[19 May 2008]
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band could not have been more stuffed with memorable characters if it was an award-winning musical sausage. Integral to the group’s eccentricity, though, was Vivian Stanshall’s extraordinary wit and whimsy, Neil Innes’s pop-rock chops, and the visual appeal of Roger Ruskin Spear’s explosions, robots, and other quirky mad-scientist-like inventions.
Electric Shocks is a reissue of Spear’s 1972 solo album combining jazz, English music hall (vaudeville), and pop spoofs in the tradition of the Bonzos. After all this time, it still sounds as defiantly unfashionable and eminently groovy as ever. Of the two covers, the opener “All By Yourself in the Moonlight” descends almost too rapidly from a solo piece into one of the ultimate everything-including-the-kitchen-sink, tongue-in-cheek freak outs. Then—on what was originally Side Two of the vinyl album—is the standout track, the fabulously spry “Make Yourself a Happiness Pie”. This lovely piece of unadulterated optimism should be the national anthem of some fortunate isle: “Smiling is the latest thing in style / So cheer up and wear a big broad smile / If you want to be happy / Listen closely to me / If you want to be happy, follow this recipe / Take a couple of cup and a half of sunbeams / Pour them into a deep blue sky / Add a couple of drops of love dreams / And make yourself a happiness pie”.
Perhaps the best of Ruskin Spear’s own compositions are his ode to the eccentric TV astronomer “Patrick Moore” (with quasi-Telstar accompaniment and morse code finale), and the jazzier “I’m a Fly” (long a staple on WFMU). Elsewhere, fun is poked at the remnants of the British Blues Boom with “Mattress Man”, an over-the-top piss-take complete with twanging bed-springs. Likewise, “Doctor Rock” diagnoses how silly and camp rockers can sound when they, well, rock: (“This must be the worst case of 12 bar blues I’ve seen this week”). “Blue Baboon” is a an equally mischievous piece of breezy pop-rock-doo-wop silliness.
The Bonzos were held in very high esteem by everyone from the Beatles and the Who on down, and they even featured in the film Magical Mystery Tour. It’s no surprise then that Ruskin Spear has backing from such legendary names as the Flamin’ Groovies, Thunderclap Newman, and pedal steel wizard B.J. Cole. Ruskin Spear supported the Who on their 1971 tour, and Pete Townshend is credited here for donating equipment.
Electric Shocks + is released on fellow Bonzo Dave Clague’s DJC label, and has four bonus tracks under the title Rebel Trouser (geddit?). These include the remarkably enduring dance-craze spoof “Trouser Press” (which gave its name to the famous fanzine). At its peak, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band was magnificent. Afterwards, Neil Innes went on to do the Rutles with Eric Idle. The mercurial Vivian Stanshall cast off his personal demons for long enough to release various solo projects, including the inestimable masterpiece Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, before he died in a fire at his home. Apparently Roger Ruskin Spear still lives in London and perhaps still teaches at the Chelsea College of Art. (In something of a fitting circularity, his father was an exhibited painter.) All the work of every member of the Bonzos deserves a listen, and this reissue is as good a place as any to start.