English writer, comedian and musician Neil James Innes was born 9 December 1944 in Danbury Essex. He took piano lessons from age 7 to 14 and taught himself to play guitar. His parents were supportive of their sons’ interests. His father showed some artistic ability as well; he frequently drew and painted. Innes later attended Thorpe Grammar School and the Norwich School of Art. Because Norwich lacked a particular art curriculum in which he was interested, he transferred to Goldsmiths, where he studied drama. At Goldsmiths he met Yvonne Catherine Hilton, whom he married on 3 March 1966. They have three sons, Miles (b. 1967), Luke (b. 1971), and Barney (b. 1977). They have two grandchildren.
Innes graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art from Goldsmiths in 1966. He and several other art school students also started a band which was originally named The Bonzo Dog Dada Band after their interest in the art movement Dada, but which was soon renamed the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (later shortened to The Bonzo Dog Band). Innes met Vivian Stanshall at the Central School of Art, where both studied drawing. Together they wrote most of the band’s songs, including “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, their sole hit (produced by Paul McCartney and Gus Dudgeon under the collective pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth), and “Death Cab for Cutie” (which inspired an American musical group of the same name), which was featured in The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. Innes won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Novel(ty) Song in 1968 for “I’m the Urban Spaceman”. In the late 1960s, Innes appeared with the Bonzo Dog Band on both seasons of the UK children’s television series Do Not Adjust Your Set which also featured some future members of the Monty Python comedy team.
After the break-up of the Bonzo Dog Band, Innes joined with former Dog Band bassist Dennis Cowan, drummer Ian Wallace and guitarist Roger McKew to form The World, a band hoping for “more commercial” success with music ranging from rock to pure pop, yet still retaining some Doo-Dah flavour and even some of the humour. Unfortunately for them, by the time their sole album Lucky Planet was released in 1970, the members had already disbanded and were moving on to other projects. In 1973 Neil worked with Andy Roberts, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Mike McGear, Brian Patten, John Gorman, David Richards, John Megginson, Ollie Halsall, and Gerry Conway in the band GRIMMS, who released their self-titled album and Rocking Duck in 1973 followed by their last album Sleepers in 1976.
In the mid-1970s, Innes became closely associated with the TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He played a major role in performing and writing songs and sketches for the final series in 1974 (after John Cleese left). He wrote a squib of a song called “George III” for the episode “The Golden Age of Ballooning”, which was sung by The Flirtations, but billed onscreen as the Ronettes. He also wrote the song “When Does a Dream Begin?”, used in “Anything Goes: The Light Entertainment War”. He co-wrote the “Most Awful Family in Britain” sketch and played a humorous stilted guitar version of the theme song, The Liberty Bell March, during the credits of the last episode, “Party Political Broadcast”. He is one of only two non-Pythons to ever be credited writers for the TV series, the other being Douglas Adams (who co-wrote the “Patient Abuse” sketch, also featured in “Party Political Broadcast”).
He appeared on stage with the Pythons in New York City in 1976, performing the Bob Dylanesque “Protest Song” (complete with harmonica) on the album Monty Python Live at City Center. He was introduced as Raymond Scum. After his introduction he told the audience, “I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” In 1980 he travelled to the States with the Pythons again, subsequently appearing in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. He performed the songs “How Sweet to Be an Idiot” and “I’m the Urban Spaceman”. He also appeared as one of the singing “Bruces” in the Philosopher Sketch and as a Church Policeman in that sketch. Innes wrote original songs for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, such as “Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin”. He appeared in the film as a head-bashing monk, the serf crushed by the giant wooden rabbit, and the leader of Sir Robin’s minstrels. He also had a small role in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. His collaborations with Monty Python and other artists were documented in the musical film The Seventh Python (2008).
After Python finished its original run on UK television, Innes joined with Python’s Eric Idle on the series Rutland Weekend Television. This was a Python-esque sketch show based in a fictional low-budget regional television station. It ran for two series in 1975–76. Songs and sketches from the series appeared on a 1976 BBC LP, The Rutland Weekend Songbook. This show spawned The Rutles (the “prefab four”), an affectionate pastiche of The Beatles, in which Innes played the character of Ron Nasty, who was loosely based on John Lennon. Innes played Nasty in an American-made spin-off TV movie All You Need Is Cash, with Idle. The project also yielded the commercially successful soundtrack album The Rutles, released by Warner Bros..
The songs written by Innes so closely parodied the original source material that he was taken to court by the owners of The Beatles’ catalogue. Innes had to testify under oath that he had not listened to the songs at all while composing The Rutles’ songs, but had created them completely originally based on what he remembered various songs by The Beatles sounding like at different times. Ironically, Innes himself would go on to sue Beatles-influenced band Oasis over their 1994 song “Whatever”, as it directly lifted parts of its melody from Innes’s 1973 song “How Sweet to Be an Idiot”. This event was subsequently referenced in The Rutles song “Shangri-La” for their 1996 re-union album The Rutles released Archaeology, itself a parody of The Beatles Anthology. After Rutland Weekend Television, Idle moved to the United States, and Innes went on to make a solo series in 1979 on BBC television, The Innes Book of Records, which ran for three seasons and contained a few of Innes’ previous music compositions along with new ones written for the show.
In the 1980s, Innes played the role of the Magician in the live-action children’s television series Puddle Lane, made by Yorkshire Television for the ITV network and voiced the 1980s children’s cartoon adventures of The Raggy Dolls, a motley collection of “rejects” from a toy factory. The 65 episodes for Yorkshire Television included the characters Sad Sack, Hi-Fi, Lucy, Dotty, Back-to-Front, Princess and Claude. He also composed the music for children’s television including Puddle Lane, The Raggy Dolls, The Riddlers and Tumbledown Farm. In addition. He also adapted Monty Python’s Terry Jones’s fairy-tale book East of the Moon for television. He contributed all the stories and music on this production. He was involved with the enormously popular children’s show Tiswas,
The Rutles also released a new album in 1996 entitled Archaeology. In 1998, Innes hosted a 13-episode television series for ITV Anglia, called Away with Words, and took part, along with the remaining Monty Python members, in the 2002 Concert for George, in memory of George Harrison. Innes was occasionally heard (often as the butt of jokes) standing in as the pianist for the BBC Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Then In 2006 Innes toured the UK and produced a new Bonzo CD as part of the Bonzo Dog Band’s 40th Anniversary tour. In 2008 he undertook the Neil Innes and Fatso 30th Anniversary tour. In 2008 A film about Neil Innes called The Seventh Python premiered at the Mods & Rockers. Film Festival and He also occasionally guests on keyboards for the Comedy Store Players at the London Comedy Store. Innes formed ‘The Idiot Bastard Band’ a comedy musical collective featuring himself, Adrian Edmondson, Phill Jupitus, Simon Brint and Rowland Rivron. In 2011 Jupitus was unable to attend and was replaced by several special guests, including Paul Whitehouse and Nigel Planer. Following the death of Simon, the band performed a further tour in 2012.