Monday, 24 October 2011

Neil Innes Night at the BFI Southbank

The Neil Innes Night a the bfi Southbank last month was a part of the Flipside strand of programming, a nook for film and TV from post-war Britain which has a cultish sheen and which has, for one reason or another, fallen into obscurity and neglect. As curated by hip bfi archivists Vic Pratt and William Fowler, it has spawned an eclectic dvd catalogue, which has just been re-released in its entirety (to date) in dual dvd/blu-ray editions. The evening was also shoehorned into the month long Scala Forever season, fitting in with the old Kings Cross repertory cinema’s fondness for oddball artists, offbeat imagination and colourful pop surrealism, as well as its penchant for 60s and 70s retro before it gained the widespread currency it now enjoys. Neil Innes is neither obscure nor someone stuck in the past, of course, and was present on the night to prove it. He is not always given his due as a prominent part of the continuum of quintessentially British comic surrealists. This is partly perhaps because of his eclecticism and ability to absorb and wittily recast the work of others, and partly because, as a person, he is very balanced and evidently quite sane, with none of the cultivated eccentricity or ingrained oddness which often seems required of comic icons. The esteem in which he held many treasured British eccentrics, who were often fairly marginal figures at the time, was made explicit in his series The Innes Book of Records, which featured regular guests, who appeared with little fanfare as part of the ongoing associative progress of the show. Old Bonzo Dog Bandmate Vivian Stanshall was given space to air some of his intricately punning semi-Joycean prose, and it was here that I first came across the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Ivor Cutler, who made an immediate and lasting impression. As I remember, Ivor did his routing about Gruts, and Clarke rattled through Chickentown, each sentence beginning with a slightly toned down ‘bloody’. Much of Innes’ work onscreen is currently available only in random fragments trawled up from Youtube, which made this evening, gathering together the various threads of his performing life, particularly welcome.

We started the programme with How Sweet To Be An Idiot from the Innes Book of Records, in which Neil played the yellow duck-hatted clown, wandering through an exhibition of surrealist art (which sets the tone for the series as a whole), bestriding a model village, looking at the animals in Bristol Zoo surrounded by raucous children, and riding the vertiginous, water-driven cliff railway connecting Lynton and Lynmouth on the North Devon coast. Oasis borrowed heavily from this song for Whatever, as DJ Simon Mayo demonstrated by playing them back to back on his show. Innes’ agent promptly got on the case, and he (Neil, not the agent) now has a co-writing credit, which must earn him a few welcome extra pennies.

Choreographed head revolutions - Music for Head Ballet
The Bonzo Dog Band were an obvious focal point, with a rare chance to see the amateur film The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage. It’s fair to say that this is one for the fans, consisting of little more than aimless goofing about whilst the band were ‘getting it together in the country’ at an old farmhouse during the rehearsals for what became the Keynsham album. Still, Neil sports his stylish, wide-brimmed, pastel felt hat, Viv shows off his sporting prowess with a giant beachball (a disavowal of any autobiographical elements in Sport, the Odd Boy?), and we get to see Roger Ruskin Spear’s perpetual bubble blowing automaton (used, naturally enough, during renditions of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles). Music for Head Ballet is a piece of choreographed (roughly) deadpan headturning, the Bonzos turning themselves into impassive automata, whilst Equestrian Statue finds our merry troubadours raiding the dressing up chest and cavorting around what looks like Hampstead Heath. Hooray!

There’s a lengthy extract from a 1975 Rutland Weekend Television show, in which The Old Grey Whistle Test was parodied as The Old Gay Whistle Test (not the height of sophistication, I know). Eric Idle made for a hilariously earnest Whispering Bob Harris, greeting everything with a ‘wow, great’, and the cosmic prog noodling of Toad the Wet Sprocket was spot on (didn’t sound half bad, actually). Neil stepped up to the mic for a take off of glam rock, fronting a band called Sprint (‘on the Abbatoir label’) performing at the Gerrard’s Cross Festival with a number called Bandwagon. The song demonstrated Innes’ fine ear for musical pastiche, which had already been evident in the Bonzo days (Equestrian Statue is a great take on toytown psychedelia). This came to the fore with his emulation of Beatles songs for the Rutles, a prefab band often described as sounding more like the Beatles than the Beatles did themselves. We saw the ‘re-union’ video from 1996 of the song Shangri-La, with its host of celebrity vocalists and look-alikes gathering for the final Hey Jude-style singalong. Neil denied claims that he had mistaken the Elizabeth Taylor impersonator for the real thing. He also revealed that George Harrison (who produced and played an in-disguise role in the film) was fine about the Beatles parody songs, although when he heard With A Girl Like You, he commented ‘that one’s a bit close’. He may have been bearing in mind his recent travails over the Chiffons’ claim that My Sweet Lord had plagiarised their old hit He’s So Fine. Someone apparently told Neil that they had heard John Lennon wandering along the New York streets toward his apartments in the Dakota Building singing the Rutles song Cheese and Onions to himself, so it would seem that he was not averse to Innes’ pastiche of his style. Innes played Ron Nasty, the Lennon figure, in The Rutles film, and Cheese and Onions (do I have to spell it out?) is a perfect distillation of his psychedelic period dream songs. In this context, the ’96 reunion (timed to coincide with the Beatles Anthology archive releases) becomes quite affecting, with Ron’s presence unsentimentally (well, he is called Nasty) imagining a celebration in which Lennon might have participated, had he been so inclined by this point. However, Eric Idle, who played Dirk McQuickly, the Paul McCartney figure, didn’t take part in the video, so there was an equivalent absence.

Neil’s talent for pastiche was also on display in Protest Song, the number from the 1976 Pleasure at Her Majesty’s concert, taken from an edition of the BBC Omnibus arts programme. Here he takes off protest era Bob Dylan, complete with excruciating harmonica breaks. Put alongside his epically painful guitar mangling sole in the middle of the Bonzo’s Canyons of Your Mind, this shows how a very talented musician can somehow manage to make himself sound completely hopeless (not an easy feat, I’m sure). The pastiching of various musical styles, along with a love of surrealism and a sidewise satirical perspective on the modern world, led someone in the audience to ask Neil whether he felt any affinity with or was influenced by Frank Zappa. He affirmed that he loved the Mother’s records from the 60s, especially We’re In It For the Money, with its air of real social engagement giving bite and focus to the comedy. He tactfully drew a veil over some of Frank’s later efforts, suggesting that they were more particularly American in their concerns. In fact, We’re Only In It For the Money is very much attuned to the America of the times, whether that be in terms of hippie conformism, the machinations of power or police brutality. Zappa simply became less engaged and more narrowly focussed, and therefore (lyrically, at least) less interesting as time went on. Innes never displayed anything resembling Zappa’s caustic misanthropy, the unforgiving eye which he cast on human foibles (but never his own). He is more likely to respond to human folly with a wistful melancholia, regretful but not judgemental. This may partly derive from the love of old-fashioned clowns which he professed, as well as his fondness for the great silent film comedians (The Innes Book of Records includes routines which show him playing Chaplin and Stan Laurel). They all tended to shade their personae with a touch of pathos, painting themselves as innocent fools at the mercy of a cruel and manipulative world (the fate of Pierrot in the Harlequinade). Any hint of Zappa’s subversive provocations is rather blown by Innes’ 1977 Top of the Pops appearance singing his Silver Jubilee ditty, without any hint of irony, to a cod-reggae beat. He denied that this was a riposte to the Sex Pistols, and said that it was written at the suggestion of his agent. He brushed the idea aside at first, but then found lines and rhymes coming into his head. It’s a harmless enough song, a catchy singalong which makes Paul McCartney’s Her Majesty at the end of the Abbey Road LP sound like a radical Republican call to arms. Neil’s appearance on 3-2-1 singing an updated version of I’m the Urban Spaceman with light entertainment dancers doing their spangly thing around him was hilariously incongruous, however. The bfi audience cracked up at a particularly cryptic stream of rapidfire word association from Ted Rogers, which only someone who finds Finnegan’s Wake a light read would be able to make any sense of. There were also a couple of his assured and enjoyable ads for Holsten Export from 1980, each finding Neil, in smooth, ivory tinkling Noel Coward mode, and his stoically mute companion marooned in some remote or exotic location, with the awkward encounters related in the song leading to the refrain ‘that calls for a Holsten’. Neil was evidently brought in to lend the lager an air of class, a tall order which he did his best to fulfil. There must be some subconscious association between ex-Bonzos and beer. Viv Stanshall advertised Ruddles ale and Tennents lager in ads from the late 80s (the former drawing on Sir Henry, the latter on his punning Chandleresque Bonzo song Big Shot). The Bonzo’s Mrs Slater’s Parrot also changed its feathers to become Mr Cadbury’s parrot, remaining equally annoying and relentless (he’s ‘the fuhrer’s favourite’ in the original).

Finally and most enjoyably, however, we were treated to a full episode of The Innes Book of Records. Someone in the audience subsequently asked why this had yet to make it to dvd, and whether there were any plans to release it. Neil ruefully replied that it was entirely in the hands of the BBC, who didn’t seem in any hurry to do anything about it. A lot of it was filmed on location on 16mm film, meaning that the picture is not of the quality that people are used to seeing these days, but he favoured releasing it in its original state, without any further digital fiddling or cleaning up, leaving it in all its grainy, textured glory. Each episode of The Innes Book of Records consisted of a series of Neil’s songs performed in character and linked by a framing device which located them in a particular landscape or narrative context. Here, this consisted of an archetypal scene cinematically shot in faded black and white in which an old man pushes a rickety cart which bears an old gramophone along a cobbled street in a poor northern town in the early twentieth century. He stops and picks out one of a pile of old shellac 38, whose labels read Innes Book of Records, and winds them into motion, the needle’s crackling contact with the surface conjuring up the colour films which accompany the songs. Some of these are evidently written with this visual element in mind, music videos at a time when they didn’t have the ubiquity they would later attain as essential promotional adjuncts, and later as primary elements of a pop song (sometimes, in fact, more memorable than the songs itself). Recurring characters turn up from show to show. Here we had the downtrodden, raincoat-wearing everyman (or no-man), traipsing around after his wife and dreaming of a more colourful life, which is tauntingly projected at him from the bright packaging of various products prominently displayed in the supermarket he drifts through. The song which accompanies his daydreams, Et Cetera, is one of Innes’ gorgeously sad tunes, reflecting the yearning ache and lightly ironic shrug of its lyrics, summoning up and dispelling banal fantasies of escape.

Innes’ slightly sinister, white-faced a rouged clown crooner, with his tailcoat, kid gloves and swept back mop of black hair, also made an appearance. He wandered down a wilderness road winding across a bleak and remote moor, singing the ‘we will go on’ song Down That Road in the surviving against the odds Frank and Judy style. As he walked on, disconnected mic cable trailing uselessly behind him, he passed various tableaux of medieval death and plague, as if he had strayed onto the set of The Seventh Seal or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which Innes was in, of course). There’s a man in the stocks, an Inquisitorial procession, a cart piled with corpses and a skeleton filled gibbet. It’s all hilariously grim and makes the song’s sentiments seem hopelessly unrealistic. If there’s one species of performer whom Innes likes to have a go at, it’s the insincere and schmaltzy showbiz crooner. There was another clip from the 1986 Channel 4 programme Comedians Do It On Stage in which he played a grotesque nightclub singer with prosthetic pot belly and oversized medallion swinging between an unpleasantly wide-open shirt singing the song Let’s Be Spontaneous. Of course, this is the last thing such a singer would be, and it was theatrically repulsive. Viv Stanshall also liked to nail the phoney crooner (partly because it gave him the opportunity to put on his exaggerated ‘relaxed and sophisticated’ voice), which he did in Bonzos songs such as Canyons of Your Mind (which he tended to adorn live, after the ‘I mean it’ line, with a belch or vomiting sound), I Left My Heart In San Francisco (hey, leave Tony alone – he’s OK), Look At Me I’m Wonderful and The Sound of Music. Someone in the audience asked if there was a particular target against which he would like to unleash some real bile – whether, in effect, there was a dark side to Neil Innes? He replied that this wasn’t really in his nature. He didn’t want to belittle or demean anyone through his comedy, which didn’t really extend beyond occasionally thumbing a nose or blowing a raspberry at certain targets. He mockingly added ‘I’m just so perfect’, in this sounded too self-important or -congratulatory. However, if there has been one target against which he’s consistently aimed a mildly stronger degree of satirical mockery, it’s this kind of unctuous showbiz character with their feigned intimacy and false humility.

Apeman (or Ungawa) was another song in the show, with its catchy chorus combining the Weismuller yodel with an uh-huhhed ‘ngawa’, a melding of Tarzan with Elvis. It sees the Lord of the Jungle finding love (‘ape man go ape dancing/ape man stay out late’), settling down and having kids with his ‘ape-girl’, vowing that ‘ape man raise ape family/ape man will provide’. Amoeba Boogie is a funky disco number in which a white-coated Neil shakes his bootie whilst squinting at cell divisions (represented by a bunch of dancing school kids doing their thing and having a fun time, by the looks of it) through his microscope lens. His excitement at all the ‘matter dividing’ gets the better of him in the end, and he breaks out into a few choreographed dance moves with his two female lab assistants. Catchphrase is a mock Top of the Pops performance by a new wave band, with Neil as the gum-chewing, low-hung guitar toting front man in the Paul Weller mode. It contains the line ‘a poet for a lie and a clown for the truth’, which could well be Innes’ own catchphrase. It’s another great pastiche (and a good song), and demonstrates how he is able to convincingly adopt the latest styles. There’s none of the crude and embarrassing caricaturing which many other comics of the time indulged in when it came to punk and new wave. In the Q&A session at the end of the programme, Innes was asked if he liked all of the kinds of music which he took off, since there always seems to be real knowledge and affection behind his pastiches. He said that yes, by and large he did appreciate them in one way or another, and always tried to keep up with what was going on. A particular song could also be adapted to different styles, too. Catchphrase had also been performed in an old time dance band style, he revealed. In another episode to the Innes Book of Records (which you can find via the SHARE site, since it features Viv), Neil sings the old Bonzo song The Humanoid Boogie in a seaside cave as a prancing Scottish Frankenstein’s monster to accordion accompaniement and with yelping backing vocals from a trio of limbless shopfloor dummy busts. Yes, it’s that kind of show. Funnily enough, it works really well.

Neil stayed on for a good hour and a half or so after the programme ended, answering questions fully and considerately and with a wealth of amusing anecdotage. He finally picked up the hat which he’s placed at the foot of the stage, brim upwards in the hope of catching a few coins tossed his way, and exited to warm and fulsome applause, with a hint that he might be found in the bar for further convivial exchanges. It was a real pleasure to have spent time in the company of such an easy going, engaging and down to earth fellow. An unsung legend innes own time, as we all felt assured by the end of the evening.

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