Monday, January 6, 2020

How Sweet to Be an Idiot: Deceased Artiste Neil Innes

Though he was best known for his collaborations with the Pythons and his perfect spoofs of Beatle songs as the Rutles, Neil Innes was a really sublime songwriter whose best band and solo work covered a great deal of ground in the rock, pop, and singer-songwriter genres. I want to sing the praises of his absolutely sublime parody songs, in which he would summarize a certain performer’s work in one song (or more impressively, an entire subgenre).

Before that, though, some Funhouse history and a musical interlude — a Bonzo Dog Band song he sang often in concert, perhaps one of the clearest collaborations between his sensibility and that of his Bonzo co-founder, the genius spoken word artist Viv Stanshall:

I had the sheer joy of interviewing Neil back in 2010 when he was appearing in NYC at B.B. King’s and he was staying at a hotel in N.J. right off the Hudson. Neil preferred to be interviewed outdoors, so in that brightly lit setting we went through the Bonzo years.

Also, the cross-currents — which I believe were very strong — between the Bonzos and the Beatles, who “opened up” to humor in their songs in 1966, the year that the Bonzos burst on the scene.

Neil steadfastly declared that the Beatles were very funny gents long before meeting the Bonzos when I queried him on the influence, but also noted that, once the Fabs saw the Bonzos, Lennon took to hanging out drinking with Stanshall into the morning hours, with John’s limo driving past Viv’s house and ejecting him once they’d reached the door.

The young Bonzo Dog Band (Innes second from right)
Both Lennon (whose “You Know My Name (Look up the number)” has some Goon-ish sounds but is also very, very Bonzo) and McCartney (who produced the band’s sole Top 40 hit “I’m the Urban Spacemen”) were obvious fans of the Bonzos. Today, countless British comedians testify to their brilliance — the combination of Stanshall’s velvet tones and deranged wordsmithing plus Innes’ sharp satirical bent and pure pop sensibility (plus the brilliant playing of the band’s other members) made the Bonzos both a perfect psychedelic band and truly the best U.K. comedy act to appear between the “satire boom” (when Beyond the Fringe and “TW3” changed British comedy forever) and the emergence of the Pythons.

The connections between Innes and the Pythons have been documented everywhere, as have the absolutely perfect Rutle tunes, which were beloved by both Beatle fans and the Beatles themselves. Here Neil reflected on his friend George’s responses to the assortment of Innes tunes that became the album Archaeology.

At the time we did the interview Neil had released a download of his “final” song as Ron Nasty, the Lennon-esque witty and performance art-oriented Rutle. It’s a great goodbye to the character, and also one of Neil’s songs that combined social satire with a serious statement (and, as with many of his best, was damned catchy in the process).

When we did the interview we were told by a security guard that we had to leave the outdoor location we were shooting at (some business complex “plaza” looking out on the Hudson). Neil then allowed us to “finish” up the talk in his hotel room, where his lovely wife Yvonne (with whom he was married for 53 years) waited as I spent yet another hour asking him questions about his career and opinions on the music business (and TV and comedy in general).

His generosity with his time was much appreciated (we hadn’t realized that both Yvonne and Neil were waiting for us to finish to have their dinner!) and yielded some fascinating reflections by Neil on some of his most prominent collaborators, including Viv and a certain pipe-smoking, medically trained Python.

We also discussed something he was not known for — his serious songs.

A good example, a touching song visualized on his TV series “The Innes Book of Records.”

We discussed the MIA “The Innes Book of Records,” which has never been issued on DVD and was unknown to non-U.K. viewers until the advent of YouTube. The show lasted three seasons (1979-81) and then pretty much disappeared. When visualizing his songs on the series (which also featured pieces by guest artists) he frequently went back to his art school training.

Neil did much work for British children’s TV and, when not touring, did guest on chat, panel, and variety shows. He had strong opinions about TV programmers in the U.K., based on his experiences.

Neil had many legacies, but my definite favorite was his skill at parody. As noted above, he was able to synthesize entire bodies of work, or genres, into the space of a three-minute pop song. For example, his take on the chanson française, as visualized on his “Book of Records” series.

Perhaps the finest of all his spoof songs, his three-minute distillation of the early ’70s work of Elton John, replete with a title borrowed from W.C. Fields and lyrics filled with homespun mottos: “If all the trees were candles/and who’s to say they’re not/the world will be a birthday cake/and we could eat the lot/But too many cooks can spoil the broth/ and a stitch in time saves nine/A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush/and I’ll never change my mind...”

A personal favorite, his spot-on spoof of Pete Townsend’s rough boy, “on the verge of a break down” songs. With wonderful visuals spoofing Funhouse fave (and interview subject) “Unkle” Ken Russell.

To close out, a non-parody. Neil’s anthem, a song that perfectly embodies his solo work, filled with beautiful nonsense and an actually touching message. What makes it most special? It’s the work of a very smart and talented man, being exceptionally silly.