without becoming a household name
But Neil Innes is far from a household name
By Mark Caro | Tribune reporter
June 21, 2009
Neil Innes was browsing the stacks at Vintage Vinyl in Evanston when
the clerk brought over copies of several albums by Innes' anarchic
'60s jazz/rock/comedy collective, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
The records were priced at $50 apiece, prompting the 64-year-old
British singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist to marvel, "Is that what
they are? Hmm. Well, good luck."
He thought about autographing them, then reconsidered: "It would
probably devalue it if I signed."
He inspected the back cover of "Gorilla," the Bonzos' 1967 debut
album, on which was listed a song called "Death Cab for Cutie." "That
came from an American crime magazine which I found in Deptford Street
Market [in London]," Innes recalled. "It was this lurid cover; it
said, 'Death Cab for Cutie.' "
Paul McCartney liked the song so much that he tapped the Bonzos to
perform it in the Beatles' rambling TV movie "Magical Mystery Tour."
A Seattle-area rock band subsequently took the song title as its own
name and became so popular that the phrase's origins have become all
So it goes for the multitalented, ever-clever Innes, who has been
making his mark for more than four decades without ever becoming a
"I'm never going to be halftime at the Super Bowl," he dryly acknowledged.
The Bonzos had one British hit, Innes' jokey-folky "I'm the Urban
Spaceman" (produced by McCartney under the name Apollo C. Vermouth),
and appeared regularly on the madcap British TV series "Do Not Adjust
Your Set," which featured future Monty Pythonites Eric Idle, Terry
Jones and Michael Palin. But the band never exceeded cult status,
particularly in the U.S.
Innes wound up providing musical contributions to "Monty Python's
Flying Circus" and the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"
(1975). He's the minstrel singing about Brave Sir Robin, and he's
also a peasant who gets crushed by a gigantic wooden rabbit. His
impact on the troupe was such that Terry Gilliam dubbed him "The
Seventh Python," also the name of Burt Kearns' documentary that
brought Innes to town earlier this month for a screening and
performance at the Wilmette Theatre.
Post-Python, Innes and Idle created the Rutles, a Beatles parody
group that debuted on the duo's British TV series "Rutland Weekend
Television" before starring in their own 1978 NBC television special
"All You Need Is Cash." It was the week's lowest-rated show among the
major networks yet provided the "mockumentary" template for "This Is
Spinal Tap" (1984) while sustaining a steady level of belovedness
among Beatles and Python fans.
Innes eventually spun off a second Rutles album without Idle in 1996
("Archaeology"), and a solo Idle cobbled together a rather lame
Rutles follow-up film in 2005 (the straight-to-DVD "Rutles 2: Can't
Buy Me Lunch"). When Innes performed a solo show in Los Angeles in
2003, "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening was among those who showed
up to pay their respects, and Kearns started work on "The Seventh Python."
Innes now has more paunch and less hair than when he played the John
Lennon doppelganger Ron Nasty, but he's in anything but a retiring
mood. His one-man show, which he performed at the Abbey Pub and again
in part at the Wilmette, is called "A People's Guide to World
Domination," a decades-spanning collection of his songs around which
he wraps his theme "that the individual is being wiped out by the
mass media." In typically cheeky fashion, the show climaxes with
Innes leading a mock march in which he swears in the audience as "Ego
Warriors," whose salute is the familiar thumb-to-the-nose gesture.
Innes is eager for 2010 to arrive because that's when his current
publishing deal expires, and he's so miffed at its terms that he's
waiting till then to release any new music.
"When we did the second Rutles album, I was naive enough to think if
I paid a lawyer, that that lawyer would represent my best interests,"
he said, bursting into laughter. "No! How stupid could you get?
"I am off the hook on Jan. 1 of next year, so I will be actually
doing more, being a bit more prolific. I'm just so fed up with being
burgled. At the age of 65, I shall be free, so I should become a
complete fame slut now."
By this point Innes was sitting outside with former Hudson Brother
(and "Seventh Python" co-producer and co-writer) Brett Hudson at Argo
Tea down the street from Vintage Vinyl. Neither of these two veterans
was pining for the good ol' days or lamenting the demise of a record
industry devoted to producing physical products.
"Quite frankly, I'm glad that part is gone," Innes said. "In many
ways, what's the difference for people like me and Brett? They took
all the money then."
The two of them laughed.
"I'm glad that the record business has changed and isn't what it
was," Hudson said. "Because now we have a chance to make some money."
"It's gone full circle back to Woody Guthrie," Innes said.
"You're absolutely right," Hudson said.
"And, hello, we can get on street corners and say what's what," Innes said.
"You're right," Hudson said. "Woody Guthrie. We can come back. It's true."
Innes laughed. "This era is our era."