Down That Road: Neil Innes (1944-2019)

I was saddened to hear this morning of the sudden passing of Neil Innes, a brilliant English composer and musician. He is probably best known in non-musical U.S circles for his work with Monty Python (Innes played the lead minstrel in the “Brave Sir Robin” sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and also wrote the theme song about that feckless hero), but there was so much more to his career, which I commend to you, dear readers, with my deepest enthusiasm.

Innes received his first significant public acclaim as a key member of The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. The Bonzos were regulars on the popular BBC show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and appeared in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, performing “Death Cab for Cutie,” a name later adopted by a band that was, frankly, not worthy of it. The Bonzos’ biggest chart hit was “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” penned and sung by Innes, and produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. You know you’ve got something going for you when a Beatle works on your behalf.

I consider the Bonzos’ first four albums to be essential listening, with Innes and the (also) late Vivian Stanshall composing the lion’s share of their original songs. The group fizzled out acrimoniously in the early ’70s, and Innes moved on to front the short-lived The World, and then on to an art-poetry-music ensemble called GRIMMS, (which featured Stanshall and Paul McCartney’s younger brother, Mike McGear, among many others in a large, rotating cast). As GRIMMS fell apart, Innes began working with the Pythons, while also maintaining a critically rich, if commercially wan, solo career. If you know your Python, many of their best musical bits were composed by Innes, and he toured with them as “the seventh Python,” performing as a troupe member, and offering solo musical interludes. Good stuff, essential to the series, the films and the live shows.

With Eric Idle of the Pythons, he created The Rutles, who satirized The Beatles, but did so with Innes-penned songs that were brilliant in their own rights, e.g. “Cheese and Onions” and “Piggy In The Middle.” The Rutles’ mockumentary All You Need Is Cash is a superb television film, blessed and partially funded by George Harrison, who made a cameo within it. Innes plays the John Lennon character, known as Ron Nasty, in the film. The music was performed and recorded by Innes, drummer John Halsey (Barry Wom in the film) and ex-Beach Boy Rikki Fataar (Stig O’Hara), along with Ollie Halsall, who sang and played the parts credited to Idle, playing the role of Dirk McQuickly.

Innes went on to a successful career in British children’s television during the ’80s. There have been various Bonzo reunions in the past quarter century, along with more Rutles albums (without Idle) and solo projects from Innes, but his legacy is most likely to be defined by his first decade in the public domain. That’s okay, I think. Many inferior talents are better known for less.

That said, I do feel a wee sense of melancholy and justice-not-served with Neil Innes’ passing, as I think he is a once-in-a-lifetime caliber artist who never quite got the credit he was due. Vivian Stanshall (also a brilliant unique) over-shadowed him in the Bonzos. Eric Idle seems to have pilfered his contributions to a savage degree with Spamalot and other post-Python products. The Beatles/Apple empire even went after him for his utterly magnificent Rutles songs, litigiously culling half of the royalties for a large batch of his original tracks, mistaking parody for plagiarism to these ears. In the final indignity, I read in his obituaries today that Innes spent the last two years of his life fighting the Bonzos’ ex-manager for the rights to the Bonzo Dog Band name. Fortunately, he won that one. Here’s hoping the surviving core Bonzos (Legs Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell) are able to take advantage of that victory.

At bottom line, Neil Innes made everything he touched a bit better than it would have been without him, whether he got the credit for it or not. I love his work, and I rue his early departure from this our mortal world, as I suspect he still had some brilliance within him to share. I close with a classic Neil Innes moment, his famed “worst guitar solo ever” in the Bonzos’ “Canyons Of Your Mind.” Stanshall wrote and sang it, but it’s one of the best video examples extant of all of the Bonzos’ brilliance, Neil most especially. You have to be really good to play something this bad, bless his hilariously talented heart.

4 thoughts on “Down That Road: Neil Innes (1944-2019)

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, January 4, 2020 – Chuck The Writer

  2. Dumbest thing I ever did was miss seeing him play at the Van Dyke a few years ago.

    Rest In Peace, Neil. You were a singular talent.

    And thank you again, Eric, for another fine eulogy.

    • It is always interesting (to me) as to who moves me to write and who does not. Neil was a definitely write loss. We are on the road in the Southwest and I am thankful I put “Keynsham” and “Doughnut” albums on the car iPod. Just wish now I had nabbed some Rutles too!

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