Neil Innes, 1944-2019: A ninja of comedy and melody who touched Python, The Beatles, Oasis and beyond

When Noel Gallagher was called into the Creation offices in 1994 and told that he was the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit over similarities between Oasis’ non-album single ‘Whatever’ and a track called ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’ by Neil Innes of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gallagher pled ignorance. He’d never heard the song, he claimed, and he probably believed he hadn’t.

For this was the fine art of Neil Innes, who died unexpectedly on December 29, aged 75; he was a world class ninja of the melodic hook. Everyone who had ever seen him perform ‘Idiot…’ during the Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl show would undoubtedly have its infectious chorus surreptitiously imprinted forever in the back of their brain.

Likewise his only hit with the Bonzos, 1968’s ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman’, or one of his many contributions to the Monty Python musical canon – ‘Knights Of The Round Table’, or ‘Brave Sir Robin’. Whether as avant-garde comedy provocateur, straight song-writer or prime ‘60s and ‘70s musical satirist, Innes’ skill with a timelessly catchy melody verged on the surgical.

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Born in Danbury, Essex in December 1944 and talented on piano and guitar from an early age, Innes would eventually study drama and fine art at Goldsmiths College in London and drawing at the Central School Of Art, where he first met Rodney Slater and Vivian Stanshall in a pub in 1963; Stanshall arrived wearing a Victorian frock coat, false plastic ears and with a Euphonium under his arm. Such attire was in keeping with the pair’s flailing trad jazz parody act The Bonzo Dog Dada Band, and Innes swiftly joined the band’s revolving line-up as a key songwriter and cohesive fulcrum.

Their mix of wit, mayhem, outlandish costumery, musicianship, cut-out comic speech bubbles and mid-set tap-dancing extravaganzas made the band a hit on the London pub circuit and in the Northern working men’s clubs. As a result, Innes and the band made their first TV appearance in 196 on Blue Peter, performing a Dadaist ‘20s style take on ‘Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey’ featuring exploding saxophones, spoon solos and random gunshots.

After several unsuccessful singles, the band (now renamed The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and eventually The Bonzo Dog Band) embraced the psychedelic times, and found their fresh brand of jazz, surrealism and music hall psychedelia struck a chord with the times, and particularly the Sgt Pepper-era Beatles. Paul McCartney offered them a slot in his Magical Mystery Tour film, playing their Elvis pastiche ‘Death Cab For Cutie’ in the strip club scene, and they were hired as the weekly house band for an afternoon children’s comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, which featured Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones.

Monty Python
Monty Python pose with a large scarf around their necks during a visit to Paris. (L-R): Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones. CREDIT: Pierre Vauthey/Sygma

Besides giving the band vital exposure, several key relationships in Innes career were forged here; his link to the emerging Python team would prove fortuitous, while McCartney would co-produce the Bonzo’s only Top Five hit, ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman’, under the pseudonym Apollo C Vermouth. “I remember him walking into the studio, saying hello to everybody and spotting the grand piano in the corner,” Innes told Prog magazine. “He went straight over to it [and said]: ‘I’ve just written this,’ and he played Hey Jude all the way through. The Beatles probably hadn’t even heard it yet.”

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The Bonzos would release four albums in their initial incarnation – featuring alleged guest spots from the likes of John Wayne, Harold Wilson and Hitler, sheep choirs, trouser press solos and concept pieces about the small town of Keynsham – and have the likes of Keith Moon sit in on drums while drummer ‘Legs’ Larry Smith did his tap-dancing segment during gigs such as the 1969 Isle Of Wight festival.

But failed attempts to break America and the pressures of self-management caused them to split in 1970, reuniting briefly in 1971 to fulfil a contractual obligation with fifth album ‘Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly’.

In the meantime, Innes had attempted to launch a more serious musical career with a new band The World, but would soon be drawn back to comedy. While working with a second new band GRIMMS, featuring Roger McGough and The Scaffold’s Mike McGear, he also contributed music to Monty Python albums and, following John Cleese’s temporary departure in 1974, Innes became a regular voice and face within the Python world.

Neil Innes performing on stage, Victoria Palace, London, 1975. (Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

It was here that his individual character as a kind of ‘70s jester minstrel shone through, enhancing and dovetailing with the songs of Idle and the other main Python players. Innes wrote songs and sketches for their final TV series and performed with the Python live show, famously introduced as Raymond Scum on the 1976 US-only live album ‘Monty Python Live At City Center’ and opening his Dylan pastiche ‘Protest Song’ with the words “I’ve suffered for my music, now it’s your turn”. He also wrote songs for and made cameos in Monty Python And The Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, becoming sufficiently engrained in the troupe to earn the title of The Seventh Python.

It was his Beatles connection that would cement Innes’ post-Bonzo legend, however. In the wake of the Python TV series, Innes and Idle joined forces on Rutland Weekend Television, a spoof of a low-budget local TV station which spawned the sensation that was The Rutles, nicknamed The Pre-Fab Four. In this crudely-drawn pastiche of The Beatles Innes played Ron Nasty, the Lennon character, and their 1978 TV mockumentary All You Need Is Cash – a step-by-step spoof of The Beatles’ career – became a cult favourite thanks to affectionate playing-along cameos from Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Ron Wood, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray and George Harrison himself.

The Rutles. L-R: Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, Eric Idle and John Halsey (Pic: Getty)

Innes’ mimics of classic Beatles songs were so convincing that his ‘Cheese And Onions’ even found its way onto a Beatles bootleg. “They were only intended to be a short-term, one-off gag because the timing seemed so right,” Innes said in 2012. “People were desperate to get the Beatles back together and a guy in America was offering them $20m each for a reunion! It was quite absurd. And 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.”

With Idle moving to LA, Innes made his own BBC TV series called The Innes Book Of Records in 1979 before utilising his family-friendly image to move into children’s TV and books in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as literary travel series Away With Words. The Bonzos and The Rutles would re-emerge sporadically over the coming decades, with The Rutles most notably releasing a parody of The Beatles’ ‘Anthology’ entitled ‘The Rutles Archaeology’ in 1996, but Innes’ tendency for comic subterfuge would remained undimmed into the new century. In 2010 he formed The Idiot Bastard Band, a purposefully unrehearsed comedy song collective which would include Phil Jupitus, Adrian Edmondson, Roland Rivron and Paul Whitehouse across the next two years.

Innes’ most recent album ‘Nearly Really’ acted as a timely catch-up, featuring songs stretching back to the ‘80s which he’d always wanted to record but never had. “It’s now or never,” he told Prog, and helpfully summed up his lifelong legacy. “Shakespeare wrote comedies as well as dramas, and I like to think I do that too,” he said. “I’m just like Shakespeare, except with better songs.”

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