Neil Innes on Tour – A Legend That Will Last a Lunchtime

You may know Neil Innes’ name, or perhaps some of the seemingly endless list of classic music, film and television pies he’s had his talented fingers in over the decades. But he’s by no means a celebrity, and that’s perfectly alright with him.

“There’s no hysteria, there’s no Innes-mania out there,” said Innes. “And that’s good, because I can’t stand all that. I’m not really a show business creature. I want it all. I love playing with all the toys, I love filming, I love playing with musicians, but the fame thing I just can’t hack at all.”

Innes was speaking prior to his Tuesday night one-man show at B.B. King in the heart of Times Square, nearly at the midway point of a tour which sees him mixing favorites from his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Monty Python and the Rutles with new material that shows he’s still got the innate knack for a clever turn of phrase and melody. The performance thrilled a crowd which included Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová of Swell Season, with the former in stitches and the latter bobbing her head while wearing an Innes t-shirt throughout.

Innes is in no danger of losing his steam, both because he claims to be attacking his career with vim, vigor and vitality, and also as his work sees him picking up new fans every single day. My daughter, who recently fell in love with the Rutles and subsequently added various Innes-associated songs to her iPod, made me swear to tell the man who brought Ron Nasty to life she said hello. And even Innes’ own family is on board.

“My grandchildren quite approve of what I do,” he said. “I have immature themes like blowing raspberries, you know.”

For the duration of our interview, Innes was generous both with his time and memories, starting the story, fittingly, where the music all began.

“It was kind of thrust upon me at the age of seven,” he said. “I expressed an interest in the piano, and they got me some piano lessons. I lived in Germany, because my father was in the army after the war. I had a German piano teacher who was the most gentle-voiced German you’ll ever meet. He wasn’t brutal at all.”

Innes’ musical education took a comparatively complex turn early on, as you young boy was asked to do something that would soon become de rigueur.

“The day came when I had to do something different with my left hand than my right hand, and at the age of seven I held myself up to my most pompous height and declared it was impossible,” Innes recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, Neil, I think if you’ll observe what I’m doing now, you will see that it is not impossible.’ And he did something different with his left hand than his right hand, and I knew that I was wrong. The challenge was down.

Innes continued playing music, though in his early teens realized he was on a course of learning that wasn’t likely to ever end, which as with so many who’ve stumbled their way into rock & roll, led to the guitar.

“I suddenly said, ‘Who am I working for?’ Every time I’d finish a piece, they’d give me a harder one,” he said. “I rebelled and taught myself the guitar and fiddled around with that.”

Innes attended Goldsmith’s School of Art in the mid-’60s, a fortuitous choice which would ultimately determine the course of both his professional and personal life. He met his wife, Yvonne, there, and the couple recently celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. And Innes also met the fellow musicians with whom he’d share his first heady taste of musical success: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (changed from the Bonzo Dog Dada Band, eventually becoming the Bonzo Dog Band, and affectionately referred to in this interview by Innes as simply, the Bonzos.)

The Bonzos, who also included Vivian Stanshall, Rodney “Rhino” Desborough Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and “Legs” Larry Smith, were something of an anomaly in London, mixing avant garde and traditional jazz, wry humor, music hall and rock & roll. Somehow, they managed to tap into something special, first among their fellow art students, and then to an exponentially increasing fan base which grew to include some of the music’s most legendary names. But first, the relatively humble beginnings…

“We used to play at the college every Tuesday night just for fun, and then we realized we could probably play at a pub and get some money by passing the hat around,” Innes said. “And it became immensely successful, which it shouldn’t have done, because musically it was a terrible racket. It must have been good drinking music.”

The clear joy in chaos the Bonzos felt on stage was just a small part of what was happening all across the city at the time.

“Swinging London,” Innes recalled. “It was a great time to be young. And I think we actually kind of knew that at the time. Everybody was off on a similar confident vibe. We’d just been through a World War, and it was possible to do something about it, to cheer you parents up, who hadn’t had any kind of counseling. They’d gone through hell. I don’t think we were as cool as some of the later generations were to their parents, because they kind of half understood what they’d gone through. Just growing your hair and playing Beat music was enough of a thing to shock them. You know, we didn’t want to shock them too much. It was a good time. Economically it was good. My generation only missed National Service by a year or two. So we were at college or leaving college, and it wasn’t a question of finding a job; any job will do. Just how lucky can you get as a generation?”

It was during a long stretch of short stays in everywhere from small towns to big cities across the country that the Bonzos first found themselves on the radar of the Beatles, who would eventually cast them to perform in the Magical Mystery Tour film.

“The Bonzos were on the road, and we kept bumping into a group called the Scaffold, who weren’t really musical as such, they were more a revue and poetry group,” Innes said. “It was Roger McGough, who is a well known poet in the UK, anyway. One of the members was Mike McCartney, going out as Mike McGear, and he was Paul’s brother. When Magical Mystery Tour came up, the Beatles already used to come and see us because we were sort of the darlings of the hit parade. All the people who wanted to muck about, but couldn’t. Most musicians have a great sense of humor, and so they’d crack up and come see the Bonzos. When Mike suggested to Paul, ‘Get that daft band in there,’ he thought it was a good idea. We couldn’t go on the bus, because we were too busy, so we just did one day’s filming in the strip club, and we did ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ from the Gorilla album.”

Innes’ show on Tuesday was filled with similar memories from across the span of his career, including an earlier Bonzos moment when the band was recording their debut at Abbey Road. Innes wandered down the long, narrow hallway which separated the studios and heard the Beatles recording the distinct piano line from George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” one of three the guitarist wrote for 1966’ Revolver.

“Oh, right,” Innes remembered thinking. “They record here, too.”

Later, when the Bonzos and Beatles’ paths crossed, there was a sense of respect and camaraderie between the two.

“They’d all heard the album, and were very excited about it,” Innes said. “We felt, you know, like contemporaries. Of course they were the magic Beatles, but they weren’t at all snobby with it. They were funny guys.”

Around that time, the Bonzos’ path also crossed with another group, one which would again help shape Innes’ career direction.

“While the Bonzos were still the Bonzos, we were asked to do a children’s television show called Do Not Adjust Your Set with Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and also Terry Gilliam in the second series,” Innes said. “That program was a kind of dress rehearsal for Monty Python in so many ways. And Terry Gilliam kind of replaced the anarchy of the Bonzos, and they learned that they didn’t have to finish a sketch, they could go into something else. It was all part of playing with the toys of show business and trying to deconstruct television.”

While Gilliam’s animation replaced the Bonzos’ spirit of anarchy, the music was still a missing piece of the Python puzzle. As Monty Python’s Flying Circus began taking shape in the late ‘60s, Idle asked Innes to be a part of the process. Soon, Innes was joining Monty Python on tour, giving him an eventual sense of familiarity.

“They were all in each other’s pockets, and the fearful arguing that went on in the Pythons was just as bad as the Bonzos,” Innes said. “Part of the reason the Bonzos broke up was people stopped arguing. I was sitting on a train being quite shocked as they were verbally lashing at one another. John (Cleese) saw my furrowed brow and came to my rescue. He said, ‘Neil, don’t worry. This is what we wall stick.’ And that was the game. I realized they were a similar outfit to the Bonzos; everybody knew the sum of the total was greater than the individual. The chemistry was such that it was pushing and pulling it out of everyone’s control, but was somehow much better than any of us could do individually. I was kind of the agony aunt. Quite an important job, really.”

Later, Innes and Idle continued their collaboration with Rutland Weekend Television, a comedy show built around a fictitious TV station.

“Rutland is the smallest county in England, so the idea was, if they had a television station, it wouldn’t have much money, and all the programs would be cheap and nasty,” Innes laughed. “And this is the only reason BBC 2 agreed to the program, because it was an opportunity to make cheap television jokes. At the end of the first series, I overheard an executive saying to another one, ‘Do you know the whole series costs less than one Lulu show?’”

While Rutland Weekend Television stuck around for two British-standard short seasons in 1975 and 1976, a brief musical number eventually became one of Innes’ most popular projects: The Rutles.

“It was only ever a one-off thing as far as we were concerned,” Innes said. “The idea of parodying A Hard Day’s Night, I came to Eric with it. I said ‘This is cheap, black and white, speed it up, four guys in a field, wigs, running around.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s great. I’ve got this idea for a documentary maker who’s so dull the camera runs away from him.’ We put the two together, and basically that’s the whole plot. It was just one of those things that just happened.”

When Idle was booked to host Saturday Night Live in 1976, he brought the Rutles clip from Rutland Weekend Television’s run. It proved successful enough that Innes appeared with Idle a year later, performing “Cheese and Onions.” The show was a smash.

“The timing was right,” Innes said. “The joke was happening over here (in the U.S.) that somebody was offering the Beatles $20 million each to get together. And Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live were running with this gag by getting George Harrison on the show and saying, ‘Look, here’s $3,000, George,’ which was the going rate for four musicians on live television at that time of night. And George would be saying, ‘All of this for me?’ and Lorne would snatch it back and say, ‘No, no, you’ve got to share it.’ So they said Eric could host the show, because he said he could get the Beatles back together for $300, and then they made up this thing about it being a bad phone line, and he hadn’t got the Beatles, he’d got the Rutles. And they showed the clip from the BBC Television thing, and the mailbag was just ridiculous. Lorne had no choice but to go down and say, ‘Can we have the money to make the whole story?’ And they said yes.”

Innes still marvels at how quickly The Rutles film came together, especially as it quickly became clear that his role was even more important than simply reprising his role as Ron Nasty, the group’s John Lennon-based character.

“You couldn’t pitch a program like that these days,” Innes said. “I was in New York, and I’d done Saturday Night Live with Eric. And when Lorne had gotten a budget, I was aware of everyone looking at me. And they said, ‘Do you think you can write 20 more Rutles songs by next Thursday?’ and I said, ‘I’ll try.’”

Innes spent three months putting together songs which would cover the vastly changing musical styles the Beatles – and by proxy the Rutles – realized over just a handful of years. The eventual recordings included an updated version of “I Must Be In Love,” the song which featured in the original BBC Rutles clip.

“I’d managed it by not listening to any Beatles songs, but by just remembering where I was when certain signature Beatle moments happened, like ‘All You Need is Love’ or ‘Penny Lane.’ I’d think, ‘Where was I, what was I doing, what was life like?’ And once I’d written the songs for guitar or piano, if they sounded alright with just the voice, the lyrics, the melody and the chords, if you could carry it with one instrument, then I knew we could do anything in the production.”

Though Idle didn’t actually perform any of the music as McCartney-lampooning Dirk McQuickly, the other Rutles in the film were involved in the music-making process. Rikki Fataar (Stig O’Hara) and John Halsey (Barry Wom) were joined on record by fellow musician Ollie Halsall (who briefly appeared in the film as Leppo, the fifth Rutle). The sessions were intense, intimate and thoroughly enjoyable.

“We lived in a house for weeks, just us and a guy called Alistair who had two-track recorders,” Innes said. “We rehearsed and recorded, and it happened to be Wimbledon week, so we’d watch a bit of tennis, then go back and rehearse and record. And by the time we came out, we felt like a band, and we went straight in the studio. The whole album took 10 days to do, including orchestration and mixing.”

Harrison appeared in the film, which predated This is Spinal Tap in the mock rock doc genre by six years, as an interviewer speaking to Eric Manchester, as played by Palin. Also appearing alongside members of the Saturday Night Live cast were Mick Jagger and Paul Simon as themselves, and Ron Wood as a member of a motorcycle gang.

Innes continued recording music in the decades following The Rutles, as well as branching out into children’s television as both a host and voiceover artist. He carried on touring, both on his own and with various reunions of his past musical endeavors proved successful as well, and his life and career were honored in the documentary, The Seventh Python.

Which brings us to the present, with Innes performing career-spanning solo shows on his A People’s Guide to World Domination tour like the one in New York City this week; despite his aversion to fame, Innes is clearly comfortable on stage, whether rolling through a medley of Rutles tunes or airing new material, he’s absolutely in his element.

“I’m actually really enjoying this one man show at the moment,” he said. “Something’s happened earlier this year, and I’ve got all my publishing back. And I didn’t realize what a dark cloud it had over me. But for 10 years, I’ve been deliberately keeping my profile down just to get out of this robber baron situation. Now I feel like doing things again. I’m going to be doing things on the website, podcasting. And I’ve got a new album (Innes Own World), which is part radio, which I’m making, doing all the voices and bits, sending up the 24 hour news. I call it ‘emotional engineering.’ It’s got adverts for nonexistent products. It’s a satire of the world we live in, really.”

“I’m on a high at the moment, rolling along and enjoying it a lot.”

Innes’ grandchildren would be pleased to know that the aforementioned blowing of raspberries went down an absolute storm at B.B. King’s, as did their grandfather’s entire set. Innes peppered his set with anecdotes, jokes and song after song of impossibly catchy tunes. Whether you’re a devotee or a marginal fan, seeing Innes is more than worth the effort.