If I had been born in Manchester or London, I would, no doubt have a stock of anecdotes about sitting next to Joe Strummer on the bus or being at school with Peter Hook or delivering mail to Ian Dury or whatever. Living my formative years in Norwich I was denied these casual brushes with fame. The most exciting it got was when a school friend had a text book which had been once used by Neil Innes. We knew this for a fact because school rules stated that you had to add your name to a list pasted in the front of the book in case you lost it. As Innes had been at Thorpe Grammar School well over 10 years previously this was a very old and dog-eared book with a long list of previous owners, but it was highly coveted by the small group of us who cared about such things.
Innes loomed unnaturally high in my adolescent life because he was a moderate sized fish in a very small pond (a puddle really). Innes was born in Essex but his career really began in London, the Norwich years were a really small part of his career. By the late 70’s he had lived the exciting part of his professional life. As part of the Bonzo Dog (doo dah) band he had been in the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film and subsequently had ‘Urban Spaceman’ (which he wrote) produced to hit level by Paul McCartney. Viv Stanshall was the creative genius of the group who otherwise were a bunch of jazz eccentrics along with Innes who was the real musical force in the group. Initially on piano Innes played more and more guitar as the group became more rock orientated. A disciplined songwriter he was responsible for the musical substance of the band which otherwise would have collapsed under the weight of surreal lyrics and bass saxophone solos.
Post Bonzo’s he fell in with the Monty Python Team, providing music as needed and a little bit of acting. Post Pythons there was the inspired Rutland Weekend Television with Eric Idle which led to his most creative venture in creating the Rutles. The ‘pre-fab four’ were, of course a parody of the Beatles. Innes wrote all the songs which although parodies (most of the royalties went to the Beatles in the end) stand up as the best Beatles record you never owned and certainly a lot better than anything Oasis ever recorded. Ironically Noel Gallagher had to part which his own royalties as one of his band’s hits copied one of Innes’s songs rather too closely, there’s some sort of karma at work there.
From the 80’s onwards Innes had the sort of career that intelligent ex pop stars are lucky to sustain, bits of radio and TV work, adding musical bits to comedy and low-keyreformations of the Bonzos and the Rutles.
His Bonzo band mate Rodney Slater remembered him as a ‘stick insect’ prematurely balding and with a black cloud of depression hanging over him. Innes had got married as the band had hit the endless touring circuit, he wasn’t happy with life on the road. 20 years later Slater remarked on how he had gained about 7 stone shaved his head and was a happy family man an ’enormous fellow obviously enjoying life’.
Neil Innes died unexpectedly in the period we are learning to call ‘Twixmas’ . On one level it’s sad to start a new decade with another obituary and he’ll be greatly missed by family and his many friends but it’s also a celebration. Innes achieve the almost impossible accomplishments of a happy life and a swift death.
And that’s as good as it gets.