The Road To Rawlinson End
Following the demise of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the various former members set about launching solo careers. Viv Stanshall seemed to have more difficulty in making a firm decision on a musical direction than his former colleagues, and saw Radio 1 sessions as a way of trying out potential - and often hastily abandoned - ideas.
His immediate post-Bonzos venture The Sean Head Showband only made it as far as one single. This was followed by the typically ambitious announcement that he was forming two bands that would run parallel to each other; Viv Stanshall’s Gargantuan Chums, who featured several former Bonzos bandmates and one Keith Moon on drums, and biG GRunt, featuring more or less the same lineup. Causing no little confusion to radio programmers, their debut single featured Gargantuan Chum's robust cover of Elvis Presley's Suspicion on one side, and biG GRunt's more whimsical original Blind Date on the other. Needless to say, it did not trouble the charts too much.
Neither band would officially release any more material, yet while it might appear on face value that this was yet another high-concept diversion that ended up going nowhere, the 'legacy' of both outfits would have a significant effect on Stanshall's future direction. One of biG GRunt's few other media appearances was, needless to say, a session for John Peel's Radio 1 show broadcast on 21st March 1970, where they performed Blind Date alongside a rocked-up cover of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's 11 Moustachioed Daughters, and two new songs - The Strain, which would later appear with new lyrics on the Bonzos reunion album Let's Make Up And Be Friendly, and the propulsive instrumental Cyborg Signal. While this was certainly a strong set, Peel's producer John Walters - never a man to hold back his true feelings - was quick to remark that he felt such an intensely musical direction was a poor and inappropriate use of Stanshall's talents.
Doubtless Walters considered Stanshall's brief engagement as a regular on Radio 4's magazine show early in 1971 a far more suitable vehicle. In contrast to the show's straight-laced approach and the formal style of presenter Richard Baker, Stanshall contributed a series of wild, impressionistic monologues - notably his tales of life on the high seas aboard the SS Sausage - intercut with sound effects and suitably atmospheric extracts from pop records. Although Stanshall had dabbled with this form while in The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, this was really the first occasion on which he had fully explored the possibilities of spoken word, and it was as a direct consequence of these broadcasts that Walters invited him to stand in on Peel's show Top Gear while the presenter took a holiday over the summer of 1971.
Viv Stanshall's Radio Flashes, as Top Gear was renamed for the duration of August 1971, was a dazzling affair that scarcely found time for brand new Prog Rock releases amongst the whirlwind of poetry, in-character links, comedy sketches, adverts for fictitious animal repellents, technically ambitious pre-recorded items and the gripping weekly serial 'Breath From The Pit', in which Stanshall and his heroic sidekick Keith Moon fought to stop their old adversary The Scorpion and his fiendish plan to replace commuters with intelligent gorillas, armed only with the all-purpose Magic Trousers. 'Breath From The Pit', however, caused more headaches for Walters than any other part of the show, and given Stanshall's notorious lack of attention to deadlines this was no mean feat. On one occasion, having turned up two hours late for the recording of an instalment, Stanshall was asked by an impatient Walters and Moon for the script. With no little irritation, he replied that he had to write it first. Perhaps wisely, the next time holiday cover was needed, Walters booked Moon instead.
As for Gargantuan Chums, they were eventually joined by fellow former Bonzo Neil Innes, and - now calling themselves Freaks - they too had recorded a session for Top Gear. Broadcast in March 1971, this was made up of a mixture of old songs and new numbers that started Stanshall and Innes thinking towards a possible reunion. One of these was Rawlinson End, a lengthy spoken word parody of serials from women's magazines, building on his earlier Start The Week pieces by adding a narrative and a full cast of characters. This was to prove an unexpected hit with listeners, with many writing in asking to hear it again. It was also, more significantly, a hit with Walters, who began wondering if there was potential in exploring the saga further...
This is abridged from Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy On BBC Radio 1, which you can find out more about here. biG GRunt's Top Gear session has now been given its first ever release - with sleevenotes by me - by Megadodo Records. You can find out more about how to get hold of a copy here.