Al Sussman pays tribute in Beatlefan #242 to Neil Innes, creator of the brilliant Beatles musical parodies used by The Rutles in addition to playing the band’s Lennon figure, Ron Nasty. Innes was a member of the legendary Bonzo Dog Band (which appeared in “Magical Mystery Tour”) and also appeared with Monty Python over the years, including at the Concert for George.. Here, we offer excerpts from two interviews with Innes that were published in Beatlefan. First up, Juan Agueras and Ricardo Gil spoke with him recently for an interview originally published in Beatlefan #145. …
Beatlefan: Do you remember the first time you met George Harrison?
Innes: We, Bonzo Dog Band, were at Abbey Road recording a thing called “My Brother Makes a Noises With The Talkies,” a very old 1920s thing, very early jazz thing. I came down the corridor, I saw some doors open. It was all before I met any of The Beatles. There they were wearing sunglasses, pointed shoes, and I said: “They record here too, don’t they?” A little later I went down to listen outside the studio to see what they were doing. It was “I Want to Tell You.” Some other day I was with George, on the piano outside the kitchen, and I said to George: “I’ve always loved that bit when the F goes over the E [in that song]. He picked up a guitar and he went with the intro — when was the last time he had played it? It was uncanny. I started playing the piano with him. Amazing musician, I couldn’t do that, he picked it up absolutely perfectly.
Beatlefan: Then came “Magical Mystery Tour”?
Innes: Most people liked the Bonzo Dog Band. We were making fun of it all, all the time, in the middle of the ’60s. And there we were, in “Magical Mystery Tour.” We met George then. We had a big party. We had a huge jam session with most of The Beach Boys. George was playing saxophone. We spent some 20 minutes doing a version of “Oh! Carol.” He simply found a couple of notes and made them work, no soloing. There were 20 people onstage! We all had a good time together. We were all of the same age, sort of middle 20s men, I guess the same sense of humor. We just kept in contact, really.
Beatlefan: Could we talk now about “Rutland Weekend Television”?
Innes: I made a television show with Eric Idle called “Rutland Weekend Television.” For the BBC2. Rutland is the smallest county area in England, and therefore it would have the smallest amount of money. So, these television shows had to be very cheap. The BBC liked this idea, not too much money. In 1974 I was playing with Monty Python. So, it was in ’75, possibly. We did two series of that. Basically, Eric Idle wrote the sketches and I wrote some songs. I also came up with visual ideas to go with the songs. And because everything on the show had to be cheap I thought it could be a good idea to do a parody of “A Hard Day’s Night.” It was black and white, it had these speeded up sections in which there were those very cheap jokes. And for that we needed some kind of songs. The actors had to dress up, and with some wigs on we could be The Beatles running around. So I wrote this very simple song — you know, it is like a list of “I feel good, I feel happy, I feel sad” — and I needed a middle eight. But it’s basically a list, a terribly lazy song. The middle bit is a little more interesting, musically speaking. So we did this and Eric said: “Oh, I like this idea because I’ve got another about a documentary filmmaker who is so boring that the camera runs away from him.” So we put the pieces together and we came up with the name of The Rutles, which comes from Rutland — it is terrible, I hate that name! I like words. This word should have two t’s … but never mind.
Beatlefan: How did the whole project evolve?
Innes: Then Eric went to New York to attend “Saturday Night Live” and he took me with him. We shot this clip of the song for “Rutland Weekend Television.” And the people liked it and they sent letters with Beatles albums in with Beatles names crossed out and Rutles written in. So we said: “Let’s do the whole story.” Then I did another song —- we got the money to do the film for American prime time television. They told me: “Can you write, by next Thursday, 20 more Rutles songs?” I said: “I don’t know.” Anyway, I tried it and that is how it came about, the story of The Beatles, with George Harrison supporting us. He thought it was time for a bit of a laugh. You know, somebody was offering The Beatles $20 million to get back together again. It was kind of “Let’s tell the story in a funny way.” Of course, everybody realized it was funny because we pretended that The Beatles didn’t exist, that The Rutles existed instead. It was such an obvious lie. These mad people, where are they from? So it was like a parallel universe. And there’s real Beatles footage, not of The Beatles themselves but of newsreels and the like, cut into the film. And our cameraman and the director were very clever when matching all these things. So lots of skillful people were involved, not only in the music, but also in the photography and in putting it all together. It was so close to the real Beatles story that nobody needed a script. George was giving us inside stories, Mick Jagger too, Paul Simon — so it was like a party for everybody. All these people were put together by George Harrison.
Beatlefan: Were George Harrison and Eric Idle friends?
Innes: I was obviously working with Eric, and he and George became friends. Both their marriages had gone at the same time, so they were “boys together on the town.” And in fact it was quite funny because George used to tease Eric by saying “My wife ran off with Eric Clapton, and not some actor from Hampstead.” George and Eric came down to see me in my van, when we were playing together. George actually did some things on Rutland Television, too.
Beatlefan: What was it like making “All You Need Is Cash”?
Innes: There was a lot of fun. It was very hard work because most of the time we were just making it up. And we had a rough idea of what we were going to do in that scene; then we sort of — for example, with Leggy [the manager of The Rutles] I said “no,” they said “yeah.” And of course, at the end it was perfect. I mean, it all was made up all the time. And when I was in the bath, with Chastity, and the water is turned on, and the camera is turned on, I said to myself: “What’s gonna happen?” I said to Eric: “What are you doing? Thank you, Eric.” [So I said] “We’re sitting here, getting wet … ” We talked about it, we were desperately thinking of something to say. And then I said that civilization is an effective sewage system and we hoped that by the use of plumbing we could demonstrate it to the rest of the world. You know, we made it up at the time. We had lots of things like that.
Beatlefan: Did you and George ever play together on a record?
Innes: I wanted George to play ukulele on [the Rutles sequel album] “Archaeology”, ’cause I had written a ukulele song, a bit of a tease for George. I showed him the lyrics and asked him: “What do you think of this song?” He immediately faxed something back saying: “Yeah, there shouldn’t be any problem putting a tune to that. But here’s one I wrote earlier.” And then sent me one of his. I used to tease him about “Something in the way she moves.” I said to him: “You’re so lazy. You couldn’t even think of a rhyme, and then you put a guitar — [Neil sings the guitar lick intro]. We used to have a lot of fun.
Beatlefan: We can’t forget the film “Life of Brian.” Tell us something about it.
Innes: George came in and saved Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” He raised the money because the Rank Organisation pulled out because they thought it was blasphemous, too risky. So the film was made six months later than it should have been and I had to make a television series of my own, so I hardly did anything in the film because I was working on something else. Even though I had big credit because I had already made the animated credits. I only did one morning filming. Anyway I had a very nice weekend in Tunisia just in the last week of filming. That is when The Rutles started, just by accident. We all thought at that time it was a good idea, just for having fun, really.
Beatlefan: But above all, you were close friends. What was the role of the garden in George’s life?
Innes: My wife is a very good garden designer. She’s won gold medals in the Chelsea Flower Show. And George has such a fantastic garden and we went down there and both of us were helping with the garden, especially with Olivia’s kitchen garden, for years. I don’t know as much about gardening as Yvonne does, obviously. George is a natural, brilliant garden designer. George’s garden is very difficult. It is huge. It was built by this Victorian millionaire called Sir Frank Crisp. There’s a Japanese garden in it, and then there’s a rockery — it’s just silly, something very difficult because if you want to buy some plants for it, you don’t need one tray, you need 20 trays. George spent hours trying to get the garden right, and he got it. The garden is fantastic. There were people taking care of the trees because there is so much stuff there. And there you have, in the fireplaces written “Sir Frankie Crisp,” and “Ring out the old, ring in the new; bring out the false, bring in the truth,” which he turned into a song. And all of the light switches, the brass, with little faces of monks, with the nose [as the switch]. I mean, that was there. George simply wanted to be safe.
Beatlefan: You witnessed his last days . . .
Innes: George and I were very close friends. When he knew he was sort of disappearing, he dropped an e-mail: “We’re fine,” telling us he was doing whatever. I was really so shocked. It was in August that some reporter wanted to interview me about George. They were looking I think for some kind of obituary. I had been writing this song called “Friends Till the End of the Line.” It was about three friends, about some other people. I had been away to finish the song. Then I came back to London and I saw the thing on the news: “Beatle George is dead.” I couldn’t believe it. I really thought he was getting better. Well, I don’t really like telling sort of private things to anyone [but] when George was in Switzerland, he had no hair, he had with him this little movie camera. He turned it around himself and he started to sing: “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” George was fantastic. A great person. The more you look into life, the more courage you need to sort of keep going. He had courage. He was spiritual, but he wasn’t mystical — because he has this wonderful sense of humor as well. He was a very very special human being. We all miss him. There’s lot of stuff he’s still giving us, things to listen to and remember, to keep it in our hearts. You know, I close my eyes and I still see him, looking gallant, grinning horribly right now as I am saying these words.
Beatlefan: Who were behind the [Concert for George] tribute to George Harrison?
Innes: Very much Olivia and Dhani were in control and they put Eric Clapton in charge. But the whole concept was of Olivia and Dhani. So they got the Ravi Shankar Orchestra, Anoushka — and they were all fantastic. The first half was absolutely fantastic. And I wanted to do that song, but nobody wanted to do any song apart from George’s ones. I ended up doing the thing with Monty Python, singing and then turning around with the bareback sighting. It was my idea to have a good laugh about that as well, because we decided to take our trousers off, and not many people can say to have done it at the Royal Albert Hall. I think it was a good moment. Then we had Tom Hanks, who was like a little school boy, he couldn’t wait to put his Canadian Mounted Police suit and come out and sing “I’m a Lumberjack.” So there was a lot of happiness and a lot of sorrow, and a lot of love that evening. And I thought Paul McCartney was great as well. Paul was there for George. He really went in and did it. Even though they finished with “Wah Wah,” which is not exactly an appropriate song — you know, George was fed with The Beatles songs [when he wrote that one].
Ken Sharp also talked with Innes. These excerpts are from an interview originally published in Beatlefan #55 and #56, December 1987 and February 1988 ….
Ken: How did the Bonzo Dog Band wind up in “Magical Mystery Tour”?
Neil: Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike, was in a group based in Liverpool called the Scaffold. And we’d actually bumped into each other at various venues and … thought it would be fun to work together some time … because we were both doing a similar thing — they were a little more literary, but just as absurd as we were. And because [The Beatles] were making “Magical Mystery Tour,” Mike said to Paul, “Why don’t you get the Bonzo Dog Band?” And Paul said, “Well, what do they do?” [And Mike said] “You ought to go and check them out.” And we were checked out. And the next thing we knew it was “Would you like to be in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’? Which was quite exciting, because we’d heard they were making it. And we thought, “Oh, yeah, why not?” And when we heard it was going to be the strip scene — which was part of their story, it wasn’t any of our doing — they said can you come up with a song? And we thought, what’s suitable? Oh, well, “Death Cab for Cutie,” that’ll do. And we did it. George said afterwards it ought to be a single. I said, “Oh, come off it. No one’s going to take this seriously at all.”
Ken: It’s ironic that you appeared in that and later you were involved with The Rutles. …
Neil: Well, yeah. The Beatles, after all, were our same age. And, to their great credit, didn’t really go insane, you know, with a lot of insanity around them. And to have a laugh and drink with, they were basically a rock ’n’ roll band.
Ken: And you also worked with Paul, who produced Â“I’m the Urban Spaceman” under a pseudonym, Apollo C. Vermouth.
Neil: Yeah, we weren’t going to have any of this kind of cheap success by dropping names in any way. It was so funny, actually, because when Paul turned up — he’d met [Bonzo member] Viv [Stanshall] in a nightclub and Viv was moaning about it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ll come and do it.” … Anyway, he turns up and … Paul is Mr. Magic. You know, going around being nice to everyone and putting everyone at their ease. And he sat down and started playing the piano, [saying] “I’ve just written a song.” … That was the first time, I think, anyone heard “Hey Jude.” He hadn’t even recorded it. … He was great. And he got the double-track drums and things like that. And played ukulele on it. And when Viv wanted to do that thing on the end with a garden hose and a plastic funnel, the engineer said it can’t be done and [Paul] said, “Oh, yes it can. Put a microphone in each corner.” And that’s what had to be done. And the guy who was producing us at the time, his wife was a very forceful woman, and she came up to [Paul] when he had the ukulele and said, “Well, what’s that? A poor man’s violin?” And he said, “No, it’s a rich man’s ukulele.”
Ken: How did The Rutles come about?
Neil: Well, “Rutland Weekend Television” [was an Eric Idle TV series for the BBC] and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it with him. … [Looking for something inexpensive to make, I thought] I’ll do a Beatles spoof called “I Must Be in Love.” And I got into it a bit, and that’s how The Rutles were born. Eric went to host “Saturday Night Live” and at that time somebody was trying to get The Beatles together again, offering $3 million and a killer whale, or something, and [“SNL” producer] Lorne Michaels came on and set it all up. He said. “Well, people have been saying $3 million and Eric said he could do it for $300 so reluctantly we gave him the money and he went back to England … and the upshot is, he hasn’t got The Beatles back together again, but he’s got The Rutles.” And it had a sufficient impact for them to think about doing the whole story. Lorne got NBC to actually put prime-time money into it. …
Ken: How did you come to write some of those songs? Were there certain Beatles songs you were listening to? Because you really captured all the songs … you really distilled it.
Neil: Well, all of a sudden there I was with people saying, “We’ve got the go-ahead, we need 14 Beatles songs.” And I thought, “Oh, great, oh God. If I go listening to Beatles songs, I’m going to be nowhere.” So from my own memory of being someplace else listening to this and that, I started to write songs based on different eras they went through. … The hardest ones I found to write were the teenaged ones, you know, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” kind of things. Then I had to really remember what it was like the first time I put my hand inside a girl’s bra. You know, it’s that sort of excitement. Adolescent love is terribly serious and it’s really difficult to write, married and two children. … So I wrote them all without listening to a damn thing. And then I think I had another good idea, which was to get the band together, the ones who were playing it, which was everybody except Eric, who doesn’t really play, and Ollie Halsall was the fifth Rutle, Leppo. … We went to a place in Hendon and rehearsed for two weeks. … And so we went into the real studio and made the recordings and only when we went into the studio did we listen to particular [Beatles] tracks, having laid down our tracks, to listen to the production. That’s when we had, “There’s bongos in there! I never knew they had bongos in there before. Better stick some bongos on,” and things like that. And then it still sounded too good with the modern equipment. We put it through two passes through a compressor to sort of ruin it a bit. And it took a fortnight to make the album. The only thing to come in under budget was the music.
Ken: What about [the Lennon parody] “Cheese and Onions”? You appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and did that song [before the Rutles film].
Neil: That track turned up on a [Beatles] bootleg album. … I was rang up by a reporter from the NME saying, “There’s a bootleg Beatle album and there’s one song on there that’s identical to a Rutles track!”
Ken: You mentioned Ollie Halsall. He plays on the record …
Neil: He sings, actually. Eric mimes to him.
Ken: “With a Girl Like You” is Ollie singing?
Ken: What other songs does he sing?
Neil: “Get Up and Go.” That’s it. But Rikki [Fataar, who played Stig, the George character] sings the ones he sings.
Ken: How did John Halsey [who played Barry Wom, the Ringo character] come into the picture?
Neil: John was sort of a mate of mine. … A very nice drummer and a real character. And he appeared in “Rutland Weekend Television” a few times doing other things as well. We worked together quite a lot.
Ken: You mentioned “Get Up and Go” [the film’s “Get Back” parody]. The re-creation [in the film] of the rooftop “Get Back” sequence from “Let It Be” is so incredible, down to the clothing and hairstyles.
Neil: I know. But the difficult thing was, why Ringo had on a red plastic mac and John was wearing a fur coat, it was a bloody cold day [when The Beatles filmed their rooftop concert]. The day we were filming it, it was scorching hot! It was most uncomfortable, with glued-on wigs and beards and things.
Ken: Besides George [who was a fan of The Rutles and appeared briefly in the film], what was the reaction of the other Beatles to The Rutles?
Neil: The official thing I heard was John was fascinated and kept watching it. Allen Klein actually owned up and said, “Yes, I do talk to myself in the mirror” [like the character Ron Decline in the film]. Ringo liked the happy bit and not the sad bit. It was too close. That was the big thing about The Rutles. The real story was too sad to tell. I feel very sorry for Neil Aspinall, who actually put together a very informed and balanced, well-made film of the whole period [“The Long and Winding Road”]. I don’t know whether it’s seen the light of day or not, but George had a copy and showed it to Eric and I. And after Leggy [Brian Epstein] dies, it’s miserable. You feel, what a downer. And so it was a way of telling the story without downing the audience, skipping over the sad bits. So I think Ringo was too much reminded of the real breakup. And Paul had an album out at the same time as The Rutles came out and was forever saying, “No comment” about The Rutles. He had dinner at some award thing at the same table as Eric one night and Eric said it was a little frosty. But they all agreed to release Shea Stadium footage and other footage [for use in the Rutles film] and things like that, and said good luck to you. Because I think they all wanted the record put straight a little bit, even if it was slightly cockeyed.
Ken: It’s a legend that will last a lunchtime.
Neil: Certainly is. With pudding and tea. And biscuits.