Neil Innes: ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’

 Neil Innes’ 1973 solo debut is a treasure trove of melody, comedy and pathos.

“Receiving this collection of songs at this time and revelling in Innes’s songwriting and voice, makes his absence hit home even more than it already has done… Now we’ve got his records and his creative legacy to listen to and look back over.”

When Neil Innes died unexpectedly in December 2019 the world lost more than just a singer and songwriter. Innes was an important nexus point between several of the most popular cultural phenomena of the twentieth century, chief amongst them being The Beatles and Monty Python. A de facto member of the latter – the ‘Seventh Python’ – and an admirer, friend and participant in the world of the former, Innes has often been thought of as a cult figure, tied up in the worlds and stories of others. But he was always much more than that and his work as an individual, away from his megastar friends and the legacy of the marvellous Bonzo Dog Band, is a treasure trove of melody, comedy and pathos.

Neil, of course, never turned his back on any aspects of his career. The Rutles continued to tour, the Bonzos reformed several times (and will be appearing again this year in their first Innes-less line-up since their very earliest days) and Neil was always happy to share his tales of his relationship with bands like The Beatles and his treasured his friendship with George Harrison. He was also aware of his legacy and relationship with his fans – signing autographs and chatting after gigs (I treasure the memory of his unnecessary apology to me after the Bonzo’s reunion show in Liverpool – “I’m sorry the Electric Leg didn’t work”) and his involvement in other projects such as Mike Livesley’s phenomenal recreation of Viv Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End.

Image: Grapefruit/Cherry Red Records.

The worlds of music and comedy might have been full of people who loved and admired Neil, but he had no particular warmth towards the mechanisms of record companies or of stardom in general and it almost seems that, in order to punish him for his lack of desire to be famous, the behemoth industries of film, television and music aimed to make his life as difficult as possible. Over the years he was beset by copyright issues over the attribution of The Rutles’ music, subject to the BBC keeping his wonderful Innes Book Of Records series in the vault, the ‘trademark theft’ of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band name (the group won the name back and, as of time of writing, have just fended off the writs issued against them and their ‘Doo/Dah’ has been legally restored) and most recently he was hit by the awful scandal of the crowdfunding campaign for his new album being scuppered when Pledge Music went into administration, leaving Innes without £23000 of money collected from contributors. It’s no wonder perhaps, that over the years much of Neil’s music has dealt with the various absurdities of life – the songs sometimes angry, sometimes wistful, sometimes silly but always heartfelt and revealing a command of melody and lyrics that proves that he was always so far, far beyond being just a ‘comedy musician’.

Before his death, Innes was working with Cherry Red records on the re-release of his first solo album, 1973’s How Sweet To Be An Idiot. For this re-issue Cherry Red are accompanying the original eleven tracks with an additional ten tunes from his United Artists Records output, essentially boxing together all his solo material from the period 1972 to 1975, including the songs Slush and Music From Rawlinson’s End which will be familiar to Bonzo Dog fans as tracks from the 1971 ‘reunion’ album Let’s Make Up And Be Friendly, but which were issued as a solo Innes single. For the purposes of recording Neil sat in the producer’s chair himself and brought his musical collaborators from the art/comedy/pop project GRiMMS with him, supplemented by soon-to-be-Rutle-on-Record, lead guitarist Ollie Halsall whose contribution to these recordings is probably the stand-out musical feature on the album.

Neil Innes, Victoria Palace, London, 1975. (Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

Style-wise the album is not a Bonzo-esque comic bonanza, but instead is grounded on ‘Side A’ with groovy Rock and Boogie numbers whilst the second half of the album is a more thoughtful and mellow affair and also features the only real comic number on the record in the cod-french language number L’Amour Perdu (“et tout le monde et Tuesday too”). The title track, Neil’s anthem How Sweet To Be An Idiot, is presented twice on the re-issue, once in the original piano and voice only album version which will be most familiar to fans, but also in the rarely heard orchestrated single version.

This rarity was released before the album, backed with the spoken word country song The Age Of Desperation. It failed to make a dent in any charts and this might be due in some part to the rather overwhelming orchestration. The arrangement was by Richard Hewson, who had been drafted by Phil Spector to complete the score for The Beatles’ songs I Me Mine and The Long and Winding Road. This version of Idiot is almost a minute longer than the piano version and sadly, the song’s charm and wistfulness doesn’t translate well against the production – it’s interesting that it’s the only song on this new collection that wasn’t produced by Innes himself.

If one of the stand-out musical features of the album is Halsall’s frenetic, virtuosic guitar and organ playing, particularly on the first few boogie numbers, then the other is Neil’s voice. Never a throat-shredding rock singer, nor a crooner, Innes was always capable of putting-on-the-style for his parody numbers, but on this album we hear his true personal voice on the songs – a charming pop rock vocal style that serves the lyrics perfectly, stretching for high-notes with great control. Of all of Neil’s solo output, his voice is probably never better than it is on this collection.

Image: Grapefruit/Cherry Red Records.

The additional tracks packaged with the album take a more comic turn, with the most ‘novelty’ of the lot coming in the form of What Noise Annoys A Noisy Oyster  – a silly, sound-effect laden singalong that in another reality we are nostalgic/sick of, because it would’ve made a great holiday camp kids’ disco staple. Its flipside, Oo-Chuck-A-Mao-Mao and the song Bandwagon both speak to Neil’s bafflement at music industry trends and the rise of glam-rock whilst Lie Down And Be Counted and Re-cycled Vinyl Blues both take lyrical turns towards environmental matters.

Re-cycled Vinyl Blues itself is a curious beast. A copyright-claim-bating quasi-Python sketch, with Palin reprising his cheese-shop salesman character for a couple of lines at the beginning of the piece, the song was inspired by an industry-wide cost-cutting measure of reusing old vinyl for new releases. Innes cunningly weaves in snippets of popular tunes throughout which results in an attribution credit that takes up most of the space on the label. The longest of the bonus tracks is the ludicrously euphemistic Fluff On The Needle in which Innes, as well as Rutle-pals Halsey and Halsall, turn their hands to an early Mothers Of Invention style tune. The track would not have been out of place on Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money or Absolutely Free.

Receiving this collection of songs at this time and revelling in Innes’s songwriting and voice, makes his absence hit home even more than it already has done. On social media Neil had been a vocal critic of Brexit and its inherent absurdities, but he was never cruel and with the current lockdown and the stresses and strains it’s placed on so many people it would have been wonderful to have his thoughts and his silliness around to help keep us human. Now we’ve got his records and his creative legacy to listen to and look back over and if you haven’t invested in anything yet, then this How Sweet To Be An Idiot re-issue would be an excellent place to start. Remember, when things are getting tough, try and follow Neil’s advice, “Lie down and be counted – what are we standing for?”

Stop (Trouser) Press:

As this review of the reissue of Neil Innes’s first album, How Sweet To Be An Idiot, was being written, the members of the Bonzo Dog Band were waiting for the judgement on the final stage of a series of court cases relating to the reclamation of their original name, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

In 2015, Anglo Atlantic Media Ltd trademarked the name, using a loophole of intellectual property law, which allows anyone to register themselves as the owner of a band name by simply paying a nominal fee of £200. The Bonzos found themselves, over the past couple of years, on the long road to the courts in an attempt to win back their name and, in November 2019, it was announced that they had won their case and were now able to use the ‘Doo-Dah’ again. However, writs were then issued against the members of the band and the witnesses in the case by Robert Carruthers, director of Anglo Atlantic Media, requiring the group to return to court. The result of the final hearing was announced by the band on 9th April, with the writs against the group being dismissed by the judge and costs awarded.

During the period of the legal action, the Bonzo Dog family sadly lost both Neil Innes and Martin Ash, better known as Sam Spoons. There will be a ‘Final Farewell’ show by the band at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on the 18th of December and the band have just announced plans for a full retrospective box-set of albums, live recordings, unseen footage and the albums issued in both stereo and mono, due for release sometime in 2021.

Neil Innes: ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’ Expanded Edition Released April 24, 2020, via Grapefruit/Cherry Red Records. £10.95. Click here to pre-order directly from Cherry Red Records.

Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

CLICK HERE for more information about the GoFundMe page for the money that Neil Innes lost to Pledge Music.



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