Neil Innes – A Celebration

At The Barrier writer, John, is a devotee of the man and the many guises and talents of Mr Neil James Innes. Please enjoy, not an obituary, but a personal celebration of the life of one of England’s finest performers.

Photograph: George Wilkes/Getty Images

Anyone who cares to ponder the course that their life has taken will no doubt identify a small number of events and influences that have combined to make them the person they have become.  For a lifelong lover of music, the list of influences will, of course, include a number of seminal musicians, performances or records. 

My own key influences include the usual suspects – Dylan, The Beatles etc, some lesser known demagogues – Ashley Hutchings for example, comedians – Morecambe & Wise and the Monty Python team come to mind – and a group that combine the appealing features of all of the aforementioned; The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  It was with great sadness, therefore, that I received the news the Bonzo’s guitarist, pianist, lead vocalist and principal composer, Neil Innes, had passed away on 29 December 2019.

Details of Neil’s life story are widely available online so I won’t delve too deeply into them here; suffice to say that he founded the Bonzos after meeting Viv Stanshall and “Legs” Larry Smith in London in the mid sixties, went on to play with The World and Grimms, appeared with the Monty Python team throughout the 1970’s, including roles in the films “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian” (he was one of only two people other than the core team members to contribute to Monty Python scripts) and founded the Beatles “spoof” band, The Rutles with Eric Idle.  Quite an impressive CV.

Although the Bonzos had performed in The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film, first shown on Boxing Day 1967, my own awareness of the existence of Neil Innes came during the first week of 1968 when ATV aired the first episode of the comedy programme “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” 

The show starred future Monty Python stalwarts Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, along with Denise Coffey and, long before his days as Grenville or Del Boy, a very young David Jason.  Ostensibly aimed at children, the show included sketches guaranteed to appeal to those of a “silly” disposition, along with animations provided by Terry Gilliam and a musical interlude featuring a strange ensemble called the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. 

I recall being alternately fascinated and greatly amused by the band’s costumes and props as each week they worked through songs, most of which I later learned had been taken from their already available “Gorilla” album.  “Do Not Adjust Your Set” divided opinions amongst my school mates of the time; there were many who complained it was “stupid,” whilst an equal number considered the show to be an expression of comedy GENIUS.  I was a passionate member of the latter camp and rushed home eagerly to catch each of the 13 programmes as they were screened.

Entertaining though the Bonzos were during their “Do Not Adjust Your Set” appearances, it seemed that they were generally considered too anarchistic to achieve any real commercial success, so we were all pleasantly surprised when, in October 1968, they managed to storm the charts with their unforgettable single, “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” and song which featured Neil on lead vocals and which was produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym “Apollo C Vermouth.”  I was absolutely enthralled by the song; I bought the single and played it, along with its hilarious “B” side, “Canyons of Your Mind” repeatedly.  I became a Bonzo-Addict.

The Bonzos initially split up in March 1970, shortly after the release of their “Keynsham” album, but their material had, by that time, become an essential point of reference for me, and for many of my contemporaries. In much the same way that Monty Python fans will seemingly never tire of reciting the Dead Parrot sketch at each other, so Bonzo fans will make giggly references to Wrestling Poodles and Winning, straining on the lavatory, temple bells heralding pub opening times, shaking like a silly goose, arriving at gigs looking rough and grunt-howling along with the rest of the little pigs in Jollity Farm. 

In short, the Bonzos became part of a mode of communication.  I was personally so deeply influenced that I was moved, along with a group of like-minded friends to form a band in their image; The Cakes – “Bolton’s Answer to the Bonzos!” (as featured in Q Magazine’s 50th Edition!).

The Cakes in 1975. Bolton’s answer to the Bonzo’s.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, Neil became increasingly involved with the Monty Python team, initially providing music for the final Monty Python series, then participating in the group’s tours and films throughout the second half of the 1970’s.  This led to his involvement in the “Rutland Weekend Television” series with Eric Idle, during 1975 and 1976.  My own memories of “Rutland Weekend Television” are generally of an underwhelming nature, but the series did provide the Genesis of what was to become Neil’s piéce de resistance; The Rutles. 

Cover to the American CD reissue of The Rutles.
L-R: Eric Idle, John Halsey, Ricky Fataar, and Neil Innes.

Arguably, The Rutles have become almost as famous as the group they so effectively pastiche and Neil’s contribution, not only in playing the part of Lennon-a-like Ron Nasty, but also in composing and singing the majority of the songs, was massive.  The made-for-TV movie, “All You Need Is Cash” was hilarious (I particularly loved the reference to French surf band “Les Garçons de la Plage” and the explanation that Nasty had been misquoted when he had apparently claimed, in 1966, that The Rutles were “bigger than God” and that he had actually said that they were “bigger than Rod,” a statement of fact, as Rod would not be “big” for another eight years!) 

The soundtrack album, “The Rutles” is wonderful too.  In the tradition of the best of the Bonzos, it’s a comedy album that stands repeated listening, with songs such as “Doubleback Alley,” “Piggy In The Middle” and “Cheese and Onions” which stand as classics in their own right, as well as masterful pastiches of The Beatles’ style.

Neil Innes on Dutch TV in 1968

I was lucky enough to see Neil perform live on three occasions.  The first, at Cropredy Festival in 1985, he performed a solo set which included “A Medley of His ‘Hit’” (Urban Spaceman) and a memorable rendering of “How Sweet To Be An Idiot,” during which he donned his famous duck headgear.

The second time I saw Neil was a particularly memorable occasion and one of my all-time favourite gigs. It was November 2006 and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had reformed and were undertaking a British tour, in celebration of the band’s 40th Anniversary.

I managed to get tickets for the show at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall and, as the band waded into their opening number, “Cool Britannia,” I remember feeling a huge shiver make its way down my spine – the Bonzos were back!  It was a massively entertaining evening as the band, aided by guests Phil Jupitus and Ade Edmondson, worked their way through all their best-known numbers, ably supported by huge and enthusiastic audience participation. Of course, the central figure throughout this great show was Mr. Innes!

A wealth of Innes riches.

For my third Neil Innes gig things got even more interesting.  On 17 April 2015, the Bonzos got together once again for a 50th birthday show at Koko in Camden, London, and this time the support act was none other than The Rutles – a double serving of Neil and his pals.  In a jam-packed club, both acts delivered blistering sets of wonderfully familiar tunes – we were enthralled and, ultimately, exhausted! 

As the Bonzos left the stage after their 21-song set, I consoled myself with the belief that it would surely not be too long before I got to see some permutation of the Bonzo/Rutle ensemble, featuring Neil, again.  Sadly, this was not to be the case; I did see a version of the Bonzos play at the London Palladium in November 2016 and, whilst the Neil-less band put in a good performance, they lacked the impact of the “full” Bonzo lineup. 

When The Rutles toured in 2018, I was disappointed when the show I had booked tickets for at The Assembly, Leamington Spa, was cancelled (due to the closure of the venue).  Finally, I was thrilled to see that the Bonzos, with Neil, were to perform a one-off show at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush, in May 2020 but, as we now know, Neil now won’t be there.

Thank you, Neil James Innes for the laughs, the music and the songs.  You brought us all a great deal of pleasure and you will be remembered forever.

Monty Python posted a tribute to Neil Innes on their YouTube page. You can watch it below. You can view and read more about Neil Innes on his Official Website.

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