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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse


1) We Are Normal; 2) Postcard; 3) Beautiful Zelda; 4) Can Blue Men Sing The Whites; 5) Hello Mabel; 6) Kama Sutra; 7) Humanoid Boogie; 8) The Trouser Press; 9) My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe; 10) Rockaliser Baby; 11) Rhinocratic Oaths; 12) Eleven Mustachioed Daughters.

The biggest shift from the «adolescent» stage of Gorilla to the «(anti-)maturity» stage of Dough­nut, I think, is that the Bonzos' second album shows a very strong Zappa influence — in parti­cular, lots of parallels can be drawn between it and We're Only In It For The Money, released about a half year earlier. For instance, just like Zappa's parodic masterpiece, this one, too, begins with a weird, «mucky» intro section, foreboding some bizarre hallucinogenic experience before suddenly shifting gears without a warning and leaping head first into whacky uptempo merriment and an endless pool of musical sarcasm. If the earlier Bonzos still retained some sense of restraint, this time they are truly «unleashed» — ideas come and go with the speed of a McDonalds atten­dant on a particularly busy day, and most of the ideas play out at top volume, energy, and crazi­ness. Here, they are no longer a band — they're the big bright green absurd-generation machine, to paraphrase an astute New Yorker of the times.

In a way, this produces a detrimental effect: The Doughnut is so diffused, distracting, and dis­concerting most of the time, that once it's over, all that remains in your head is a woozy, fuzzy feeling, as if you have just emerged out of a forty-minute experimental slideshow where your eyes had to react to colorful images at the speed of one image per half-second. Almost every «song» here is spliced together from several distinct sections that often have next to no connec­tion with each other — you have all sorts of combinations and deconstructions where old school foxtrots can walk hand in hand with free-form avantgarde, piano-based music hall can rapidly metamorphose into modal jazz, and somber Latin grooves can make a transition into a mock-solo piano recital. In this house, nothing is impossible.

As a result, the songs on this album, unlike most of the songs on Gorilla, simply do not exist on their own, but only function properly as part of a single package; at the very least, in order to disentangle them, you'd have to separate the melodies from the surrounding studio trickery, and filter out some of the noisy overdubs. In particular, I cannot speak of highlights or lowlights — as in Zappa's case, it makes more sense to regard the whole thing as part of a single, (dis)integrated, (in)­coherent musical show. Of course, the Bonzos do not have, nor do they really intend or claim to have, Frank's musical vision — where Zappa, even at his most humorous and/or offensive, still tended to pay attention to the «boundary-pushing» factor, Innes and Stanshall concentrate first and foremost on pushing the boundaries of humor, satire, and absurdity, rather than those of the music. But at the same time, the very «kaleidoscopic» nature of The Doughnut does not allow to classify it as «just» a parody album: on the overall greatness scale, I would certainly place this album seriously higher than, say, any given Weird Al record.

For instance, ʽBeautiful Zeldaʼ may be seen as just a parody on the «space-pop» thing of the times (like ʽMr. Spacemanʼ by The Byrds, etc.), but with its moody psychedelic intro, its old-fashioned doo-wop harmonies, and its jazzy brass section, it is clear that the band was aiming for more than just parody — in a way, it simply builds up on the «join pop music with sci-fi ele­ments» trend of the mid-Sixties, perhaps with a little more verve than the basic rules of adequacy would require, but that's the Bonzos for you: they want to bring out the ridiculousness and the excitement and the innovation of certain ideas at the same time.

And then there's the issue of these guys being sharp. ʽCan Blue Men Sing The Whites?ʼ, for instance, takes on the problem stated in the title (in reverse, that is) and dresses it up in the guise of a ridiculously over-distorted blues-rocker which has very little redeeming musical value, per se, but even that may be intentional, because the point of the song is, well, that blue men cannot sing the whites, whichever way in particular you'd like to explain that statement. ʽKama Sutraʼ paro­dies simplistic early Sixties teen-pop for about forty seconds, substituting the usual boy-meets-girl lyrics with something a little more up to the point ("we tried position thirty-one, it was ter­rific fun; in position seventy-two, you was me, and I was you") — imagine Jan and Dean circa '61 supplying their horny audiences with those kinds of words. ʽThe Trouser Pressʼ ridicules the «new dance craze» ideas on the soul/R&B circuit, inventing its own little dance in the process, punctuated by actual «trouser-pressing» noises and featuring a really bold call-and-response opening section exchange ("do you like soul music?..." — dead silence — quietly, but decisively: "no"). Further examples are unnecessary.

Of course, like everything else the Bonzos did, Doughnut is inextricably linked to its epoch, and with each passing year, its humor and wit gets more difficult to warm up to without a serious introductory course to all the main players on the music and entertainment scene not just of 1968, but of the entire decade. (Bonus tracks on the CD edition throw on parodic performances of ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ, ʽBang Bangʼ, and ʽAlley Oopʼ, among other things). Comedy records tend to date easier than tragedy records, in general, for being more dependent on the particular realities of their own time and place. However, the «kaleidoscope of sound» effect that blurs the boundaries between songs ultimately becomes the album's saving grace — even on an alien, of the kind that gets addressed so often on the record itself (ʽBeautiful Zeldaʼ, ʽHumanoid Boogieʼ, etc.), Dough­nut will most likely produce a dazzling effect.

What I am trying to say is that, in order to enjoy Doughnut, you do not necessarily have to «get» all of its parodic elements, much like you do not really have to take a crash course in the history and customs of the Irish people to get a jolt out of Ulysses. With the band's professional musi­cian­ship (nothing extraordinary, but all the grooves are honed to perfection), technological savvi­ness (all the overdubs are laid on with enough care and precision to rival the production team of Sgt. Pepper), and understanding of all the basic attractions of all the musical forms that they tackle, Doughnut can, after all, work as just a happy old celebration of music — fun in its since­rest and most inspired variant. And, what with it being «dated» and all, 1968 was a really great year to be having fun, wouldn't you agree? Thumbs up, of course.

Technical notes: the band had dropped the «Doo-Dah» from its name for this album (perhaps re­flecting the transition to a slightly more «serious» routine, although I'd rather prefer it if they'd dropped the «Bonzo Dog» part instead). Also, in the States this was released as Urban Space­man, incorporating a concurrent non-LP single — the usual practice for those times, but also, they probably thought that the title would be too inscrutable for thickheaded American audiences (legend has it that the title refers to a lavatory and was acquired by the band from an anecdote by Monty Python friend Michael Palin — which would make this the second lavatory-themed inci­dent of the year that I know of, right beside the story of the front sleeve of Beggar's Banquet; a piss-rich year indeed!).

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