Tuesday, December 31, 2019

People Come & People Go, Naturally

Amid the anarchy of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Neil Innes, who died this week unexpectedly at the age of seventy five, was a creative force, a calming influence and an urbane spokesman for a group of student dadaists whose success in the 1960s predated the world of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Yet even Neil's patience could be exhausted when working alongside Vivian Stanshall, the group's eccentric frontman, fellow composer and self-destructive surrealist comedic genius. When Viv began reading his epic saga 'Sir Henry At Rawlinson End' on-stage one night and his speech became a slurred crawl, Innes stormed off in a rage of frustration.
There would be rows and disputes between the multitude of Bonzo line-ups over the years of regular break-ups and reunions. The music business often proved a songwriter's legal minefield, but for Neil, The Bonzos, he once said, gave him his fondest memories. A singer, pianist and guitarist, Neil wrote The Bonzos' only bona-fide hit single, 1968's jaunty, stylish 'I'm The Urban Spaceman', co-produced by Paul McCartney, which peaked at number five in the UK charts and won the composer an Ivor Novello award the following year. In truth, it was a good song but was rather unrepresentative of The Bonzos usual, unique musical template. Stanshall's exquisite Elvis pastiche, 'Canyons Of Your Mind' on the b-side was, actually, much more them.
Neil also coined the phrase 'Cool Britannia' - a song on The Bonzo's debut LP - which would eventually become a mantra for the Labour Party when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, much to Neil's mild dismay. He thought its political use was spectacularly uncool. Surrounded by explosive Bonzo chums such as Stanshall, Rodney Slater, Roger Spear, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, Legs Larry Smith and Sam Spoons, Neil emerged as the most studious and musicianly of a motley group whom The Be-Atles, Cream and, a little later, David Bowie took to their hearts, especially when Neil played the world's most deliberately appalling guitar solo on 'Canyons Of Your Mind'. It was all done, of course, in the worst possible taste.
A twinkling, self-deprecating humour revealed itself in The Bonzos early live shows in pubs around South London. The Bonzos sounded like a retro 1920s dance band mixing styles as diverse as music-hall, jazz, folk and rock and roll. 'We're not copying The Temperance Seven,' Neil insisted at the time. 'We are murdering them.' In their time the band recorded four genuinely great, influential, hilariously funny and musically brilliant LPs - Gorilla (1967), The Doughnut In Granny's Greenhouse (1968) and Tadpoles and Keynsham (both 1969) - and a handful of classic (if somewhat under-appreciated in chart terms) singles - 'My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies', 'Alley Oop', 'Equestrian Statue', 'Mister Apollo' and 'Mister Slater's Parrot'. They performed 'Death Cab For Cutie' in a memorable sequence in The Be-Atles Magical Mystery Tour (1967), spent two series as the resident house band on the cult ITV show Do Not Adjust Your Set (where they first worked with Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) and made a short surrealist film, The Adventures Of The Son Of Exploding Sausage in 1969.
After The Bonzos came to an end, Neil started working with the Monty Python's Flying Circus team, writing songs for and appearing (as Brave Sir Robin's extremely annoying chief minstrel) in Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975); as well as getting memorably crushed to death when the French Knights catapult The Trojan Rabbit out of their castle! And, playing one of the self-flagellating monks who hit themselves in the face with a large chunk of wood. Friends with all of the group, Neil was, nevertheless, probably closest to Eric Idle and a sketch on Idle's subsequent solo series, Rutland Weekend Television, provided a platform for Neil and Eric's astonishingly affectionate Be-Atles spoof The Rutles. George Harrison - another mutual friend of Neil and Eric - had made a famous guest appearance on Rutland Weekend Television's 1975 Boxing Day special and encouraged Idle and Innes to create a film which parodied The Be-Atles' career and deflated some of the more ludicrous myths surrounding the band's legacy (he even loaned the pair a copy of Neil Aspinall's - unreleased - film, The Long & Winding Road which would, in later years, metamorphose into the grandiose The Be-Atles Anthology project). Following further Rutles sketches on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live, the 1978 TV special, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, included appearances by Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Ronnie Wood and George Harrison his very self. In the band, Innes played Ron Nasty, a character not-even-remotely-loosely based on alcoholic wife-beating Scouse junkie John Lennon. Who married a conceptual artist, 'a simple German girl whose father had invented World War II!' Lennon, reportedly, loved All You Need Is Cash, though he advised Neil not to include the song 'Get Up & Go' on the soundtrack LP as, due to its almost note-for-note similarity to 'Get Back', Neil risked getting sued. The subsequent fourteen-song LP was transatlantic hit in 1978 (and it remains one of this blogger's favourite records of all time) despite the sad fact that Neil made hardly a penny from it having been forced to sign over half of his songwriting royalties to the then owners of The Be-Atles publishing, Lew Grade's ATV music, to avoid being sued for plagiarism.
That was followed by the acclaimed BBC2 series The Innes Book Of Records (1979 to 1981). From 1973 onwards Neil's musical director was John Altman, who said: 'He really was a very talented guy. When you heard his songs for The Rutles, you'd think "This is as good as The Beatles." George Harrison became a huge fan and was always in the studio when we were recording. He famously said he that he liked The Rutles better than he did The Beatles.' Maybe it was the trousers ...
In an interview in 2012 Innes reflected on the many different phases of his career. 'The thing is it all happened very quickly,' he said. 'The Bonzos lasted for just five years or so and in that time we paid off three managers and had no holidays. Then I dropped into the Python era but that seemed to be over in a flash, too. And, similarly The Rutles were a brief phase. They were only intended to be a short-term, one-off gag because the timing seemed so right.' He added: 'People were desperate to get The Beatles back together and a guy in America was offering them twenty million dollars each each for a reunion! It was quite absurd. George Harrison, who by then was closely involved with the Pythons, felt something even sillier needed to be done. He loved every moment of The Rutles. The 1996 revival for our Archaeology album was even funnier really.' In the same interview Neil described joining the other members of Python onstage at Concert For George - the 2002 tribute to the late Be-Atles guitarist, at London's Royal Albert Hall - as 'probably one of the most special evenings of my life.'
Born in Danbury in Essex, Neil was the son of Edward Innes and his wife Rita and had a brother, Iain. His father was a warrant officer in the Royal Artillery and the family moved to Bad Harzburg in Lower Saxony, as part of the British Army on the Rhine. Neil went to primary school there and after, the family's return to Britain in 1955, attended Thorpe Grammar in Norwich, before enrolling at Goldsmiths College of Art in 1962. He studied piano from the age of seven until he decided to switch to the guitar when he was fourteen. But he had bought a very cheap model: 'It was such a bad instrument it was more like playing an egg slicer. So I put music aside and became more interested in painting.' On returning to music, he played tentatively with the newly formed Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the canteen at the Royal College Of Art in 1963. The band began playing London pubs with elaborate stage shows that led to a record contract and then appearances on Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Yet despite achieving cult status and some success, the band broke up acrimoniously in 1970. Undaunted, Neil launched a productive solo career, releasing the LP Lucky Planet (credited to The World) and joining forces with the Monty Python's Flying Circus team. Neil appeared in (and wrote some sketches - including the memorable Most Awful Family In Britain - for) the show's fourth series in 1974 and toured, extensively, with the Pythons in the UK, Canada and the US during 1973, 1974 and 1976. He was usually introduced as 'Raymond Scum'. After which he would often tell the audience, 'I've suffered for my music. Now it's your turn', before performing two or three songs. In 1980, he travelled to the States with the Pythons again, subsequently appearing in Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl (he, alongside George Harrison, is one of the Mounties in the 'I'm A Lumberjack' segment). In Idle's song 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life', from Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979), Neil contributed to the whistling chorus. He also worked with the likes of Roger McGough, Mike McGear and Adrian Henri in the music and poetry collective GRIMMS which released three LPs. He continued to release - usually very well-regarded - solo works including How Sweet To Be An Idiot (1973) Taking Off (1977), Off The Records (1982) and the soundtrack LPs The Rutland Weekend Songbook (1978, with Eric Idle), The Innes Book Of Records (1979) and Erik The Viking (1989). In the 1980s Neil diversified, contributing to children's TV shows, adding voiceovers for the cartoon series The Raggy Dolls and composing music for other children's series, notably Puddle Lane, The Riddles and Tumbledown Farm. In the 1990s he was given an out-of-court writing credit on the Oasis song 'Whatever', after Noel Gallagher was judged to have borrowed portions of Neil's 1973 song 'How Sweet To Be An Idiot' (which featured on the Monty Python At Drury Lane LP). Cheekily, Neil 'nicked back' 'Whatever's swooping orchestral introduction as part of 'Shangri-La', a song on the 1996 Rutles project, Archaeology.
A documentary film about Innes, The Seventh Python was made in 2008. Neil returned to the stage and embarked on tours of the UK, America, New Zealand and Japan and in 2006 took part in a historic Bonzo Dog Band reunion concert at The Astoria. This was followed in 2008 by a Rutles thirtieth anniversary tour. In 2010 he unleashed A People's Guide To World Domination tour and was still on the road and making personal appearances until shortly before his death. Neil had been travelling to his home in France after an evening out with his wife and friends. His family have asked for privacy 'at this difficult time. It is with deep sorrow and great sadness that we have to announce the death of Neil James Innes on 29 December 2019,' they said in a statement. 'We have lost a beautiful, kind, gentle soul whose music and songs touched the heart of everyone and whose intellect and search for truth inspired us all. He died of natural causes quickly without warning and, I think, without pain.' In 1966, Neil married Yvonne Hilton. She survives him, along with their sons, Miles, Luke and Barney and grandchildren, Max, Issy and Zac.
Neil Innes, dear blog reader. Bigger than Rod. The author of 'Music For The Head Ballet', 'Humanoid Boogie', 'You Done My Brain In', 'King Of Scruf', '(We're) Knights Of The Round Table', 'Re-Cycled Vinyl Blues', 'Lie Down & Be Counted', 'Protest Song', 'The Fabulous Bingo Brothers', 'Feel No Shame', 'Montana Cafe', 'The Knicker Elastic King', 'I Must Be In Love', 'Ouch!', 'Doubleback Alley', 'Cheese & Onions', 'Another Day', 'Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik', 'Joe Public' and 'No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In'. One of this blogger's favourite songwriters, a genuine twenty four carat musical genius and gone long before his time. We shall not see his like again. More's the pity.