Neil Innes of the Rutles and Monty Python Talks Music

June 18, 2010


Neil Innes is best known for his portrayal of Ron Nasty in the Pre-Fab Four, the Rutles, a band that brilliantly spoofed and paid tribute to the Beatles. He’s also a gifted songwriter and comedian who was in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band as well as working with Monty Python, writing “Sir Robin’s Song” for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His latest release is Innes Own World, Best Bits Part One, which features his music and comedy sketches. Innes took time before his San Francisco gig to talk Rutles, Beatles, and songcraft. —Matt Blackett

What were you going for on your latest record, Innes Own World, Best Bits Part 1?
I do a radio program for BBC Radio 4 called Innes Own World and there were bits I like and bits I wasn’t sure about because they wanted me to do it with a live audience and weave in bits around it. But it developed in a different way that no one expected. A) the producer was busy with something else so I ended up doing it all myself with an engineer in Pro Tools, doing all these voices. But I had the live audience in Edinburgh. I wanted to have them saying lines in unison. I asked them to do that at the end of the show. I wanted them to play the part of an all-star celebrity packet of cornflakes. So I told them the lines and they said them in unison and they did it very well. So I cut these lines into this 24-hour news broadcast, which is a pet hate of mine. I hate 24/7 news. It should be called conjecture. It’s emotional engineering. It’s horrible. So I wanted to lampoon it a bit. So at that point I knew how to edit in the digital domain. It’s like painting. You’re painting with the sounds. You have immediate hands-on contact with it. So I started flying in some of the loops you get with Garage Band and it all started to tighten up a bit. I began selecting tracks that had been around, but not very well known and I was really pleased with the way the comedy worked with the music. It kind of makes you listen to the music better. You listen to the voices and the noises and the jokes and then suddenly there’s music, and I think it works. Especially with someone like me who’s got one foot in the music camp and one foot in the comedy camp. Also I’ve got my publishing back and I’m rather keen on doing something with the material. Part of the ploy to get the publishing back was to stay quiet for quite a long time—ten years. I feel rejuvenated by it.
How did you track?
The very first track, Hush, was recorded in Nashville. Others involved Slovenian musicians. Some of the Bonzo Dog people Pour L’Amour des Chiens that album—stuff people haven’t really heard.
How much guitar did you play?
I do the picking on "One of those People." I’m mainly a rhythm guitarist because keyboard is my main instrument. I’ve only ever really been featured in a guitar magazine once. It was called Beat Instrumental and I was guitarist of the Month for the solo on “Canyons of Your Mind.”
We’re overdue.
Well, I haven’t been in a rush. I did do a couple of solos on the second Rutles album. Normally I leave that to people who really know what they’re doing. I’m getting better at guitar.
My first instrument was piano at the age of seven. Then around 14 I rebelled a bit. I thought, “Who am I working for here? Every time I finish a piece they give me a harder one.” So I got a guitar. I didn’t know anything about it except that it was really hard to press the strings down. Well, that was because the neck was bowed and the action was so high it would have made a good boiled egg slicer. I couldn’t do a barre chord so I ended up doing this sort of Richie Havens technique where my thumb plays the bass note. I still have that habit today.
Why did you initially pick up the guitar?
I don’t know. Rock and roll was just happening. I wanted to write my own music and I started by writing staves on the paper and creating waltzes. Then when I got into art school and started playing with the Bonzos I saw chord sheets for the first time. I think I learned more about composition from working off chord sheets than I ever did chasing dots on the page.
Who influenced your pop writing?
Early stuff. The Bonzos went around collecting stupid old 78s that you could only play on second hand wind-up Gramophones. “Gonna Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight” Hunting Tigers in India.” The first songs I wrote were kind of like that. “Equestrian Statue” was kind of a crossover, you know there’s harpsichord in there. French music, which I’ve always loved. And Penny Lane, because we thought it would be a laugh to put  speeded up trumpet in there, rather than a piccolo trumpet. It was all up for grabs. The ’60s were a great time to be young and in music, because everything was happening then, silly as well as great.
Is that uniquely British, to be open to melding so many different styles?
I’m with Duke Ellington on this. There’s two kinds of music: good and bad. Whatever works, works.
What was it like to be a musician in England and get to work with members of the Beatles?
It’s hard to explain, but we were kind of contemporaries. I don’t remember any of the Bonzos being in awe of them. They made you smile, because they were funny guys and they were talented.
When Paul produced your tune “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” what were those sessions like?
He was there in the studio. The man is a natural musician, like Ricky Fataar and Ollie Halsall—we had two fantastic musicians in the Rutles. Ricky, Ollie, or Paul could bang two bricks together and it would sound good. Paul produced us because our producer used to say, “After three hours, that’s it. Next tune.” Viv Stanshall from the Bonzos, who used to hang out with John and Paul quite a bit, was bemoaning that fact at the speakeasy one night and Paul said, well I’ll come and produce it. He came in and said I’ve just written this. He went over to the grand piano and sang, “Hey Jude.” And he went on and on. I thought he was winding the bloke up, our normal producer, because he’s wasting all this studio time. I don’t know if the Beatles had even heard it at that point.
Some of your Rutles tunes are fairly straightforward takeoffs, like “Number One,” but some, like “Double Back Alley” and “Hold My Hand” are deep and layered. Can you describe the songwriting process for those?
I’m an intuitive thinker. I’m not logical. I can’t say I’ll have a bit of this and a bit of that. I realized when the game was up and they said to me, “Can you write 20 more Rutles songs by next Thursday lunchtime?” I said I would try. I made the decision not to listen to any Beatles songs. I just thought to myself, where was I when I heard…and I used my own memory and my own geographical references and people I knew and things like that. I had to write signpost songs to tell the story. We needed a kind of “All You Need Is Love,” we needed a kind of “Help!” and we needed a sort of “I Am the Waitress.” The easy ones were the more psychedelic ones. The teenage love songs were harder. Once they were written I would just play them on the guitar or the piano and see if people would say, “That’s a nice tune.” “That lyric makes sense.” If it worked that way, off one instrument, I knew I was home and dry. Only then did we listen to the Beatles and go, “There’s bongos in there. I never heard that before.” We really listened, rather like art students that go into galleries to copy paintings. So for me it was writing first, making it sound good on one instrument, and then all the production values. That’s what makes it sound that way. Of course it helps if you put the Rutlese accent on there.
How long did you have?
I think I did it in three months. We got this house in North London with two 2-track Revoxes, and we lived there, like a band. We worked and recorded the demos for the songs. At the end of the fortnight we were having such a good time, we came out like a band. Going into the studio it was great. It felt good. You can hear on the Archeology album, “I Think We’ve Arrived,” that’s a demo from those sessions.
You played period-correct instruments in the film. Did you use those on the recording as well? Rickenbackers, Gretsches, Vox amps?
No, that was just to look at. Ollie used his twin-horned Gibson thing. I don’t know what things are called. I only care if it sounds good. I must give credit to Steve James, the engineer. He recorded us at 30ips on 2-in tape. But when it was mixed it actually sounded too good. So we put the mix through a compressor, then put it all through the same compressor again.
The tones definitely echo the era on all of your songs though. You really weren’t aware of what gear was used on the originals.
Not really. I came up with the riff for “I Must Be in Love” and we played it together in octaves so it sounds like a 12-string.
That’s not a real 12-string?
No! Some songs were from the 2-track demos. “Number One,” certainly in the film, is from the rehearsal tapes.
“Love Life” has the odd meter feel from the original, as well as some similar wordplay, which for me elevates it way beyond simple parody. Did you see it as a tribute or was it all a joke?
Absolutely. I was determined not to trivialize what they had done. The songs had to stand up for what they were standing up for. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment of “All You Need Is Love.” I wanted to do something that was almost like a mirror image of it. I wanted it to have meaning. It’s funny. Ollie decided to do that minimalist solo and George was a bit cheesed off about it. “I think you’ve gone a bit too far on that one,” he said.
It was such good fun. There are funny time signatures, but they’re not really count-y ones. You can get in the groove with them. The Slovenians will play in 13/8. We didn’t count so much. We intuitively did it.
George was obviously in on the joke, but what did the others say to you about the Rutles?
I never talked to John directly about it but he was very supportive of it. He said, “Watch out for ‘Get Up and Go.’ I think you’ll get into trouble with that one.” So we took it off the album and just left it in the film. There were about six songs that were just in the film. But sure enough, the trouble came.
They swooped down upon you, didn’t they?
It’s pathetic. “You’re copying the Beatles.” It’s the worst kind of cop. “Well yes, that’s the whole point.” I had a musicologist go through everything, the tune, the words, and they said “There’s no case here.” Halfway through he started enjoying himself. “I suggest that ‘Oh yeah,’ and ‘all right’ are in the public domain.” But the music business has no sense of humor. The bean counters, their game is the one who dies with the most beans wins. It’s an unholy marriage, music and business.
The tunes are credited to Lennon/McCartney/Innes, right?
I think it’s Innes/Lennon/McCartney. [laughs] But in the fine print they had written that they would get copyright on any future use and I wasn’t to be credited. So when Cheese and Onions was put on a retrospective, it’s credited to Lennon/McCartney. Now that’s bad denial!
What did Paul and Ringo say?
Paul is fine with the music. He realizes that I did try not to trivialize it. I think he’s not too happy with Eric’s portrayal of him. But Paul and I are fine. Ringo’s so easy going. Of the four, I think George and John wanted to put their Beatles suits in a cupboard and move on.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write memorable melodies and chord progressions?
Don’t do it deliberately. If you write a good song, it’s going to have some of the best songs ever written in it. It can’t help it. It’s best not to look.
I remember watching the rushes of the Rutles movie, and “A Girl Like You” came on. And George was sitting in front of me and he turned around, grinning his horrible grin, and he said, “That one’s a bit close.” I said “It’s close but it’s not the same.” He said, “I know it’s not the same, but you can always go to court with your guitar and explain it.” Because he had that hoo-hah with “My Sweet Lord.”
I’m a big Spinal Tap fan, but I don’t think that movie could have existed without your work with the Rutles. What did you think when that movie came out?
I loved it. I thought it was brilliant.

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