Neil Innes

“The Seventh Python” on Sartre, poo-flinging, and why he’d rather be a Rutle than a Beatle

As The Beatles had their fifth, the members of Monty Python had their seventh, Neil Innes, who composed much of the original music for their TV show and subsequent movies, and played the onscreen role of Sir Robin’s overly specific minstrel. But while “The Seventh Python” may be the tidiest way to sum up Innes’ career (as well as the title of a 2008 documentary about him), it elides far too many of his achievements.

In the Bonzo Dog Band, he joined forces with the eccentric Vivian Stanshall, mixing Dadaist humor with surreal curiosities culled from dusty record bins. Their single “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” produced by Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon under the collective pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth, became an unlikely hit.

However, Innes’ crowning glory has to be The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, the sly Beatles parody in which he plays John Lennon avatar Ron Nasty. Innes’ songs evoke The Beatles’ catalogue without copying it, dancing the line between homage and inspiration.

Innes, who plays Martyrs' May 21, took some time to talk to The A.V. Club about Jean-Paul Sartre, monkeys flinging poo, and why he’d rather be a Rutle than a Beatle.

The AV Club: In The Seventh Python, the filmmakers show your picture to random passers-by, and they fail to recognize you. Is that a bittersweet sequence for you?

Neil Innes: Well, no. I mean, I deliberately keep a low profile. I don’t want to be halftime at the Super Bowl. When they came to England, they started doing that around Windsor—I thought it was just hysterical. Especially when someone thought it was that poor Russian guy who had just been poisoned. You know, “It’s not the man who got poisoned, is it?”

AVC: Right. Litvinenko.

NI: So I said, “You have to do more. You should talk to people on Hollywood Boulevard.” And they did. One of my favorite bits in the film is, “You’re making a documentary about a guy no one’s heard of?” Because it fits in with my scheme of things. I think everybody should be heard of. We’re all individuals; out with this cult of celebrity and nothing else.

AVC: A lot of your recent songs touch on the subject of celebrity and media. Why did you focus in on that theme?

NI: I think if you don’t say anything, nobody says anything. Over the years, I’ve picked up a couple of things, and one was a book called The Hundredth Monkey. One female monkey starts washing a potato in water, and soon a hundred monkeys did it, and then all monkeys did it. So if you say, “That’s too big to take on,” then no one takes it on.

But I detect an undercurrent of great unrest and dissatisfaction with what they’re saying in the media. Monkeys are flinging poo. It’s just a way of putting it; it isn’t insulting.

AVC: You’ve said that after not seeing much in the way of reality TV, you decided to throw yourself in the deep end and see what it was all about. True?

NI: Yes, I did, because I wasn’t watching it much, then suddenly I couldn’t believe it when Big Brother started. I thought, “Am I missing something?” I started watching all the other channels. I thought it was just people-farming going on there. I got interested in it. Antony Jay, who wrote [BBC political satire/sitcom] Yes Minister, his quote is that the media is biased against understanding.

AVC: Are you worried that a song like “Face Mail In The Meat Zone” might make you come off as a crank, or a Luddite?

NI: I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes these things just happen by chance. Somebody sent me a geek dictionary, and it’s got the words “face mail in the meat zone.” And then I’ve also heard of people my age on the net called Silver Surfers. So I thought, put that all together, and also put in my own frustration of what it’s like trying to get things done on the net.

Some people have comedy thrust upon them, and I think I’m one of them. I booked last night’s hotel, then I suddenly got a confirmation and the bill for $3,100. I thought, “This can’t be right; I’ve pressed the wrong month.” Well, I’d booked it for 31 nights. So I immediately rang them up and said, “I’ve done a terrible mistake here, and I’m a silly old fart from England.” “Oh, don’t worry, don’t worry, you’re all good now.” Well, when we got there, there was no reservation, because he’d made the mistake of putting us down for 2010. I said, “We need bigger calendars.”

AVC: The Bonzo Dog Band dealt lightly in satire, but songs like “The Intro And The Outro” have a more conceptual bent. They seem calculated more to amuse and puzzle than to make you laugh out loud.

NI: I like to be in an area where it’s making you think about something. God knows how you do it, other than you don’t leave it until it’s doing it. In a way, it’s a bit like cooking or something.

I like that kind of frisson, if you like—the serio-comic. It’s in the tradition of clowning, British music hall, things like that. Comedy is a good weapon for getting across an understanding of a situation. You don’t laugh at something if you haven’t experienced it, do you? I don’t want to analyze comedy. You’re either right or wrong, like maths. It’s funny or it isn’t funny, and it probably is funny because you’ve experienced something and you make this kind of animal primate, “Ha ha ha!” non-word noise.

I’m afraid this is where I sound pompous and idiotic because you just try, really. As an art student, I used to be incensed about people saying, “What’s this painting about?” Just look at it! If it was supposed to be words, I’d have written something! That’s the beauty of doing music as well. Schopenhauer said art aspires to the condition of music. Because it’s purely abstract—it happens, then it’s gone. Unless you’ve got an iPod, and then you turn into a silhouette.

AVC: Speak a bit about “The Equestrian Statue.” It’s hard to know how to classify that.

NI: It’s a lovely thing: You put the Bonzo CD on your iTunes, which I’ve done recently because I thought I’d get it all together on my notebook, and it comes up as “Unclassified.” I’m rather pleased about it.

The story of “The Equestrian Statue” is when I was in the van with the Bonzos, I’d just been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and I was getting pretty steamed up about it. I thought it was drivel—a whole book about a guy wondering whether he existed more than a cast-iron lamp post.

I looked out the window as we were coming into Liverpool, and there was a big cast-bronze equestrian statue, and I suddenly thought, “Now I can understand.” This idea of people deserving this more than you, because it was somebody famous or something. Somebody cleans the pigeon shit off it. It’s a sort of a day-to-day, matter-of-fact thing, set against the grandeur of a pompous git with a helmet.

I remember at that time, the word “gay” simply meant cheerful, although there were other uses. [In “The Equestrian Statue,” the phrase “feel so gay” is repeated many, many times, including several times in a row as a sort of fade-out—ed.] I remember Viv [Stanshall] or Larry [Smith] saying, “Gay: That’s coming up as meaning homosexual,” or whatever.

I got a terrible intake of breath from a live radio audience once, because they asked me the same question about the song, and I’d said, “By the way, when I wrote it, ‘gay’ just meant cheerful, and not being vulgar and unfunny on television.” Because, you know, we have an awful lot of gay presenters on television who are just awful.

AVC: It’s characteristic of the Bonzos, and your songs in general, that you can start an anecdote with, “I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre in the van...”

NI: I’m afraid you can, because it’s true. The fact is, we were all art students and we all liked Duchamp and the Dadaists. In the ’60s, it was similar, in a way, because it was just after the second World War that that generation was coming up. If you read Max Ernst talking about Cologne in 1919—“Everything we’d believed in had been sort of shattered by the first World War, and then my stuff was to be screamed at.” It wanted people to scream, rather than understand. We sort of identified with that. We were free to be our own generation for once, and we’d seen that had gone on before.

There’s another song called “Ready-Mades” that Viv and I wrote. I’d seen a bit of graffiti on the Tube where somebody had drawn a penis on some girl’s lips, you know the way they do—with great wit. Why not have a song about that? Why can’t you have songs about all sorts of things?

AVC: As the compilation Songs The Bonzo Dog Band Taught Us points out, the band drew a lot of inspiration from obscure, novelty 78s. There’s a vein running through that sort of comedy that’s close to surrealism in spirit—the same for early film comedians like W.C. Fields or Charley Bowers.

NI: Oh golly, heavens yes. Paul Merton, who is a well-known British comedian and wit, is hugely interested in the silent movies. Down in Bristol, he put on Steamboat Bill, Jr.—a really good print—and then live music onstage. There were a thousand people laughing and clapping and cheering—marvelous. It’s a marvelous movie. He plays this really gauche student who comes back with a ukulele and horrible trousers and a sweater. His father’s absolutely pissed off with him because he’s a steamboat captain, and there’s this fop. It’s well worth revisiting.

Laurel and Hardy as well. It stands the test of time because it’s human, on a human scale. Any generation can identify with it. My grandchildren love Laurel and Hardy because I bought them the complete set.

Then there’s the series I worked on called The Raggy Dolls. I found you have to be more grown up when doing children’s television, talking about issues like friendship, loyalty—things which get swept away in sensational adult TV. You could almost say it’s inverted. So-called adult—and I don’t mean pornographic—older, grown-up television is more childish. Children take on more real issues, I think.

AVC: What happens when we get older?

NI: I don’t know. In my case, I seem to have reached a kind of graceful futility. All my life, I’ve thought you can do something about things by observing it. But it’s a note of some sort of poignancy that it’s 35 years since Network came out, where Peter Finch urged people to stick their heads out their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!” And it’s worse. Worse than it was then. I don’t know what to do. I don’t think you just shut up about it. You just keep saying, “This is drivel, and the media monkeys are flinging poo.”

AVC: Does that tie in with your disdain for celebrity? Is that a way of staying out of that machine?

NI: When you get to be my age and have a dead cat bounce of a career, then it doesn’t matter. You can say these things. It is for older people to say these things—say, “No, look, don’t swallow this. This has been going on since bloody Attila The Hun. It’s just not good enough!”

There’s the thing about world being two types of people—the chess players and the bingo players—and sometimes the chess players exploit the bingo players for the good of the economy. Just stop it. Have a bit of honesty in the system.

I have been keeping to myself, because I spent my entire professional life being burgled by a great, big, international music corporation. I’m not going to sign anything with anyone ever again. So I should be most well politic and completely betray the film by becoming a fame slut.

AVC: Will we see reissues of albums like Recycled Vinyl Blues?

NI: The EMI stuff is lost forever. That was signed away in perpetuity. The bulk of my catalogue since is all coming back to me. But also, I’m free to write more stuff. I did an album called Works In Progress, almost in secret. I didn’t put it in the shops, because it’s all copyright control. But I’ve got new songs on the way. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not a career; it’s because I want to do it.

I’m also working on a book, which I might end up calling A People’s Guide To World Domination. It would be a kind of surreal fantasy—half fact, half wishful thinking.

AVC: What about your TV series, Innes Book Of Records?

NI: We’ve tried. We’ve talked to the BBC. At one point I went in and said, “Any chance of me leasing it?” And they said, “Oh yeah, except that the people who had just leased The Goodies, they have first shout.” I didn’t hear anything for a while, and they changed the system; they didn’t actually do any leasing anymore, and you couldn’t get any sense out of anybody.

I forget who it was, but it was an American company [that] approached them and said, “We’d like to do Innes Book Of Records.” They said it was a £15,000 search fee to open the cupboard, and I said, “Get real.” How dare they—these programs are made by public subsidy. The BBC has no right to behave like an international corporation, because they are funded. They should be the beacon of all news gathering.

You might be interested in this book by a journalist called Nick Davies called Flat Earth News—it absolutely nails what’s going on. Basically, all the newspapers and all news channels have a skeleton staff: people putting out fires, no way of checking a story. So basically what you’re getting is PR and propaganda coming down the pipe, and no regulation on it. It’s become like the Tower Of Babel. There’s no appetite for truth or honesty. Is it any wonder that the banks go belly-up and people lose sight and think their money is real? Come on.

AVC: Has the durability of The Rutles surprised you? Did you expect it to last?

NI: No, no, no. I don’t think like that. [Laughs.] I thought Rutland Weekend Television was it. Then we went over to do Saturday Night Live, and I thought, “Well, that makes sense,” because someone is offering The Beatles $20 million [in 1976, to play a reunion concert at Shea Stadium], and Lorne Michaels, who’s in on the gag, is waving $3,000 in cash—which is the union rate for four musicians on television.

So we went and got the budget to make what is now the mockumentary All You Need Is Cash. Nobody planned anything, nobody submitted it as an idea, just shot from the hip and assembled. People got bits from here and there; George [Harrison] got us footage from Apple. That’s how it was done.

I remember sitting on a bearskin in Lorne’s office, and suddenly he looked at me and said, “Can you write 20 more Rutles songs by next Thursday?” When it went out on primetime on the networks—I think it’s to this day still the lowest-rated show. On the other hand, all these years later, who remembers the episode of Charlie’s Angels that it was up against?

AVC: The songs you wrote for The Rutles really hold up. They’re obvious Beatles pastiches, but not straight parody. They’re real songs in their own right.

NI: Obviously, the first thing was there had to be signposts: “Ouch!” as we called it, for “Help!” I knew I couldn’t listen to Beatles songs and then write Rutles songs, so I tried to remember where I was when I heard various Beatles songs and tried to put my life into it, and some of the things I’ve looked at. Their “Penny Lane” became my “Doubleback Alley,” and it’s full of Cardiff newsreel footage of the time and slum clearances and whatnot—a bit dark, like the opening of Yellow Submarine. I didn’t want to trivialize it; those guys wrote very good pop songs about real things and real feelings.

Then later we did Archaeology, which is arguably a better album; George was right behind me on that. People were twisting my arms to do more, because you’ve got [The Beatles’] Anthology coming out. His first words—I said, “George, what do you think about more Rutles?” and he said, “Which one of you is going to get shot?” I said, “Yeah, exactly. Where’s the fun in that?” But he said, “Do it. It’s all part of the soup.”

I took some songs down to him and I played “Questionnaire,” and he said, “Hang on—these are your songs.” They are, actually. “Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik” and “Joe Public” were written before putting it into ArchaeologyArchaeology is showing you that anybody who kind of copies the production technique, they can be Rutling. Rutling is a verb.

AVC: When The Rutles first came out, there was no Internet and no Wikipedia, so a lot of the jokes were obscure to Americans, who wouldn’t know any Rutland but the one in Vermont.

NI:  I actually met somebody once who told me, “I saw The Rutles before I heard of The Beatles. Thank you for screwing me up!” It took him ages to figure out what was fact and what was fantasy.

AVC: George is in The Rutles film, and was on board from the beginning, but were you apprehensive about what the other Beatles might think of it?

NI: George was up for it. Paul [McCartney] was always a worry. Certainly not on the music side; he knows the music side’s solid. When he saw Eric [Idle]’s take on him, he didn’t like that too much. But George wanted it to happen. Of all The Beatles, he wanted to put the suit in the cupboard and move on.

John was very funny. He was in touch through the mail about it. He was the one who suggested we take “Get Up And Go” off the album because [the copyright lawyers] might come looking at us for it; it was very similar [to The Beatles’ 1969 single “Get Back”], that one. Ringo—it was fine!

At the end of the day, they were just four guys in a van like everybody else, just very good at it. Who needs the level of fame that they attracted? No one needs that. It will drive you crazy. It’s true. It was a lot more fun being a Rutle than a Beatle. It really is. It really, really is.

AVC: Do you look back on the Archaeology experience positively, all told? There was some strife between you and Eric Idle at the time, and he said some rather nasty things in the press.

NI: There were things like that. But now he’s come through and loves the album. It might still happen that there will be a Rutlemania show somewhere. But the people, the suits in the music business, are beyond belief. They beggar description. Just don’t go there. It’s crazy. There are 14 songs out there that are Innes/Lennon/McCartney, and I’m not allowed to be credited with writing them; they have to be credited as Lennon/McCartney. And everybody knows they didn’t write them. This is denial on an international corporate scale; you couldn’t invent it.

This is where satirists have such a hard time—the world is getting more surreal by the minute, and it’s doing its own gags.

AVC: Which songs are the problems?

NI: Just the ones on the first vinyl album. They had them send the musicologists after me, saying that “Hold My Hand” is like “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” seven other Beatle titles, and “Twist And Shout”—which they didn’t write. [Laughs.]

AVC: You might not have the music business to kick around much longer. Reissuing The Beatles catalogue seemed like their last major nest egg.

NI: Who wants little wax things any more? It is a shame, because at one point, the big double gatefold album was a work of art. It almost just went to CDs, but now it’s just little yes-and-no bits flying around the ether.

AVC: Do you think that devalues the music?

NI: I think whenever there is so much music you almost go, “Oh, what’s that noise? It’s silence.” Then it’s gone too far. I can remember being a child and hearing my first brass band come marching down the street, and every fiber of you is alive. After you’ve been in elevators and music is just piping at you all the time in supermarkets, it’s grating.

AVC: In Joe Boyd’s book, White Bicycles, he inveighs against having piped-in music at live concerts—the point being you don’t have any time for the performance to sink in before the house music starts up again.

NI: The bean counters get in there and they read something about supermarkets and they put music in there, so they can have music coming all the time. The world is run by people who have lost their minds—if they had minds in the first place.

AVC: So what’s the defense against that?

NI: Be an individual. Join Ego Warriors. Be master of your own universe. Be kind to others; you respect yours and you respect them and leave the bathroom as you wish to find it. No more crowds, no more people-farming; blow the whistle on all that. They’ll never give you a better chance—all the MPs in Britain have been shown to be bent; I gather there’s just as much nonsense going over here with your misuse of pension funds and social security. I’ve often wondered why it was that politicians go into it. Clearly, it’s because they’re people with so little talent they only want to be noticed and get their noses in the trough. It’s not rocket science.

Honestly, I think one of the best bits of human story is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” They’re the first ones to tell us how important they are, how much they know best. They clearly don’t. They’re shitheads in high places. “For God’s sake, go!” as Oliver Cromwell told the Rump Parliament.