Neil Innes: another chance to get it right
You might expect a man who was celebrated as the unofficial seventh member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to be comfortable with being in the spotlight. But not Neil Innes.
When I mention to him that a certain website describes him as a “musician, actor, game show guest and TV show host”, he reacts with disdain.
“This is somebody desperately trying to build me into a celebrity – by being a game show guest. I can’t think of what game shows I’ve ever done!”
When I remind him he was on the long-running cult radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, he stresses how different that was.
“Most famously I’m the only ever stand-in for (pianist) Colin Sell,” says 68-year-old Neil. He then remembers he was a guest on the Yorkshire TV programme 3-2-1 more than 30 years ago and sang possibly his most famous song, I’m The Urban Spaceman. There were dancing girls alongside him.
“You’ve never seen anything so silly! It was wonderful because it really summed up late 1970s’ television. Punk was all the rage on the streets but television still had its head in glam rock.”
These days Neil Innes doesn’t have much time for television. “I used it think it was marvellous, pictures coming through the sky into your home. For a while it was a social glue. But it’s so thinly spread now. There’s so much rubbish.”
Born in Essex, Neil James Innes took piano lessons from the age of seven and taught himself to play guitar. He graduated with a BA from Goldsmiths College School of Art in London where he and other students formed a group called The Bonzo Dog Dada Band after their interest in the art movement Dada. It was quickly renamed The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Innes and the late Vivian Stanshall wrote most of the band’s songs including their only hit I’m The Urban Spaceman. It won an Ivor Novello Award in 1968 for best novelty song.
The Bonzos also appeared on the children’s groundbreaking television series Do Not Adjust Your Set which featured David Jason, Denise Coffey and three of the future Monty Python team.
In those days Neil was content to be in the background. But Monty Python’s Flying Circus changed everything. He explains how the Pythons asked for help with some songs for an album and then suggested Neil should join them on tour to fill in between sketches.
From the Bonzos to the Pythons
“I sort of became seconded to them. I never joined them. I became a stooge for about ten or 15 years. It was very enjoyable.
“How lucky can you get, going from the Bonzos to the Pythons? But there was a link because of Do Not Adjust Your Set and I think the Bonzos taught the others a bit about anarchy and how to enjoy it.”
Neil played a major role in the final Python series in 1974 after John Cleese had left. He appeared on stage with the Pythons in New York City where he was introduced as Raymond Scum, telling the audience “I’ve suffered for my music; now it’s your turn.”
Later he appeared in Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl, singing his deliciously funny solo song How Sweet To Be An Idiot. Despite that, Neil reckons he is not cut out for show business:
“I like all the toys, being able to go filming, making music and dressing up. But I don’t really like all the fame bit. It’s my job.
“I don’t see why any more fuss should be made of me than a plumber or a carpenter. You ought to be able to go down the pub and have a laugh with everybody just as normal people do. I don’t like the celebrity culture at all. It’s the same with sport – you’re either a champion or a nobody. It’s horrible.”
After Monty Python, Neil joined Eric Idle on the series Rutland Weekend Television which spawned The Rutles, a group affectionately based on The Beatles.
The Rutles have just re-formed for a short tour of the UK, making an incredibly busy time for Neil who is also touring his one-man show called Another Chance To Get It Right which will stop off at Derby’s Guildhall Theatre.
Fans have complained to him after shows that their favourite songs were omitted. But because he has so many to choose from, Neil has devised what he calls the Wheel of Four Tunes.
“We have four coloured envelopes and there are four coloured bits on the wheel. Someone comes up and spins it. Whichever colour it stops on we open the envelope and do that song.
“There’s a mixture of songs from the shows I’ve done over the years. This is not a perfect world and things do go wrong. Very often, because you’re on your own, it’s quite funny when they do. But I don’t rely on it!”
When I have the temerity to ask whether some songs like Urban Spaceman feature in all the envelopes, he categorically denies it.
“This is not television! This is a little nod to how awful television is. We have fun. There’s a lot of audience participation. It’s not like forced joviality. I can’t do this without sponsorship and I’m sponsored by Fiasco Superstores . . . ”
At this point I start to get worried that the interview might disintegrate into silliness. But Neil Innes is far too intelligent to let it get out of hand.
The Institute of Cognitive Stupidity
I ask him whether he would take it as an insult or a compliment if he were described as very wacky. The answer is unexpected.
“I’m wacky with a rudder – I steer the wackiness. We have to be wacky sometimes to get a handle on what’s happening.
“I want to start an anecdotal website called The Institute of Cognitive Stupidity. Everyone can say ‘you won’t believe it but we have to do this’. It would be wonderful to collect all these things together and have people blowing raspberries at it.”
After his solo tour Neil will be working on his memoirs which will be in an unusual form: “I’m recording them because I’m a microphone man more than a book man.
“I’m telling the stories and trying to make them interesting like radio plays. I can slip music in, I can slip dramatic bits in. I’m really enjoying doing it because it’s not just about me – it’s about the way we all think.”
He is also working on a documentary called Show Me The Sanity which is “more in the spirit of YouTube than Hollywood”. It’s apparent that Neil Innes is not just a singer-songwriter who can tell a few funny stories. He also comes over as a satirist and a deep thinker who would like to know more about the world around him.
“We don’t take enough interest in what’s going on largely because we’re all told to go away and don’t let it bother our little heads. We need a place where you can find out what’s really happening, not what some people are spinning.”
Even so, I ask the crass question taken from Urban Spaceman: does he really wake up every morning with a smile on his face?
“I’m a glass half full rather than half empty. My songs are about having a laugh at the silly things but let’s also have a think about what’s worth thinking about.
“I know it sounds a bit pompous but Shakespeare did comedy and drama so why shouldn’t I be allowed to do comedy and drama? And so I do. And I’ve been starving ever since!”
• This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Country Images magazine