(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #52)
At the start of 1968, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were described by their manager/producer Gerry Bron as “a cult band with a huge following, deservedly”. Their live shows were chaotic sets of sardonic original tunes mixed with obscure novelty songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, all performed amidst “horror masks, weird instruments, explosions, and a life-size rag doll named Alma”. Led by the eccentric charisma of frontman Viv Stanshall, the Bonzos were a popular live act everywhere from the Northern club circuit to premiere London venues such as UFO and The Marquee. The band had also acquired fans of all ages through regular appearances on the ITV children’s series Do Not Adjust Your Set.
But the Dadaist anarchy that made the Bonzos such entertaining performers did not translate into chart-friendly records. Their album sales were so poor that Liberty, their UK record company, only pressed 2000 copies of their LP Gorilla. According to singer/guitarist Neil Innes, “The record company was saying, ‘Well, what about a single? What about a single?’ And we couldn’t care less. We were just still being silly art students.”
As it happened, when the band went into the studio in autumn ’68, Innes brought along a catchy ditty he had titled ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’. Innes’ inspiration for the song came from two sources. One was the “urban spaces” of post-war rebuilding in Manchester: “They call them ‘brownfield sites’ nowadays. I just thought ‘well, if there’s urban space, why isn’t there an urban spaceman?’” The other was the vacuous consumerism of ‘60s advertising: “shiny, smiley-faced people eating happy meals and things like this. And so the ‘Urban Spaceman’ was a composite of the sort of an ideal figure in an advert. He doesn’t exist in real life.” With a simple melody inspired by the wailing “na-na-na-na” siren of a passing ambulance, ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ was very different from the Bonzos’ usual wild pastiche of musical styles and ideas.
If the Bonzos had to have a single, ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ seemed a likely candidate. But the Bonzos’ attempts to record the song were hampered by Bron, whose idea of effective record producing was to keep a strict schedule. If the band tried to work on anything for more than three hours, Bron’s verdict was, “Right, that’s it, we’ve got to move on to the next track.” One night when Stanshall was out on the town with his friend Paul McCartney, he complained bitterly to McCartney about Bron’s draconian production methods – and McCartney responded by offering to produce ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’. The Bonzos accepted McCartney’s offer because, in Innes’ words, “that was the only way we were going to get Gerry off the control desk, to have somebody like Paul, who wasn’t known as a record producer, but he was known.”
When McCartney arrived at Chappell Studios, where the Bonzos were recording, he immediately sat down at the piano and played ‘Hey Jude’, which he’d just finished writing. This delighted the band, not only because they were likely the first audience ever to hear the song, but because they knew that such antics would greatly annoy the clock-watching Bron. McCartney then got the band to play through ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ several times, and went around and showed each musician a different way of playing their part that Innes says “made the whole thing take off”. The Bonzos played their own instruments on the record, but McCartney allowed them to keep his ukulele track on the final version of the song. While McCartney was practicing his strumming, Bron’s wife Lillian wandered by and asked, “What’s that you’ve got there, a poor man’s violin?” McCartney retorted, “No, it’s a rich man’s ukulele.”
After an eight-hour recording session, both McCartney and the Bonzos were satisfied with how ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ sounded. But the song still had to be mixed, and at that point the band’s recording budget was nearly exhausted. So engineer Gus Dudgeon sneaked into Decca Studios, where he used to work, and surreptitiously mixed ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman’ during a break in a Moody Blues recording session. Drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith explained, “He was kind enough to note all the fader positions and reset them afterwards so the Moodies weren’t put out, or any the wiser.”
Innes told McCartney biographer Howard Sounes, “I’d like to go on record as saying that the record would have been nothing like [as successful] without Paul’s touch”. And with McCartney’s consent, the Bonzos took one final jibe at Bron’s push for commercial success. They demanded that the production of the single be credited to one Apollo C. Vermouth.
‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ was released in the UK on 11th October ’68. It spent 14 weeks on the UK charts, peaking at #5, and was the only Top 40 single the Bonzos ever had in the UK. According to Innes, after the true identity of Apollo C. Vermouth was revealed, the single sold as much as 18,000 copies in a day.
Liberty Records, in what can only be described as a “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” marketing strategy, released ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ as a single in such unlikely markets as Greece, Spain, Rhodesia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Imperial Records, the Bonzos’ American record label, initially wanted Stanshall’s epic ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ as a single, but eventually were persuaded to go along with the rest of the world. In the US and Canada, ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ was not only released as a single, but was also added to the running order of the Bonzos’ UK album The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse, with the resulting album being released as Urban Spaceman.
Perversely, the band members decided that having a hit single in the UK meant they should go on tour in the US. The fed-up Bron dumped them as management clients, and Stanshall enlisted the services of manager Tony Stratton-Smith. Under Stratton-Smith’s guidance, the Bonzos visited the US twice, but both tours were disastrous. Saxophone player Rodney Slater remembers that the band got minimal, if any, tour support from its management and record label, and regularly encountered situations such as large numbers of LPs being sent to record stores in cities where the band wasn’t even booked to play. While the Bonzos and Stratton-Smith went their separate ways after a year, author Johnny Rogan says that “the Bonzos proved a happy diversion from Stratton-Smith’s more serious ventures, and his one regret was that, like the Nice, they failed to win strong support from their American record company”.
Despite the lilting charm of ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’, the song has rarely been covered – although, appropriately, it has found its way into the repertoires of several ukulele orchestras. It received some new attention in ’82, when Innes, as ‘Carl Weetabix’, performed it in the Monty Python concert film Live At The Hollywood Bowl. Innes has also regularly included the song in his solo concerts.
Stanshall, however, had a complicated relationship with ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’, despite the attention it brought to the band. He was offended that the lyric “I’ve got speed” was interpreted as a reference to drugs, and hated the “machinery of pop” that went along with having a hit single. In later years, he expressed disdain for the song, saying that being expected to play it “used to make me puke”, and dismissing it as “an unacceptable gloss. There are and were other things that I’m more proud of”. (Innes, though, has pointed out that Stanshall willingly composed the melody for, and played, the tenor recorder featured on the song.)
‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ could be dismissed as a one-hit wonder and as not truly representative of the Bonzos’ musical range and creativity. But the raucous audience singalong at the Bonzos’ 50th anniversary concert in April showed that the song is still deeply loved. And for such a uniquely influential band as the Bonzos, perhaps being remembered for one unrepresentative song is preferable to not being remembered at all.