of David Glasson, who occasionally sounds a little like Innes. His contributions to the debut album were Tatty Ollity’s ancient cover of ‘Punktuation’ to great success, and other great and stupid numbers about his baldness on ‘Follicle Song’ and biscuits on, erm, ‘Biscuit’.
Dave continues with his Innes-style whimsy on “Holey Cheeses” (of Nazareth. Say it fast). which does raise a few smiles. “I Love Washing Up” is rather less successful however, failing to hit the funny-bone on too many occasions.
‘Whimsical Avenue’, however is a song that sticks a knife straight through the heart of whimsy as it chirrups its way through loveliness and a truly sickening chorus that clogs up with its own saccharine. It’s horrendous. But hilarious. There is a very fine line between “so bad it’s wonderful” and “unlistenable” but this track manages to just be on the ‘wonderful’ side.
Dave’s epic, however, is eminently listenable. “Wall of Sound” is an hilarious comedy biog of Phil Spector with some great jokes and rhymes therein. It all feels like the soundtrack for a very low budget biog of the barking genius, which might well be
Dave also gets bonus points for organising, recording and producing the whole album in the first place. The sound quality on ‘Hair of the Dog’ was dubious in a couple of places, but here it’s absolutely first rate, bringing a real warmth to the delicious brass
instruments and a conviction to the synths that ape orchestras and strings.
This is an album by a band in its 50th year deprived of its two main songwriters. In that, it is far, far better than anyone has a right to expect. It is also, technically, the second album by this incarnation of the band and, in that it is an enormous
improvement on the first, it is arguably even more of a success.
It easily deserves its place with the rest of the Bonzos’ canon.
The fact that this band are still going, and still performing mind-meltingly brilliant live shows is wonderful in itself, but the fact that they are still writing and recording new material is the cherry on the icing on the wonderful cake. They may occasionally
miss the target (but then again the Bonzos always did), but the biggest successes here; ‘Hard Luck John’, ‘Banned by the BBC’ and ‘Wall of Sound’ are easily worthy of a place on any Bonzos Best Of.
See them while you can, for they are old. But do get hold of this album too, for it really is a great listen. I dearly hope for a third instalment. I also dearly hope they can ‘round up the two other ‘classic’ members, “Legs” Larry Smith and Vernon
Dudley Bohay Nowell for a guest spot or two next time.