BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND: GORILLA (1967)
1) Cool Britannia; 2) The Equestrian Statue; 3) Jollity Farm; 4) I Left My Heart In San Francisco; 5) Look Out, There's A Monster Coming; 6) Jazz (Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold); 7) Death Cab For Cutie; 8) Narcissus; 9) The Intro And The Outro; 10) Mickey's Son And Daughter; 11) Big Shot; 12) Music For The Head Ballet; 13) Piggy Bank Love; 14) I'm Bored; 15) The Sound Of Music.
Long before there was Monty Python, there was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (originally Dada band, which makes things more comprehensible — not that this particular outfit ever hunted for comprehensibility). They began by playing absurdist jazz and vaudeville, then got bored with it and started moving into other genres — all sorts of genres, actually: of the fifteen tracks, crammed into 35 minutes on their debut album, not two sound alike. And what's that thing ought to be called? Why, Gorilla, of course. Less predictable than Chicken, which might have been the first and most obvious option.
There are two schools of thought on Viv Stanshall, Neil Innes, and their merry band of sidekicks: one that treats them as serious, responsible, important, and influential musical innovators, lodged in the same camp as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and one that tends to view them more like intelligent, well-educated, tasteful clowns, good for a healthy laugh, but ultimately forgettable in the grand scheme of things. Consequently, Gorilla is generally viewed by adherents of the first point of view as a funny, but very lightweight preview of much grander things to come, whereas the second group might see it as the band's finest (half-)hour, adequately showing their talents without any unsuccessful attempts to overreach their grasp.
Personally, I am stuck in the middle here: on one hand, Gorilla is the most easy-going, immediately enjoyable set of tunes (and/or musical jokes) that these guys put out, but on the other hand, I do not like the idea of Stanshall, Innes & Co. as «musical clowns», either: humor was their chief weapon of choice at all times, but they were also accomplished and disciplined musicians striving to innovate. But it is hard for me to deny that Gorilla finds the band completely at ease with all the goals they are trying to achieve. No matter whether they are dabbling in old-school vaudeville, pop, standards, calypso, rockabilly, or bubblegum, they always nail the essence — and then turn it inside out to create, like, the best parody of the style ever.
Yes, Gorilla is «just» a comedy record, but dammit, what high quality comedy we have here, to the extent that almost each single track brings on some new realization about some peculiarity of the selected genre. For instance, ʽThe Equestrian Statueʼ with its melancholic harpsichord is written in the sub-style of «Britpop» commonly used for songs about loneliness and personal troubles (think ʽTwo Sistersʼ by the Kinks, etc.), but, regarding the lyrics, are we supposed to empathize for the protagonist — the bronzed and polished "famous man" who "on his famous horse would ride through the land"? Nope, it's just that playing the harpsichord that way makes you feel gloomy and melancholic all over, so much so you'd even pity a statue.
Another fabulous highlight is ʽThe Intro And The Outroʼ, on which the band set a boppy jazzy groove, get introduced one by one, and then, as they run out of proper band members but not out of musical instruments, add a host of imaginary players to the roster — including Quasimodo on bells ("representing the flower people"), Adolf Hitler on vibes, Charles de Gaulle on accordion, and lots of contemporary British celebrities and politicians that are today only recognizable through historical textbooks. In a way, it's just a silly, albeit catchy, gag, but it also makes you ponder on the issue of sprawling «big bands» where, sometimes, the function of a single player is reduced to simply «being there» for the sake of providing the illusion of massiveness — play a single lead line, then disappear forever into the background...
ʽDeath Cab For Cutieʼ, which the Bonzos were also given to lip-sync to in Magical Mystery Tour (the scene where everybody watches the hot stripper instead of listening to the music, and you can't really blame 'em) and which later became the name of a proper band in its own rights, parodies «Vegasy» Elvis, but the lyrics tell such a macabre little story, and the arrangement is so delightfully rudimentary (just a boogie piano line and a light brass accompaniment) that it goes beyond parody — an absurdist-minimalist mash-up of Elvis, brutality, and light jazz. It ain't no masterpiece, but somehow, it's cool in its straight-faced smoothness.
The weirdest number on the album (and that makes it truly weird, because all the songs here are weird) is ʽBig Shotʼ, which, technically, parodies a trendy mid-1960s soundtrack to a film noir (of the type where everybody wears sunglasses and walks the streets to the latest hard bop grooves). If you manage to get rid of the «intentionally annoying» voiceover that very quickly descends into schizophasia, the song, however, is a perfectly valid modern jazz composition in its own right — dark, bluesy, and with a frantic free-form sax solo to boot: they are setting the genre up at the same time as they try to make their own serious mark on it.
At the very least, one thing that can be said about Gorilla without reservations is that it ain't boring, not for one single second. With all the diversity and unpredictability floating around, it got more musical ideas, or spin-offs on musical ideas, in 35 minutes than some bands manage to produce over an entire career, and they almost always work. Even the short bits, such as the «flubbed vocal audition» of ʽI Left My Heart In San Franciscoʼ, or the gratuituous, but forgivable, dig at ʽThe Sound Of Musicʼ, are funny — even when they intentionally play out of tune and as uncoordinated as possible (ʽJazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Coldʼ), they still manage to be funny, and just a little bit insightful. Of all the musical hooliganry that pervaded Great Britain circa 1967, Gorilla is that one record that is «guaranteed to raise a smile», no matter what the circumstances, and, come to think of it, the Bonzos were the original Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band more than anybody else — their short-lived alliance with the Beatles was no accident.
Thumbs up, of course — oh, and, incidentally, this is also the album that introduced the phrase «Cool Britannia» to the world, wasn't it? For fairness' sake, they should have flooded Neil Innes with royalties in the late 1990s, but guess the real Britannia isn't nearly as cool as they make it out to be. Not that the Bonzos did not know this — they knew, and subsequently deflated expectations by abruptly seguing the melody into a sequence of a lumberjack cutting wood, whatever symbolic meaning that sequence might be attributed.