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Strange Tongues: Vivian Stanshall and 'Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead'

Photo: Ki Longfellow-Stanshall

With the re-release of his long-lost, much-mythologised début solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, the legacy of the multi-talented Vivian Stanshall deserves fresh appraisal from the young, the curious and the weird...

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 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."

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