Rodney Slater had previously been playing in a trad jazz band at college with Chris Jennings (trombone) and Tom Parkinson (sousaphone). Eventually they recruited Roger Wilkes (trumpet) and Trevor Brown (banjo) from the Royal College of Art as they slowly turned their style from more orthodox music towards the sound of The Alberts and The Temperance Seven. Vivian was their next recruit and on that day in 1962, he and Rodney christened the band, The Bonzo Dog Dada Band. Bonzo the dog was a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s and Dada after the early 20th century art movement.
Not long after Vivian, Rodney and Tom were evicted from their shared flat, the band added two more faces to the line-up: Goldsmiths College lecturer Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and his lodger, songwriter/pianist, Neil Innes. According to Neil Innes' website, the Bohay-Nowell was added to Vernon Dudley's name by Vivian Stanshall. The band had been working with drummer Tom Hedges before Rodney found Martin Ash, who later took the stage name of Sam Spoons and shortly afterwards got them their first pub gig, where they were noticed by Roger Ruskin Spear.
Ruskin Spear, the son of the British artist Ruskin Spear, claimed, "I couldn't believe anyone was that bad." He eventually changed his mind and, with his interest in the manufacture of early electronic gadgets/objets d'art and sound-making systems soon became an integral part of the band.
The line-up changed again with the departure of Roger Wilkes, whose girlfriend demanded his resignation, and John Parry, the trombonist. The two were replaced by, respectively, Bob Kerr and "Big" Sid Nichols. The final 'classic' band member, "Legs" Larry Smith joined in 1963, as a tuba player and tap-dancer (but later as a drummer), on Vivian's invitation.
The band's fortunes began to increase when their manager, Reg Tracey, secured them a deal with Parlophone Records in April 1966. Their first single, a cover of the 1920s classic, "My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies" was backed with "I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight" which was rather too risque for radio.
A second single, "Alley Oop", backed with "Button Up Your Overcoat" followed in October of that year.
As the Bonzo Dog band's fame increased, they appeared as the resident band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children's show notable for having several future members of Monty Python's Flying Circus (Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin) and David Jason in the cast.
Moving over to Liberty Records, the Bonzos released their first album, Gorilla, which included "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold" which savagely parodied their early "trad" jazz roots and featured some of the most deliberately inept jazz playing ever recorded--the record company only allowed two hours of studio time per track, so it was completed in a single take to allow for the far more complex "The Intro and the Outro" in which every member of the band was introduced and played a solo, starting with genuine band members.:
before including such improbable members as:
This number was recorded on a four-track tape deck - most of the non-band "personnel" are simply faded in and out, and few notice they are absent in the later stages of the track.
Much later, Stanshall was to provide an introduction on Mike Oldfield's first instrumental album, Tubular Bells, which echoed the style of The Intro and the Outro, but without the blatant absurdities.
In 1969 they released their third album Tadpoles. Most of the songs on this album were also performed by the group on Do Not Adjust Your Set. The same year they also released their fourth album Keynsham and appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival. Keynsham is a small town near Bristol in south-west England. The name of the album was almost certainly derived from an advertisement on Radio Luxembourg for a dubious method of forecasting results for football matches (and using these results in football pools). In the advertisement, which was of great length, Horace Batchelor, inventor of 'the amazing Infra Draw method', would repeatedly spell K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M for those listeners who wished to purchase his secret.
The Bonzos toured the United States with The Who and also appeared at the Fillmore East with The Kinks. Introduced as a "warm-up act" for the real show, the Bonzos rushed out and did a series of frenetic calisthenics. True to the dada spirit, Stanshall performed a mock striptease and Roger Ruskin Spear, with a platoon of robots (including one that sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" while actually blowing bubbles), did whatever he did without regard for what the rest of the band was doing. As for "The Canyons of Your Mind", it featured such an incredibly bad guitar solo it drove audiences to open-mouthed delight.
While the group formally disbanded in 1970 their record company compelled them to reunite in 1971 to record a final album titled Let's Make Up And Be Friendly released in 1972.
One of the Bonzos' song titles, "Cool Britannia", was revived as a media label for late 1990s United Kingdom under Tony Blair.
However, the band's onstage line-up varied, sometimes on a weekly basis, and they also invited a number of guest musicians into the recording studio. Additional members of various duration include: Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Martin "Sam Spoons" Ash, "Happy" Wally Wilks, Tom Parkinson, Chris Jennings, Claude Abbo, Trevor Brown, Tom Hedge, Eric Idle, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Leon Williams, John Parry, Raymond Lewitt, Sydney "Big Sid" Nicholls, James "Jim Strobes" Chambers, Bob Kerr, Dave Clague, Joel Druckman, "Borneo" Fred Munt, Chalky Chalkey, Dennis Cowan, Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Capaldi, Anthony 'Bubs' White, Andy Roberts, Dave Richards, Dick Parry, Hughie Flint and Glen Colson.
A countrywide tour, with Ade Edmondson and Phill Jupitus, followed during November 2006, starting in Ipswich and ending with two nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire, where Paul Merton and Bill Bailey joined in for a handful of songs. David Catlin-Birch (lead guitar and vocals) from alternative pop group World Party and a member of The Bootleg Beatles joined the band for the tour.
The reunited lineup were due to perform again in 'The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Christmas Show' on Friday 21 December and Saturday 22 December 2007 at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, but these shows have been postponed without explanation. The shows are planned to be rescheduled for the spring of 2008.