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In this 2010 archival interview Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band tuba player, tap dancer and occasional percussionist ‘Legs’ Larry Smith speaks to Nick Dent-Robinson about his long career, working with the Beatles and his band’s reformation for a series of 40th Anniversary shows.
Oxford-born ‘Legs’ Larry Smith was a student of art and design (in Oxford, London & New York) before he joined the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band as tuba player, tap dancer and occasional percussionist in 1963. The band combined aspects of trad jazz, vaudeville, psychedelic rock and avant-garde art. Bonzo members were all art students. Their anarchic antics, pre-Pythonesque humour and bizarre musical performances shocked and baffled 60s society. This guaranteed the Bonzos huge attention and an ardent following in the UK and worldwide – fans included the British pop aristocracy of the time like the Beatles, The Who, Eric Clapton and Elton John. 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 60s days, ‘Legs’ Larry Smith has toured internationally many times, working closely with rock legends – like John & Yoko, George Harrison, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Jon Lord, Keith Moon and John Cale. He has also appeared with Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle and on one occasion took tea in Beverly Hills with Mae West. He has addressed the Oxford Union, designed album covers, exhibited paintings, appeared in award-winning commercials, created stage-sets and directed giant rock'n'roll 'Legstravaganzas' in England and America for stars like Elton John and Alvin Lee. Larry, now 66, continues to write, produce and record his own music. Based in his native Oxfordshire, Larry is also penning his autobiography – for publication in 2011/2012.
Meanwhile, the Bonzos have reformed and are touring again, as Three Bonzos and a Piano - following a highly successful 40th anniversary concert at the London Astoria in 2006. Stephen Fry and Paul Merton, both long-term Bonzo enthusiasts, were involved in that event.
On a Summer's evening at a country pub just yards from his South Oxfordshire village home, Larry talks to Nick Dent-Robinson about some favourite episodes from an extraordinary life.
Such is the zany Larry Smith's reputation, that I am surprised when he arrives at precisely the agreed time, wearing a very conventional and smart business suit. He's greeted warmly by the pub landlord and several other locals and is obviously a regular customer – though he consumes soft drinks these days. Larry looks young and fit for his 66 years. He is charming and funny and seems at ease with the world.
“Just 7 or 8 years ago, if you had told me I'd be married in a couple of years with two adorable twin daughters and would be so ludicrously happy and content, I'd have been amazed,” Larry admits. “But wonderful things can happen. It's my first marriage – to Sarah Louise. She's just become a village councillor. I've lived here in this village in South Oxfordshire since 1989, the longest I've ever lived anywhere. “
“I was born in Oxford and raised in Marston. I had rheumatic fever as a child and was in the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and a countryside convalescent home for many months so missed a lot of schooling. I used to paint a bit, just doodling to keep myself amused. Then, when I went back to school, I was miles behind academically but a wonderful art master, Grahame Miller, saw I had potential. He was determined to get me to art school and, thanks to him and with the support of my mum and dad, I was accepted at Oxford School of Art – which is now part of Oxford Brookes University. After three very happy years there I went on to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London where I met Vivian Stanshall. He was training as an illustrator and I was doing graphic design. It was Viv who invited me to join the Bonzos. I still have the letter he wrote asking me to join. It was during the summer holidays and I was working as a labourer helping build Farmoor Reservoir at the time. So that's how the madness began!”
Art schools were the place to be in the 60s?
“They were fabulous, wonderful. Finishing schools....they finished us off in the 60s! There were talented people there – like Brian Morrison who went into music publishing and then, oddly, got into polo-playing. And a couple of the Pretty Things were at Central, too. Unlike the rest of society, which was still very constrained back then, art schools gave us freedom. There was a feel of counter-cultural free-wheeling which later came to epitomise the 60s. We had crazy times. We didn't have to take anything seriously. I learned to bet on horses, drink a lot of beer and to throw chairs out of windows; it was very anarchic. But we learned good skills too.”
“I remember once dressing up as a rocker in leather gear, greasy hair and boots and storming into the Principal's office pretending to be my brother. 'Where's that Legs Larry, where is he? Where's my brother?' I yelled coarsely. The Principal kind of stiffened and said nervously, 'Oh, my goodness, you might find him either in Ladbroke's or the White Lion, I think'. It was wonderful....they had no idea it was me. Which was the beginning of me adopting various personae in the Bonzos.....like my Mr Wonderful who still features in current Bonzo shows.”
“The Mr Wonderful character grew out of our antipathy to that very American, saccharine, gushing insincerity with which some older performers – people of the Tony Bennett generation– would greet their audience. Viv and I as well as the other Bonzos, we'd just kind of roar at the hypocrisy of it all –especially later when we were in big theatres and saw how things really were behind the scenes.”
“About this time we started steering away from our pseudo trad jazz origins to parody what was happening on the contemporary scene. We'd watch the Beach Boys and Elvis movies and the band started to head more down that rock'n'roll road. Which is when I abandoned my tuba and slid in behind the drum kit. I'd tap-danced for years, ever since I'd had tap-dancing lessons as a child – hence the 'legs' nick-name – and tap-dancing is just drumming with your feet. So percussion came quite easily to me. I soon got better at it. Though in the early days of the Bonzos, the worse we played and the more real we were, the more pleasure we and the audience seemed to get from it. 'Never knowingly over-rehearsed' was our proud claim. It still is! Perhaps a reaction then to all the smooth 'sincerely yours' stuff being shovelled down people's throats on TV by the older generation of entertainers.”
How did the Bonzos attract the attention of the Beatles?
“It's all a bit of a haze to me now and I'm vague about the precise sequence. We'd started to play London pubs. Gerry Bron managed us – he also looked after Manfred Mann and Gene Pitney. We were signed to EMI who the Bonzos are still with and we'd made a few records. We had a following amongst the art school set and I think it was Paul's brother, Mike McCartney (better known then as Mike McGear of The Scaffold) who told Paul about us. Anyway, we were suddenly invited to do a scene in the Beatles' ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film. We'd been working a lot of rather seedy northern clubs with strippers and that gave us the idea for the scene we did which features a stripper. It was filmed in 1967 in Raymond's Review Bar in Soho. Which is where we actually met the Beatles for the first time.”
“Then, Paul McCartney offered to produce our next record. Neil Innes in the Bonzos had written ‘I'm The Urba’n Spaceman which Paul immediately identified as a likely hit. Until then the Bonzos hadn't taken recording too seriously. But with Paul coming to the studio - remember the Beatles were like gods at that time and even we were in awe of them - we knew it was a big deal, serious. And Paul was a no-nonsense kind of guy when it came to recording. We were all on edge. What will he want us to do? Will we be up to it? Can we play our instruments well enough? Will he discover how terrible we really are? Anyway, Paul arrived at Chapel's Recording studio in Bond Street and took his seat at the grand piano. He asked us to gather round and listen as he played something he'd written the night before. It was ‘Hey Jude’ and only his wife and their cat had ever heard it before. What did we think of it? I think we said it was OK – though the chorus needed work! And then we started to record ‘Urban Spaceman. It was done in 4 hours. It was a Top Ten hit around the world and really put the Bonzos on the map. Though the producer credit was to Apollo C Vermouth. Paul McCartney, like us, wanted the record to sell on merit, not just because of the Beatles connection.”
“From then on we started to see the Beatles a lot. There was always a buzz at Abbey Road before they arrived. The cleaners would put their mops down and rush to the porch to see them walk in. So did the secretaries, the engineers and we did, too. That magic word, Beatles, just spread around and it was such a thrill. Then John Lennon's huge Rolls Royce turned up and into the studio they'd go. It's easy to forget now how witty and irreverent they were - a breath of fresh air at the time.”
The Bonzos started to appear on TV about then?
“ Yes. Our manager Gerry's wife, Lillian Bron, provided a link with Daphne Shadwell who produced the children's TV show, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’. It was a wonderful show and very imaginative with lots of clever graphics and anarchic humour. In many ways it was a forerunner of ‘Monty Python’ and Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle were involved in it, too. And John Cleese would be there – though mainly off-camera, I think. The show had a cult following. People would rush home to see it. The Bonzos gained a much wider audience from it and the show was sold internationally which was a big help to us.”
The Bonzos toured America with The Who and The Kinks, didn't they?
“Yes, it was a wonderful time. I'd studied in New York as part of my Central School graphic design training and knew how exhilarating America was then. For a long time I'd wanted the Bonzos to go there but Gerry Bron had never achieved that for us. Then we changed managers and Tony Stratton Smith succeeded in getting us into America. With The Who and The Kinks we'd do a series of crazed, frenetic calisthenics to warm-up for the big show. In true dada spirit, Viv would do a mock striptease, Roger Ruskin Spear would be operating robots irrespective of what the rest of the band were doing whilst I'd be tap-dancing wildly...it was mad stuff. But the audiences would go crazy for us. I recall once in Milwaukee a couple of unassuming, quiet guys coming up and saying rather shyly how much they'd enjoyed us and would we like to have a copy of their first album. It was Can't Buy a Thrill and they were Donald Fagan and Walter Becker of Steely Dan who are now one of my all-time favourite bands. Isn't that amazing?”
The Bonzos had disbanded by the early 1970s and Larry started his solo work with Elton John, Eric Clapton, John Cale and then with George Harrison.
“I was friendly with Gus Dudgeon, who produced Elton's best records. And there was a track ‘I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself’where Gus thought it would be wonderful to have 'Legs' Larry tap-dancing to it. Elton agreed and I was invited to join Elton's second US tour. Anyway, we built on that and I suggested adding in various other bizarre elements like me doing Singin' in the Rain as a song and dance act with Elton playing piano. Kubrick's Clockwork Orange film had recently featured that song. Plus I designed crazy, over-the-top costumes and giant stage sets - known as 'Legstravaganzas'. Elton loved all of it.
“For a while I became a kind of mentor to Elton, who was keen back then to test how far he could go visually with audiences. You have to remember, at that time none of this had been done previously; we were constantly breaking new ground. Later I did similar things with Alvin Lee, John Cale and with Eric Clapton. I recall Robert Stigwood asking if I could help out Eric by opening on his US tour. I agreed and kicked off his show with a few funnies and a tap-dance. But it was strange coming out on your own in a huge stadium with almost 200,000 people. I was really missing the Bonzos.....sometimes wishing they were still there behind me.
“But probably the most memorable day – my day of days – was with Elton John and John Reid, who was Elton's manager then and an actor friend, John LaZar, who was in ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’, when we found ourselves invited to take tea with Mae West. However, I'm saving the full version of this for my autobiography. It happened in Beverly Hills, about four in the afternoon. A very camp oriental butler called Chan ushered us in. He wore white tie and tails and the whole place was just white, white, white. White walls and lush white carpet, white piano, white lilies and orchids which made the place smell like a mausoleum, a funeral director's parlour. Chan reappeared and said, 'Gentlemen, Miss West'. And Mae West wafted into the room looking like she'd been getting ready since 6-00am. Her hair was exquisitely piled up, almost touching the chandeliers, her make up was incredible - giving her two panda-like eyes - and she was wearing this beautiful white ball gown. As the four of us stood to greet her she said, in that inimitable way, 'Oh.....wall to wall men, I just love it'. Fabulous. And we spent an amazing afternoon drinking fine champagne and listening to her wonderful tales of how she'd started in vaudeville and worked her way through the Hollywood system. A day I'll never forget.”
“Being back living in Oxfordshire again I soon found myself hanging out with local musicians. For a while I lived on Jon Lord's estate near Henley. And I reconnected with George Harrison when he, Joe Brown and others were battling to save Henley's Regal cinema. Neil Innes from the Bonzos helped, too. I became very good friends with George and designed the cover of his Gone Troppo’ album. And I sang the title track for one of the films his Handmade film company made – Bullshot. George did the backing vocals for me! George also wrote a song about me....’His Name is Legs, Ladies and Gentlemen’ which was on his ‘Extra Tenure’ album. George and I did all kinds of things together. They were wonderful times and many of us still miss George very much.”
After a long gap, the Bonzos are back on the road again.
“They are. There had been a couple of reunions in the 70s and 80s but it was the 40th anniversary concert at the London Astoria in 2006 which restarted things. Sadly, Vivian Stanshall had died by then. But Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, Bob Kerr, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Sam Spoons and I were there. Various other enthusiasts joined us – taking Viv's place on vocals. These included Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Phill Jupitus and Ade Edmondson. After that there was a tour and a CD of the concert plus a new album in 2007 entitled ‘Pour l'Amour des Chiens’. Then Three Bonzos and a Piano emerged after that with a tour from late 2008 and a really great ‘Hair of the Dog’ CD which was released in February this year. The band features Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear, Sam Spoons with pianist David Glasson and sometimes Andy Roberts on guitar, banjo and ukulele. Vernon and I join them when we can and when the stage is big enough. We'll all be at the Oxford event at the Castle Gardens on 30 July which I'm really looking forward to.”
What are Larry's future plans?
“I'm working on my autobiography – which will be a glossy publication with lots of wonderful artwork and pictures. The aim is to publish next year. The working title is Life Is Like A Horse's Arse (It should Always Have A Tale Attached)! You'll need to read the book to understand that. Then I'd like to do a documentary film on the Bonzos with the title: Gloria's Been Sick in the Transit Van Morrison. It will be about that whole mad 60s time, to help bring the book to life. I've a lot of material in the archives to use for that. Plus I am looking to create a small band to support some solo performances on a short tour. I'm also working on a solo album, producing with Guy Dagul who is a very talented composer and producer with a studio locally, in the village of Benson. I still do a lot of artwork and intend to exhibit more paintings plus do photography – I'd like to develop those areas more, see them blossom. Though I am a family man now and obviously my wife and the girls are my top priority. They are all I could have ever wished for.
“Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing about my life. Well, maybe I could have managed with fewer hangovers. I have had some wonderful days, meeting amazing people and doing so many things. I even addressed the Oxford Union once! But I am in a new season now, a different phase, a new me. I am grateful to be healthy and I often reflect on all my good fortune. I had brilliant parents, very encouraging. But I'll always be grateful to Grahame Miller, that art master at my secondary school back in Oxford all those years ago. His belief in me turned the key. He opened the doors to what I became and without him most of it could never have happened. So, thank you Mr Miller.”
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