Neil Innes will probably have penetrated public consciousness most effectively for either being the writer of a jaunty 1968 Top Ten Hit “I’m The Urban Spaceman” by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (produced by one Paul McCartney under the alias Apollo C. Vermouth)…..
……or by being one of the “pre-fab four”, The Rutles along with Eric Idle in the late ’70s. This affectionate parody sprung out of “Rutland Weekend Television, the first post-Python project for Eric Idle that ran for two series in 1975-76. The content was sketches and songs, with Innes perfectly complimenting the irreverent humour and Idle’s inherent musical talents. These weren’t strictly ‘comedy songs’, giving zany-ness at every opportunity, no where Neil’s genius lies is his ability to write within the boundaries of a style, furnish it with love and come up with something that has humour, sometimes pathos but always with artistic integrity. These are NO cheap imitations, far from it. This clip is part of an extended skit on “Pommy” (“Tommy”) and shows excellence in the song writing of Innes and pokes fun at the visual absurdity of Ken Russell.
After “RWT” and Eric Idle’s appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in the states, NBC wanted a full-length TV Special and “All You Need Is Cash” was born. Executed as an alternative universe re-telling of the real Fab Four’s story, each song was a pitch-perfect parody but always with a ton of affection included. Neil might have been playing “Ron Nasty” (very loosely based on Lennon), but there was no malice here. George Harrison was of course an ardent supporter of all things Python, appearing as a pirate in the Christmas ’75 special of “Rutland Weekend Television”. He later rescued the “Life Of Brian” movie with an injection of much needed finance and set up Handmade Films, a name behind some 80’s successes such as “The Long Good Friday” and “Time Bandits”.
John and Yoko found it hilarious, not wanting to return the preview video sent for clearance. Always the sensitive one, Ringo liked the parts that weren’t recalling the bad times and Paul’s initial dissent (really only fuelled by the level of accuracy achieved to his original compositions) was eventually softened by fan Linda. Despite having support and approval from at least half of the genuine articles, it was a sad state of affairs that Sony/ATV Music were to ultimately declare that Neil Innes had to share 50% of the royalties with Lennon/McCartney. There’s so many songs to choose from – “I Must Be In Love”, “Ouch”, “Piggy In The Middle”, all bona-fide classics in their own right, but let’s go for “Cheese and Onions” from “Yellow Submarine Sandwich”. Just a little like Oasis, right? Well, quite rightly Innes was successfully awarded a share of the royalties from “Whatever”; the first part of the chorus seemingly lifted from “How Sweet To Be An Idiot”. When Neil gave The Rutles a second run with the “Archaeology” album in ’96, Neil closed the song “Shangri-La” with a mantra of “I’m free to be whatever…”. Touche.
Next came three series of the BBC series “Innes Book Of Records” which ran from 1979-81. When approached with the idea of his very own show, Neil scorned the concept of studio-bound variety showcase and steered it into something that could marry images with songs in a way that pre-dated MTV and the video revolution. From a very personal viewpoint, this series made a big impact with a particular five-year old. In 1980, I would put the microphone up to the TV speaker and record these wonderful songs on an ancient reel-to-reel. There was something in this very unique show that ignited my love of music but also gave me something that the Top 40 wouldn’t have at the time. Despite the fact these songs were appealing to a tiny mind, revisiting them again now there is an absolute purity here, unaffected by trends, fashion, forced youthful insouciance and other baggage of the pop/rock world. 35 years on there is room for something similar in the schedules, but then again I doubt there is anyone out there now with the talent to produce the musical diversity and sheer amount that Neil Innes was capable of. This is just pure, intelligent song-writing presented with visual flair and innovation. And a fair amount of silliness. We need a DVD release or at the very least a BBC Four repeat run now!
Here’s three contrasting songs from a very memorable episode of Series 2 in 1980, the one with the creepy Robot D.J.
And finally, I love this song that was originally performed on “Rutland Weekend Television”, but here is a rare John Peel session version from 1977 (“Neil on acoustic guitar and pi-ahh-no”)…