The world got a little less funny on Sunday when Neil Innes, best known as songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist for the Beatles parody band The Rutles died of a heart attack at 75 at his home in Toulouse, France. Innes was a brilliant comedian but also an accomplished musician capable of writing serious songs as well as funny ones. He was sometimes referred to as "The Seventh Python" for his frequent collaboration with Monty Python's Flying Circus. For example, he created the whistling part of the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in Monty Python's Life of Brian.
The Rutles first came to prominence in the U.S. when Eric Idle was invited to host Saturday Night Live in 1976. Idle was one of the Money Python crew, but after that series ended, his next project was a comedy show called Rutland Weekend Television where Innes was the songwriter. The Rutles were created for that show, and Idle played one of the Rutles, although he lip-synced the songs and only barely pretended to play his instrument. As it happened, Idle was invited to host SNL in the middle of a running gag about getting the Beatles back together. (At one point, George Harrison appeared on the show, demanding $3,000 SNL producer Lorne Michaels had promised, only to be told that the $3,000 was for all four Beatles so he could only have $750.)
And so, when Idle came to host, he brought film of The Rutles with him playing their classic Beatles takeoff "Cheese and Onions" -- from the Yellow Submarine Sandwich Soundtrack -- which they had recorded with animation by the original Yellow Submarine animators. On SNL, the joke was that Michaels had misheard Idle promising the Rutles, and thought he was planning to bring The Beatles instead.
SNL viewers began sending in Beatles albums with "Beatles" crossed out and "Rutles" written in instead. Michaels suggested creating a fake documentary about The Rutles, and the result was All You Need Is Cash.
Innes didn't limit his parody to The Beatles. Here he is doing a wicked spoof of Bob Dylan on Rutland Weekend Television:
By the time he became a Rutle, Innes already had one successful parody band behind him. He had studied the piano from the age of seven, but then switched to the guitar at 14. Unfortunately, the guitar he had was a very cheap model. "It was such a bad instrument it was more like playing an egg slicer," he said. "So I put music aside and became more interested in painting."
That led him to art school where, coming full circle, he joined his first parody band, The Bonzo Doo-Dah Dog Band. That band's song "I'm the Urban Spaceman," written and sung by Innes, made it to number 5 on the UK charts. It was produced by "Apollo C. Vermouth" -- a pseudonym for Paul McCartney and the producer Gerry Bron. The Bonzo Dogs appeared in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour, playing their song "Death Cab for Cutie" which was based on a crime story headline they'd seen.
"We could muck about."
How did Innes get friendly with The Beatles? For one thing, the Bonzo Dogs recorded at Abbey Road Studios so their paths crossed there. But in fact, Innes said, the big-name bands were envious of his band. "The Beatles used to come to gigs," he told the Los Angeles Times in a 2003 interview. "A lot of bands that were in the god strata used to be dead jealous of the Bonzos cause we could muck about and they couldn't. Eric Clapton said, 'I wish I could do what you were doing,'" he added. "It's too much for anybody to take all this idolatry." Indeed, in 1966, The Beatles gave up doing live concerts, frustrated with having to travel in an enclosed metal box to hide from fans, and also with the fact that their music couldn't be heard over the constant screaming.
Innes took note of all this and concluded that super-stardom wasn't for him. "A lot of people can't get around the fact that I have met all of these people and worked with all of these people and still kept out of the limelight. I don't like that side of it," he explained to the Times. In fact, he said, he didn't like playing to audiences of more than 500, and even that was probably too many.
Instead, he spent the last several years living in the South of France with his wife of 53 years, writing songs, giving the occasional performance, and apparently living exactly the life that he wanted. That's the kind of success we should all wish for.