[3 July 2012]
Strange tongues comfort me;
Darkened rooms calm me down.
Make overtures to your insanity…
Good to have friends around.
—‘Strange Tongues’ by Vivian Stanshall, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead
So-called ‘lost’ records are almost inevitably fetishised. The notion of unheard, unreleased music by some big bruiser of a talent, kept from us by nefarious circumstances, is often too tantalising for our imaginations to let go of. Like diehard conspiracy theorists who cling to the belief that a single deleted CIA memorandum will unravel every sinister mystery of the past century, musical obsessives will sometimes build mental shrines to albums they have never heard, fuelled by fantasy more than curiosity, convinced that such music could answer all artistic challenges, if only it could be heard.
For almost 40years, the classic case of this was SMiLE, Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God”, begun in 1966 and then fragmented and abandoned until Wilson’s surprise decision to rerecord the album live in concert in 2004 (and pretty good it was, too). Others still pray they might one day hear Songs From the Black Hole, Weezer’s abortive space-rock opera, which supposedly exists only on an 8-track tape possessed by lead singer Rivers Cuomo, or John Cale’s Music For A New Society, often declared to to be his masterpiece by those few who were lucky enough to grab a copy before it became infuriatingly unavailable. But these are the exceptions; many records considered ‘lost’ are usually kicking around somewhere—legitimately or otherwise—or will provide material for future, more evolved projects, such as Ryan Adams’ The Suicide Handbook (rejected at the time for being ‘too sad’), much of which turned up on Adams’ subsequent records.
So it’s worth noting that, in terms of actually being ‘lost’, Vivian Stanshall’s debut solo album Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead was very much the real deal. For decades, the thing was damn near impossible to get hold of; infamously, when it came out in 1974, only 5,000 copies were pressed before it was deleted by Warner Bros, following poor sales. The closest I ever came to a pre-rerelease copy was at a middle-of-nowhere reggae festival in France, where the most venerable member of a touring English ska band proudly revealed he had it back home on vinyl—and even he may have been lying. But he also described it as “like nothing else in the world”, and that is certainly no lie. Unlike many, it’s a lost album that lives up to the legend.
A unique piece of art by an artist who never released anything otherwise, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead was the first musical solo outing of Vivian Stanshall, former lead singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet, painter, comedian, playwright and showman - the man who Stephen Fry described as “one of the most magnificent Englishmen ever to draw breath.” It’s experimental, satirical, surprising, ramshackle, crude, philosophical, psychedelic, old-fashioned, ground-breaking, genre-straddling, genuinely progressive, painfully honest, often imperfect and frequently beautiful. It’s not an album everyone will understand or appreciate, but those who do will find manifold rewards with every listen.
So we have ample cause to celebrate the fact that this May, after a lengthy struggle, a remastered version was released internationally by the UK label Rev-Ola Records with full cooperation from Stanshall’s family, allowing a new generation of listeners to finally rediscover an album—and an artist’s legacy—that has long failed to get the recognition it deserves.
“That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
—John Stuart Mill
“If you are normal, I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life.”
—‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band
In recent years, devotees of Stanshall will often employ the term ‘national treasure’. It’s perfectly true, but it’s also a polite way of saying that outside of the UK, Stanshall is still a difficult concept to explain. I search for suitable parallels—Peter Cook? Billy Childish? Edward Lear?—and fail every time: to this day, he rejects comparison. Though he is sometimes thought of as quintessentially English, Stanshall defied and rejected the conventions of ‘normal’ English society at every turn. Throughout his remarkable, complicated life, he wrestled both with his own enormous talents and the demons of depression, anxiety, and twin addictions to alcohol and tranquillizers. And as with many great artists, he found a way to let those demons inform his art as much as they may have hampered it.
Like John Lennon and Ian Dury—both of whom he later became friends with—Stanshall was the product of an art school education, which lent him a perspective on his life and work that never went away. He was particularly intrigued by Dada, the movement which celebrated nonsense and proclaimed that art was whatever the artist decided it was—a statement made fact the moment Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal ‘R. Mutt’ and submitted it for exhibition. It was while studying at London’s Central College of Art that Stanshall joined several of his fellow students in a large, unruly jazz band, and soon began practicing the Dadaist technique of ‘found art’ by performing raucous, parodic covers of old jazz and novelty songs, culled from the 78rpm records they bought by the armload at local flea markets. So it was that the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band came to be.
‘Anxiety’ photo from Ginger Geezer.net used with permission
from Ki Longfellow.
Dismissed by some as a mere musical comedy act, the Bonzos defied simplistic definitions, always striking a fine balance between the music and the laughter, always fearlessly experimental in both. By the mid-‘60s, with Stanshall advanced from tuba player to frontman and overall mastermind, the Bonzos moved into uncharted creative territory. Whereas before they had belted out pastiches of British trad jazz numbers, they now extended their range to rock, blues, folk, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, and of course the burgeoning psychedelic scene that took itself so very, very seriously. None were sacred, all were ripe for subversion, and it added up to a style that, even all these years later, is still tricky to define, but a joy to listen to.
Although the band had only one bona-fide hit (1968’s ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’, ironically one of the few tracks Stanshall did not sing on), the Bonzos’ popularity grew throughout the second half of the ‘60s, as Stanshall assumed the role of, in the words of John Peel, “court jester of the underground rock scene.” The Beatles were both fans and friends, recruiting the band to guest-star in Magical Mystery Tour, while a pre-Monty Python Michael Palin and Terry Jones performed alongside them and were arguably indebted to the Bonzo brand of humour.
However, after eight years and four albums, the fun had gone out of the experience. “I wanted to do something that was far more theatrical,” Stanshall told Q magazine in January, 1989. “Which I did. I went into the loony bin.”
As a result of the relentless touring that now dominated the band’s lives, Stanshall began to suffer from debilitating panic attacks, for which he was prescribed Valium. The dangers of the drug, which were only increased when combined with Stanshall’s prodigious appetite for alcohol, were almost completely unappreciated by the ‘60s medical establishment that routinely doled it out like aspirin. In 1969, Stanshall suffered the mental breakdown that had been building for so long; soon after, the Bonzos split. Though they reunited briefly in 1972 for a contractually obliged final album, the manic energy that had fuelled them from art school onwards could not be recreated. It was time for something new.
“Lennon would have howled for the memory of his mother. Nick Drake would have patted his black dog and turned to face the wall. John Cale might have told us how fear is a man’s best friend. Syd Barrett would have wondered who was writing this song. Stanshall calls on all his phobic dread of drudgery, mundanity and debilitation, and emits a blood-curdling cathartic cry…”
—Rob Chapman, ‘All-Time Classics: Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead’, Uncut Magazine, June 2004
By the early ‘70s, with the other Bonzos scattering into their own solo careers, Stanshall took furious advantage of his newfound creative freedom, but also sank deeper into his inexorable addictions, bouncing between spells in clinics and monstrous bouts of binge-drinking. “I am going through a complete purgatorial metamorphosis,” he told an interviewer from Melody Maker in 1970. “I go through periods of terrific elation and work like stink, and then I feel deep depression and want to go up to the lavatory and screw a hook in the ceiling.”
Various short-lived bands bloomed and then collapsed almost immediately, yet he busied himself with side-projects, radio specials and a typically eclectic series of guest appearances on, among others, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Robert Calvert’s Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters and Traffic’s Where the Eagle Flies. Meanwhile, in the background, in fits and starts over the course of two hazy years, Stanshall slowly began to record the album that even he seemed to have difficulty articulating; an album that fit the esoteric design which the past few years had burned into his brain: one part imagination, one part agony.
How to explain Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead to a modern audience? When I asked the writer Ki Longfellow, Stanshall’s widow, she described it thus: “You won’t be hearing anything like this ever again. Few artists go this far inside themselves to mine the gold of self… This was the album that told me who Vivian was, about who I’d been captured by. This is the album that made me fall in love with him. It was a crash course in Vivian Stanshall, no holds barred.”
BBC still photo from Vivar Archive.org
Some have described it as an English answer to Trout Mask Replica or We’re Only In It for the Money, but those of us who consider Captain Beefheart an overrated bore and Frank Zappa an unfunny huckster will see how lacking such comparisons are. In some ways, the album is more like a ‘70s answer to the Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium, a similarly fascinating and unapologetic voyage through the murky surreality of one man’s mind—except while the Mars Volta explored the could-be coma dreams of their friend, the artist Julio Venegas, in the aftermath of his suicide, Stanshall delved into the very real nightmares of his own self.
“I was really pretty sick at the time I made it,” Stanshall said about the album later. “It’s one long squawk. It’s a fairly articulate squawk—it’s pretty painful in parts. It’s very personal to me. I think it was all I was capable of at the time. Not only was I drunk and full of Christ knows how many tranquillizers, but I was absolutely furious. It seems to me now that at that point I was inevitably plunging into the abyss and there was no way out.” (Ginger Geezer)
The band assembled for the album is extraordinary in itself, including Stanshall’s old Bonzo collaborator Neil Innes on piano, slide guitar and organ, Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi on guitar and drums, and Stanshall himself, displaying his intimidating multi-instrumentalism on recorder, euphonium, ukulele, and chelonian pipes. Famously, when the bass player failed to arrive for a recording session, the West Indian taxi driver who had dropped off Winwood said that he could play and volunteered his services. Such was the nature of the extraordinary project.
Alone in his career, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead reflects Stanshall’s fascination with all aspects of African music and culture; Afro-Caribbean style and rhythm permeate several of the tracks, most notably ‘Lakonga’ and ‘Baba Tunde’ (two mesmerising songs from the album’s recording sessions included as extras on the rerelease), and ‘Afoji Ti Ole Rian (Dead Eyes)’, a contemptuous mystical chant against the sins of music industry scumbags. Following this is ‘Truck-Truck’, a rollicking rockabilly tribute the boozy, hard-working roadies who were one of Stanshall’s few fond memories from the Bonzos’ touring days. ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Etc.’ is a blisteringly satirical stab at the self-conscious fakery of white blues, couched in wordplay every bit as freewheeling as Lewis Carroll, laden with Nabokovian double-meanings and allusions.
Following the Afro-rock instrumental jam session ‘Prong’ comes ‘Redeye’, a caustic fable/rant against the amorality of all those zombified pop stars and gurus whose ranks Stanshall had left without regret, who “fly back to New York in comfy first class compartments, yet he can still talk about ‘The People’.” Who specifically was being so brutally parodied is open to guesses, but the breed of vacuous, hypocritical celebrity described, cushioned from reality by their own empty-headed self-importance, is not difficult to recognise- - they are with us now more than ever.
‘How The Zebra Got Its Spots”, changing pace entirely, is a five-minute one-man sex comedy and a fulfillment of Stanshall’s promise that, left to his own devices, he could be ‘ruder’ than the Bonzos ever dared; set to a jaunty calypso beat, he describes the relationship between a man and his reproductive organs with poetic rapture and a near-religious mock-seriousness, which is immediately punctured on the next track by the short, post-coital exchange of ‘Dwarf Succulents’ (“How was it for you?” “So-so.”)
‘Bout of Sobriety’ is a ruthlessly (and hilariously) honest look at the disgusting day-to-day realities of alcoholism, and sounds like the kind of track the Big Bopper might have cut if he drank like Shane MacGowan: “But I’m trying real hard, think I’ve served my time / in the purple-stained arms Of the daughter of the vine / I’d like to settle down, but first I gotta settle up / With the understanding man in the embalming-fluid shop.”
After ‘Prong and Toots Go Steady’, another Afro-rock instrumental that becomes sonorous and iridescent thanks to Stanshall’s haunting recorder, the album reaches its astonishing psycho-musical peak. “‘Strange Tongues’”, Ki Longfellow told me, “was the killer. Poetry in a slaughterhouse of the Soul. He suffered. He was tormented. And in Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead he not only told us about that torment, he made us FEEL it. I listened to ‘Strange Tongues’ on our houseboat, the Searchlight, over and over and over. There’s no end to its depth. That song alone is a masterpiece. I still shiver to it. Or cry.”
‘Strange Tongues’ is undoubtedly Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead‘s centrepiece, a sombre elegy to the fears—specific or nameless, grim reality or paranoid fantasy—that had infected so much of his life, and the means of relief, healthy or not, that held off the monsters at the door. It’s psychedelic, gothic, defiant, meditative, pleading, obscure and honest all at once: he prays to music itself for help, relishes the horror of his own situation, spits hallucinatory imagery and croons nonsense poetry, and hints darkly about what might happen the moment he no longer has friends around to protect him.
As Chris Welch put it in his excellent 2001 biography of Stanshall, Ginger Geezer: “Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead comes across as a sometimes chilling documentary. Its entirely personal nature means that the voice of an anguished man, stripped on his pretensions, occasionally slips through. It is the unscripted asides that reveal the most about the man alone in front of the microphone, desperately trying to communicate.”
As a whole, the album is not without flaws—slapdash production and shaky sound quality saw to that—but undeniably stands as a cohesive piece of work. Its melding of genres resulted not in sonic schizophreniak but a genuinely unique sound. It fulfills the true definition of ‘progressive’, while also serving as a rebuttal to the excesses of Prog that had swamped so much of British rock at the time. Absorbed in its entirety, it is funny and frightening at the same time, always telling you more than you want to know, but daring you to ask more.
“Personally. I don’t think I am bizarre. It would be silly to say I don’t notice that I’m different from other people, but my difference is a result of me being ruthlessly myself. I don’t from day to day strive for effect, but I am not unconscious of the effect I cause. Perhaps it would be more comfortable if I ‘normed’ up, then I wouldn’t get touched and gawked at and that would alleviate things, but I would be losing more points personally, you see.”
—Vivian Stanshall (Vivian Stanshall site)
When Warner Bros, already uncomfortable with the content of the album, decided to only press 5,000 copies, not to release it the United States, and to delete and abandon the whole mess as soon as possible, Stanshall did not take it well, to put it mildly. To put it specifically, he destroyed one of their boardrooms and stormed out of the building, but not before secreting several hundred bluebottle maggots behind the radiator of the label president, nice and warm for when they hatched a few hours later.
It was by no means the end of his career. Books could (and should) be written about the full range of Stanshall’s lifetime of work: his second album, 1981’s Teddy Boys Don’t Knit, no less brilliant but more reflective and less bilious; his much-beloved surrealist musical radio drama Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which was adapted into one of the most underrated British films of the ‘80s; Stinkfoot, the comic opera he wrote for the Old Profanity Showboat, the magical floating theatre and art-space than became Stanshall’s home (after the Searchlight, his first houseboat, sank).
However, it did put an end to Stanshall’s relationship with Warner Bros, and until this May, seemed to kill off any hope that subsequent generations might have the chance to stumble upon Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead for themselves. Ki Longfellow explained to me the circumstances of the long-anticipated rerelease:
“Joe Foster [owner of Poppydisc], Silky [Stanshall’s daughter] and I worked as a team so this could happen. It began when something called Harkit Records bootlegged the album. Friends told us as soon as they saw it appear on Amazon UK. Silky and I talked to everyone we thought might know about what we could do… but got nowhere… It was heartbreaking. This is a beyond special album and to have it so shoddily treated—we felt helpless. And then, along came the very wonderful Joe Foster who said the hell with Harkit, we’ll do it again on RevOla, a special reissue section for very special artists. RevOla is part of his primary label: Poppydisc (www.poppydisc.com). But this time, said he, we’ll do it right and with love.”
Footage and photographs of Stanshall at the time of Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead‘s recording show a man who was living far beyond the easy label of ‘eccentricity’—an alien but endearing figure in strange hats, octagonal glasses and a Prospero-esque knotted beard, noodling on a ukulele in the shape of a flying duck, surrounded by instruments from every culture, rotting theatrical props, bubbling piranha tanks, memorabilia from bygone ages and the paint-splattered detritus of a life that could only find adequate expression through art. Stanshall had almost entirely abandoned the ‘normality’ of regular society, just as it had seemingly abandoned him. For the rest of his life, he seemed to become an escapist almost in self-defence, turning his curious homes into castles, building his own little worlds where he could compose and paint and recuperate, impregnable to the ever-hostile forces that lurked in waiting outside. His art could be said to function in much the same way.
Some might argue that such a retreat from the ‘real’ world only led him further into addiction, out of the reach of those that might offer the help he needed, and ultimately sealed his fate. After years of steadily worsening health, Vivian Stanshall died in a fire at his North London flat in 1995. But if it can be argued that Stanshall’s life as a lonely, vulnerable but unapologetic outsider contributed to his death, it can be argued just as forcefully that it saved him far more often.
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead may bare the scars and symptoms of those dark forces which plagued Stanshall, but ultimately, it is a defiant howl against them. It is a celebration of strangeness, a defence of the outsider, and a demonstration of how to try and save your own life with art. That, above all else, is heroic.
“Do have an unusual day, won’t you?”
—Vivian Stanshall, From Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man
Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell