Some say Neil Innes is the British Christopher Guest. I say Guest is the American Neil Innes. Neither can be reduced to a mere satirist, or comic parodist. The uncanny parallels between these two musicians aside, Neil Innes’ body of work is a great example of a musician stretching boundaries beyond the paradigms of the conventional rock band to work collaboratively across genres with comedians and actors; it’s a great job if you can get it!
Like many, I first got turned onto Innes through his work with Monty Python. His silly folk protest song (which you may call a “Dylan send-up”) on the 1976 Live At City Center album was a childhood favorite (“I’ve suffered for my music, now it’s your turn”), and of course his role as the wandering minstrel on “Brave Sir Robin” from Monty Python and The Holy Grail. But I may have even been more impressed by his collaboration from the 1973 Matching Tie And Handkerchief album: “The Background To History.”
On this collaboration, Innes integrated his musical skills with the comedy troupe by creating three original pieces of music that took off where his brilliant, conventional rock/pop rock band, The World, had ended after their one album. The comic set up was that Innes’ songs were all sung by Medievalist History Professors, as part of a “radio piece” on medieval agrarian farming. Each one could rock out “in the style of” pop/rock hits of the day. The first resembles Desmond Decker as much as Paul Simon’s “Mother And Child Reunion.” The second is like Gary Glitter, and the third McCartney-esque rock anthem that extends onto what might be the most rocking jam on a comedy album.
They are only snippets, sound bites, but as a trilogy of songs they’re fun and they rock, and maybe even got me thinking a little about Medieval Agrarian Farming. We’re told that these songs are available on an album the “Ronettes Sing Medieval Agrarian History.” As the comic sketch ends, we find out the stores don’t actually carry this album, but they do carry “World War II noises.”
This meshing of entertainment and education, “high” and “low,” specialized and pop/mass culture, was characteristic of much of Monty Python, and I soon realized how many affinities it had with my own attempts at de-specialization as a culture worker in my writing, teaching, music, and “college radio.” In the context of Monty Python, it may have been primarily a “comic juxtaposition,” but it was also serious cultural statement. What if this actually happened?
What if we actually had less “stuffy” professors, and a more educated, literate, pop culture? In a classroom context, of course, you can’t really bring a full-rock band (or, as Python also showed in a skit from The Meaning Of Life, if you actually bring in a couple to have sex in a sex-education class, students will yawn!), but on a radio piece, you can bring the two together, and if it causes controversy, well, at least it puts people who don’t usually talk, into dialogue with each other. In the context of 21st century “niche marketing” and an increasing loss of what Thom Hartmann, for instance, calls “the commons,” this becomes even more refreshing and needed.
“The Background To History,” with its three song snippets, not only impressed me because Monty Python included such solid rock tunes into their comic troupe, but it also made me want to find out more about Innes, and led me to discover The Rutles and The Bonzo Dog Band. While much of Innes’ repertoire, indeed, is the opposite of the “heartfelt singer songwriter,” and the 20th century “cult of originality” on a lyrical level, it’s a mistake to say he’s a mere comic mind musician lacking in the pathos that allegedly allows a deeper identification.
“I’m The Urban Spaceman,” which was produced a big hit in England in 1968, may be billed as a novelty hit, but its Ray Davies-esque social commentary has got a tender soulful snarl. It’s the vulnerable quaver in Innes’ tenor that expresses the individual pain beneath its wit, and this may explain why Jeffrey Lewis dug it when I performed it while opening for him at The Echo Country Outpost in the summer of 2013.
When I perform it on solo piano, it may lose that rock/pop Davies-esque feel and seem much more like mere satire. In this style, I often collage it with King Herod’s bouncy song from Jesus Christ Superstar or Todd Rundgren’s “You Left Me Sore.” It becomes a kind of “comic relief” song, but it can also be so much more. Hopefully my version can turn you on to the original (if you don’t already know it, as well as Neil Innes’ other work, including The Background To History). And, of course, if Jeff Feuerzeig does manage to get funding for a possible film about the “piano van project,” it would be great to create our own collaborative skit in a genre like The Background To History. Maybe a new “Neil Innes” is exactly what Jon Stewart or some other contemporary television comedy needs.