Why in 2020 I couldn’t stop listening to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

In a surreal year, the band’s humour was a perfect balm

December 31, 2020
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on Dutch TV, 7th June 1968. Left to right: probably Neil Innes and an unknown bass player. Credit: Wikimedia commons
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on Dutch TV, 7th June 1968. Left to right: probably Neil Innes and an unknown bass player. Credit: Wikimedia commons

It has been 50 years since the group formally disbanded, but for me the ultimate band of 2020 is the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The alternative 1960s outfit’s mixture of trad jazz, English surreal wit and psychedelic pop creates an original collision of language, art and music. In a year that has made us question everything, I found myself returning to their creative, existential questioning.

I have been a fan since I first heard them as a child. I was in my father’s car, aged around seven, when “Hunting Tigers out in India” came through the CD player. My righteous indignation for the endangered animal was soothed by my father’s attempt at explaining Dadaism. “If you can’t wrap your head around it,” he said, “that’s the point.”

The Bonzo’s history is hard to plot accurately. The band was created in 1962 by students from different art schools in London who wanted, as core member Neil Innes put it, “to mutilate the jazz music of the 20th century and nurture a quite deliberate misunderstanding of anarchy.” Their iconic name was created from a Dadaist word game that involved ripping up different sentences on paper and placing the words in random order. The band was also drawing on the nonsense tradition of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, as well as the Edwardian musical hall.

The Bonzo’s eccentric humour did not fit in with any of the well-established musical tribes of the early 1960s, although the Beatles seemed to absorb some of their spirit in 1967’s Sergeant Pepper. They became well-known for frontman Vivian Stanshall’s lamé suits, wearing rubber masks and playing practical jokes. In their early tours, they travelled in an ambulance driven by the bass player Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell. Initially they appealed most to children. They appeared on Blue Peter in 1966, and the next year got on Do Not Adjust Your Set, an ITV show originally aimed at children that also featured a number of future Pythons.

Yet major chart success or long-term recording were not to be. The centre could not hold: various minor and key players drifted in and out. Neither recording nor touring was executed with any great professionalism. As percussionist “Legs” Larry Smith put it in a later interview, “we were entertaining ourselves really, we weren’t taking it seriously. Sometimes we couldn’t play for laughter.”

By the end of 1967, led by Stanshall, the band had adopted more of a rock style with more professionalism and drive. “The Urban Spaceman” (1968), produced by Paul McCartney, reached number five in the charts. By 1970, however, the group had disbanded. Stanshall later admitted that their attempts at commercial success had spelt the beginning of the end. “We became that which we reviled,” he said, “this sort of lofty and cocooned rock and roll people that we were supposedly parodying. Once that became manifest, we really had to stop.”

Culturally, the Bonzo’s tentacles have reached into unlikely spaces: later bands have taken their names from their lyrics, such as Death Cab for Cutie. Stephen Fry describes in his memoir how the band brings together “the absurd, the shocking and the deeply English, jostled about in mad jamboree.” Neil Innes went on to collaborate with Eric Idle on the Beatles parody The Rutles. (George Harrison was in on the joke and also appeared in the film.) Later, Tony Blair’s government would embrace “Cool Britannia,” the name of a 1967 song by the Bonzos.  

I have found in this year of mismanaged anarchy that some of their manic lyrics suddenly connected with me in unexpected ways. While watching The Crown, I thought of Stanshall introducing “Princess Anne on Sousaphone” in “The Intro and the Outro.” The song, a spoof of the posh voices of the BBC, also resonated when a video of BBC presenter Owain Wyn Evans, dressed in a dapper suit and playing the drums to the BBC news theme, went viral.

“My Pink Half of the Drainpipe” is a trenchant but warm-hearted commentary on the mundanity of 1960s suburbia—perfect for the world of lockdown. Discussing the song on a BBC podcast, Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam said “there is relief when people can laugh... at the stupidity, the futility of the world. Everyone is living in frustration and impotence, then along comes comedy and you realise you are not alone.” Innes, who died in 2019, added that it “diffuses the righteous anger.” Indeed, it seems like in 2020 all we can do is laugh at the absurdity of our situation.      

Alan Bennett wrote in The History Boys that though you may not understand poetry at the time, “learn it now, know it now and you will understand it… whenever.” The bits of Bonzo poetry that committed themselves to my memory have come to find new significance in the year that has cut up and reorganised our lives like a Dadaist puzzle. The Bonzo Dogs will always be a part of the soul of my 2020—in the section labelled “Shirts.”