I’ve been listening to the music of Neil Innes a lot this week as I’ve been writing and as always, enjoying his work immensely. It’s a feast. Truly he is one of the best pop songwriters we have, a chameleon of musical styles from the earliest stages of his career. Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, psychedelic rock, Beatles pastiches, even reggae, there’s nothing he can’t do. As Innes gets older, his genre hopping songwriting gets even better, something that can’t be said of all—or even many—of his Sixties contemporaries. Sadly, although he is undeniably a musician’s musician, Innes will probably never be recognized as such. Why? Because he’s funny, too.
Since I was a wee lad I’ve been been a fanatical fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the wonderfully zany group of Dada art school rejects featuring Innes and “ginger geezer” front man Vivian Stanshall. I discovered them listening to the Dr. Demento radio show when he played their cover of “Hunting Tigers Out in ‘Indiah’” (I heard Noel Coward and The Mothers of Invention for the first time during that same show, three life-long obsessions launched that fateful evening). I ran right out and spent my birthday money on The History of the Bonzos, a two LP set with a glossy booklet filled with insane photographs and a history of the group. I loved every single song on it. Still do.
The Bonzos were much beloved of all the really heavy rock groups of the Sixties and they opened for The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Kinks. Eric Clapton was a huge fan. Paul McCartney produced their only hit, “I’m The Urban Spaceman” (under the name “Apollo C. Vermouth”) and they made a guest appearance in the Beatles’ TV special Magical Mystery Tour as the band in the strip joint playing “Death Cab for Cutie” (and yes, this is where the band got their name). If you’ve never heard their seminal albums Gorilla, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, Tadpoles or Keynsham (my favorite) you really don’t know as much about Sixties music as you think you do, it’s just that simple.
It’s like never hearing Captain Beefheart or The Velvet Underground and thinking you’re all clever, a glaring and unforgivable cultural blind spot, sez me.
I’ve gone out of my way for three decades now hunting down Bonzo Dog Band related bootlegs, especially video. There wasn’t a lot of it about until a few years ago when the DVD of Do Not Adjust Your Set was released. DNAYS was a hip Sixties tea-time kids show, beloved of children and parents (think Pee-wee’s Playhouse from an earlier era). It starred pre-Python Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (Terry Gilliam did animations for the show). The Bonzos were the primarly musical performers and members of the group appeared as extras in the comedy sketches. DNAYS was thought lost for many years when the ones that were released on DVD were re-discovered. Now there is a terrific amount of “new” Bonzo material for fans like me to feast on much that has been uploaded to YouTube.
After the breakup of the Bonzos, Neil Innes continued his association with his former DNAYS co-stars by appearing and writing material for the final 1974 series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the series after John Cleese left (only Innes and Douglas Adams were ever given writing credits outside of the six Pythons during the show’s history). Innes appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the annoying minstrel and singing his memorable Dylan parody, “Protest Song” (“I’ve suffered for my music and now it’s your turn…”) in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Post-Python, Innes and Eric Idle created the wonderful Rutland Weekend Television series (think Brit version of SCTV) and Innes went on—solo, I think he and Idle had a falling out—to The Innes Book of Records, a musically-oriented comedy series., quite ahead of its time.
And of course there were The Rutles in All You Need is Cash, Idle and Innes’ adroit parody of the Beatles. Innes went on to a number of children’s shows in the 1980s and 90s such as Puddle Lane. He tours solo and with others and has reformed The Bonzo Dog Band for a reunion concert (with luminaries like Britwits Stephen Fry and Paul Merton filling in for the late Vivian Stanshall). A film was made about Innes’ life and career (and featuring many of his famous friends) in 2008 called The Seventh Python, which has never been released on DVD.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
The Bonzo Dog Band: Rare and Complete version of ‘The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage’
Bonus Clip: George Harrison performing “The Pirate Song” on Rutland Weekend Television in 1975.