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Friars Interviews

Roger Ruskin Spear
Bonzo and kinetic wardrobe man

friars appearances 01/06/70  23/12/72  22/12/79

Roger Ruskin Spear (photo credit - Toby Wales/Three Bonzos website)

Hello Roger, thank you for talking to the Friars Aylesbury website. There seems to be some sort of clothes and wardrobe thing going on – you played Friars as Giant Kinetic Wardrobe and in your Bonzo days created many trouser related masterpieces. What was the inspiration for that?

It was all part of the "pushing the boundaries of avant garde art" that art students indulged in back then (and now, I suppose). Our influences were rather outdated even then -Marcel Duchamp, Gustav Metzger etc.

Exploring the possibilities of everyday objects as things of artistic wonder, or some such pretentious rubbish. By the way - the general public still rattle on about shirts if prompted ('Shirts 2010' on Hair of the Dog CD.) 

Some of the Bonzo brand of satire/comedy was, I believe, deemed too strong for Radio at one point – a bit bizarre?

We had to change the original words to 'Canyons of your Mind' from "I am pumping you again" to "I'm in love with you again" as this was deemed too strong. Needless to say in the current live shows we use the "pumping" line.

The only other instance I can recall is completely flummoxing a Radio producer with our version of 'Sound of Music'. I think he rather liked the show before we got hold of it. 

Paul McCartney liked you as the Bonzos had a role in the Magical Mystery Tour film? Was this the bands only foray in the world of films?

We came to the 'Mystery Tour' via Paul's' brother Mike McGear. They originally wanted the 'New Vaudeville Band'  but we had worked with the 'Scaffold' in Liverpool so were introduced as the 'original and still the best' by Mike.

The only other film bits were a short Pâthé Pictorial of 'Equestrian Statue' and the 'Head Ballet', and a private film called 'Son of exploding sausage'. Both appear from time to time at the BFI.   

60s satire TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set brought you to a wider audience – how did this change your lives (if so) – must have been a great time being around people who if not household names as such then, certainly are now.

 It was the Sixties and most things were moving quite fast. One minute I was appearing in Northolt at a wedding alongside Eric Clapton and the next minute he was-well, Eric Clapton. 

What do you feel the legacy of the Bonzos was – we know Vivian Stanshall is famed for his Tubular Bells “commentary” amongst other things, but do you feel The Rutles for example would have happened?

Not without the help of Eric Idle 

After the Bonzos called it quits in 1970, you played Friars 1st birthday party and also provided one of the best bits of memorabilia the Friars website has in your diary entry for that day! I can’t expect you to remember the gig but being out under your own name must have been daunting at first but extensive touring helped carve out your name in its own right? This wasn’t that long after the band called it a day.

I do indeed remember the Friars gigs very well, the first followed on from an experimental gig (actually a lecture) I did with Viv in Birmingham for the Birmingham Arts Lab. I was to present an exhibition of the robots but found I needed to present them in the form of an 'entertainment' on stage and have been doing so ever since. The early patronage of Friars certainly helped knock shape into the act that was to become the 'Giant Kinetic Wardrobe'. 

How did you feel at being forced/obliged to reform for contractual obligation reasons? How come your role wasn’t bigger?

That's two separate questions there. I assume you mean the last ten or so gigs we did after we officially announced the split at Christmas '70. Actually they were the best we ever did as there was no angst about 'the future' we just turned up, blew our heads off, took the money and ran. Thats the way to do it.

That was the 'contractual' stage act and my role (although forgotten over time) was as it always was, but the 'contractual' LP was a different matter. 

There were no further full reformations other than the 'Make Up and Be Friendly' album. My role in that was not big as Viv's and Neil had fully taken over by then and were on an unstoppable ego trip and bringing in other musicians to replace us. This direction they wanted to pursue by dissolving the Bonzo Dog Band as it was then known, to create new vehicles (the 'Bonzo Dog Freaks' etc.) for expression without my 'interruptions' ..

My role (on records) was also minimal even before then, because, as time progressed from 'Gorilla' onwards, I could not connect with Neils' oeuvre any more.

In addition to the solo gigs, you did Big Grunt with Vivian Stanshall – can you tell us a little more about that?

That was a band formed by Viv that included 'Borneo' Fred Munt-our roadie -because he looked good, and Dennis Cowan on Bass. Very short lived and may have done a few live Gigs-but Viv soon after finally flipped and had to get treatment so that was the end of Big Grunt .I only remember doing one publicity photo session and a TV show for Marty Feldman with that band. Soon after, Viv teamed up with Neil and took a band called 'Bonzo Dog Freaks' on the road. By that time I had ,thanks to Friars, got the 'Giant Kinetic Wardrobe'  fully up and running and met them several times on the road, but didn't join them.

Your solo show featured robots and dummies doing all sorts – how did you develop that idea? And what gave you the idea?

Once again, back to Art School and the pushing of the 'Art Envelope'.

 'Sculpture' a la Damien Hirst was not heard of in those days, apart from maybe Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Keinholtz and 'that crowd', so I adapted the development of Kinetic Art to encompass Vaudeville and Music Hall, particularly influenced by Bruce Lacey of the Alberts. In fact- I nicked his ideas wholesale-let's be honest. 

You may not know that you are one a few select artists to have played the first three venues of Friars in Aylesbury, you also played at Christmas 1972 (with Capability Brown) and Christmas 1979 (with XTC) – I don’t know if you have memories of these gigs at all? The news-sheets at the time mentioned all sorts of likely goings on with robots!

As I have already said-I have fond memories of Friars and do Indeed recall some of the aspects of the gigs and the practice they afforded in working out the best way of assembling the robots on stage without alarming the other bands! 

When the Bonzos reunited a while back with guest performers such as Bill Bailey, Stephen Fry and Phill Jupitus, you must have been proud that the Bonzos meant something to today’s comics, did any of the guests fare better than the others? A bit unfair I know!

Yes, we were very taken aback and flattered that our efforts were seen as some sort of influence-but let's be honest again, the majority of the time when 'they' say the 'Bonzos' 'they' really mean Viv and his legacy.

They all mucked in equally well - although I thought Paul Merton's' dance version of Monster Mash' was  particularly Bonzo in its surrealism.

Ade Edmonson too, certainly deserved the title of 'Honorary Bonzo'. It was refreshing to work with such a fertile mind on our wavelength and for me his involvement was the highlight of the tour. Ade's  contribution to 'Trouser Press' took it to a new level of which I, un-aided (sic), was incapable. I was saddened to read his recent published comments regarding our final show together.

I was also looking forward to talking and 'duelling' Theremins with Bill, but he didn't show up till the last gig of the tour when it was too late. 

You taught design at the Chelsea College of Art – you’ve clearly always had an eye for design, this must have been an enjoyable way to impart your talents and you students must have thought so as well?

Yes -I taught there alongside Sam Spoons and indeed Alan Cooper from the Temperance Seven - a hotbed of eccentric musicians if ever there was one. I'm not sure if the students enjoyed it but most used to say "My Grandad remembers you". 

The wonderfully title Bill Posters Will Be band that still plays every month and has been going for 27 years  - I know you were part of this, do you still play with them? 

The Bill Posters band is in fact the bulk of the original Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band. I no longer play with them, I had a brief stint with them in the eighties but then Rodney Slater took over in the Nineties and Sam Spoons has been with them throughout their career, and many musicians have passed through their ranks without mishap) 

More up to date in 2010 and you play as Three Bonzos and a Piano and work sometimes with another Friars man, Andy Roberts from Liverpool Scene. How have these gigs gone down? Presumably a hard core of Bonzo fans? I like your reference to the Bash Street Bonzos – your website is quite self deprecating!

We always respected the 'Beano' and 'Dandy' as witness - "Lord Snooty and his pals tap dancing" ('intro and outro').. The '3 Bonzos Gigs' are going down very well as we give a taster of what it was like in the Sixties at old venues like the 'Tigers Head' in Catford. We have the "fans of a certain age " as well as lots of new recruits of all ages -real 'family' stuff. Its good to have Andy Roberts with us too, as he has always been associated with the band. 

Roger, thanks for talking with us and very best wishes from all at Friars Aylesbury 

This interview and its content are © 2010 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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