Strange Doings at Bonzo manor

Roy Hollingworth reports on a rural recording session

THE tale begins at 3 p.m. on a Soho Saturday. Blurting over the telephone is Vivian Stanshall, with news that he's making a journey into Oxfordshire, to the new Manor recording studios. The task is to lay down vocals on the new Bonzo Dog album (hurrah). "There's a bit of a party"
Photographer Barrie Wentzel and I are told to expect a car that will whisk us from London to East Finchley, pick up Viv, and whisk us to Oxford. The sun begins to die over Soho, and session musicians crawl through the streets for evenings in city studios.
The driver arrives, looking like a member of any other occupation, other than driving, and we are shown into Soho Square, which harbours a variety of vehicles, including a gigantic ex-army ambulance, decorated with skull and crossbones. We walk towards any of the cars, and are then told to walk to the ambulance. The back doors are opened (cast, heavy steel), and inside is a community, living on mattresses and no conversation - Odd.
It takes the best part of an hour to East Finchley, because the engine functions like tubercular lungs. Stanshall Manor produces a wirey (sic) figure, carrier bags, and a ukelele shaped like a duck in flight. Vivian also wears bells on his ankles, and a comfy hat. "Hi, what the Hell is this?" We crouch in the front, and merge with the North Circular.
Pushing an "x-ton" ambulance down the middle lane of a by-pass produces strain. Vivian pushes like a madman, smudging his pumps on the tarmac. The truck is dead, broken down. The long line of traffic behind just can't make this one out. This is an artist on his way to produce art. Where's the fat, fast limo?

Now we are sat in the back of a North London cab, not burning, but sort of singing down the motorway. The people have been left behind with their ambulance, buying parts. "I'm not coming the superstar bit, I'm just bloody tired, and I've got a session and that thing's just bloody silly."
Vivian works hard. On Friday morning he had left Oxford, flown to Edinburgh, gigged, flown to London, possibly eaten, and was now returning to the album. He'll work himself to death will Vivian.
"You can tell," says Vivian, "that we've been working away from each other. You'll get that when you hear the album. But it's come together. Musically, it's the best Dog album. We're pleased." He takes a swig of brandy from the bottle in the cab.
In the lone country pub, a lone country person sings "Leap Up and Down and Wave Your Knickers in the Air, ha!" Viv takes three darts in his left hand, and plants them in a lovely cluster two feet to the left of the board, in the wall. It's not a look of amusement on the landlady's face. She looks frightened.
Lost, and tired and cramped, and dozy from liquor (but the driver's straight), the cab hovers through Oxford, like a November bluebottle. Aimless. A time lag begins. Vivian hands out his No. 6s, and gives the driver one. The driver doesn't smoke, and gives the cigarette back. Vivian didn't notice that, strikes a match and puts it in front of the cabbies face. Startled, the cabbie blows it out with burning lips. Viv lights another match, puts it in front of the cabbie's face, still thinking he needs a light. Scorch.
The ambulance got there before us. Vivian is in deathly mood.
One of Viv's tracks on the album is called "Strain". It takes in a sort of sitting on the toilet atmosphere. That feeling of having to do something physically that won't do it for itself.
We're listening to it in the control room of Manor studios. It's very homely, the control desks look alien against their almost medieval backdrop. Neil Innes and Vivian sit behind the panels on throne-like chairs. Vivian is asleep, and making odd noises. Neil looks whimsical, wearing a tea cosy, and smiling.
Neil: "I was doing Roger's (Spear) track. We'd been working on it for a while, and Roger said 'Neil, can't you see I want this voice to get over to the person on the other mountain.' I stopped, looked at Roger, and enquired as to what mountain he was on about. 'The other mountain. There's one person on one mountain, then there's sea in between, then there's another person on another mountain, and they're talking to each other'."
It had been a long day, and Roger had told nobody about mountains. He thought he had.
We hear Roger's track. Shouting. Sounds bloody marvelous, as though it had been thought up in his van on the way there. "Does it sound as though it were thought up in his van?" asks Neil. Yes. "Well, it was." A revolting jug of Guinness is brought into the room. Legs Larry sits muttering in a high class mutter. "No, No, No," he says, but little else seems relevant.
There's the resident engineers. This is the first album the country studios have had to cope with. It appears to be going well.
Vivian is asleep.
"Scurfing A-OK" is a masterpiece. It's a Beach Boys rip off, but it's not surf, it's great scaling dandruff, and suitable Stanshall lyrics. Funny, but everyone seems to be scratching their heads. It's gutsy, ripping, pulling, gagging, nagging. Daft. What a gap the Bonzos left behind. Would you tackle an eight-stone weakling who had scurf?
Meanwhile, not 50 yards away are at least 150 Virgins.
They are eating meat, roasted on a spit in the Manor grounds, and spilling and drinking wine. It's an odd assortment, ranging from an American lady wanted by the FBI (she speaks like Neil Young sings) to an odd looner in old bags who dances. Most people work for Virgin Records, who own the Manor and studios. A venture to celebrate Fireworks.
The tapes play in the control room. Great Bonzos. Vivian seems to have slipped from slumber into a neo-death pose. He had earlier said that nobody told him it was going to be a party "like that".
"Sometimes I wish I could be up there with them. Look, there's Dodger. Thank God he got back."
Neil and myself eye the small aircraft that dodge around the air near the Manor. It's the next day now. If only we didn't have gammy legs. We'd be up there. "What's the word," asks Neil, "Flake, or is it strafe?"
A tinkling of bells warns the listener of an advancing Stanshall. Bright. Cheerful. "What was I like last night?"
Viv plays bongos for a photosession. Singing jungle tunes. It's nothing to do with music. Old Bonzos bassist Dennis plays with the brakes of his Morris 1000. A good player actually. Musically, this is the Bonzos finest hour. You wouldn't believe it.


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