It’s always sad when one of my musical heroes goes to play the great gig in the sky, and it’s taken a few weeks of reflection to really understand and appreciate what Neil Innes means to me.
I first became aware of Innes via his involvement with Monty Python; he penned numerous tunes for the group and is one of only two non-Pythons to ever be credited as a writer on Flying Circus (the other was Douglas Adams). His musical ensemble, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, had a bit of a hit with ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’, the delightfully surreal ditty that was produced by Paul McCartney using a pseudonym. Continuing the Beatles connection, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band appeared in the film Magical Mystery Tour; when the Beatles get off the bus in the middle of nowhere, clamber into a big tent and watch a gig, the Bonzos were there performing the macabre but upbeat ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ (and yes that is also a band, and yes they did lift their name from this tune).
Innes became well-known from the 60s TV program Do Not Adjust Your Set, which also featured some of the Pythons, though I have only a passing familiarity with the show. His most notable work was probably The Rutles, a collaboration with Eric Idle, which was a mocumentary parody of the Beatles. The film features all original tunes (not ‘Weird Al’-style parodies) which were vaguely similar to particular songs or embodied different eras of the band’s existence. Innes later said that he didn’t go about trying to rewrite the songs so much as tried to remember how to play them, doing it badly, and coming up with something different instead. The film was ridiculous in the most lovely and endearing way, though it did land Innes and Idle into some legal hot water, with anyone who had anything to do with the Beatles trying to sue them for something.
It was around this time, the mid 80s, that Innes became a bit fed up with the overly litigious music industry and went for a change of career. “It wasn’t really a plan to work in children’s television,” he said, “I find myself in life leaning against doors, then some of them fly open and I find myself falling into whatever is inside.” It wasn’t until sometime after my Innes fandom began that it finally occurred to me that I’d actually been watching him since I was in nappies.
Innes was the Magician on the children’s TV show Puddle Lane. It was essentially a storytelling show with a framing device of a magician looking into a magic puddle to see these picture-based animated stories. The Magician had a few friends too, a dragon named Toby, to whom the Magician would tell his stories and essentially be a stand-in for the TV audience; and a cauldron named (very inventively) Cauldron, who served as the receptacle for the Magician’s magical concoctions. Innes would conjure the stories by dipping his finger in the magic puddle and swirling it around; typically the stories would be inspired by a newly acquired object, which the Magician had magically created by mixing a potion in the cauldron (named Cauldron) and chanting a mostly nonsensical parody of ‘double double toil and trouble’.
It wasn’t the only kids show he did. The other big one (and again, I didn’t even make the connection that it was the Puddle Lane guy until years later), was The Raggy Dolls. It was written, produced, narrated, and voiced by Innes, and the theme song he wrote for the show regularly gets stuck in my head to this very day. The show was about some dolls inhabiting the reject bin at a doll factory, who would go on random adventures while nobody was watching. Looking back, it was actually quite a lovely show; each of the dolls has something ‘wrong’ with them, but they each found their strengths, worked together, and their disabilities didn’t prevent them from living happy lives.
Later in my childhood, I developed my (thus far) life-long love for Monty Python when the ABC started showing reruns of Flying Circus in the 6:30 time slot—after the cartoons and before the news. It wasn’t long before I was calling everyone Bruce and continually making jokes about pining for the fjords. I wasn’t all too conscious of Innes’s contributions initially, though he did appear in some live performances and films; he composed all the original music for Holy Grail, with highlights such as ‘Brave Sir Robin’ and ‘Knights of the Round Table’. His songs can also be heard on albums like Monty Python’s Previous Record and Matching Tie and Handkerchief, as well as the filmed performance at the Hollywood Bowl, where he performed a few solo songs. He filled the arena with tunes like the somber and soulful ‘How Sweet to Be an Idiot’, which had the obvious function of giving the Pythons some time for costume changes etc, but was also just a fab addition the whole performance.
In terms of forming my conception of how comedy and music intersect, Innes has been fundamental. So much comedy music ends up being flash-in-the-pan, one-hit-wonder type stuff (anyone remember Chris Franklin? No? Don’t worry, it’s for the best…), but Innes has been able to craft a lasting groove into this difficult niche. Anyone in the English-speaking world who makes or simply enjoys musical humour owes a great deal to Innes, whose inventiveness, honesty, virtuosity, and wit have shaped the genre more than almost anyone else.
Thanks Neil. We’re so so fortunate to have had you.