Full Circle

Neil Innes: Oh, Hello!

Neil Innes.


Innes’ solo album, 1973, called How Sweet to Be an Idiot.


The Rutles in their early phase.


The Rutles in their “Sgt. Pepper” phase.

Sitting in a Clairemont hotel’s outdoor patio, it’s quickly evident that there are few pleasures in the world as great as humor. In the company of musician, writer, actor and comedian Neil Innes and his tour manager Gus Douglas. The witty remarks, jokes, and drinks are flying, with two other friends also joining in the conversation.

It’s been roughly nine years since Innes, who has worked with the likes of Monty Python and who is perhaps best known as Ron Nasty of Beatles parody group, the Rutles, performed in San Diego, making an appearance at AMSD Concerts in Normal Heights on May 1, 2010. This time out Innes and Douglas are in town for several days to discuss details of a potential tour with a promoter and to check out local audio and video facilities. While details are still being worked on, a full Rutles tour has been given consideration. “We’d love to do it,” Innes said. “It’s not a career move, but on the other hand we don’t want to lose money.” “Touring brings you joy,” someone says. Innes agrees, however adds, “We’re not rich enough to do it just for the joy,” he notes to uproarious laughter.

Having spent time recording various in-studio interviews the day before (including for the San Diego Union Tribune, RG Magazine, and the San Diego Troubadour) as well as dealing with business on this particular day, it’s now time for catching the sunset, some reflection, the going over of ideas, and talk on all manner of subjects, but especially the music biz. One thing is clear right away: it’s impossible not to have a good time in the presence of these two gentlemen. Both are fine storytellers, but Innes is the reason we’re here.

If you are a fan of music or comedy, you are likely familiar with his work. Innes has had an epic career, with chapters yet to be written. Among other things, the 1960s saw Innes performing with surreal musical humorists, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, perhaps best known for their appearance in the Beatles film, Magical Mystery Tour, where they performed a song called “Death Cab for Cutie.”

A recent DVD Bootleg, The Beatles—The Ultimate Mystery Trip Volume 3: The Best of the Rest (His Master’s Choice), features numerous outtakes from the day’s shoot, which took place in a London strip club. Innes is intrigued. “I know we did a hell of a lot that day; we had these transparent masks for doing the backing scenes—hot and sweaty—but you hardly saw them in the film. So the outtakes must be there,” he remarked. Informed said unedited outtakes are now part of a readily available collection, Innes quips, “I’m working on a song called, “The Last to Know.”

The 1970s found Innes collaborating with legendary comedy troupe, Monty Python, with a particularly memorable scene as a minstrel, singing “Brave Sir Robin” to great comedic effect in the classic movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The halfway mark of the decade brought the creation of the Rutles. The parody of the Fab Four started on the BBC as a sketch in 1975, but it was a 1977 Saturday Night Live appearance and resultant 1978 film All You Need Is Cash that cemented their place in music fans’ hearts. Though the film is very tongue-in-cheek, the music stands on its own, with songs such as “I Must Be in Love” and “Between Us,” well on their way to becoming standards.

According to Innes, the Rutles soundtrack album took ten days to lay down, “starting with mixing, with all the overdubs and everything. It’s like in the script. The second one took even longer. [laughs] Everybody knew what to do and it was a joy to work on.” For inspiration on the Rutles’ songs themselves, rather than listen to Beatles songs, he opted to recall moments from his youth for just the right sentiment. “I remembered where I was with different Beatles songs when I heard them, when they meant something,” Innes said. “So it was art school, it reminded me of being a co-ed, going out with girls for the first time, and they were the hardest songs to write, like “Hold My Hand.” He notes it was difficult to put himself back in a young man’s mind set. “The peccadilloes and the pain and all that,” he mused. Songwriting was much easier when it came to the “later” Rutles tunes. “The psychedelic material was a feast,” he said. “The sillier you got, the more realistic it seemed,” he joked.

Meanwhile the 1980s and beyond have found Innes releasing numerous solo albums as well as working on children’s entertainment, both on the musical side, such as on the program Tumbledown Farm, and also doing voiceovers and writing, as on cartoon series, The Raggy Dolls. All of this just touches on his amazing life in music, which most recently saw the release of his latest album, Nearly Really.

The title didn’t come easy. “I didn’t know what to call it,” Innes said. “It’s a bit like George [Harrison] saying, ‘I’m not interested whether it’s a D19th or whatever chord it is; I don’t care what it’s called; you can call it Arthur so long as it sounds good.’ I’m the same way with album titles.” There was another possible choice. “I was toying with the word ‘Singularity,’ because it has three meanings,” he said. “ 1) the state of being singular, 2) it is the theoretical center of a black hole, and 3) it’s also the doomsday scenario of artificial intelligence. But what that has to do with the album, I don’t know, so that’s why I ended up calling it Nearly Really,” he joked.

The proposed tour would include a screening of All You Need Is Cash, followed by a set from the modern-day Rutles, which also still features drummer John Halsey (Barry Wom). “At our level we can’t do screens and so on, so we do very silly things and there’s lots of props, but they’re on strings. [laughs]” On the rare occasions that the Rutles have performed in England, fans from all over the world, but especially the U.S., have flown in to see the shows. “We figured it would be cheaper for our American fans to see us in their own hometowns or the vicinity.” he pauses. “That’s really why we’re doing this tour—the kindness of our hearts,” Innes joked, though there is some truth in that.

The use of the film as an opening act will serve the purpose of introducing the band to anyone unfamiliar with the Pre-Fab Four’s story, freeing the band to make new magic onstage. “I’m determined not to try and recreate the film, dress up, and things like that, because that was then and I did that job,” Innes said.

“In any place, we can’t turn the clock back and be 20 something again. Where we are now, the best way of thinking about it, the way I look at it now is that the word, Rutle, which I never liked, as you know, is a verb. To Rutle: “To copy or emulate someone you admire “especially in the music business.” [Understanding that,] you get a handle on what the music business really is. And it’s Rutling. Mozart rutled the guy who played the harpsichord first,” Innes joked. “He thought, ‘I’m having some of that. [laughs] The Beatles rutled Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry and all the rest of it. Everybody is impressed by something, to be a musician. This is human. If you broaden it outside of music, rutling is also going on between children and their parents. Copying is aping and we are, lets face it, apes, and we’re good at copying. So I’d like to spread the word that Rutling is a verb and because of that the Rutles are the biggest band in the world,” Innes joked.

The current Rutles came about for the best of reasons. “Only 20 years after the release of the album, we started thinking that these songs are good fun to play and it would be fun to play them out. Since that time it’s become this kind of family evening where people come along and join in and it’s fun. It’s something to laugh about, and it’s something to think about, because some of the songs are more “think about” ones,” Innes said. “As well, we do pay tribute to George as the fifth Rutle. Or sixth Rutle,” he said good naturedly.

Innes sheds a little light on a famous anecdote in which George Harrison riffed on the Rutles “Ouch,” to Innes and Eric Idle. “Eric and I were staying with George, and Ringo was down there as well as Danny Fairington, who makes ukuleles and made lots of ukuleles for George. George always had a camera and on this occasion he gave Danny the camera and we lined up to sort of pose.” They soon did a “kick routine.” “George picked up the guitar and hit one chord and went “ouch,” and then we’re all going, “ouch.” It was really quite funny. George is a Rutle,” Innes said.

The night winds up, though truth be told, the conversation could’ve gone on for some time. Innes finishes the interview with words that will always ring true. “Everyone should be nice to each other and leave the bathroom as you wish to find it,” he said
Heading out, I ask Innes that with such a varied list of songs in his repertoire, does one stand out to him? “It’s a new one on the new album,” Innes said. “Which came, as some of them do, just falling on your lap. I was just doodling on the piano, it’s only two minutes.” Innes proceeds to sing an a capella version of “Just Sitting Here,” a poignant ballad, a wonderful moment. “It’s not like anything else I’ve written. But it’s a recognition that if you’ve gone up to the middle and are now coming down the other side of the hill, you suddenly see the dark forest in which you have to go. It’s your path. You just have to face up to these things,” he said.

Pausing to reflect on his career Innes finds it hard to pick a favorite thing about music. “I don’t know, it just keeps on giving,” he said with a quiet laugh. He demonstrates. “I borrowed a guitar of Michael [Twombly’s] last night and sat down with it, and my hand went “oh, hello!” (laughs), then the guitar went “hello!” and we had a good little time. [laughs] And it’s new again,” Innes smiled.

For further information on Iness’ rich and varied music history, go to www.neilinnes.media.

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