This is essentially a reworked extract from Fun At One based on the section covering biG GRunt, the comedy rock band that Viv Stanshall and Roger Ruskin Spear formed following the dissolution of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, though there’s a little more to it than that. biG GRunt (yes that is the official capitalisation) fascinate me in a way that the numerous other short-lived attempts at post-Bonzos acts – amongst them The World, Viv Stanshall And His Gargantuan Chums, Freaks, The Sean Head Showband and Roger Ruskin Spear And His Giant Orchestral Wardrobe – simply do not. Whereas many of the others were effectively little more than a hastily thrown-together vehicle for new songs, and in most cases concentrated more on the admittedly in its own way just as fascinating live spectacle than the music, biG GRunt have the air of a proper collaborative outfit that put the wild proggy hard-rocking music front and centre and allowed the humour to infiltrate it in a more subtle manner. They have more in common with one of those early seventies bands whose singles now go for ridiculous amounts of money before appearing on a Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs compilation than they do with The Barron Knights, yet they seem to have almost entirely escaped attention. This could be as much to do with their lack of output as anything – biG GRunt left behind just one single and a Radio 1 session, along with a fairly wild television appearance, and although it’s more than possible that there are abandoned album sessions or a live recording hidden deep within some archive somewhere, nothing has yet surfaced. More to the point, by accident rather than design, biG GRunt were literally instrumental in the chain of events that led to Viv Stanshall’s somewhat more successful tales of life at Rawlinson End, and it always frustrates me when that story gets told without a single mention of the Blind Date non-hitmakers.
This is why I was so thrilled to get the opportunity to tell that story myself in the sleevenotes for the first ever official commercial release of biG GRunt’s Radio 1 session – which itself came about as a direct result of Fun At One – and this short side feature was assembled as additional promotion for the release, going into some of the detail that there wasn’t room for on the already crowded back sleeve of a record. There’s more about that vinyl and download release here if you want to hear Cyborg Signal for yourself. Meanwhile, you can get Fun At One in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Following the dissolution of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the various former members – with the notable exception of Rodney Slater, who had his eye on a change of pace and a career in social work – quickly set about launching solo careers. Viv Stanshall seemed to have more difficulty in making a firm decision on a musical direction than his former colleagues; doubtless recalling how his former outfit had flourished in this area, he viewed live sessions for BBC Radio 1 as a way of trying out his potential – and often hastily abandoned – ideas.
Stanshall’s immediate post-Bonzos venture The Sean Head Showband only made it as far as one single – the tremendous Labio-Dental Fricative – that won a good deal of airplay but failed to make much of an impression on the charts. This was followed by the typically over-ambitious announcement that he was forming two bands that would effectively run parallel to each other; Viv Stanshall’s Gargantuan Chums, a tongue in cheek ad hoc assembly that featured several former Bonzos alongside a certain Keith Moon on drums, and biG GRunt, a more serious ‘band’ in the formal sense, which saw him reunite with Roger Ruskin Spear and Dennis Cowan alongside guitarist Bubs White and drummer Ian Wallace. Causing no little confusion to radio programmers, their debut single featured Gargantuan Chums’ robust if intentionally stylised and flamboyant cover of Elvis Presley’s Suspicion on one side, and biG GRunt’s more whimsical rockabilly-flavoured original Blind Date on the other. Needless to say, it did not trouble the charts to any great degree.
Neither band would officially release any more material, yet while it might appear on face value that this was yet another high-concept diversion that ultimately ended up going nowhere, the ‘legacy’ of both outfits would have a significant effect on Stanshall’s future direction. Aside from a startling live appearance on Marty Feldman’s BBC1 sketch show Marty Amok, performing amongst an alarming array of exploding props, one of biG GRunt’s few other media appearances was a session for John Peel’s Radio 1 show broadcast on 21st March 1970, where they performed Blind Date alongside a rocked-up cover of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s 11 Moustachioed Daughters, and two new songs – The Strain, which would later appear with new lyrics on the Bonzos reunion album Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly, and the cosmic jam instrumental Cyborg Signal. While this was certainly a strong set, Peel’s producer John Walters – never a man to hold back his true feelings – was quick to remark that he felt such an intensely musical direction was a poor use of Stanshall’s idiosyncratic talents.
Doubtless Walters considered Stanshall’s brief engagement as a regular on Radio 4’s magazine show Start The Week early in 1971 a far more suitable vehicle. In contrast to the show’s straight-laced approach and the formal style of presenter Richard Baker, Stanshall contributed a series of wild, impressionistic monologues – notably his tales of life on the high seas aboard the SS Sausage – intercut with sound effects and suitably atmospheric extracts from pop records. Although Stanshall had dabbled with spoken word whilst in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, this was really the first occasion on which he had fully explored the possibilities of the form, and it was as a direct consequence of these broadcasts that Walters invited Stanshall to stand as the host of Radio 1’s Top Gear while Peel took a holiday over the summer of 1971.
Viv Stanshall’s Radio Flashes, as Top Gear was renamed for the duration of August 1971, was a dazzling affair that scarcely found time for the latest Prog Rock releases amongst the whirlwind of poetry, in-character links, comedy sketches, adverts for fictitious animal repellents, technically ambitious pre-recorded items and the gripping weekly serial ‘Breath From The Pit’, in which Stanshall and his heroic sidekick Keith Moon battled their old adversary The Scorpion and his fiendish plan to replace commuters with intelligent gorillas, armed only with the all-purpose Magic Trousers. ‘Breath From The Pit’, however, caused more headaches for Walters than any other part of the show, and given Stanshall’s notorious lack of regard for deadlines this was no mean feat. On one occasion, having turned up two hours late for the recording of an instalment, Stanshall was asked by an impatient Walters and Moon for the script. With no little irritation, he replied that he had to write it first. Perhaps wisely, the next time holiday cover was needed, Walters booked Moon instead.
As for Gargantuan Chums, they were eventually joined by fellow former Bonzo Neil Innes, and – now calling themselves Freaks and reshaped as a more serious proposition – they too recorded a session for Top Gear. Broadcast in March 1971, this was made up of a mixture of old songs and new numbers that started Stanshall and Innes thinking towards a possible reunion. One of these was Rawlinson End, a lengthy spoken word parody of serials from women’s magazines, building on Stanshall’s earlier Start The Week pieces by adding a narrative and a full cast of characters. This was to prove an unexpected hit with listeners, with many writing in asking to hear it again. It was also, more significantly, a hit with Walters, who began wondering if there was potential in exploring the saga further…
Buy A Book!
Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1 – which includes much more on the radio escapades of Viv Stanshall and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Rawlinson End is one of the Twelve Radio Programmes That Need To Be Given A Proper Release, which you can read more about here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.