A brief chat with Neil Innes

Are you looking forward to your performance this evening?
I always do, I always enjoy it.

Do you think you represent the lighter side, in many ways the only side of humorous music?
I’ve inherited that from the Bonzo days, when we used to sort of much about and be the people who sort of took the piss a bit... Of everything, but lately I do try to write some sensible songs as well. It’s quite difficult in this day and age to be allowed do both. I find most musicians have a good sense of humour anyway, so yes I like mucking about but I also like to put the odd one in that’s a proper song.

What’s your favourite of the songs you’ve penned yourself?
Ooh, I can’t have a favourite, but I’d say that all the early ones that were written quite quickly, like Urban Spaceman and How Sweet to be an Idiot, they literally took most of the afternoon. Other songs you labour over for months, and especially later, some of my newer songs. As I get older I’m getting much more picky, when I was a lot younger I used to think ‘Oh, that’s fantastic, just put it in’. Now I’m harder to please, so I suppose the favourite ones are those that didn’t take much time at all to write, and the others that fall back you can merit for other reasons.

And what’s your favourite piece of bizarreness by Vivian?
Again, that’s a hard one, I liked Rhinocratic Oaths, the endless sort of anecdotal thing because he used to collect strange clippings and things from newspapers, in fact Chris Welch put some of those in his book, the one I liked was of the two German motorists that were admitted to Hospital with concussion because they’d been driving in heavy fog,
leaning out of the window to see where they were going and then banged heads.I recently saw a short film narrated by John Peel which was based on these sort of news stories, there was a man who divorced his wife because she moved the furniture around constantly, every day, so nothing was ever in the same place.Ah, yes, I’ve got a sister in law who’s a forensic psychologist, and there was this extraordinary tale of a guy who killed his wife because he’d put a tube of mustard straight, and she’d moved it to wonky, and he just snapped!

But back to Viv, things like Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? are nice, and I suppose one of my favourite collaborations with him was My Pink Half of the Drainpipe, I’m Bored wasn’t bad either.They’re all a lot of fun, but there’s the od serious note in amongst that fun too.Yes, Viv’s The Odd Boy, choosing Mallarmé as a poet, ‘the slim volume of Mallarmé’ which he chose to read rather than do sport, well apparently Mallarmé had this rather sickly son, so if you go back into some of these things you realise that Viv did think things through quite a lot. Surprisingly.

He certainly appears to have had an amazing array of influences in a lot of his work. How dark did you think some of his music was, because it certainly had that capacity at times, do you think he was as dark and disturbing a chap as he’s sometimes made out to be?
No no, first and foremost he was very mischievous and a prankster, I think that as he became a little more ill he got dark. I used to feel that towards the end his lighter side was becoming outnumbered by his darker side, but in the early days it was all mischief and mucking about, and very tiresome sometimes too.

What did you think of Rawlinson End?
Oh, I loved it, and I really love the movie too. It’s unique, there’s nothing like it. On the very last album we did, our contractual obligation ‘Let’s Make up and be Friendly’, that’s when we did it and I wrote the piece of music for it. But it was just lovely because he would read and then just be ad-libbing things or whatever and probably working some
other things in. It was a really lovely way to work, it was more jazzy, y’know.

What do you think influences a lot of your work?
At the moment a lot of my new stuff is about myself finding I’m getting more and more irritated, probably something that comes with age but I find I’m really irritated by the way the media is not allowing even five or ten percent of its output to be actually aimed at anyone with any intelligence.

Things like Big Brother and reality tv shows?
Well I don’t mind stuff like that, but when it’s all like that and it starts to affect news coverage and when they have 24 hour news and there isn’t any news and it’s just speculation. Oh, get off! Where’s Alvar Lidell, twice a night in a dinner jacket. Just do the news you know, don’t speculate.
So I’m writing stuff about eye candy and just sort of sounding off a bit. We do a song called Ego Warriors, it gives everybody a chance to sort of get back and find their self esteem and define the self esteem of others too. It’s a very tacky song.

What do you think of the ‘Gonzo Dog do Bar Band’ a tribute band of the Bonzo’s?

Oh, yeah I played with them in 2002 in Edinburgh, it’s great. They’re very authentic, they were just as bad as we were.

I saw them myself and very much enjoyed it, even though of course they can’t have all the whizzes, bangs and explosions that the bonzo’s used to employ.

I don’t think that’s the point, people need that sort of irreverence, mucking about and sheer good spirits really.
We used to find these old songs on the flea markets on 78’s, that’s our lifeblood, in fact we didn't even start writing our own songs until the New Vaudeville Band came along looking exactly like us because our trumpeter left to form them.
We were offered the job of being the New Vaudeville Band and I remember when we saw them on Television they looked exactly like us in the suits, they even had the cut-out speaking balloons and the singer in the Lame suit. So we thought ‘Right, Rock & Roll, anything now’.
In a way it was disappointing, in another way it was a kick up the pants and we started writing.

A few of those novelty songs which you used were by originally made by Harry Reser in the twenties and thirties, things like ‘I’m going to bring a Watermelon to my girl tonight’, was he a particular influence on you?

No, not really as we didn’t know the artists, we found the 78’s, and thought ‘Hang on, that’s a funny title, what the hell’s that?’ You didn’t know until you got it home, having laid out tuppence or four pence for these 78’s. You never know what your going to find.

How do you remember Viv and his humorous approach to life?

With affection, absolutely with affection. This is awful, but you find as you’re getting older you outliving all your chums .
But I thought even though there were hard days, we didn’t have a holiday for five years while we were actually on the road with the Bonzo’s, we made enough money to buy out three managers and argued with just about everybody.

But I wouldn’t have swapped a day of it because it was absolutely great fun, I’m not just sort of pouring a rose tinted, sunny valley thing over the whole time because there were tedious moments in it too but they were far outweighed by the fun.

Was a part of that because you were all mates at Uni?

Yeah, we were all art students and we all knew the same kind of rubbish that art students went through, all the art-speak and whatnot.
And I suppose economically in the sixties, being on the road, which you never expected to do ever, but I mean going here, going there. And then you saw all the motorways being built, all the one way systems in the town centres and all the same shops arriving.
It was a kind of foretaste of the kind of global consumer thing that we’ve turned into.
So, we had a bit of fun at its expense, we passed a shop that said ‘shirt event’, so we you know thought we’d write something about shirts, it was very infantilia-purile in many ways but we were having a good time and having a laugh before we had to settle down to do something.

Yes, it’s important to not just get sucked into a monotonous daily grind without having fun first.

Oh absolutely, most University kids I think should feel that they should certainly take a gap year, but I think there’s far too much made of getting a degree now, especially when they don’t really apply to the real economy.
You know, most people are on a two year contract if they’ve got any kind of skills.

And a lot of people now work freelance as well.

Exactly, so there’s no process where you could go to school, do well, go to University, get a degree then you’ve got a career and a job for life, it doesn’t work like that.
So more and more people should muck about I think.

I think that’s a good way of putting it.

Yes, challenge received wisdom. Ask, just a minute, why are we getting carpenters from abroad and electricians from abroad?
Because we’ve encouraged everybody to go to University, like the bloody tin man in the he Wizard of Oz, ‘Here’s a piece of paper, do you feel better?’ ‘Ooh, yeah!’.

Thank you Neil, it’s been nice to chat with you, I’ll shake you by the hand.

All right m’dear.

Now, could I just ask you to autograph this...
Interview conducted by Jonathan Street at the Lewes Literary Festival, November 2003.

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