Vivian Stanshall

From Academic Kids

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Vivian Stanshall (March 21 1943March 5 1995) was an English musician, writer, wit, and raconteur, probably best known for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but also known for his surreal exploration of the British upper classes in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

Contents

The great eccentric

Stanshall was often called a "great British eccentric", but this was a label he hated as it suggested that he was putting on an act, whereas he always insisted that he was merely being himself — which is arguably a requirement for genuine eccentricity. However, it is not hard to understand why he received the label: Neil Innes said of their first meeting, in a large Irish pub: "He was quite plump in those days — he had Billy Bunter check trousers and a Victorian frock coat, violet pince-nez glasses, carried a euphonium and wore pink rubber ears."

Early life

Stanshall was born Victor Anthony Stanshall at the Radcliffe Maternity Home in Oxford on 21st March 1943. Originally from Walthamstow - a suburb on the borders of East London and Essex - his mother Eileen had moved to Shillingford, Oxfordshire during the Second World War to escape the bombing, and lived there happily with her son while her husband Victor (a name he had adopted in preference to his christened name of Vivian) served in the RAF. With the end of war, the family moved back to Walthamstow and his father returned.

Things at home quickly became fraught. Although he was of working class origins, Mr Stanshall wanted his son to go to public school and pressed him to perform well in sports. Young Viv, however, was completely uninterested in such pursuits, preferring - to his father's horror - to devote his energies to art, music and literature. Consequently, he grew up living a dual life: at home, he would have to speak "properly" or face a beating from his dad; on the street he spoke with a broad Cockney accent in order to avoid a beating from his peers.

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As a teenager he secretly joined a gang of local teddy boys, attracted both by the rock'n'roll and the clothing. Even among such dandies, though, Vivian was a bit of an oddball. The polished vowels that had been bashed into him kept leaking out, and his cockney mates looked upon him as something of an amusing freak.

Around this time, the Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal resort of Southend-on-Sea. Here, a teenage Vic managed to earn some money doing various odd jobs at the "Kursaal" funfair. These included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter months painting the fairground attractions.

In order to put aside enough money to get himself through art school (his father having refused to fund it), Vic spent a year in the merchant navy, where he made a very bad waiter, and learned how to knit. Then, in a telling act of anti-paternal rebellion, he changed his first name to Vivian - the very name his father had abandoned - and enrolled at Central School of Art in London. Here, Viv and fellow students including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes, who was studying music at Goldsmiths College, decided to form a band.

The Bonzo years

The name of the band came from a word game involving cutting up sentences and juxtaposing the fragments to form new ones. One of the combinations that came out of this exercise was "Bonzo Dog/Dada". The band initially performed under this name but soon grew tired of explaining what "Dada" meant to audience members with no knowledge of art history. Thus they became the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band — later abbreviated to "The Bonzo Dog Band", or just "The Bonzos".

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In these early days they were a very loose assemblage, consisting of the core members mentioned above, plus just about anyone else who felt like joining in. At times there were as many as thirty of them, with gigs often featuring more people on stage than in the audience. Their act at this time consisted of anarchic re-workings of old British novelty songs, found on 78 records bought from flea-markets, spiced with a great deal of larking about and (from Roger Ruskin Spear) at least one deafening explosion per gig.

The Bonzos might have continued this way, too, and probably disappeared into obscurity, had it not been for a nasty shock: the 1966 chart success of a winsomely arch number called "Winchester Cathedral" by "The New Vaudeville Band" — a rival outfit (formed by an ex-Bonzo member) whose musical and visual style bore an uncanny similarity to their own. The Bonzos realised that if they were to make a mark for themselves, they would have to forge a new path. From here on, they started writing their own material and dropping it into the act alongside the old novelty numbers. With Stanshall now liberated from his original role as tuba player and firmly established as the front man, the act became more sophisticated, too: daring and satirical. Quite aside from the adventurous music and lyrics, it was quite a performance: Stanshall sang, played a variety of instruments and on a good night would also perform a prolonged and hilarious fully-clothed strip mime, culminating in some spectacular tit-juggling. His very non-PC Jesus joke was also a highlight of the act.

For a while they existed as a semi-pro outfit playing the college circuit, but it wasn't long before they went full time. Over the next half-decade the band toured incessantly and recorded several albums, which led to a tour of the US. This was so successful that they were booked for another US tour soon after. Between the two, however, something brought about a crippling change in Vivian's personality. None of his fellow Bonzos claims to know just what caused it, but by the start of the second tour he was on very large doses of tranquilizers prescribed by a private doctor, ostensibly to treat stage-fright. Nevertheless, the workload never let up. The band had a punishing schedule, often playing more than one gig per evening. In 1970, after six years of it, they decided to call it a day — as much from sheer tiredness as anything else.

Vivian went on to form various short-lived groups including "The Sean Head Band", "Bonzo Dog Freaks" (featuring the guitar talents of the rotund Bubs White) and "BiG GrunT". At one point, he even went into teaching art and drama at a boy's secondary modern school in Surrey. By now, his life was dogged by depression and a drinking problem, and would remain so. He had several spells in hospitals in attempts to stop or control his drinking, but they never worked (this was before modern-day notions of rehab). He was also still being prescribed large doses of Valium, which — he later reported — made things worse by simply adding another addiction.

In 1974 he collaborated with Steve Winwood to produce his first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. A complex, rambling affair, its lyrics filled with acutely personal insights and references, it has a jazz-rock flavour, rich with African percussion.

Rawlinson End

Viv's next big success came with 'Rawlinson End'. In the 1970s Stanshall recorded numerous sessions for BBC Radio 1's John Peel show which elaborated, with a fine mixture of eloquence and irreverence, on the weird and wonderful adventures of the inebriate and blimpish Sir Henry Rawlinson, his dotty wife Great Aunt Florrie, his "unusual" brother Hubert (who, for speed, stature and far-seeing habitually, goes on stilts), old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer, Mrs E, the rambling and unhygienic cook, and many other inhabitants of the crumbling stately home Rawlinson End and its environs. In fact, the Rawlinson family had been populating Vivian's imagination for quite a while, their very first appearance (in name, at least) being on the Bonzos' 1967 number "The Intro & The Outro": "Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone" .

An LP, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which reworked some of the material from the Peel sessions, appeared in 1978. A sepia-tinted black and white film version, starring Trevor Howard as Sir Henry and Stanshall himself as Hubert, followed in 1980. It was also based on the Peel recordings, with many variations from the LP. Some of the film's music was provided by Stanshall's friend Steve Winwood. A book of the same name by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was published in 1980. Nominally a film novelization, it was actually distilled from all the various versions of the story, including a good deal of material that was not used in the film.

A projected second book, The Eating at Rawlinson End, sadly never appeared. It was to have started:

In the blue wardrobe of heaven are many unused clothes, too tight fitting yet too beautiful to throw away. And in that wardrobe we hang our likenesses, yellow diaries yellowed with yesterday, thumb smeared with tomorrow. But the now, the present, like the hollow screech of ancient flamingos in search of shrimps, is still vibrantly shocking pink.

A second Rawlinson album, Sir Henry at Ndidi's Kraal (1983), recounts Sir Henry's disastrous African expedition, but disappointingly omits the rest of the Rawlinson clan. It is debatable whether this album should ever have been put out at all. It was recorded on portable equipment at Vivian's home, at a time when he was at his most depressed, drugged-up and drunk. The results were, at best, a bit of a mess. Then, while his wife Ki was away organising the purchase of the boat Thekla (see below), the record company (convinced that Vivian was on the verge of death and determined to capitalise on the grief of his fans) grabbed the tapes, cobbled them together and released them.

At Christmas 1996 BBC Radio 4 fished some of the Peel show recordings out of the vault for a very late-night repeat, but there seems to be little chance of a commercial release.

Sir Henry's final appearance was in a TV commercial for Ruddle's Real Ale (c. 1994), where he is played by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Stanshall reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a weird poem loosely based on Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat, at the end of which all the diners produce oars and row the table offscreen.

And...

From mid 1977 to early 1983, Vivian lived on The Searchlight - a houseboat purchased from Denny Laine of Wings and moored on the River Thames. Converted from a First World War submarine chaser, it was forever taking on water and eventually sank with all his possessions aboard.

Later, Vivian and his family lived and worked on the Thekla, a Baltic Trader, sailed 732 nautical miles from the east coast of England and then moored in the Bristol docks. His wife Ki Longfellow (on whom see below) had bought the Thekla in Sunderland, and converted her into a floating theatre called The Old Profanity Showboat. The ship saw the debut of Ki and Vivian's comic opera Stinkfoot. Vivian wrote 27 original songs for Stinkfoot, sharing some of the lyric writing with Ki. It was a huge success: people came from all over Europe to see it; some from as far away as America.

Stanshall's remarkable and instantly recognizable voice won him several commercial voice-overs, including a campaign for Cadbury's Creme Eggs which involved a reworking of the Bonzos' song "Mister Slater's Parrot", under the title of "Mister Cadbury's Parrot".

He collaborated on numerous projects including Robert Calvert's Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters, Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells where he is the voice breathily announcing "...and introducing Tubular Bells.", appeared with Grimms and The Rutles, as well as occasionally working with The Alberts and The Temperance Seven. He also wrote the lyrics for two of the songs on Steve Winwood's hit album Arc of a Diver.

He was married twice: in 1968 to Monica Peiser (they had a son, Rupert, in 1968, and were divorced in 1975); and in 1980 to the novelist Pamela Longfellow aka Ki Longfellow. Vivian dreamed her name was Ki, and as Ki she is now known. Ki and Vivian had a daughter, Silky, born 1979. Silky's birth was celebrated in song, "The Tube", on Vivian's second solo album Teddy Boys Don't Knit, made in 1981.

In 1991 Vivian made a 15-minute autobiographical piece called Vivian Stanshall: The Early Years, aka Crank, for BBC2's The Late show, in which he confessed to having been terrified of his late father, who had always disapproved of him. A later programme for BBC Radio 4, Vivian Stanshall: Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man (1994) included an interview with his mother in which she insisted that his father had loved him, but Vivian was mortified that he had never shown it.

Stanshall was found dead on March 6th 1995 after a fire at his Muswell Hill flat, seemingly started by him falling asleep while smoking in bed. Fuelled by brandy fumes, the cigarette had set fire to his long ginger beard. (Although Vivian did indeed often set fire to his beard, the fire was begun by faulty wiring near his bed.)

A one-hour television documentary, Vivian Stanshall: The Canyons of his Mind, was broadcast on BBC Four in June 2004.

Quotes

  • "I don't know what I want, but I want it NOW!" (Sir Henry at Rawlinson End)
  • "Do have an unusual day, won't you?" (Essex Teenager to Renaissance man)
  • "Do you know what a palmist once said to me? She said: WILL YOU LET GO!" (Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.)
  • "If I had all the money I'd spent on drink - I'd spend it on drink." (Sir Henry at Rawlinson End)
  • "You got a light, mac? No...but I've got a dark brown overcoat." (Big Shot)

Bibliography

  • Sir Henry at Rawlinson End: And Other Spots. London: Eel Pie, 1980. ISBN 0-906008-21-2
  • Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall by Lucian Randall and Chris Welch. London: Fourth Estate, 2001. ISBN 1-84115-678-7 (hardback); 2002. ISBN 1-84115-679-5 (paperback)
  • Stinkfoot: An English Comic Opera. Rotterdam: Sea Urchin, 2003. ISBN 90-75342-13-6, a celebration of Vivian and Ki's comic opera (publisher's page (http://www.sea-urchin.net/indexeng.html?books/stink.html))

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