If there's a musical analogue to Monty Python's Flying Circus, the top contender must certainly be the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, one of the most manic aggregations ever put on record. Like the Pythons, the Bonzos' humor is shot through with absurdity and a penchant for aiming to occasionally shock the audience awake. It was probably not much of an accident that the two groups' careers eventually intersected at the end of the 1960s. The Bonzos are possibly even more British-centric than the Pythons, and several decades on it can take some work for American listeners to interpret exactly what the band is making light of. Those who take on the challenge will find a body of work quite unlike much else in popular music.
The group originally formed as a traditional jazz group playing pubs in the early 1960s, which officially became "The Bonzo Dog Dada Band" by late 1962. With gradual addition and subtraction of members the "classic" lineup of the band's more rock-oriented period was already in place by 1963. Their first singles appeared in 1966; by the time of the debut longplayer Gorilla the following year, they were as much a rock band as a trad jazz outfit.
Though the records didn't sell much, all those years of playing London area pubs paid off for more than just a record contract. The Bonzos gained the notice of England's kings, The Beatles, who invited them to appear in the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour film. Even better, a pseudonymous Paul McCartney helped co-produce the group's next single, "I'm the Urban Spaceman," a secret kept poorly enough to make the song a hit in the U.K.
Also helping raise the band's profile was a weekly appearances on the television show Do Not Adjust Your Set, two series of which appeared from late 1967 through 1969. Though it was aimed mostly at children at the time, the humor was surprisingly absurdist, fitting the Bonzos very well. The show also gave the band a direct line to the Python crew, as it featured a pre-Python Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and, later in its run, animations by Terry Gilliam. Unfortunately, few of the shows were saved -- only nine episodes have resurfaced -- but today it's one of the best places to get a sense of what the Bonzos live show was like, albeit in a toned-down way.
But enough backstory. Between the hit single and various film appearances, the Bonzos next album managed to hit the British charts, and it would turn out to be their most consistent and satisfying platters. Released in late 1968, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse -- or Urban Spaceman in the U.S., with the U.K. hit added on -- was already taking shots with the cover art before one even cracked the plastic wrap, parodying an Incredible String Band LP from earlier in the year.
Musically, the band does its best job of combining multiple genres into a whole that flows together well, despite the fact that from song to song the album constantly changes direction. Opening with "We Are Normal," which begins with bits of spoken word and noise before evolving into Pink Floyd territory, it progresses into a rambling schlock pop-jazz number, sci-fi bubblegum, British "white boy blues" parody, near straight trad jazz/music hall and a short doo-wop tribute to the "Kama Sutra." And that's just the first half. Side two is funnier and often even more bizarre lyrically, including the "poeme bruitiste" of "Rhinocratic Oaths" and the tribal album closer "11 Moustachioed Daughters." For as weird as this album is overall, it's also weirdly catchy thanks to Neil Innes' way with a pop hook and Vivian Stanshall delivering a split vocal personality of urbane crooner and crazed madman.
From here the group would record a couple more albums before calling it quits at the end of the decade after an American tour. That wouldn't be the end of the story, though. They owed the record label another album, and were compelled to reunite and provide one, which appeared in 1972. There would be a few other reunions over the years before founder Stanshall's death in the 1990s, and while they never really broke through in the U.S. they were certainly an influential cult band. Trouser Press magazine and the band Death Cab for Cutie were both named after Bonzos songs, just to cite a couple obvious examples. Surprisingly, a major reunion including pretty much everyone except Stanshall happened in 2006-07, which included a tour and even a new album, before the group dispersed once again.
Since the original disbanding, the most high profile member has been Neil Innes, who ended up working in a few different bands as well as with the Pythons on various projects -- and also post-Python projects like the dead-on Beatles tribute/parody The Rutles. Innes has actually been on a solo tour in the U.S. the past several weeks, but unfortunately didn't get anywhere near flyover country. Here's hoping there'll be a second leg in our neck of the woods sometime. (Imperial, 1968)