If I had to select only one word to characterize our times, it would be “gutless.” Our reality is filled with gutless politicians who pander to interest groups, gutless business people who sacrifice people for profits and gutless musicians who allow themselves to be packaged to sell more music to their target markets. Gutlessness becomes the norm in a climate of fear, which pretty much describes the place where we live at this moment in history. In a climate of fear, people play it safe, and there is no surer death sentence to an artist than playing it safe. In times like these, conformity rules the waves and music becomes a commodity rather than a source of insight and inspiration.
In such periods, satire becomes a comforting blanket instead of a sharp knife. Satire in times of fear tells you, “Yeah, you’re not crazy, everyone else is,” and so comforted, you have a nice, relaxing laugh or two, turn over and go back to sleep. You never allow the underlying message of satire—“Hey, we’re talking about you!”—to raise your consciousness and do something about the absurd state of things.
The Bonzo Dog Band worked during a different period in cultural history when people were frantically in search of answers and more willing to reflect on society’s problems rather than defend normalcy with their dying breaths. Along with Monty Python, they not only pointed out the fundamental silliness that fills much of the day-to-day, but also punctured the protective balloons that we use to deny the truth that we are all part of the reality they were satirizing. During their peak years, they produced four masterpieces of musical satire, exposing our insane vanities and ridiculous neuroses with just the right amount of bite that encourages people to laugh at themselves instead of laughing at each other.
Of their four classic works, my personal favorite is Keynsham, a marvelous album characterized by a fake theme designed to puncture the pomposity of the concept albums in vogue at the time (only a few of which had any coherent concept at the core).
How can you not love an album that begins with a song like “You Done My Brain In,” where Neil Innes takes on the rock treatment of romantic rejection and brilliantly exposes the truly ugly feelings that are rarely expressed in classic pop rejection songs?
Looking like a muscleman you crawled out from the swamp,
Slimy wild, you honey child, give me your hump.
You done my brain in . . .
Don’t kiss me with your silver lip, don’t kiss me with your eye,
For God’s sake, give me a break, let me crawl away and die.
You done my brain in . . .
The title track continues this love for the unexpected and absurd with the glorious opening line borrowed from the silly 1960’s television commercials that played on the neuroses of the time, sung to a breezy soft jazz-like arrangement:
Lipstick gleam, hexaclorophene,
Cling cling the ring, clang clang she sang.
It’s tragic magic, there are no coincidences,
But sometimes the pattern is more obvious.
After the gently neurotic, “Quiet Talks and Summer Walks,” the brilliant Vivian Stanshall finally gets his turn with the song that made me fall in love with the Bonzos, “Tent.” Satirizing the overblown intellectual underpinnings of allegedly more complex rock music, Stanshall’s lead singer exposes himself as a person trying to project the illusion of depth when there is no there there:
I’m gonna get you in my tent, tent, tent, tent, tent
Where we can both experi-ment, ment, ment, ment
Yay, yay it’s so convenient . . . let’s take a taxi to my tent!
Oh, yay, my love is so inscrutable in a stoic sort of way,
But my baby is as beautiful as a tourniquet.
When he sings the final line, “We’ll dance the tango in my tent!” you can’t help but shake with laughter at a virtuoso performance.
“We Were Wrong” satirizes sappy young love songs; “Joke Shop Man” the proliferation of “isolated man” songs at the time; and “The Bride Stripped Bare (By The Bachelors)” the self-importance of a band on tour. All are superb, but Stanshall’s “Look at Me, I’m Wonderful” is a masterpiece of fun and exposure, sung by a Sinatra-like American crooner as he’s putting on his makeup before the show:
Look at me, I’m wonderful . . . shoo-bee doo-bee-wah
I’m not a bit like you or you . . . I’m a super show biz star
You all buy my records, so I’d like to say
Some little old . . . cliché . . .
Stanshall’s performance is aided by excellent recording techniques that give the listener the impression that you’re just off stage, with this buffoon in plain view.
“What Do You Do?” deals with the way we define ourselves in modern times: by our occupations. This is as empty as it gets, as the true answer to the question is not the inflated job description we give to friends and strangers, but something that is painfully obvious if we’re honest with ourselves:
What do you do?
I don’t know, but I know I do it every day.
“Mr. Slater’s Parrot” is a hoot, a “Makin’ Whoopee” sort of number that makes little sense but has you in stitches anyway. The cruel masculine ethic of the British system is exposed in “Sport (The Odd Boy),” where a gentle soul who has the temerity to read Mallarme rather than play football is the subject of derision. “Noises For the Leg” is a trip through a day-in-the-absurd-life and “Busted” pokes fun at rock stars who try to come off as revolutionaries but turn squeamish at being outed as common criminals.
If you love great humor, I suggest you explore The Bonzo Dog Band. Their other masterpieces (Gorilla, Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse (Urban Spaceman in the American release) and Tadpoles) are well worth the time and money. The Bonzos did real satire and did it brilliantly, taking advantage of a moment in history when the system had yet to react with a plan of co-opting all those who hold the system up to ridicule and neuter them by making them part of the problem.