Neil Innes – How Sweet To Be An Idiot: Album Review

A fitting tribute to the great and sadly missed Neil Innes. His 1973 debut album in expanded format.

Release Date: 24th April 2020

Label: Cherry Red / Grapefruit

Formats: 2CD digipack

In common with many commentators to the music industry, we at At The Barrier were shocked and saddened by the news of the untimely death of the great Neil Innes on 29 December 2019.  It is of some consolation, therefore, that Grapefruit-Cherry Red Records have managed to complete the project, started with Neil before his tragic passing, to remaster and release his first solo album – 1973’s How Sweet To Be An Idiot in extended CD format in its original sleeve design.  This package is delightful, combining, as it does, the original 1973 album with the A and B sides of the string of singles that Neil released between 1972 and 1975.

The original album was recorded contemporaneously with Neil’s involvement with the Grimms project and the album is fortunate to benefit from the services of a group of the extraordinarily great musicians who also constituted the Grimms lineup, so, in addition to Neil, we are treated to masterful contributions from Andy Roberts on guitar, Mike Kellie (ex-Spooky Tooth) and the great Gerry Conway on drums, Dave Richards on bass and the magnificent Ollie Halsall on lead guitar and organ.  Ollie’s guitar licks are all over these songs and they serve as a poignant reminder of another sadly lost talent.

The original album’s songs are, as one would expect from such a stellar lineup, competently played and the album’s production is typical of its time.  The songs themselves are representative of Neil’s desire, at the time, to distance himself from purely comedy songs and the result is a collection of intelligent lyrics which take a sidewards view of contemporary life and which have all the Beatles-evoking tunefulness that typifies Neil’s output.  The great pleasure for me was hearing, once again, Neil’s melodic, wistful voice delivering a set of songs of varying familiarity and conjuring images of a long-forgotten youth.

The outstanding song on the original album is, of course, the title track – a well established classic and the song that those of us who were dismayed at the news of Neil’s passing turned to on the evening of 29 December last.  The album version of this song is strikingly different to the more familiar single release (also included in this collection) and is a lush production featuring strings, some plaintive guitar notes from Ollie and big drums during the middle-eight section.  The production of the album version does help to emphasise what a great song Idiot is; currently, my preference still sits with the single version, but it’s good to have both to enjoy.

Other highlights of the original album tracks include Immortal Invisible, an Innes-glance at religious dependency, the quirky Dream, Song For Yvonne, a lovely ode to Neil’s life partner and mother of his three boys, the Franglais doggerel L’Amour Perdu, which previews the Bonzos’ 2007 Pour L’Amour Des Chiens and the anthemic closer, Singing A Song Is Easy.

All the original album songs are of good quality, are well played and are well presented and I formed an impression that Neil’s band of the time would have been wonderful to see at a college gig where they would, no doubt, have been well received and left a happy, satisfied audience.  But, with the clear exception of the outstanding title track, the original album, in my opinion, lacked the killer blow that would have made it an outstanding album.  That particular omission has been corrected with this latest collection and the inclusion of the five singles and their B-sides as bonus tracks lifts this album from the category of ‘good’ to the category of ‘exceptional.’

Slush is actually a Bonzos’ number and first appeared as the closing track on the original Bonzos’ final album, Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly.  A work of disturbing genius, it was a fitting end to that phase in the career of Britain’s greatest comedy rockers.  The B-side to Slush, Music From Rawlinson’s End is a co-composition between Neil and the mighty Viv Stanshall and is a tasteful, jazzy tune. 

Re-Cycled Vinyl Blues from 1974 is a clever comment on the ongoing vinyl shortage of the time which threatened to deprive us of our weekly vinyl fixes and deftly incorporates snippets of old standards including White Christmas, She Wears Red Feathers (and a Hula-Hula Skirt) and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire into a story of recording and issuing a new record on recycled vinyl.  It’s a song that could have been a Bonzos favourite! 

Lie Down And Be Counted and What Noise Annoys A Noisy Oyster could, particularly in view of the dire quality of contemporary fun songs by The Goodies and their ilk, have given Neil the hits he certainly deserved (although in the case of the latter, it’s probably good for the sake of his reputation and our continued dedication that it didn’t.)

So – thank you Grapefruit/Cherry Red for releasing this treasure trove, a fitting tribute to a great and sadly missed man, and a strong reminder of the musicianship that lay behind Neil Innes contributions to The Bonzos, Grimms and The Rutles.

Listen to the iconic title track here:

Neil Innes online: Website

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