Stanshall was born on 21 March 1943 at the Radcliffe Maternity Home in Shillingford, Oxfordshire, and christened Victor Anthony. He lived with his mother Eileen (née Wadeson) while his father, Victor Stanshall (1909–1990) served in the RAF during World War II. His father changed his name to Victor in preference to his given name Vivian. Stanshall described this early period as the happiest time of his childhood.
When the war ended, his father returned but the young Victor found him difficult and comparatively stern after having been alone with his mother. The family moved to the father's hometown of Walthamstow, Essex, where Stanshall's younger brother Mark was born six years later in 1949. With six years between them, the brothers were never close. Stanshall studied at Walthamstow College of Art, where he met fellow students Ian Dury and Peter Greenaway.
About this time, the Stanshall family moved to the Essex coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. He attended Southend High School for Boys until 1959. As a young man, Victor Stanshall (known as Vic) earned money doing various odd jobs at the Kursaal fun fair in nearby Southend-on-Sea. They included working as a bingo caller and spending the winter painting the fairground attractions. To set aside enough money to get through art school (his father having refused to fund this), Stanshall spent a year in the merchant navy. He said he was a very bad waiter, but became a great teller of tall tales.
Stanshall enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design in London. He joined fellow students in forming a band (including Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and Neil Innes, who was studying art at Goldsmiths College). Innes said of their first meeting: "We first met in a big Irish pub in South London, the New Cross Arms ... he was quite plump in those days, and he was wearing Billy Bunter check trousers, a Victorian frock coat, black coat tails, horrible little oval, violet-tinted pince-nez glasses, he had a euphonium under his arm, and large rubber false ears. And I thought, well, this is an interesting character." About this time, Stanshall changed his first name to "Vivian," the name his father had abandoned. This was not made his legal name until 1977. Those who knew him from his student days continued to call him Vic.
The band was named after a word game that Stanshall played with co-founder Rodney Slater, in which they cut up sentences and juxtaposed fragments to form new ones. "Bonzo Dog/Dada" was one result which they liked. The band initially performed under this name but grew tired of explaining what Dada meant and so it became the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, "doo-dah" being a quaint expression that both Rodney's mother and Vivian used to describe everyday objects; later the name was shortened to The Bonzo Dog Band, or just The Bonzos.
Much of the band's original repertoire was based on comedic re-workings of songs from the 1920s and '30s, found on 78 records, bought for pence from local flea markets.
For a while the band operated semi-professionally, playing local pubs and the college circuit. After acquiring a manager they went full-time and were booked on the working men's club circuit, mainly in the north of England. The band dominated their lives, as they frequently travelled to low-paying gigs in an old van crammed with any number of musical instruments, an assortment of props, and prop robots. In 1967, they appeared in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour television special, where they played Stanshall's "Death Cab for Cutie" during the strip club scene. The appearance led to a spot as the house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a weekly children's television revue show that was also notable for early appearances by most of the Monty Python team.
According to their manager/agent Gerry Bron, after a perhaps ill-advised agreement that the band should be left to their own artistic devices, Stanshall was allowed several weeks in a hired rehearsal space to write songs for the new Bonzo Dog Band album. When Bron arrived at the location to check the progress of these endeavours, he found that Stanshall had not written anything at all and had instead built a variety of hutches for his pet rabbits. Bron mentioned in a TV documentary that this occurred in May 1968 in a hall in Acton, West London. The actual location is Askew Road Church hall at the start of Bassein Park Road in Shepherds Bush. The date would suggest that these were rehearsals for the Doughnut in Grannys' Greenhouse album. During recordings for the album proper at Morgan Studios, Stanshall, wearing just a rabbit's head and underpants, interviewed members of the public in Willesden High Road. On the album track "We Are Normal", one interviewee can be heard to remark, "He's got a head on him like a rabbit."
Later in 1968 the Bonzos scored a surprise top-ten hit with a "I'm the Urban Spaceman" produced by Apollo C. Vermouth aka Paul McCartney. Meanwhile, the band toured incessantly and recorded a multitude of radio sessions for the BBC, alongside several albums. They also embarked upon two poorly-organised but well-received tours of the United States (Neil Innes remembers that the band were reportedly stopped by a local U.S. sheriff and asked if they were carrying any firearms or drugs. When they denied both, the officer asked how they were going to defend themselves. Stanshall piped up from the back of the minibus, "With good manners!") and it was during the particularly disastrously-organised second tour that they decided to break up, partly because of Stanshall's growing stage fright—combined with increasing use of valium to help this—but also due to anger with their management, after Spear's wife suffered a miscarriage while he was away, and no-one informed him. The band subsequently decided to split whilst they were still friends. In March 1970, the band played their last show at Loughborough University.
Stanshall formed a number of short-lived groups during 1970 alone, including biG GRunt (formed while the Bonzos were still on their farewell tour, and including fellow Bonzos Roger Ruskin Spear and Dennis Cowan and featuring Anthony 'Bubs' White on guitar), The Sean Head Showband (again featuring Dennis Cowan and Bubs White), Gargantuan Chums, and the slightly-longer lived Bonzo Dog Freaks with Neil Innes and the ever-faithful Cowan and White (this conglomerate was also known simply as Freaks). Early that year, biG GRunt recorded a well-received session for BBC Radio 1 Disc Jockey John Peel, and shortly afterwards made a memorable appearance on BBC television. Despite this promising start, biG GRunt dissolved during their first UK tour when Stanshall became incapacitated by the onset of an anxiety disorder that caused a nervous breakdown and would continue to plague him for the rest of his life.
However he soon recovered sufficiently to record and release, on the Liberty label, his first solo single "Labio-Dental Fricative/Paper Round" credited to Vivian Stanshall and The Sean Head Showband (an oblique reference to Stanshall having shaven off all of his hair during his breakdown), and featuring Eric Clapton on guitar. Later in the year his single version of Terry Stafford's song "Suspicion" credited to Vivian Stanshall and Gargantuan Chums, and featuring Keith Moon, was released. Featured on the b-side was "Blind Date" the only officially-released track by biG GRunt (however all of Stanshall's backing bands of 1970 featured the same core personnel, so it could be argued that they're essentially the same band masquerading under a variety of names).
In early 1971 he returned to touring with a new band, Freaks. This group soon recorded a BBC radio session for John Peel that featured solo numbers by Stanshall and Neil Innes alongside tracks from the Bonzos' yet to be recorded Let's Make Up And Be Friendly contractual obligation/reunion album of 1972. The session is also notable for marking the first appearance in any medium of an episode of Stanshall's magnum opus, Rawlinson End. Stanshall also found time during this period to be a founder member of the performance/poetry/music group Grimms alongside Innes, the members of The Scaffold and associated poets and musicians. Although Stanshall left Grimms before they made any recordings, he did continue to perform live with them on occasion.
Throughout this period, still suffering badly with anxiety and now drinking heavily to self-medicate, Stanshall nonetheless continued to write, record and tour with Freaks and then GRIMMS. He was also a regular guest, broadcaster and presenter on numerous shows on BBC Radio.
Despite his ongoing personal difficulties Stanshall never lost his sense of humour. His exploits with long-time drinking buddy Keith Moon, who would become Stanshall's regular partner in crime for much of the 1970s after producing and appearing on Stanshall's "Suspicion" single, are legendary. In one example, Stanshall visited a tailor's shop where he admired a pair of trousers. Moon then arrived, posing as another customer, and admired the same trousers, demanding to buy them. When Stanshall protested, the two men fought, splitting the trousers in two so that they ended up with one leg each. The tailor was understandably beside himself. Then, a one-legged actor hired by Stanshall and Moon would enter the scene, see the split trousers and proclaim: "Ah! Just what I was looking for! I'll buy them!"
Thanks to his association with John Peel, in 1971 Stanshall was asked to fill in for the DJ while he was on a months' holiday. The resulting short series, entitled Vivian Stanshall's Radio Flashes, was recorded under the supervision of Peel's regular producer John Walters and broadcast on BBC Radio One in August 1971. The series of four two-hour shows were a mix of music and specially written and recorded comedic sketches. Out of the original four episodes, only episodes 2, 3 and 4 remain in the BBC archives and these were re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra in 2014, and again in 2016. However, all four episodes and a Christmas 1971 compilation special have circulated among collectors as low-quality, edited off-air recordings since the 1970s. Contributors to the sketches in "Radio Flashes" included Keith Moon, Traffic's Jim Capaldi and actress Chris Bowler. The sketches included a four part serial adventure titled "Breath From The Pit", featuring the surreal exploits of a Dick Barton or Bulldog Drummond-style gentleman adventurer, Colonel Knutt (played by Stanshall) and his working-class sidekick, the 'likeable cheeky cockney, Lemmy'. The serial was also in part a parody of Charles Chilton's Journey into Space, with Keith Moon playing the role of Lemmy.
Stanshall had developed what many consider to be his seminal work, Rawlinson End, as a spoken word performance piece during the first few years of the 1970s, recording an early version as part of the Bonzo Dog Band's Let's Make Up And Be Friendly reunion project. Beginning in 1975 he expanded upon the concept as an episodic surrealist radio serial for BBC Radio 1's John Peel show, elaborating further upon the weird and wonderful adventures of the inebriated and blimpish Sir Henry Rawlinson, his dotty wife Great Aunt Florrie, his "unusual" brother Hubert, old Scrotum 'the wrinkled retainer', Mrs E, the rambling and unhygienic cook; and many other inhabitants of the crumbling Rawlinson End and its environs.
Stanshall had been playing around with the Rawlinson characters for some time, and they were first referred to on the Bonzos' 1967 number, "The Intro and the Outro": "Great to hear the Rawlinsons on trombone".
In 1978 he released an LP, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, which reworked some material from the Peel sessions. This in turn was adapted into a film version in 1980 which was produced in a sepia-tinted black and white. It starred Trevor Howard as Sir Henry, and Stanshall as Hubert. Some of the film's music was provided in collaboration with Stanshall's friend Steve Winwood. A book of the same title by Stanshall, illustrated with stills from the film, was published by Eel Pie Publishing in 1980. Nominally a film novelisation, it was distilled from the various versions and included considerable material that did not make it to the film. A projected second book, The Eating at Rawlinson End, was never completed.
A second Rawlinson album, Sir Henry at N'didi’s Kraal (1984), recounts Sir Henry's disastrous African expedition, omitting the rest of the Rawlinson clan. Stanshall at the time was living on 'The Searchlight', a house boat he bought from Denny Laine and kept moored near Shepperton on the River Thames. He lived on 'The Searchlight' from 1977 to 1983 and recorded and produced the latest 'Sir Henry' album on it during a period of debilitating physical illness. The album was disowned by Stanshall after its release, as he claimed it was both unfinished and unsatisfactory, and that the record label had rush-released it without his permission in an attempt to profit from his potentially imminent demise.
The noticeably superior BBC radio broadcasts continued however, sporadically, until late 1991. In the same year a temporarily-rejuvenated Stanshall embarked upon a nationwide concert tour, entitled 'Rawlinson Dog Ends', with support from former Bonzos and centred around a performance of new Rawlinson End material.
"Sir Henry" was last seen in a television commercial for Ruddles Real Ale (c. 1994), where he is portrayed by a cross-dressing Dawn French, presiding over a family banquet at a long table. Stanshall himself reprises the role of Hubert, reciting a poem loosely based on Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat."
During this same period Stanshall embarked upon the recording of a proposed new Rawlinson End album, but this activity was curtailed in its early stages by its creator's untimely death in March 1995.
After Stanshall's death, BBC Radio 4 retrieved some of the original Peel show recordings from the vaults for late-night repeat over Christmas 1996.
Stanshall regularly performed live with Grimms, as well as occasionally working with The Alberts and The Temperance Seven during the first few years of the decade. He was also a frequent contributor to BBC radio at this time, appearing weekly on 'Start The Week' and 'Jack de Manio Precisely', and also on the BBC TV satire show 'Up Sunday'.
In 1973 Stanshall recorded tracks for the soundtrack album of the movie That'll Be the Day (film) backed by Keith Moon, Ronnie Wood, Graham Bond and Jack Bruce, and collaborated on numerous musical projects, making a memorable appearance as the Master Of Ceremonies on Mike Oldfield's 1973 Tubular Bells, where he played the Master of Ceremonies (he reprised the role for Tubular Bells II in 1992, but the final release featured Alan Rickman instead). He guested on a number of other artist's recordings including John Entwistle's Smash Your Head Against The Wall in 1971, Mike Hart's 'Basher, Chalky, Pongo and Me' in 1972, Pete Brown's 'The Not Forgotten Association' in 1973, and Robert Calvert's 1974 concept album Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters.
In early 1974, Stanshall wrote, arranged, and quickly recorded his first solo album, Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead. A rather more serious work than many would have expected, its darkly-comic lyrics detailed Stanshall's alcoholism and troubled emotional state, laced with surreal poetic imagery and literary reference. Other lyrics included implicit references to other musicians and the music business, and a rather more explicit satire of the author's relationship with his own penis. Musically, while certain tracks display Stanshall's usual keen sense of rock and roll parody, most of the album has a 'tribal' or 'fusion' flavour. Prominently featuring the Nigerian musician Gasper Lawal and with many tracks infused with richly-textured African percussion and chorus vocal stylings, the album (and its contemporary single "Lakonga") can justifiably lay claim to being an early, unheralded example of world music/rock music crossover. Stanshall's long-standing friends and colleagues Neil Innes, Anthony 'Bubs' White, Traffic's Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Ric Grech and Rebop Kwaku Baah, and Doris Troy and Madeline Bell also make notable guest appearances. Deleted after its first pressing and out of print for many years, the album was finally officially re-released on CD in 2012.
The BBC documentary One Man's Week, broadcast on 9 April 1975, documented a week in Stanshall's life and included footage of him at The Manor recording studio during the 'Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead' sessions, where he played with Anthony 'Bubs' White, Gasper Lawal, Mongezi Feza, and Derek (or Deryk) Quinn.
In 1975 Stanshall provided the narration for a rock music version of Peter and the Wolf, produced by Robin Lumley and Jack Lancaster and featuring, among others, Gary Moore, Manfred Mann, Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, Stéphane Grappelli, Alvin Lee, Cozy Powell, Brian Eno and Jon Hiseman. And 1976 saw the release of his 'The Young Ones' single, where the old Cliff Richard standard was delivered in the style of Boris Karloff.
In 1977, Stanshall and his companion, Pamela 'Ki' Longfellow, moved into a house-boat, The Searchlight, moored on the Thames between Chertsey and Shepperton. During this period, Stanshall compiled and re-recorded material from his popular Radio BBC Radio 1 broadcasts for John Peel which was released as Sir Henry at Rawlinson End in 1978. He subsequently also wrote the script for the film adaptation of the same name, later produced for Tony Stratton-Smith's Charisma Records company in 1980.
Following Sir Henry, Stanshall wrote the songs for his third album Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981) (which included two songs about his family) and contributed a lyric to Steve Winwood's Arc of a Diver. He and Longfellow married in 1980 and together they wrote some of the songs they later used for Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera (a musical comedy). The houseboat The Searchlight eventually sank.
In 1982, Stanshall provided a spoken word segment on "Lovely Money", a single by The Damned.
The Stanshalls lived and worked on The Thekla, a Baltic Trader, which Ki sailed 732 nautical miles (1,356 km) from Sunderland to be moored in the Bristol Docks. Ki had bought the vessel and converted her into a floating theatre called "The Old Profanity Showboat". Stanshall joined her on it in 1983, when they opened the doors of the theatre. By this time he was already suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, having become addicted to Valium while trying to control his anxiety.
In December 1985, the Old Profanity Showboat produced the debut of their Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera. Stanshall wrote 27 original songs for the opera, sharing book and lyric writing with his wife. The show has proved popular over the years. It was revived in London some years later with Peter Moss as musical director. It was produced in concert form in Bristol in July 2010.
Having returned to London alone in 1986 while his wife recovered from an illness, Stanshall saw Stinkfoot briefly, but unsuccessfully, revived at the Bloomsbury Theatre. After this he returned to the stage again, touring in a solo show "Rawlinson Dog-ends", initially with support from musicians including Jack Bruce. When Bruce quit, over a lack of adequate rehearsals, Moss stepped in to provide bass.
Stanshall was married in 1968 to fellow art student Monica Peiser (their son Rupert was born that year). They divorced in 1975.
On 9 September 1980, Stanshall married Pamela 'Ki' Longfellow, an American writer who had a daughter from an earlier relationship. The Stanshalls had a daughter, Silky, born the year before they married, on 16 August 1979. She was named after Silky Sullivan, a racehorse that was a childhood favourite of her mother. Stanshall celebrated Silky's birth in "The Tube", and his marriage to Ki in the song, "Bewilderbeeste", both included on his third solo album, Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981). He later gave his wife the name of "Ki" from a dream. Even though their comic opera Stinkfoot was a success in late 1985, Stanshall returned alone to London after the turn of the year while Longfellow recuperated from an illness brought on by overwork and stress. They would later reunite.
In 1991 Stanshall made a 15-minute autobiographical piece called Vivian Stanshall: The Early Years, aka Crank, for BBC2's The Late Show. He confessed to having been terrified of his father, who he said had always disapproved of him. His last television appearance, on The Late Show, was on 27 November 1991.
A programme for BBC Radio 4, Vivian Stanshall: Essex Teenager to Renaissance Man (1994) included an interview with his mother. She insisted his father had loved him. Stanshall said on the same programme that his father had never shown it, not even on his deathbed.
Stanshall was found dead on the morning of 6 March 1995, after an electrical fire had broken out as he slept in his top floor flat in Muswell Hill, North London. His private funeral service was held at the Golders Green Crematorium, North London. A few days later his memorial service was held at St Patrick's Church, Soho Square.
A memorial plaque was unveiled in the Poets' Corner of Golders Green Crematorium on 13 December 2015, opposite that of his friend Keith Moon, by his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall and his daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall. Others attending included actor Tony Slattery, singer Linda Thompson and actress Cherri Gilham. The cost of the plaque was met by many of his fans and friends via online crowdfunding.
Writing in The Independent after Stanshall's death, Chris Welch wrote: "Seen by some as a wild eccentric, and a powerful personality who could be both charming and intimidating, Stanshall was perhaps too large a figure even for the music business to handle. ... He needed a producer to channel his energies, but always wanted to remain his own boss, having suffered too many perceived indignities in his early experience of the music business." He was described by Neil Innes as "a national treasure".
In 2001 Welch and Lucian Randall wrote a biography entitled Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall. Also in 2001 Jeremy Pascall and Stephen Fry produced a documentary about Stanshall for BBC Radio 4. Stephen Fry knew Stanshall quite well and, along with his personal thoughts, introduces a series of reminiscences. The show featured many clips from Stanshall's work. The recording includes one of Stanshall's last poems, entitled "With My Mouth Turned Down for the Night".
In 2003 Sea Urchin Editions published the script of the Stanshalls' Stinkfoot: An English Comic Opera, with an introduction by his widow, Ki Longfellow-Stanshall.
On 11 October 2011 the Blackpool Comedy Carpet, a large public artwork by Gordon Young, was unveiled in Blackpool on the town's seaside promenade. It is made of 300 slabs of granite that cover about 2200 square meters. Featuring catchphrases, jokes and names, it commemorates more than 1000 selected "influential" comics, most of whom have played Blackpool in the last hundred years. The project was commissioned by the Blackpool Council as part of its redevelopment plan, and it is one of the largest pieces of public art in the United Kingdom. Stanshall is represented in the work by two quotes and his name.
In 2012, Poppydisc Records reissued both a vinyl and CD version of Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead, remastered with new liner notes from his widow and daughter.
In June 2010 the 1978 Sir Henry at Rawlinson End LP was re-imagined by Michael Livesley as a one-man show, in which he stars as the narrator and all characters, backed by a six piece band replicating the instrumentation of the original. The show won rave reviews, then premiered in London on 14 October 2011. Thhe show drew praise from Neil Innes and Adrian Edmondson who were in the audience. On 25 March 2013, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Stanshall's birth, Livesley was joined by Innes, Rick Wakeman, Danny Thompson, Rodney Slater, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, 'Legs' Larry Smith and John Otway, to perform Sir Henry at Rawlinson End at the Bloomsbury Theatre.The event was organised by Livesley and Rupert Stanshall, Vivian's son."Labio Dental Fricative" b/w "Paper Round" – Vivian Stanshall and the Sean Head Showband (Liberty: LBF 15309, 1970)
"Suspicion" – Vivian Stanshall & Gargantuan Chums b/w "Blind Date" – Vivian Stanshall & biG GRunt (Fly Records: BUG4, 1970)
"Lakonga" b/w "Baba Tunde" (Warner Bros. Records: K 16424, 1974)
"The Young Ones" b/w "Are You Having Any Fun?"/"The Question" (Harvest Records: HAR 5114, 1976)
"Terry Keeps His Clips On" b/w "King Cripple" (Charisma Records; CB 373, 1980)
"Calypso To Colapso" b/w "Smoke Signals At Night" (Charisma Records; CB 382, 1981)
"Blind Date", "11 Moustachioed Daughters" b/w "The Strain", "Cyborg Signal" (Mega Dodo; MEP4, 2016)
Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead (1974)
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1978)
Teddy Boys Don't Knit (1981)
Sir Henry at N'didi’s Kraal (1984)
That'll Be The Day (1973, soundtrack: two tracks)
The Roughler Presents The Warwick Sessions Volume 1 (1987, compilation: one track "Holiday Home")
"The Last Temptation Of Elvis" ( 1989, compilation: one track "( There's ) No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car" )
The Famous Charisma Box (1993, compilation: nine tracks)
The Charisma Poser (1993, compilation: one track "Eulogy")