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Roger Ruskin Spear - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 10 / 4 / 2020

Roger Ruskin Spear - Interview


Roger Ruskin Spear, the saxophone player, clarinetist and robot maker with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, talks to Nick Dent-Robinson in this 2011 interview about the legendary 60’s anarchic satirists' career, jazz influences and reformations.

From their 1960s origins, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were unique. There's never been anything quite like them before or since. Bonzo members were all art students and their anarchic antics, pre-Pythonesque humour and bizarre and innovative musical performances shocked and baffled Sixties society. They combined aspects of trad jazz, folk, vaudeville, psychedelic rock and avant-garde art with zany fun. Their novel marriage of musical mayhem with wacky theatrics and crazy comedy guaranteed the Bonzos huge attention. They soon had an ardent following in the UK and worldwide. Fans included the British pop aristocracy of the time like The Who, The Stones, Eric Clapton, Elton John and The Beatles. Indeed, the Beatles insisted the Bonzos appear in their 1967 ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film and the following year Paul McCartney produced the band's biggest hit, ‘I'm the Urban Spaceman’. Since those heady Sixties days, the Bonzos have gone their separate ways, then reformed and toured again for a while over the last two decades. Sadly, it was not possible to reunite the whole team, following the death of Vivian Stanshall in 1995. But three of the band's original members took to the road again in 2011 as Three Bonzos and a Piano. Rodney Slater, the late Sam Spoons and Roger Ruskin Spear teamed up with Dave Glasson on piano to sustain the spirit of the Bonzos in their time-honoured, humorous, chaotic, inimitable style with all the subversive silliness their supporters so enjoy. This tour followed a highly successful 40th anniversary concert at the London Astoria in 2006, intended as a tribute to Vivian Stanshall. Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Phill Jupitus and Ade Edmondson, all long-term Bonzo enthusiasts, were involved in that event which went on to tour around the UK until 2008. After these reunion gigs ended that year, Rodney, Sam and Roger decided that, as they had enjoyed themselves so much, they would continue working together from time to time. Three Bonzos and a Piano went on to perform very successfully on several tours, from 2011. They were sometimes joined by former Bonzo, “Legs” Larry Smith. Roger Ruskin Spear played clarinet, saxophone and was the technical wizard who made and operated the array of gadgets and robots that appeared on stage alongside the band. When we spoke, Roger had just returned from a visit to the council rubbish dump, searching for spare parts he could use in his robots. In particular he was seeking a new motor for a rather spectacular feather-blowing robot! “The robots were always a key part of our show,” Roger explained. “They are part of the organised chaos – but like the rest of us, they do need a bit of tender loving care and refurbishment from time to time.“ “I have always enjoyed the touring we've done and it has been good to see so many younger people amongst our audiences. The shows gave a visual focus to our work. Many people have bought our albums but the shows were a reminder of what we are all about. We usually did a mix of the old material – there is quite a formidable heritage – and some newer compositions from more recent CDs like ‘Hair of the Dog’. Rodney Slater has written some wonderful stuff for us. And we sometimes included a tribute to someone we like - perhaps some Flanders & Swann or a Tom Lehrer number. We used to boast we were 'never knowingly over-rehearsed' but that isn't entirely true; to make chaos funny and for it to work for an audience, timing is actually critical.” “Of course many of us originally wanted to be serious musicians. The late Neil Innes, one of the Bonzo co-founders, was very keen on music. I've played sax and trumpet and years ago, clarinet. One of my idols was Acker Bilk! In fact I just found a lovely bright red clarinet at the dump today - so I'll be introducing that into the act soon. The last clarinet I had was accidentally left on a pavement in 1969. But most of us Bonzos just weren't good enough to play seriously and several of us had been thrown out of various 'proper' bands! It's ironic, Eric Clapton used to say he wished he could be like the Bonzos and act the fool with his playing occasionally - but some of us in the Bonzos would love to have been 'real' musicians like him. One of my favourite recollections is of The Who's Keith Moon occasionally playing with us...what an amazing character he was; a proper rock musician yet someone who enjoyed not being too serious about his art - ever!” “But perhaps my happiest memory is of playing with Rodney Slater and Viv Stanshall, post-Bonzos. We did an old number called ‘Let's All Go to Mary's Hous’e as a contrast from the usual Bonzos' catalogue. Viv picked up his euphonium, the first instrument he ever played, his trousers fell down and he was cheerily marching round the stage, oblivious and with his back to the audience, blowing raspberries out of this euphonium. And I just remember thinking, 'There's a happy man'. In fact that is the last memory I have of Viv - a very fond one.” Like the other Bonzos, Roger was an art student. He was a native of West London and his father was the acclaimed painter Ruskin Spear. Roger attended Ealing School of Art & Technology – despite his father's view that “They are all terrible people there; drug users and drop-outs, you won't learn a thing.” In fact Roger learned a great deal. Initially he studied maths and technology but he soon transferred to the Art Department where he combined his technical abilities with life-drawing and more creative, abstract endeavours. Today he is recognised as a very capable multi-media artist and a fine sculptor. Roger met his future wife, Susan, at Ealing as well as Pete Townshend and the other members of The Who. He was soon a regular at the now defunct Ealing Jazz Club which was a mecca for upcoming musicians like the Rolling Stones and The Who as well as jazz players. “It was trad jazz that many of us were most interested in, really,” Roger tells me. “There were many early influences, not all of them musical. Robert Rauschenberg - who led the transition from abstract expressionism to pop art, the other American pop artists, some of the pre-pop artists and the action painters all cast their particular spell. And for me personally, I think big musical influences were the Temperance Seven and the Alberts.....that wonderful tongue-in-cheek, straight-faced trad jazz style which those bands introduced in the late 50s/early 60s.” “Though there were so many people we admired back then. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Tom Lehrer as well as Acker Bilk! So all of these influences went into the melting pot from which the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was soon to emerge. And, more than half a century later, the Bonzo tale lives on!” 2011 (updated April 2020)

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Roger Ruskin Spear - Interview

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