Discovering that Neil Innes has died is a depressing end to a year which hasn’t exactly been joyful on the news front. Not many departures elicit words and thoughts from me, and it says something that Neil Innes is one of the rare exceptions.
I first heard of him as a kid when I kept hearing “I’m The Urban Spaceman” on the radio by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. I then saw “Monty Python Live at The Hollywood Bowl” where he performed a breakneck version of that song as “Karl Weetabix” (with Carol Cleveland prancing about as “Rita”) and the ponderous “How Sweet To Be An Idiot”. Then to make things even more bizarre, he was regularly on kids TV in some show called “Puddle Lane” playing some Wizard type character. It was obvious to this kid that Neil Innes had a curious career. I was 16 when I had some disposable cash and bought the CD “The Bestiary Of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band” and… well… I was an instant fan, thoroughly enjoying these bizarre songs which opened up a new path to explore. Within a year I had their complete works alongside the album and VHS of “The Rutles”, all of which I digested thoroughly.
In the Bonzos, it was clear there were three very odd opposing sides to the band. There was Vivian Stanshall… an extraordinary eccentric, waxing lyrical about poodles, pink halves of drainpipes etc who was a wickedly funny frontman. Then there was Roger Ruskin Spear, a madcap professor type running amok and letting his home made robots loose on stage all the while hankering to keep the band’s 1920’s influences alive as they steered more into a rock direction. And then there was Neil Innes. Not all of his songs were funny, but they sure were melodic and some suggested he was the Paul McCartney of the band. The Bonzos were a force of nature during their short lifespan and whilst humour does tend to date and some of their references are now obscure, they still amuse me to this day. Their records were one thing… on stage and television they were an absolute treat. The Beatles loved them to the degree they were given a cameo in “Magical Mystery Tour” then McCartney produced their sole hit single… George Harrison was good friends with Innes and drummer “Legs” Larry Smith.
Their residency on the kids TV show “Do Not Adjust Their Set” ensured that Innes became friends with Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin and a few years later was hired to act as a warm up guy for tapings of the Monty Python BBC television shows. That led to work on their “Holy Grail” movie and their illfated 4th BBC series. Through Idle’s post-Python series “Rutland Weekend Television” came The Rutles. Innes was given the role of Ron Nasty which he played to comical effect but above all, he was tasked with writing and recording the music. The results were astonishing as he lovingly pastiched The Beatles across all their eras turning in impressive Beatle-like songs which were so good and convincing he was unfairly accused of plagiarism and thanks to legalities never received royalties for his work in spite of George Harrison and John Lennon giving The Rutles the big thumbs up.
Always looking for ways to make ends meet and earn an income, Innes wrote a few educational textbooks which I understand were based around the world of finances. He recorded various solo albums, participated in a few TV shows as well as hosting two series of “The Innes Book Of Records” for the BBC which showcased his many talents. A few years ago when somebody posted the Bonzos’ first ever TV appearance which was on an edition of the kids show “Blue Peter” in February 1966, Innes was the first to comment, admitting it was not only the first time he’d ever seen the performance but also stated it was never transmitted as it was pre-recorded the afternoon of the live transmission, the band sat down to watch the show and they were hugely crushed to see they were not featured. He believed that Vivian Stanshall picking his nose during a close up was the probable reason they weren’t featured.
I definitely didn’t always agree with him on his views as he was extremely vocal and critical about many things and was vehemently anti-Brexit. He often expressed the opinion that the Bonzo’s final album “Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly” was their finest… for me, it was their weakest, essentially being a ragbag of solo items with a handful of cameos dubbed on top by other members. It was nothing more than a contractual obligation they reluctantly complied with and it still sounds like it. Their finest album for me was the last one before their original split “Keynsham” – not as wayward as the three albums preceding it, imbued with a darker edge but full of fascinating songs with Innes turning in a few great items notably the title track and my personal fave “What Do You Do” which isn’t remotely amusing and though vague and flippant, it’s just a song I always enjoy listening to. Might do a cover of it one of these days.
I got to see him live on June 3rd 2000 at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool when he was touring a one man show called “Innes Own Words”… guitarist Andy Roberts guested on a handful of numbers. Unfortunately not many turned out to see the show, no more than 50 people which was a shame, but Innes burst onstage and gave it his all, sporting a grey Beatle moptop and starting off with his biggest hit at the end of which he ripped off the wig and began to regale us with amusing tales from his career. He recalled the Bonzos working at Abbey Road in 1966 whilst The Beatles were in the next studio and played a great version of “I Want To Tell You” which was the song he remembered hearing them recording. I took a few photos… the one above features him sporting the daft rubber duck head and this routine opened the second part of the show as he walked on, did some silly mimes then sat down and performed “How Sweet To Be An Idiot”.
After the show, he made himself available in the bar for autographs and greets. First in line was some moron who had a large collection of vinyl and he wasn’t gonna be happy until Innes signed ALL of them… he cheerfully obliged (it took 5 minutes) and then it was my turn. I handed him a piece of paper, a printout of the Bonzo’s brief ditty “Kama Sutra”. This amused him and he asked me where I’d gotten it. I pointed to the web address on the printout showing it was from his own site and he scribbled “To Baz, Safe Kama is best!”
There is still a fair amount of his recorded solo works I’ve never heard… he issued a whole load of discs over the years, many on small labels. It was nice to see him on a DVD chronicling the 2006 Bonzo Dog Band reunion playing many of the old classics. Kinda sad then that this last year of his life he was having to deal with farcical legal issues as some asshole faceless company “bought” the Bonzo’s name which forbade Innes and all other ex-members from performing under the name they created back in the 1960’s. They did win the case but the asshole company are lodging an appeal… Innes was set to perform at a reunion show in 2020 which I suspect will now end up being a tribute night to him.
I’ve had much amusement and pleasure from Neil’s work. The Bonzos came along at the right moment for me as I was starting to explore music and songwriting and hearing how they injected many styles of music with nonsensical surrealist humour rubbed off on me enormously to the degree they became and remain a big influence on me as a writer, musician and performer.
Therefore Neil’s passing is a very sad occasion for me and he’ll certainly be much missed.