Monty Python, Rutles Songwriter Neil Innes Dead at 75
Innes’ family confirmed his death in a statement, saying, “We have lost a beautiful, kind, gentle soul whose music and songs touched the heart of everyone and whose intellect and search for truth inspired us all. He died of natural causes quickly without warning and, I think, without pain. His wife Yvonne and their three sons, Miles, Luke and Barney, and three grandchildren, Max, Issy and Zac, give thanks for his life, for his music and for the joy he gave us all.”
Innes was known as the “seventh Python” for the work he did with the comedy troupe throughout the Seventies. He contributed to several of their albums and was one of just two nonmembers — along with Douglas Adams — to write for their acclaimed sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He also appeared in and wrote music for several Python movies, including “Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin” for 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Innes was born in Britain but grew up in Germany (his father was in the army), where he learned piano and later taught himself guitar. His musical career began in the early Sixties when some art school friends asked him to join their group the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, later shortened to the Bonzo Dog Band. While the group started out as a jazz act, they later embraced rock & roll, though never dropped their comedic and anarchic approach to music.
Toward the end of the decade, the Bonzo Dog Band caught the attention of the Beatles, who asked the group to perform their song “Death Cab for Cutie” in the Magical Mystery Tour film (the song would later inspire the Ben Gibbard group of the same name). The following year, the Bonzo Dog Band notched a Top Five hit in the U.K. with the Innes-penned “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” which Paul McCartney co-produced under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth.
The Bonzo Dog Band would release five albums during their initial run, the last, Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly, arriving in 1972 (in 2007, they released a reunion album, Pour l’Amour des Chiens). Around the same time, Innes began working with another musical comedy group, Grimms, while he also linked up with Monty Python. Innes toured regularly with the troupe, began contributing to their albums, starting with 1972’s Monty Python’s Previous Record, and was soon writing for Flying Circus and appearing in their movies, Holy Grail and Life of Brian. One of his most famous contributions to the group was the Bob Dylan parody “Protest Song,” which he introduced with the quip, “I’ve suffered for my music and now it’s your turn.”
In a 2010 interview with Pop Matters, Innes recalled his time with Monty Python, touching on his role in the group and how constant tension among the members allowed it to thrive. “I was sitting on a train being quite shocked as they were verbally lashing at one another. John [Cleese] saw my furrowed brow and came to my rescue. He said, ‘Neil, don’t worry. This is what we wall stick.’ And that was the game. I realized they were a similar outfit to the Bonzos; everybody knew the sum of the total was greater than the individual. The chemistry was such that it was pushing and pulling it out of everyone’s control, but was somehow much better than any of us could do individually. I was kind of the agony aunt. Quite an important job, really.”
While Innes worked with Monty Python throughout the Seventies, in 1976, Eric Idle tapped him to work on his post-Flying Circus sketch show, Rutland Weekend Television, which is where the pair came up with the Beatles parody group the Rutles. The Rutles released a string of successful albums, while an appearance on Saturday Night Live led to the 1978 mockumentary All You Need Is Cash.
Earlier in the decade, Innes also launched a solo career with his 1973 album, How Sweet to Be an Idiot. He released a follow-up, Taking Off, in 1977, while in 1979 he released The Innes Book of Records to accompany a BBC TV show of the same name, which ran for three seasons. Innes continued to work on a variety of projects throughout the Eighties and Nineties, releasing scattered singles, composing music for television shows, reuniting with Monty Python on various occasions, and even releasing a new Rutles album, Archaeology, in 1996. In 1994, Innes even notched a writing credit on the Oasis single “Whatever” after he and the band settled a lawsuit over whether or not the song incorporated elements from “How Sweet to Be an Idiot.”
In 2008, Innes was the subject of a documentary, The Seventh Python, while in 2010, he formed a new group, the Idiot Bastard Band. Innes also continued to tour with the Rutles, and earlier this year launched a GoFundMe campaign for a new album, which he’d previously tried to fund via PledgeMusic. While the project had met its pledge goal there, all the contributions were “lost” when the company went bankrupt, leaving Innes and an array of other artists in the lurch. The album, Nearly Really, was finally released in September.