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Neil Innes on the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Making Radio 4 documentary The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: Anarchy Must Be Organised made member Neil Innes rediscover the uncontrolled joy of a truly unique old band, as he explains.

“Anarchy must be organised!” exclaimed Adrian Edmondson, rudely aglow with the sudden thrill of his own eureka moment. The impish gleam in his eye, like the rest of his face – shining with the happy surprise and total joy of coming up with such a silly idea - while at the same time desperately refusing to allow any hint of smugness to cloud the spontaneity - is alas, unseen on radio. But you can hear his delight…

Neil Innes (right) with fan Adrian Edmondson

He is not alone. His fellow contributors also found themselves relishing the opportunity to share, as I did, personal details, observations, memories and things you can’t quite put your finger on, in a relaxed, informal and open-ended conversation. These friendly free-fall anecdotal recordings now form a soft cocoon for the priceless archive material snuggling in this Radio 4 documentary on the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

This is big budget stuff – well it would be - if we were talking about movies and not radio. The ratio of what’s ‘on the cutting room floor’ to what’s ‘on screen’ is at least 50:1. Like a vast bulging net of unfashionable fish, bursting and slopping on to the storm-tossed decks of Broadcasting House, hours and hours of self-importance, false modesty, chit chatting, fancy that-ting, yawning, fawning, jibber jabbing, back-stabbing, stumbling, mumbling - not to mention deviation and hesitation - have all been unceremoniously dumped. Tossed overboard. This is an audio blockbuster!

The Bonzos in 1969, with Neil Innes bottom right

This kind of production – certainly in human terms - does not come cheap. It is truly labour intensive and all credit is due to the painstaking diligence of producer and editor Laura Baron. It takes courage and generosity to allow people to waffle on and on and go wherever their fancy takes them. Furthermore, it takes soul-sapping concentration and stamina to trawl through all the subsequent “anarchy” and rescue any best bits. It is entirely thanks to Laura – and her love of the band and of making radio - that this programme sounds as natural and as “organised” – as it does.

Given the subject matter, “anarchy must be organised” could not be a more appropriate title. 50 years ago, every Tuesday night, a troop of Absurd Young Men from different art schools in London gathered in a pub called The Hoop and Toy.

Neil Innes in 1970
One man’s cacophony is another man’s drinking music."

There could be up to 14 or 15 of them, all carrying second hand bashed up musical instruments. After a pint or two, they would march around the corner to the Royal College of Art canteen. There, they would take out their trumpets, trombones, triangles, ukuleles, banjos and clarinets and make an appalling row. They played “novelty foxtrots” from the 1920s and 1930s. This was the embryonic Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

It was a complicated birth. The naming of the band came from pieces of paper in a hat. I don’t recall how many folded over scribbles there were, but three emerged as clear winners: “Bonzo the Dog” (a jolly, mischievous little canine character painted by George E Studdy in the 1920s); “Dada” (the shocking anti-art movement founded during the World War One); and the somewhat frivolous suggestion of “Band”.

“Dada” was swiftly changed to “Doo Dah”. The unspeakably tedious task of attempting to define anti-art movements to a wider public soon became akin to stuffing a whale into an egg. Not long after, violent semi-controlled theatrical explosions augmented the repertoire.

Then there were nine. The band started played in pubs and passing the hat round. One man’s cacophony is another man’s drinking music. Eager crowds flocked and people regularly jostled one another – not necessarily to listen to us – but to drown their sorrows. Landlords actually paid us to turn up!

Nevertheless, it is strange how the memory plays tricks on us. We all seem to remember the same things differently. Or is it that we only notice what we choose to believe?

I can remember hearing a story about Epicurus placating a crowd of angry Romans who were not happy about their leadership by pointing out that the head was completely useless without the body – in particular – the stomach. He liked his food, it was said. I liked the story because it made sense of anarchy and I liked the idea of anarchy. Years later I find out that Epicurus was Greek – and quite shy.

So what did the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band achieve? What price did they pay for their fame and notoriety? Soon there were only seven – and then six – and the “Doo Dah” was dropped altogether. Did being silly and fun loving cost them an arm and a legacy?

I love these memories and these memories love me. I know they do. Every time I throw them a metaphorical stick – they bring it right back to me…

Listen to the documentary The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band: Anarchy Must Be Organised on Radio 4 on Saturday 12 March at 8pm and then online.

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