Neil Innes, one of the true gentlemen of rock & roll, died at the end of 2019. A founding member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, collaborator with Monty Python (he was called ‘The Seventh Python’) and the Beatles (having written all the music for The Rutles parody and portrayed the John Lennon character, Ron Nasty), Innes was a solo musical performer, writer and philosopher, as well. Burt Kearns met Neil Innes in 2000 while making a documentary film about John Lennon. They developed a rapport that led to a film about Innes’ life. Burt Kearns shares some memories of his friend with PKM.
Neil Innes died in the south of France on December 29, 2019. It was a heart attack; he was 75. His collapse was sudden, and unexpected, but it shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise in the case of a traveling musician of his age who liked his wine and cigarettes. Yet, word of his death was a real shock to fans around the world, many of whom he’d met, taken time for and made music with. Neil Innes, known as one of the nicest, sweetest people in show business, was still strong, still creating, working on an album, performing, and railing regularly on Twitter against the idiots who supported Brexit.
Neil Innes was a unique rock star, a brilliant musician, satirist, writer, philosopher and ukulele player who worked alongside the most significant artists in British pop, rock ‘n’ roll and comedy, was recognized as their equal, yet managed, by design, to remain a “cult figure.” He had, his friend and colleague John Cleese said, “a contempt for fame,” and would have remained quite happily in the shadows had it not been for the Internet.
“The difference between the Pythons and the Bonzos was that the Pythons just had a little bit more control over the wackiness than the Bonzos did. The Bonzos were completely freefall anarchy”
Thanks to more than fifty years’ work on record, stage, television and film that included the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the Beatles parody project, The Rutles, Neil had a diverse collection of admirers.
There may have been ten fans in one city, twenty in another, but they added up, and in the late 1990s, they were united. Neil was genuinely shocked to discover that two fans in Los Angeles, Bonnie Rose and Laurie Stevens, had created a sprawling Neil Innes tribute site. NeilInnes.org became a gathering place for fans around the world, and led to Neil’s appearances at Beatles fan conventions, where he was a popular guest, not only for his Beatles-adjacent tales, but for the music he wrote and performed as The Rutles.
Between 2003 and 2008, I directed and produced, along with (Hudson Brother) Brett Hudson, a documentary film about Neil Innes’ life, career and aversion to fame. It was a film I’d wanted to make since 2000, twenty years ago, when I first met Neil Innes while producing a documentary film on the life and death of John Lennon.
I was in London with producer and correspondent Alison Holloway to interview people who figured into Lennon’s life. It was my idea to interview the guy who played the Lennon character, “Ron Nasty,” in The Rutles. Neil agreed, cautiously, and met us and our crew in a flat in Maida Vale. The interview took place a few months after Neil’s good friend and fellow ukulele aficionado, George Harrison, was stabbed and seriously injured by an intruder inside his home. A few sections of the talk made it into the Lennon documentary. One of Neil’s comments, the way he framed it, and what I did with it, convinced him a few years later that I could be trusted with his story.
For us, the story began in London, in the early 1960s, when Neil Innes was a student at Goldsmiths College School of Art.
Burt Kearns: Neil, can you remember the first time you heard the Beatles?
Neil Innes: Not exactly. I was at art school, though, and I seem to remember at that time I was trying to sort of do things with primary colors, to see if I could make a red more important than a blue or a yellow on the page. And I remember ‘Love Me Do’ being on the radio and thinking, “That’s quite nice.” But I remember when I came to go to London art school, Hornsey art school, they asked me what I thought of the Beatles and I thought, “That’s a rather irrelevant question.” So, I didn’t go there, even though they offered me a place. I just thought it was good pop music.
BK: Did the music have an impact on you, get to you, at some point?
Neil Innes: The one that got to me, and I thought, “This is elevating pop music to something else,” was the haircut one. “Penny Lane”. I thought it was really good. I really loved the images and the production of it. It’s the one that really made me first sit up and listen to them. Before that, it had been sort of rhythm and blues and, you know, good rock ‘n’ roll.
BK: Did you see them perform in those early days?
Neil Innes: No, no, not live, no. I was too busy being an art student. I knew they were around and they were causing a lot of people to scream and things, but I was a little, sort of above all that, in my own little cloistered art school world! I mean obviously, I saw them on television or something like that. I truly wasn’t really aware of them until we’d formed the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
“And I’ve always had this theory, you see. If a hit has a million sales, the million people who bought it are not an entity. It’s because it meant something to one person at a time.”
BD: Tell me about the lead-up to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Neil Innes: Well, we were all at art school in London, and it was sort of chance meetings. I heard about it from Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell, who was living in the same house and he met Rodney (Desborough Slater) and Vivian (Stanshall) and some other people after the Royal College of Art. They used to rehearse every Tuesday night, and they’d already got the name by then: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. They got that by pulling out things from a hat. “Bonzo Dog” was this little cartoon character on seaside postcards, and “Dada” was the anti-art movement at the turn of the century. And there were other things in there, but “Bonzo Dog Dada Band” came out, and we soon got tired of trying to explain what a turn-of-the-century art movement was, so we changed it to Doo-Dah.
And I first met Vivian at a pub, an Irish pub in South London. And he was rather plump in those days. He came in through the door wearing Billy Bunter checked trousers, a black Victorian frock coat, these horrible little oval violet pince-nez glasses, and he had a euphonium under his arm. And he also had huge, pink rubber false ears. And I thought, “Well, this is an interesting character.”
So the Bonzos were like that, and we played in pubs, just sort of as art students, just sort of make some money. People were out having a good time in those days. And I suppose jazz was as popular as anything else.
BK: The music (a combination of music hall, vaudeville jazz, psychedelia and absurdist pop) did reach a much wider audience. What was the appeal?
Neil Innes: Well, we didn’t take it seriously. I think we sort of gently lampooned the more sort of “Look at me, I’m wonderful” show biz characters that were around, things like Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I think that generally young people then were saying, ‘Oh, stop going on about the war!’ to the older generation, and “Let’s live a little, let’s try and do this!” And of course, we were getting castigated for having long hair and silly clothes, but the more they made a fuss about it, the more we wore it.
John Lennon was quite a Bonzo fan. In fact, he wasn’t alone. Lots of people who are sort of “straight musicians,” if you like, serious musicians, really envied the Bonzos because they could muck about. I Remember Eric Clapton saying, “Oh, I wish I could muck about just once or twice. I’d love to come on stage with a stuffed parrot on my shoulder.” But when you’ve got posters saying Clapton is God, a stuffed parrot is right out! Got no chance. So yeah, we were lucky in a way because we weren’t parented to the business as professionals. We were just art students having a good time, I suppose that’s why we burnt out in five years. You could argue then that the Beatles, what burnt them out, was a sort of over-adoration. It’d get impossible to go anywhere. You couldn’t even hear the music because people were screaming, you know. This is… weird. I mean, as I say, for the Rutles to help diffuse all that was worth a go.
BK: How did you get involved with the Pythons?
Neil Innes: The Bonzos were invited to do a (children’s) television show with Eric Idle and Michael Palin. And Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Denise Coffey and David Jason, as well. It was going to be called Do Not Adjust Your Set. And we made 26 of these, and in it you can see the embryonic signs of how Python came about.
Eric and Terry were already writing for David Frost and people like that, and They’d done the Cambridge Footlights, that sort of thing. The Bonzos were the Bonzos. They were complete anarchy and nonsense and mucking about, so by the time we finished it, I think Eric sort of suggested that they were influenced by the Bonzos. The Pythons had a sort of anarchic quality too, which meant you didn’t have to look for a punch line.
So we’d finished the end of the series. The Bonzos went to America and the others started forming Monty Python with John Cleese and Graham Chapman. And of course, Terry Gilliam was doing those wonderful animations in those days, too. By the time we came back, the Bonzos were sort of disintegrating. We stopped arguing and became friends. And the Pythons had become Pythons.
And Eric Idle rang me up out of the blue one day, saying, “What are you doing?”
And I said, “I’m just doing a bit of writing and producing.” And he said, “Come down to the television studio, our warm-up man is ill.” And I said, ‘I don’t do warm-ups!’ And he said, ‘It’s twenty-five quid.’ And I said, ‘Done!’ Then we went off for some supper, and then we started talking about making albums, and it was a lot of fun. And I kind of missed being in an outfit of sort of fairly wacky and off-the-wall people. The difference between the Pythons and the Bonzos was that the Pythons just had a little bit more control over the wackiness than the Bonzos did. The Bonzos were completely freefall anarchy and whatnot. If anything new happened in what we did, it was because somebody thought of something that might put somebody else off. And if it got a laugh, it stayed in.
(Often referred to as “The Seventh Python,” Innes contributed sketches and songs to the Monty Python television series and was one of two non-Pythons (Douglas Adams was the other) credited as a writer. He appeared in their films, and when he toured with the Pythons in the United States and Canada in the 1970s, a highlight of the stage show was his performance of “How Sweet To Be An Idiot,” while wearing a plastic duck on his head.)
BK: Throwing the Beatles into that mix, how would you describe the way the Pythons, the Bonzos and the Beatles intersect?
Neil Innes: We’re all contemporaries in a way. The Beatles had actually stopped touring by the time the Bonzos went in to make their first record. I remember we went to Abbey Road to make a thing called ‘My Brother Makes the Noises For The Talkies,’ which is an old 1930s thing: ‘My brother makes the noises for the talkies, There’s not a single noise that he can’t do,’ and there’s lots of guns going off and cats meowing and liners leaving docks, all sorts of things like that. And funny enough, I’d been down the corridor, and I came back, and there, against the sunlit doors, were four figures in silhouette: mop-topped figures in dark suits and sunglasses. And I thought, “Yes, it’s the Fabs, isn’t it? Of course, they record here too!”
And I snuck down the corridor to hear what they were doing, and I heard George’s song, ‘I Want To Tell You,’ with that wonderful F over E7. And I thought, “This is really great, this is cutting-edge stuff,” and then went back into our little place going, ‘My brother makes the noises for the talkies.’
The Bonzos performed the song, “Death Cab for Cutie,” in the Beatles’ 1967 television special, Magical Mystery Tour.
We met up with them to do Magical Mystery Tour because we were on the road with The Scaffold (a comedy, music and poetry trio) quite a bit, and Paul McCartney’s brother, Michael, was in The Scaffold, and he suggested to Paul, “Why don’t you get the Bonzos in Magical Mystery Tour?” And Viv used to hang out with both Paul and John, and it was because Viv was hanging out with Paul that Paul came to produce ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman.’
(Spaceman was the Bonzos’ most successful record, reaching #5 on the UK charts in 1968. In true, perverse Bonzo fashion, the band insisted that Paul McCartney’s name appear nowhere on the record. He was credited as Apollo C. Vermouth.)
So we sort of interlocked in that way, and we were already working with the people who then became Python. You see what I mean? It was just that we sort of bumped into each other. It was the Sixties.
BK: How did The Rutles come about?
Neil Innes: The opportunity of making (the television “mockumentary”) All You Need Is Cash, The Rutles sort of came about by accident, as well. I was doing a show with Eric called Rutland Weekend Television and he wrote skits and I wrote musical ideas. One of the things I thought would be cheap and cheerful to do was a parody of A Hard Day’s Night. And Eric had an idea for a documentary maker who was so boring that the camera ran away from him. And we showed this on Saturday Night Live, and before I knew where we were, could I write twenty more Rutles songs by next Thursday lunchtime? So I agreed to do this, because George (Harrison) was sort of keen on it, too.
BK: It must have been amazing doing those twenty songs in a week.
Neil Innes: Well, it wasn’t quite a week, but it was getting close on. Took me about three months to write. The album only took ten days. We rehearsed for two weeks in a little semi-detached house in Hendon, and just played it live into two Revoxes, two two-track machines, and by the time we came out, we really felt like a group. So we went into the studio and just steamed into it.
(Innes recorded the Rutles music with guitarist Ollie Halsall, drummer John Halsey, and former Beach Boy Ricky Fataar. John Altman arranged and orchestrated. Eric Idle, recuperating from an appendectomy, did not take part. He later lip-synched songs sung by Halsall.)
The job of the first Rutles album was to be signposts, if you like, for the story. So we had to have things like “Ouch!” and some psychedelic stuff. That was easier to write, actually. It was a lot easier to write than to try to remember what your first teen dates were like, the angst of it all — “Oh! She’s looking at him now!” — stuff like that. And the second album, Archaeology, was much more measured from my point of view. It was more of a personal tribute to the Beatles’ music. I wanted to write a song that wasn’t too heavy, but at the same time didn’t dodge the issue of what happened to John, so I wrote the song ‘Questionnaire.’ And it deliberately comes in lightweight and then ends up with, “Tell me what you think about how easy it can be to buy a gun? Do you think it’s crazy, half-crazy or not crazy at all? Don’t ask me, I’m just a questionnaire.” And I signed it off with “Back in ’64.” Lyrically, it just says so long, it’s all over, and it should be… but it won’t ever be, because you know, the songs go on. The music is the thing.
BK: The Rutles… were they treading on sacred text, the Beatles?
Neil Innes: Our attitude wasn’t like that. All right, we may have been fools where angels have trodden, or not trodden, but the idea was, really, to sort of demystify it a little bit. To remind people of the humor of what can happen to anybody. Certainly, people want to be millionaires these days. That’s not the same thing as writing wonderful songs that people take to their hearts. And I’ve always had this theory, you see. If a hit has a million sales, the million people who bought it are not an entity. It’s because it meant something to one person at a time. And I only, as a songwriter, think about the meaning to one person at a time. So it’s great. By sort of a reverse thing, if it sells a lot of records, that’s the only way you’re going to know that that many people cared enough about that thing that you’ve written, that’s supposed to mean something to them, to go out and buy it. Money isn’t the guiding force — for me, anyway.
And you have to remember, at that time there was real pressure for the Beatles to get back together again. And I’d always felt there was too much hysteria. The hurly-burly had got out of control. And I kind of in my own way wanted to say, “Hey, wait a minute, everybody. This is four guys who got in a van because they like rock ‘n’ roll, and they happen to write some pretty good songs.” And the kind of weirdness that was going on about how this was so important to everybody, I thought it would be fun to sort of remind everybody how this sort of thing starts, and also tell the story pretty tongue-in-cheek. And I’m pretty sure that’s how George thought it would be fun as well. Let’s demystify this, can’t we all start again? Can’t we tone the hysteria down? So I thought the Rutles was worthwhile.
I’m sort of proud that The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, when it was shown on prime-time television (on NBC, March 22, 1978), was actually the lowest-rated show that ever appeared on prime time. It came a splendid 65th out of 65. No one really picked up on it. It was joke-bypass in the early days. It was only later when it came out on video, I think, that people started to say, “Hang on, I get the joke!” Because I suppose everyone was still so hotly involved in hoping that the Beatles would get back together again. And it took a long while for that to really sink into the psyche of the people who for one reason or another were getting weepy and dewy-eyed. But of course, then the events of 1980, that was two years after The Rutles. I think it’s taken a long, long time for people to see everything in perspective.
That’s why I did it. I thought nobody should go through this kind of heat and fame. I mean, the songs are good enough on their own. It’s the music that counts with the Beatles. Their personality and all the nonsense, the knees bent running about behavior and screaming, that’s not important. It was the music.
BK: You played Ron Nasty, the “John Lennon” character.
Neil Innes: I have to say I didn’t particularly want to do the John role. I didn’t particularly like the name “Ron Nasty.” But next to Michael Palin, I suppose I’m sort of labeled as “The Nice One.” Some people say you don’t get anywhere in the world being nice, but I’ve proved to the world you don’t get anywhere being Nasty, either.
BK: Who was Ron Nasty?
Neil Innes: A lot of it was me trying not particularly hard to be John, but every now and again I thought, “What would John say here?” because we ad-libbed an awful lot. I was just trying to sort of have John’s attitude of things, and I thought that’s all I needed to do, really. I’m not really an actor as such, but it was fun to just sort of get into another character in a way that you knew and admired, was mischievous probably had been more daring than you were. Certainly a better songwriter.
And a bit like Rod Hull and Emu, who used to be a character who had this rather mischievous bird on his hand. This bird would do outrageous things, but (Rod) couldn’t do it without the bird. So you needed the dressing-up element of putting a moptop wig on and running around to come out with the ad-libs, really. And of course, if you wear the clothes, you’re halfway there. And we’ve only got to sort of change a few things, because everybody knows the joke. This is really the secret of — oh, don’t start me being pompous about comedy!
But one of the things that makes comedy work, is that people understand the situation. And so with the Rutles, everyone understood the situation, everyone knew the story. It was deeply embedded in everybody’s psyche. Four lads can get in a van, go to Hamburg, come back, write a few songs, get turned down by a few record companies and then go on a blitz of a career which has never been rivaled. But it has its downsides as well. I mean, you can have too much fame, and too much responsibility for other people’s lives and happiness because they dump that on you. And it is too much and it’s ultimately dangerous. It’s dangerous for the people who give up their individuality to somebody else and become fanatics. It’s dangerous for them and it’s also dangerous for the subjects.
(After the release of The Rutles album, ATV Music, which owned the Beatles’ publishing rights, sued Innes for copyright infringement, and settled for fifty percent of the royalties. The Rutles songs were credited to Neil Innes, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Almost twenty years later, Innes’ publisher, EMI, sued the Beatles tribute group, Oasis, for plagiarism, because their track, “Whatever,” borrowed from Innes’ signature song, “How Sweet To Be An Idiot”. This time, Innes received a settlement and songwriting credit.)
BK: Lennon. 1980. December 8th. Where were you leading up to that day? Do you remember your life at that point?
Neil Innes: Well, yeah, I do, but, um… I sort of have… don’t really like the idea of being part of a montage of people’s memories, but I don’t mind sharing the fact that I was doubly-shocked, because I was staying with Terry Jones at the time, and I came down for breakfast and it was my birthday. And I was going to say, “Hey, Terry, let’s go and do something because it’s my birthday,” and I came into the kitchen and Terry Jones was in tears, saying, ‘They shot John Lennon.’ So yeah, I remember the day.
BK: You moved in the same kind of celebrity circle, if you like. Did it cross your mind that something like this could happen?
Neil Innes: Not before, no, but then the shockwave certainly set in. We certainly realized that there were people out there among us, the fanatic element, who, with sufficient problems of their own, could do something arguably as unspeakable as that. And I don’t know in this great soup of human consciousness, how these things happen. Time to time, I look around at the world and I get fed up with the news stories because I can’t do anything about these things. You get brutalized by too much information. And I think since 1980, it’s going more and more that way.
We’ve gotten so much more information to deal with. I really don’t know how you make judgments of why more people aren’t crazy, or are there very few people who are sane? Which way around is it? Who’s going to measure it? You can even measure a duvet by its tog rating. At times I feel, have I been born into a species I have nothing to do with? Sometimes I do. The appalling attack that was made on George just recently, it’s scary. And I don’t know if you can appeal to anybody to tone down this kind of cynical marketing of mass audience hysteria. I mean, people are working very hard to build acts up to the height of the Beatles, because they think it’s good! Because it makes money. Or something. People should just work on making the music good, and fans should grow up. Fame should be played down as well. A songwriter shouldn’t be treated any more importantly than a plumber. Both can do a job for you. That’s just what I think.
BK: What is John Lennon’s legacy?
Neil Innes: Um… John Leggon’s Lennoncy… What is John Lennon’s legacy? Um… it teaches you never to trust a journalist!
“Never to trust a journalist.” We included Neil’s memory of the day John Lennon died in the documentary — in a montage of people’s memories. But I also made sure to include his comment that he didn’t “really like the idea of being part of a montage of people’s memories.” Neil did like that. He also liked it when I told him I really believed the Rutles’ music was superior to the Beatles’. When he traveled from Suffolk to Los Angeles three years later to rehearse and perform concerts backed by a band of friends and fans, he allowed me to begin filming the Neil Innes story.
In his final decade, Neil was even more the philosopher-comedian. The songs he wrote and performed reflected his age, his frustrations with mankind and world politics, and his awareness of mortality. He included George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” in his stage show. He made headlines when he went public in a feud with Eric Idle over royalties for songs (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) used in Idle’s musical, Spamalot. In his final months, Neil performed with a new version of the Rutles, hosted Beatles tribute concerts by the Bootleg Beatles and Liverpool Philharmonic, and was planning a radio series. He also released a new album. Fittingly, Nearly Really was crowd-funded.
A few days after his death, Neil Innes’ body was cremated. A memorial concert is planned to take place later this year in London.