An Interview with Three Bonzos and a Piano
As part of The MAC’s first guest-curated arts festival, In The Court of… Duke Special, David Glasson from Three Bonzos and a Piano spoke to The Gown ahead of their first show in Belfast in three years.
Firstly, as artists that regularly sell out venues across England, what attracted you to this project? What do you hope to add to the festival?
We were invited by Duke Special to be a part of his week-long programme. Apparently the Bonzos were a big influence on him and he wanted to include us in his week at The MAC. We are most flattered and more than happy to be given the opportunity to return to beautiful Belfast.
How have you found Belfast, particularly from an arts point of view, in relation to, say, the large cities of England?
We were last here for the Queens Festival in 2009 – a great evening in The Spiegel Tent in the centre of Belfast. Belfast has a really lively arts community which we love being a part of. However, with only a fleeting visit we don’t get to see much that is obviously going on, and would like the opportunity of spending longer in the city, which compares well to other large cities around the UK for its diverse arts output.
This September marks the 50th anniversary of The Bonzos first formation. Yet, The Bonzos in various forms have split up a number of times. What is it that keeps pulling you all back together?
The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (from which we are descended) was the band that split in the past. First, was when the band broke up in 1970, then not until after they reformed in 2006 with stars such as Ade Edmondson, Stephen Fry, Paul Merton and Phill Jupitus taking Viv Stanshall’s place. After a few sell-out London shows, a UK tour and an album, the Bonzos parted ways yet again in 2008.
So I immediately contacted original Bonzos members Roger Ruskin Spear and Sam Spoons, who I had first met in the late 60s and worked with throughout the 70s and 80s and into the 90s in a quartet called Tatty Ollity and suggested we reformed (changing the name to Three Bonzos and a Piano), and adding original Bonzo Rodney Slater to the mix. I booked us in to a small club in my home town of Brighton for 4 shows in 4 consecutive months to see what they interest was, and found we were packing it out and needed bigger venues. So far, Three Bonzos and a Piano haven’t split!!
Three Bonzos… began performing a number of years before Frank Zappa ever posed the question ‘Does humour belong in music?’ – considering how empty and formulaic most pop music seems to be, do you think a sense of humour is particularly lacking?
Certainly, I feel there is little humour in music at present out there – it’s not actually flavour of the month. It’s a little like Vaudeville and Variety, they’re not very cool at the moment. We always try to make it a visual experience as well as a comedic and musical one – sometimes the music suffers! A label we sometimes get given is ‘Theatre Art’ as we always aim to seek out the visual comedy opportunities presented in any numbers we do. For instance, Roger has his famous Robots which appear in all our shows, and there are props galore – remember, these guys met at art school so they are approaching the entertainment in quite a unique way – not always fully understood!
It’s also very chaotic and we often don’t remember all the words of songs – that’s when the audience help us out! Also, sometimes props don’t work or get left behind, so we suddenly find ourselves having to improvise. Our motto is ‘Never Knowingly Over-Rehearsed’!
Yet, none the less, there has been a mini-revival in music-comedy stand-up (Tim Minchin, Demetri Martin, David O’Doherty to name a few). Tim Minchin, in particular, has had great success undercutting serious issues with clever jokes – do you subscribe to the belief that even comedy should have an underlying serious message?
Also Bill Bailey – another one greatly influenced by the Bonzos. I think most comedy can have a serious message – it’s often the best way to get the message across. For instance, the songs we’re writing now are a mixture of various genres, some with and some without a ‘message’. There are songs about the challenges of getting older, including “Senior Moments” (memory lapses) or “Achin’ and a Shakin’” (NHS), or nonsense songs such as “I Love Washing Up”, “I Find Tyres Exciting”, “Holey Cheeses” and “Purple Sprouting Broccoli”. A new favourite is “Banned By The BBC”. We also target bankers – well, they were asking for it!
You have just released a new album. How does the creative process in your group work? What can we expect from your latest release?
Our second album came out a couple of months ago – called BUM NOTES – a pun on the Blue Note record label and has 18 tracks, written by each of us. We tend to write separately as we all live so far apart. Once one of the guys has a song ready he will come down to my studio in Brighton and we’ll lay down a guide track. Then each in turn will come down to record their own stuff and add their instruments and voices to other tracks that are ready. As we have no guitar or bass in the band, we employ Andy Roberts on guitar (for many of the live shows as well) and on this album we also used Chris Spedding and Mick Hutton as guest bass players.
The Bonzos have an extensive back catalogue covering a variety of styles from jazz to Elvis, so we try to maintain that diversity of styles and introduce a few new ones. I’ve already mentioned a few tracks above – other tracks cover Jazz, Country, and Rock. We explore Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, folk music, new Music for the Leg, Digital Spoons and the album opens with “The In-Tray and the Out-Tray”, a fresh take on The Intro and the Outro, and a track from Gorilla – the Bonzos first album in 1966.
Questions by Peter McLoughlin @PeterGownArts. Responses by David Glasson. BUM NOTES is available here. Three Bonzos and a Piano played at The MAC on Tuesday the 4th of September. For more information on the band visit their website.