Here I am on YouTube, watching yet another episode of the British cable show “Away with Words.” In it, a nice bald-headed man travels around England teaching word origins, meeting different people along the way, from falconers to haberdashers to hot-air balloonists. In this one, he has spoken Gaelic in a pub, then walked along a canal, explaining its relation to the words “channel” and chanel. Such a prosaic setting; what is he doing here?! This affable TV host is Neil Innes, a figure in the periphery of both Monty Python and the Beatles. As a driving force of an absurdist Sixties pop band, Innes is responsible for some of the best, oddest music of that wildly inventive decade. Later, he created musical comedy that earned him enduring cult status. He’s arguably the greatest song parodist of all time.
Like all the weirdest kids of my generation, I loved Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My favorite part was the Brave Sir Robin song. It cracked me up, the lilting delivery of the violent list. But I didn’t know the identity of the minstrel, and couldn’t have guessed what a huge hole there would be in the entertainment world when he died last December.
I learned Neil Innes’s name when my family got a cassette called Dead Parrot Society, which we played in the car. I must have been 13 or so. Alongside other British comedians Neil sang “Protest Song,” live—with an F bomb that made my parents roar with laughter. Well into my twenties I’d find myself recalling its charm, the excellent lyrical craft of it, and how strange it was that such a short little fake folk song could be so memorable.
With “Protest Song,” Neil Innes also taught me the concept of it being fun to drink a bottle of wine by yourself. A more valuable life lesson, I can scarcely imagine.
One evening many years later, a fruitless search for Monty Python episodes online led me to watch Rutland Weekend Television, expecting little from Eric Idle’s post-Python series. It was a revelation. Neil’s parodies—some collected on the excellent Rutland Weekend Songbook LP—struck me as both goofy and dignified. Captivating. As a Beatle fan, I had more than a passing familiarity with the Rutles, his and Idle’s affectionate spoof of the Beatles which spawned two albums and a Lorne Michaels-produced 1978 film. But seeing at last where they came from was… well, it got me to here, watching Neil talk word etymology with the barber.
Being American, I was not exposed to his oeuvre the way I assume X-ennials were in Europe. For me it is not a question of it being hard to understand or access, culturally—and this is true of a lot of my American friends too—it’s just that it didn’t reach us. The Beatles and Monty Python, of course we knew. But not the Bonzos, let alone the Innes Book of Records and his solo albums and other TV shows. On behalf of 13-year-old me I remain particularly furious.
It turns out the Bonzo Dog Band, where it all began in the Sixties, are magnificent. They came from art school, with flair for painting and bricolage, and indeed few other bands can evoke such a strong visual sense. While their stage and TV performances were far out, as I can tell through the internet time machine, the sonic worlds in their records are even better. Neil Innes didn’t achieve this success alone, but three huge ingredients were his songwriting, his singing, and his virtuosity at the piano.
In the Bonzos, Innes looked to the future more than the past. ’68 tracks like “Rockaliser Baby” and my favorite, “Humanoid Boogie,” go harder than most glam rock nuggets of years later. (God I love “Humanoid Boogie” so much.) Where the bulk of their debut album, Gorilla, is a jazzy 1930s fever dream, Neil gives us baroque-pop in another favorite, “The Equestrian Statue.” But he also wrote and sang the delightful “Hello Mabel,” as great a trad jazz number as ever was tapdanced to.
Innes was not blessed with a gigantic singing voice like front man Vivian Stanshall; instead, his is precise and pure. Try not to swoon at the leap to the high note in “Equestrian Statue,” or the yodel in “Postcard.” And half the charm of “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” a beaut produced by Paul McCartney that would be the Bonzo Dog Band’s only hit, is in the pretty, slightly self-conscious vocal.
My main plea, though: give Gorilla a fresh listen, focusing on the piano parts (and harpsichord and other keyboards). From the album’s opening seconds, the piano is a lively, confident, ever-changing animal running through it, making the whole raucous jumble hang together. I’d also submit the spoken track “Rhino Cratic Oaths,” from The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse. Stanshall delivers the monologue calmly, as the piano storms away to tell of insanity below the surface. Neil Innes is rightly praised as a lyricist and composer, but he’s underrated as a piano player and we can change this.
Post-Bonzos and pre-Python, Innes released three albums with a semi-surreal group called Grimms, whose personnel also included Stanshall and members of the Scaffold. My second-biggest plea is that you listen to this band—Neil’s contributions to it, at least! The subject matter is weird, approaching Zappa territory (“Rockin’ Duck” is rock ‘n’ roll piano plus duck call; “Backbreaker” is a love song to a lady wrestler), and the sound is freewheeling Seventies pub rock of the funnest order. Grimms members Ollie Halsall and John Halsey went on to be in the Rutles.
Before the Rutles, though, was Rutland Weekend Television. When Monty Python’s Flying Circus ended, Eric Idle launched this sketch show, a much tamer version of the anarchy the Pythons had wrought. He tapped Innes, who had made music for Python and even been on its writing staff for one season, to help him out with the songs.
Innes supplied magic to the no-budget series, through his bizarre costumed performances of which the Rutles’ “I Must Be in Love” was just one. The numbers have range: at one point Neil apes the Who’s Tommy; at another, with castmate Gwen Taylor, he sends up Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade. To boot, he is a powerful onscreen presence, lanky, broad shouldered, with a teddy-bear face. Watching him shine so brightly in this unlikely medium, you might identify Rutland Weekend as Neil Innes at his peak.
And then the Rutles come along.
George Harrison himself, who appeared in the movie and on a Rutland Weekend Christmas special, used to say he liked them better than the Beatles. By now I think I agree with him. The Rutles have the same fascinating quality as all of Neil’s music: for days, a song can stick in your mind as you pore over its many intricacies, singing it to yourself up and down the sidewalk. Rather than getting tiresome, it wears a groove into your memory and lives there forever, always available if you need a little fix of wit. My favorite Rutles tracks are “Piggy in the Middle,” “Get Up and Go,” and “Another Day”—I’d be in awe if the whole Rutles project were just those three songs. Lucky for me, there are dozens more, each waiting to be lovingly picked apart not just for its Beatles similarity, but for its own peculiar merit.
Delve deeper into the Innes catalog and discover him doing the same thing to scores of other artists, often too subtly to qualify straight up as pastiche or parody. I can hear him hover near Hoagy Carmichael, Ian Dury, Supertramp, Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, and many more. “Godfrey Daniel,” by contrast, is immediately recognizable as Elton John, albeit an Elton from some faraway dimension where Bernie Taupin makes handjob jokes.
Not everyone has the passion for comedic music that I do. It’s fine. But Innes is admired, even by plenty of grumps, because he was such a good musician. “Randy Raquel,” a ballad for a blow-up doll, is given a gently introspective slant until the romance is believable. “Front Loader,” which is about someone’s lust for their washing machine, would be abominable in the hands of a lesser talent. Innes sets it to a Stevie Wonder riff, rhymes “urgent” with “detergent,” and (forgive me) brings it off.
Yes, he can be corny. As with I like Cezanne, says Anne or knick-knack paddywhack, give a dog a humanoid, nursery rhymes and puns abound, giving the humor a dad-joke bonhomie; naughty it may be, but it is never cruel. On the other end of the continuum, quite a lot of his work brims with tenderness. Hush, hush, half the world is sleeping, he sings to country-rock guitar in a breathless lullaby.
“Time to Kill,” a sublime meditation on mortality and eternity (on IBoR it was set to WWI footage), brings a tear if I even think of it. But so does the painfully normal “Give it Up,” which is about quitting smoking. I can guess why Innes chose to embellish “Love is Getting Deeper” with a French accent and donkey bray: without them, it would be nothing but a domestic scene, just a little too sappy. There are more of these heart-tuggers, the most poignant being “How Sweet to Be an Idiot.” A simple arrangement for piano and voice, it was the title track of his first album and became his most famous solo tune. I have to wonder how much this wriest and funniest of men liked being called an idiot for the rest of his life, in jest, by rock critics trying to be clever.
In 1979, the Innes Book of Records series picked up where Rutland Weekend Television had left off, with songs and interstitial sketches, this time putting the music front and center. Compared to Rutland these films are slicker and more sophisticated, and owe much, undoubtedly, to Neil’s eye as a painter. Not all the clips are funny—actually none are LOL funny, but they’re charming, and some are sad.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Innes also poured his efforts into children’s television, writing songs and doing voiceover for several series including “East of the Moon,” a collaboration with his friend Terry Jones. He narrated the cartoon “The Raggy Dolls”—conveniently, one of the dolls has a French accent—and did its theme song. None of these things is as soothing to me as the gentle “Away with Words.” I can think of zero other rock stars who would ever agree to present a show like this. At first I assumed it was for kids, but it’s better suited to the elderly, with its wholesome activities like bingo, a visit to the printing press, and baking an eel pie. “We’ve all heard the expression ‘the eyes of a hawk,’” Neil says, before going on to list names of fighter planes that were named after hawks. He keeps still because a hawk is standing on his head.
The Rutles’ Archaeology arrived in 1996, with both Beatlemania and the shock of John Lennon’s murder worn off somewhat. Yet there had just been another tragedy to grease nostalgia’s wheels—the death of Vivian Stanshall. I’m mentioning this because whenever I study Neil Innes, including right now as I type, I can sense Viv at my elbow beseeching me not to forget him. Viv, baby, who could?
In the aughts, Innes led an emotional Bonzo Dog Band reunion with younger comedians filling the Stanshall role, including Adrian Edmondson and Stephen Fry. He also toured extensively on his own in Europe and the States—appearing at Beatlefest, playing on an outing with Yo La Tengo. (I, meanwhile, started working at a wonderful radio station that smiled upon my 13-year-old tastes.) While Neil’s fan base is a fraction of the Pythons’, those who like him, adore him. In public he honored them, as the many anecdotes attest. Sticking around after the show, concertgoers said, he would sign anything, pose for pictures, and chat at length. All this was slated to continue, and he was planning the first-ever U.S. Rutles tour when he passed away.
What I would tell those who knew Neil, or had the good fortune even to meet him, is how grateful I am that he lived and left us so much beauty. I’ve gotten frustrated in the past—where had he been all my life? Now I grasp that he was always with us fans, and always will be. The ethereal Urban Spaceman; the doomed medieval minstrel; the deadpan folk guitarist emptying his lungs into a harmonica; the quiet, determined soul playing piano in the middle of an art gallery with a plastic duck on his head. It seems to me they are all with us now more than ever.
One word, sweet, seemed to crop up in every tribute this past winter—a way to describe the pleasure Neil Innes gave people, as well as the humility that set him apart from his crowd of ultra-glamorous contemporaries. It doesn’t say enough about how good he was, how rare, but still… how sweet. Thanks, Neil, for rearranging our world and releasing us back into it, our brains dipped in joy.