I have just been told that Neil Innes is no longer with us, and I am totally devastated by this sad news. Could 2019 end much worse than this? I am not sure. What the world desperately needs right now is an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.
Neil Innes has been called Monty Python’s songwriter – and you may member him as the leader of Sir Robin’s minstrels in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail ’ – as well as Ron Nasty (in parody of John Lennon) in the Rutles.
However, for me, the Rutles were a great pop band more than anything else. And Innes wrote all their songs.
He was famously sued by the owners of the Beatles’ catalogue, lost the case and had to share songwriting royalties with them. But the testimony, based on minute scrutiny and comparison of the songs, actually cleared Neil Innes from plagiarism, technically speaking. Maybe the owners of the Beatles’ catalogue followed through with the lawsuit because they feared Innes’ originality more than anything else?
In memory of this great man, here is my interview with him. It was originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #177, pages 57-63, August 2014.
Although Neil Innes has reached the respectable age of 69, he has a new Posterity Tour album with Fatso, a box set on his new So There label compiling all the Recollections CDs and is touring with the Rutles. On top of that, he is also busy composing his audio memoirs. That is a lot of activity for a man who confesses to have no more ambition as he has already been impersonated by Elvis Presley.
At the end of our chat, Innes says: ”There is no need for an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.” Nothing could be further from the truth!
Fatso was in fact the original Rutles band. How did that come about?
Innes: I was making the TV show Rutland Weekend Television together with Eric Idle when drummer John Halsey rang me up and told me he was playing with this fantastic band. And I said ”Oh, you lucky thing. I’d love to go out and play live. This television is all very well, but it’s… you know, television.” So he asked me to come and play with the band.
They played in a pub every week, and I started going there. We had these little amplifiers, a very tight band and a lot of fun. One night Eric Idle and George Harrison turned up to see us, and Fatso then became the Rutland Weekend Television band.
We all drifted apart when Rutland Weekend finished. I had other things to do… and then we had the reunion tour a couple of years ago, the posterity tour, because we wanted to get together again! Roger Rettig is living in Florida and Billy Bremner is living in Sweden, so it was complicated, but Brian Hodgson got the tour organized.
Did he also make a nicely painted bus available for the tour?
Innes: Ha ha, no, that happens in films!
The Rutles originally appear in a sketch on Rutland Weekend Television where you treat people against love by giving them sex…
Innes: Rutland was the smallest county in England, and the theory was that it would have the smallest television station with not much money. So all the jokes in Rutland Weekend Television were quite cheap. Since a ”A Hard Day’s Night” was black and white, sometimes speeded up, and looked like very cheap to make, I had the idea to make a parody of it. I had written a song called ”I must be in love” and Eric Idle had this sketch about a man suffering from love and an idea about a film maker who was so dull the camera would run away from him. In Eric’s mind he made the song start with me in pajamas being in hospital. We recorded the song, with Eric and another actor, David Battley. So you didn’t see Fatso in the film, you only saw John Halsey and myself.
But Fatso were playing the music?
Innes: Yes, absolutely. In fact, George Harrison liked that version more than the later one!
That episode was then shown by Eric Idle on the Saturday Night Live show in the US, and the idea came up to do a film. And you were asked to quickly do a bunch of Rutles songs.
Innes: I made two good decisions on the Rutles thing I think. One was not to listen to any Beatles songs at all when writing. Instead, I tried to remember where I was when had I heard them. For some of the early ones, I was still in school, about 16 or 17. For songs like ”Hold My Hand” I went back to those days, and thought about how relationships with girls were like and how exciting it was to put your hand in a girl’s bra. So those songs have an innocence to them.
The more psychedelic songs had to have another kind of discipline, where you can’t write any old rubbish. I knew I didn’t want to trivialize any of the Beatles songs, they are too good and I am not going to go for cheap laughs. I’m going to go for something that is… not as good but maybe equal in another way. Give the songs the respect they deserve.
And the second thing was to get Ollie Halsall, Ricky Fataar, John Halsey and myself living together very quickly as it were. We had this house in Hendon were we just rehearsed for two weeks. After the two weeks we were really tight as a band, and we went in the studio and made the whole album in ten days. The album only took ten days, including the orchestras and the overdubs and the mixing.
Fantastic. And I suppose those rules also eventually got you out of court?
Innes: No, there was no court, it was the bully boys. ATV Music, who had Northern Songs, had a million dollars put aside for any kind of Beatles song infringement and reacted when there were 14 songs on the album – they weren’t interested in the six that were on the film. They were saying outrageous things like ”Hold My Hand” was like ”Back In The USSR” and ”Twist and Shout” which is the funniest thing because the Beatles didn’t write that!
My publishers said they would fight it. They got a musicologist for $5500 which was a lot of money back then and he answered all the things: ”The lyrics are different, the tune is different.”
But then the big reality thing came in, and ATV said they would take it to court anyway. My publisher suddenly realized that even though they would win, they might not get costs – and they weren’t going to risk that. They then settled out of court, very badly, and I was abandoned, really.
Your new ”Farewell Posterity Tour” CD, showcases five different Neil Inneses: The pastiche Neil Innes on tracks like ”Living In Hope”, secondly the pastiche that itself turns into a pop classic, like ”I Must Be In Love”, ”Doubleback Alley”, ”Cheese and Onions” and so on. The third Neil Innes is the 7th Monty Python, like on ”Elvis and the Disagreeable Backing Singers” and ”Protest Song”. The fourth Neil Innes is the straight cover artist, where you do ”Beware Of Darkness” in a really really nice way. And finally the fifth one is the pop genius in his own right, with ”Dreams Shine Through” and ”Urban Spaceman”.
Innes: All I can be is myself, even if I am five of me! Never mind the 7th Monty Python, I am the 5th Neil Innes!
In the Bonzos days we were free, we did what we liked. Music is about humanity more than anything, it’s about what it’s like to be alive. And it is not about politics, categorizing or making an ordered world. So I don’t see why you can’t write a song about anything. Shakespeare wrote dramas and comedies. If he was allowed to do it, why can’t I? So I say I do what Shakespeare did, only with better songs!!
When I was doing a one-man show, I went to this place in the middle of England, called Corby. It was a dull wintery day, drizzling with rain when I came to the theatre. And as I drove up, it said: ”Tonight: Neil Innes, Comedian?” Question mark. That sums me up!
I’ve suffered for my jokes, now it’s your turn!
Innes: Yes, ha ha!
Now you have left posterity behind you and are focusing on new things?
Innes: It is very tempting to never do anything again. Late last year, a friend of mine who is writing a book on Elvis Presley e-mailed me and told me that Elvis had his own cinema, at enormous expense, and that his favourite film was ”Monty Python and The Holy Grail.” Apparently, he knew every word and could do all the voices. That makes me one of the few people on the planet to have been impersonated by Elvis Presley! It is not the other way around! So, I have done it now! I’ve got no more ambition!
But I am still very busy, because I am doing sort of audio memoirs now, mixing music and stories and things like that. Again, it is not for a mass audience release or anything in particular. The working title for this memoir is Radio Noir. Radio noir like film noir, only it is really a metaphor for the human brain. Here we all are with our little brains on top of us, and we don’t really understand anything. We know a lot, but the more we know, the less we understand it seems. Certainly in my case!
You have also formed your own record label So There.
Innes: Yes. I think it is probably the only way you can manage. The big record companies are… well, it is organized crime. It’s not disorganized crime, it is organized crime.
I have actually sent notice to Sony who took my Rutle songs and in America after 35 years you can have the copyright revert to you. I have done that. It is only in America, but I am making my point. That is all you can do, as a little person in this world. Not be forced around by bullies,.
On So There you have released a Le Ducks box of ”Recollections.” There is a DVD with Innes Book of Records clips. Do you own the copyrights to the Innes Book of Records series then?
Innes: The DVD that is in the box set is not for sale. You buy the records and this is stuff that is out there in the public domain because people have put it out there. But we have got the very best prints we could find, so the quality is really quite good.
In fact with So There, we are looking to put out the full series, and the BBC are going to give us everything. But since we made this program with ordinary people it is difficult to contractually clear a DVD sale. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we will try.
”Recollections” is now a Le Ducks box set. What is the cultural meaning of the duck?
Innes: Well, it goes right back to the Bonzos. I wanted to be a superhero called Alias Normalman, and I had my tights and my t-shirt saying Alias Normalaman. But I didn’t have anything to finish me off, you know for head gear. I was in Woolworths, and in the toy department there was a row of these giant yellow ducks on wheels. You pulled them along on a string and if you squeezed them, they quacked. For some reason, I just looked at one of them and realized that I had never seen a duck that big. If I cut the wheels off, it would make a hat! Then, when I wrote ”How Sweet To Be An Idiot”, I thought that would be another time to wear the hat. Since then, I’ve never been allowed to forget the duck!
You have a duck and Kevin Ayers had a banana and both of you played with Ollie Halsall.
Innes: Ha ha ha! I played with Kevin Ayers on a couple of gigs! And with Ollie of course. Ollie was absolutely fantastic. I wonder sometimes if he was not maybe autistic in the sense that people with autism are sometimes much more brilliant at one thing. And as a musician, he was just uncanny, he was an acrobat.
Now you are touring again with the Rutles. How did that come about?
Innes: Last year in August, Bill Heckle at the Beatles week in Liverpool, asked me on the phone if there was any chance in getting the Rutles back together again. Once we got it organized it seemed silly to do it for just one gig. It was like Fatso days really, we hired a van and got in it and went in and did these gigs. And it was great! Everyone’s singing along. And we thought that we should do more of it while we still can.
What was nice about the Rutles is that everybody got the joke. It was like: ”Let’s play fans!” Because we were playing: ”Let’s be a super group!” It was like children playing their games in the sand pit – and everybody wanted to play. I think it’s lovely and it’s still got that quality. People in England throw tea bags at us. At the same time, the songs do stand up in their own right and people like to sing them, and as a song writer I couldn’t be happier because the best praise you can have is for people to sing your songs!
I suppose you will not be appearing at the Monty Python reunion in July?
Innes: No. It is an open secret that Eric Idle and I have drifted into mutual irritation. He is in charge of the show, and he’s got choreographers and dancers, it’ll be more like a Las Vegas show as far as I can see. There is no need for an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano.