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Radio Stanshall (Bloomsbury Theatre)

As I posted earlier in the year, it is twenty years since the versatile singer-songwriter, wit, wordsmith and all-round oddball Vivian Stanshall passed away.  This show, although retitled, is rather similar to the one mounted for Vivian’s 70th birthday celebrations back in 2013 – so much so, in fact, that the programmes for that show were on sale last night albeit for half the cover price. (However, someone who went to both shows said the anniversary show was better).

The centrepiece of the evening was a performance by Michael Livesley of what is probably Vivian’s best and more enduring work, ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’, English as tuppence and gloriously un-PC, with all characters from the beasht himself, Sir Henry and his wistful wife, Florrie, to his brother Hubert (‘in his late forties and still unusual’), their servants Old Scrotum (‘the wrinked retainer’) and Mrs Eeeeeee, and Florrie’s brother Lord Tarquin Portly and his wife Lady Phillipa.  As well as these you get the know-it-all Reg Smeeton (‘do you know there is no proper name for the back of the knees?’) and the mincing pair of painter-decorators Nice and Tidy.

The ‘Sir Henry’ piece is full of clever and nonsensical wordplay with a smattering of songs, close to the work of the Master, Noel Coward (whose patter song, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ was on the tape played before the show started), and comic singers like Frank Crumit (‘What Kind of Noise Annoys An Oyster’).  Livesley’s homage to Stanshall is quite staggeringly good: a Northerner by birth he captures the faux posh phrasing of the piece perfectly, as well as mimicking the East End bolsh of the song ‘Ginger Geezer’ at the end of the night.

He’s been performing ‘Sir Henry’ since 2010 and has honed it well, adding his own flourishes and inflections here and there to make it remain an interesting piece outside of the simple spoken word – having said this, I do enjoy the mental pictures that can be painted by listening to the original radio shows and album, with lines like “The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath Sir Henry Rawlinson’s bottom” or “A pale sun poked impudent tiger fingers into the master bedroom and sent the shadows scurrying like convent girls menaced by a tramp” or “The Wrinkled Retainer took cover behind a leather armchair, peeping through his fingers and clutching a rosary.”

Aside from this performance, we had a handful of songs, with Neil Innes and Rodney Slater opening proceedings (a few renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ aside) with Kevin Eldon on surprisingly good vocals for ‘Look Out, There’s A Monster Coming’, and later on, Eldon again on ‘Sport’ and with the first Rawlinson appearance on record, ‘Rhinocratic Oaths’.  Livesley joined Innes and Eldon with the rather topical ‘No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Get In (Heigh Ho)’ and shared Vivian’s favourite song (from ‘Teddy Bears Don’t Knit’) ‘The Cracks Are Showing’ with us.

I might have picked something to show Vivian’s softer and sentimental side (like one of his songs for Steve Winwood), but otherwise, a good mix of titles.  These last few benefited from the addition of drummer John Halsey (once Barry Wom in The Rutles) playing alongside Slater and the Brainwashing House Orchestra, with Innes and Rick Wakeman making the occasional foray on the piano.


Remembering England’s great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall

On 5th March 2015 it will be twenty years since the wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent.

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He may well be best known yet for his time as the frontman of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, a ragbag of art students who started by apeing the sounds of jazz and silly big band tunes by way of Spike Jones and Flanders and Swann.  They recorded ‘My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’, ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’, and made a memorable, and early, television appearance performing ‘Bill Bailey’ on Blue Peter, before taking up residency on one of the shows which pre-dated Monty Python, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.

Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’.  Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.

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It was with their 1968 album,  ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’, however, that the odd side of the Bonzos really took hold: ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ and ‘Postcard’ all seemed to be railing against what the rest of the world accepted as dreary, everyday, and normal.  During this year their single ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ was played out on the German show ‘Beat Club’ – it was in repeats of that show that I first spotted Vivian Stanshall, thought he was a fascinating and unique creature, and became hooked for life.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, what can only be described as the ‘Sir Henry Rawlinson’ phenomenon took flight – first with a run of radio extracts on the John Peel show, an album (strictly speaking two albums, but the second was released, unfinished, after being taken without consent from Stanshall), then a feature film in 1980 (with associated book, published by Eel Pie and full of wonders and snapshots from the film),   Sir Henry might well be his greatest achievement – and yet, and yet …

Watching ‘Vivian Stanshall’s Week’ from 1975, one might take time to adjust to the absurdity and surrealism of what passes as one man’s everyday life (as well as being quite shocked at his appearance at this time), but it is a slice of television quite unlike anything else that was around at the time.  During the 1970s he was also involved in the seminal ‘Tubular Bells’ project from Mike Oldfield, introducing the instruments, and in writing for Steve Winwood’s solo albums (notably the songs ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘Arc of a Diver’).  These songs alone showcase a perceptive and sensitive lyricist rather at odds with the public image of a difficult and crude eccentric given to scatalogical humour and slightly offensive offbeat observations.

1974’s album ‘Man Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ achieved almost-legendary status during its long period of unavailability between release date and 2010.  I remember obtaining a bootleg in the 1990s and being shocked and enthralled by the music I was hearing – dangerous, yes, but also sensual, troubling, wildly funny, and in places, rather beautiful.  It is a modern classic in many ways (particularly the epic ‘Strange Tongues’ and the troublingly weird ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Et Cetera’).  His follow up solo album (of songs) from 1981, was ‘Teddy Boys Don’t Knit’, a far more personal affair with tracks dedicated to his wife and young daughter, and reflections on his childhood and life as a ‘rock musician’.

Stanshall’s life continued to be troubled by addictions and mental breakdowns throughout the remainder of his life, but now and again there were peaks of brilliance – artwork, voice work on adverts (the 1980s Tennants Pilsner ones were superb, as were the two Creme Egg ones based on older Bonzo songs ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro’), and a more recent discovery for me, the return of ‘Tubular Bells’, from 1993.  His last major television appearance was in ‘Crank’ (made for ‘The Late Show’) in 1991, while on radio he spoke about his parents, in 1994, for a special programme, and discussed losing his virginity at a surprisingly early age in the Pulp promotional film ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’

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It seemed that despite his frailty Vivian Stanshall would always endure, and so it was a great shock, and a great sadness, when he passed away in a house fire on that fateful night in 1995.  Since then his star has continued to shine bright and his influence on performers such as Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson has endured.  We might celebrate the Young Ones, Little Britain, or the League of Gentlemen, but I submit that someone else got there first – the man in the sharp suit and the lounge voice who appears in the cabaret spot in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the man who contributed a couple of rock pastiche songs to the soundtrack of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and parodied the King himself on ‘The Last Temptation of Elvis’, the man who crooned about being a ‘Big Shot’ and frightened passers-by dressed as a giant rabbit.

We will not see his like again, and we miss him like crazy.  However, his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall is currently planning to bring a showcase of Vivian’s work back to the fore through an exhibition of his work which will hopefully engage and excite a new generation.  I have a feeling the old boy might have been very pleased about all the attention.

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