Obituary: Neil Innes, songwriter and musician who parodied The Beatles and was the ‘seventh Python’
Without ever acquiring the status of superstar, Neil Innes was part of the fabric of British popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s. He parodied the Beatles with his group the Rutles, a project in which he was encouraged by George Harrison, who reportedly preferred the Rutles to the Beatles.
He wrote songs and sketches for Monty Python and was the subject of a 2008 documentary called The Seventh Python. Before any of that he acquired a cult following as part of the almost legendary Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Formed by a bunch of art students, they were originally the Bonzo Dog Dada Band. But they changed the name because so few people got the Dada reference. Doo-Dah was eventually dropped as well. They reached No 5 in the singles chart in 1968 with I’m the Urban Spaceman, which Innes wrote and Paul McCartney produced under the name Apollo C Vermouth.
The B-side was The Canyons of Your Mind, which parodied the Noel Harrison hit The Windmills of Your Mind… “In the canyons of your mind, I will wander through your brain/To the ventricles of your heart.” It served as a prelude to the pop satire that was the Rutles, although it was written by Innes’s fellow band member Vivian Stanshall.
The Rutles began in 1975 as a sketch on Eric Idle’s television show Rutland Weekend Television – but it took on a life of its own and three years later came a full-scale television ‘mockumentary’ entitled All You Need is Cash, again involving both Innes and Idle. Innes was Ron Nasty, who bore more than passing resemblance to John Lennon, while Idle was Dirk McQuickly, who might have been the alter ego of Paul McCartney. A couple of Rutles singles made it into the lower reaches of the charts.
Neil James Innes was born in Danbury in Essex in 1944. His father Edward was Scottish, a warrant officer in the Royal Artillery, and Innes spent part of his childhood in Germany when his father was stationed there after the war.
He played piano from an early age and took up guitar in his early teens. But he later said his guitar was so cheap that it was “like playing an egg slicer”, so his focus switched to painting and he studied at the Norwich School of Art and Goldsmiths’ College in London.
The focus switched back to music after he joined Vivian Stanshall in the Bonzos. They developed a following on the London pub circuit with a set that included songs in the melodic style of the 1920s with added satire and silliness, songs like Hunting Tigers out in India. They appeared in the 1967 Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour, singing Death Cab for Cutie, a song in the style of Elvis.
Innes was inspired by a pulp fiction crime magazine and the title Death Cab for Cutie was later adopted by the American rock band, whose leader Ben Gibbard said a few years ago: “Thank God for Wikipedia. At least now, people don’t ask me where the name came from every interview.”
The Bonzos also appeared regularly in the late 1960s on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a comedy show aimed mainly at children. Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam all worked on the show and Innes would work with them again on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s, by which time the Bonzos had split up. Initially he contributed songs, though ultimately he was also writing sketch material. He appeared in live performances with them, telling the audience: “I’ve suffered for my music, now it’s your turn.”
The link with Idle continued with Rutland Weekend Television and The Rutles. The mockumentary All You Need is Cash included cameos from George Harrison, Mick Jagger and Paul Simon and featured 20 songs by Innes, purportedly tracing the band’s evolution from such early hits as Ouch!, reminiscent of Help!, to psychedelic works such as Piggy in the Middle, with its “Bible-punching, heavyweight, evangelistic, boxing kangaroo, orangutan and anaconda, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, even Pluto too.”
Producer Gary Weis said: “We were sitting around in Eric’s kitchen one day, planning a sequence that really ripped into the mythology and George (Harrison) looked up and said, ‘We were The Beatles you know!’ Then he shook his head and said: ‘Aw, never mind.’” Harrison later said: “The Rutles sort of liberated me from The Beatles in a way.” John Lennon apparently loved it, but it seems Paul McCartney was less keen, at least initially.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Innes had his own show on BBC2 called The Innes Book of Records. He subsequently worked on several children’s television programmes, while two songs he wrote for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Knights of the Round Table and Brave Sir Robin – were revived in the hit West End musical Spamalot.
In later years he lived near Toulouse, France. He is survived by his wife Yvonne, whom he met while he was a student at Goldsmiths’ College in the 1960s, and by three sons.