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Date: 30/12/19

Goodnight, Sweet Idiot

Photo of Neil Innes

(Photograph: Luke Ford, made available under this Creative Commons licence)

Neil James Innes
Musician, songwriter
b. 9 December 1944, d. 29 December 2019

I suppose this wretched, dispiriting year couldn't end without giving us one last resounding blow in the tripes.

That Neil Innes was a consummate songwriter could not be a matter of dispute. Perhaps the most conventionally musical of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, it was he more than any of the other members of the band who turned them from being purveyors of novelty songs from the 1920s and 30s into a genuine, accomplished rock band in the standard sense.

Not that this reduced their capacity for inspired silliness; he had willing co-conspirators in Roger Ruskin Spear and the late Vivian Stanshall in ensuring that the surrealistic elements which set them apart from all their coevals continued, but with an underpinning of sound musicianship.

After the Bonzos imploded (at least twice), Neil Innes went on to provide songs for Monty Python and for Eric Idle's Rutland Weekend Television, and it was this latter connection which provided us with proof of Innes' musical genius.

The Rutles - which began as a single sketch on RWT sending up all the jabber which abounded in the mid-70s about a Beatles reunion - was extended to a full concept television film in which Innes played the part of Dirk Nasty (the Rutland equivalent of John Lennon), with Idle, Ricky Fataar and John Halsey playing the equivalents of Paul, George and Ringo respectively (although Ollie Halsall provided the actual musical and vocal tracks to which Idle mimed).

Even viewed from forty-odd years on, All You Need Is Cash is an inspired work, parodying all-too-well-known episodes from the careers of the original Fab Four. But what sets it apart still is the music: Innes had a perfect ear for what had made the Beatles' songs tick, and his 'versions' were far less parodies (or even pastiches) than they were homages, done not merely with accuracy but with obvious affection.

I mean, just listen to this, it's perfect:

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So convincing were these songs that the then-publishers of The Beatles' songs actually sued Innes for plagiarism, settling for half the royalties from the songs on the original soundtrack LP. John Lennon had warned Innes of such a possibility, which is why one track in particular was kept off the album. It's not difficult to hear why:

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(I would venture to suggest that if you played these tracks side-by-side with their Beatle 'equivalents' to someone who hadn't heard the Beatles and asked them to guess which was the original and which the hommage, a lot of people would get it wrong).

Innes' own career continued in a low-key fashion during the 1980s and into the mid-90s, when - again mirroring what was happening with the originals - the Archaeology set was released to revive the Rutles' own profile. And then in 2006 came a full-blooded reunion of the Bonzos (or, at least, the surviving members), in which Innes, Bob Kerr, Rodney Slater, 'Legs' Larry Smith, Spear, Sam Spoons and even the venerable and ancient Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell performed some of the old favourites (with Stanshall's immense void filled quite adequately by Phill Jupitus, Ade Edmondson, Paul Merton and the ubiquitous Stephen Fry), along with some more up-to-date material. The concerts were followed by the first Bonzos album for nearly thirty-five years Pour L'Amour Des Chiens early the next year, a set which combined cover versions (including one of the Kaiser Chiefs!), pastiches of other contemporary styles (Spear's My Friend's Outside doing it most effectively to early Gary Numan) and, of course, Innes' own well-crafted songs.

Tensions between Innes and the other veteran members finally forced him out of his own band shortly afterwards, and the Bonzos were once again no more.

I'll end with a song which appeared on the 1969 LP Tadpoles and which demonstrates Neil Innes' songwriting and arranging talents, creating a track which would have more than graced any conventional rock album of that time:

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