Saturday, 9 July 2016

VIVIAN STANSHALL & biG GRunt – IN SESSION (Mega Dodo EP).

Between the years following the split of the weird and wonderful Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (the Dadaist wing of Psychedelica Britannia) and really getting his mojo back with the deliciously surreal Sir Henry At Rawlinson End broadcasts on the John Peel show, Vivian Stanshall was involved with various short lived musical projects that have more than often been relegated to little more than a footnote in articles and books about him. Somewhat overshadowed by his drunken, and often hilarious, escapades with drinking chum Keith Moon (which included touring the drinking dens of Soho dressed in full Nazi regalia……bad taste for even the early 70s), biG GRunt where one of the many collective alter egos/bands fronted by Stanshall post split………….. If you have ever considered what the Bonzo’s would of sounded like stripped of Neil Innes’s pop smarts but with Vivian Stanshall’s fertile imagination and penchant for musical experimentation given free reign then biG GRunt were that band. Including former Bonzo’s, bassist Dennis Cowan and saxophonist Roger Ruskin Spear (in addition to having been the most manic member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band onstage and after Stanshall and Innes the third most prolific songwriter of the band, was also a self-styled inventor who built bizarre robots, exploding props and absurd mechanical contraptions for their live shows) along with guitarists Bubs White and Borneo Fred Munt, both of whom had been members of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's road crew, plus powerful drummer Ian Wallace (who was later to join King Crimson and then drummed for a whole host of 70s/80s rock A-listers), even without biG GRunt having played a note of music in public, the background of the individual members made it clear that they were a formidable prospect both musically and as performers. Tipped for “very big things”, music press interviews of the time caught Stanshall enthusiastically discussing his ambitious plans for the band, aiming to create “a fusion of serious music with avant-garde humour and over-the-top visuals” However, Stanshall's well-documented personal problems made it difficult for him to give the project his full attention and keep the line-up together, so by the summer of 1971 biG GRunt were unofficially but obviously defunct. Leaving a slight legacy of a few well received live shows, a B-side of a single which had the dubious honour of being produced by Keith Moon, a berserk live performance on "Marty Amok" (a BBC1 special featuring the comedian Marty Feldman) and a lone session for John Peel, biG GRunt disappeared, reduced to mere mentions when Stanshall was finally recognised as “The Greatest Living Englishman” before his untimely death in 1995 ……..until now. The biG GRunt Peel Session, after languishing in the BBC vaults for nearly half a century, has been dusted down for the first official release of these historic recordings by the good folk at Mega Dodo. What is surprising is that these tracks remained in the vaults for so long with the Bonzo’s/Innes/Stanshall outstanding work from the 60s/early 70s has never being recognized with a full on, deluxe packaged retrospective box set when lesser lights of that era have had every single note of music of varying quality exhumed…….it has taken the musicologists at Mega Dodo to unearth this gem.

Broadcast on 21/3/1970, the biG GRunt Peel Session saw the band perform four tracks of mostly brand new material, each of tune as exciting and invigorating as the initial promise had suggested and totally justifying the buzz around the band at the time. ‘Blind Date’, a track later to turn up as a the B side of a cover of the Elvis Presley tune ‘Suspicion’ by Vivian Stanshall & Gargantuan Chums, is typical of the mannered, over-articulated material Stanshall would write for the Bonzo’s………….a C&W shuffle through a first person tale of boy meets girl for a blind date at Waterloo Station with the twist being that it is a primate and a pygmy monkeying about before the narrator is captured and returned to Whipsnade Zoo. There is an apocryphal tale that ‘Blind Date', had been “written when Vivian Stanshall, for some bizarre and unexplained reason, was asked to provide a song for the wholesome easy listening crooner Matt Monro. The singer's management, who were presumably expecting something more in the style of the Bonzo's crooner parody 'Canyons Of Your Mind' were understandably less than pleased to be presented with a song that, while undeniably catchy, was about a gorilla and a pygmy being introduced by a dating agency”. Revisiting the Avant-Jazz shronk of ‘11 Mustachioed Daughters', a hypnotic and rhythm-heavy track with strange lyrics concerning witchcraft, paganism and voodoo which had originally appeared on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's second album "The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse" in 1967, biG GRunt retool the tune as an Beefheart-esque psychedelic wig out with dynamic guitar riffs, funky bass and massive drumming underpinnng Stanshall's demented vocal delivery. This is a tantalizing taste of the direction that Stanshall and biG GRunt may have taken if the band had lasted more than twelve months…………ditching the vaudevillian whimsy of the Bonzo’s and moving towards a heavier, far out “Art Rock” sound which has a proto-Prog/Psych vibe, it is unknown whether biG GRunt actually recorded any more material in the studio, but it's tempting to speculate what may be gathering dust in the vaults. Also recorded for this session was 'The Strain'……..another song associated with the Bonzo’s which turned up on the lacklustre 1972 contractual obligation reunion album Let's Make Up And Be Friendly. However, it started out as a biG GRunt number and was noticeably different in its original incarnation, as presented here. The Peel session version is far more rough and ready than the version that the Bonzo’s recorded with a basic good-time Pub Rock boogie feel. The track that is going to get the hardcore Bonzo/Stanshall fans drooling is the final track on the EP, the previously unreleased instrumental ‘Cyborg Signal'. Although its melodic motif would later form the basis for 'Strange Tongues' on Stanshall's solo album Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, ‘Cyborg Signal’ has, up till now, not been heard since the session was originally broadcast……………………unlike anything you would normally associate with Viv Stanshall, this track is a Progressive Rock outing to the stars and back in time for tea, cramming more interesting and complex compositional ideas into a five minutes than some early 70s bands managed over six sides of vinyl. Light years ahead of its time, this astonishing track is a firm reminder that there was so much more to this man than the eccentric “ginger geezer” who cropped up on John Peel during the 70s and 80s with tales of the gloriously dysfunctional Rawlinson’s and what a genuinely exciting musical project biG GRunt were…………..if not for Stanshall’s unfortunate personal problems at the time, in an era of long haired, ex-Army greatcoat/afgan wearing ProgHeads, biG GRunt couldda bin serious contenders. As Tim Worthington wrote in Issue 26 of the Arts and Culture magazine Paintbox, “For a brief but invigorating moment, they appeared to be doing something that was genuinely intriguing and pioneering. It could be said that it's easy to speculate about what might have been, but the band's Peel session is evidence of what actually was, and it still sounds thoroughly exciting to this day”.

Due for official release towards the end of September as a limited edition run of 500 copies on 12” yellow vinyl, the biG GRunt In Session EP will be available to pre-order in August from the Mega Dodo website……so keep ‘em peeled. It goes without saying that this is an essential purchase for the legion of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band/Vivian Stanshall fans out there.


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