Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Neil Innes at the Phoenix Arts Centre Exeter

The multi-faceted Neil Innes visited the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter last week, a man who can claim to be a founding Bonzo, honorary Python, compiler of the Innes Book of Records (release it on dvd, BBC!), amiable children’s TV presenter, ex-Rutle and current and full time Neil Innes, singer, songwriter, humourist, raconteur and clown. He played a solo show which embraced pretty much all of these multitudinous selves, ranging from cheerful vulguarity to more profound meditations on time and memory, truth and illusion. In keeping with his art school background and the strongly visual and theatrical aspect which was always a part of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, he was flanked by a couple of pieces of junk shop sculpture – readymades, to cite Duchamp or the Bonzo b-side to Mr Apollo. A distended hat stand angel of the north spread its arms to his left, head capped with a flying ace helmet and goggles, wingspan formed of copied tabloid front pages with screaming headlines mostly decrying the nefarious evildoings of asylum seekers. Innes christened it Icarus Allsorts (he’s takes a shameless pleasure in wordplay and tortuous punning), its newspaper wings destined to send it plummeting into the lower depths. On his right was a bicycle wheel mounted no a table, his Wheel of 4 Tunes. It blended another nod to Duchamp (via his bicycle wheel readymade) with game show randomisers (the fixed grin showbiz falsity of game show hosts having long been a target of the Innes/Python axis), a spin of the wheel by an audience member causing an arrow to point to one of four colours affixed to the spokes. This would indicate the colour of an envelope to be opened, with all due hushed anticipation, revealing which of four potential songs would be performed. The mixture of the childish, the populist and the cerebral which it represented summed up the polarities at play within Innes’ music and approach to life and art. The Bonzo Dog Band were originally the Dada Band, after all, the twinning of the 1920s children’s cartoon character with the absurdist early 20th century art movement neatly setting out their stall.

Innes retains a resolutely non-conformist outlook, which partly finds its expression in gleefully childish behaviour; Thumbing the nose is used as the secret club sign of his nascent ‘ego warrior’ movement and he gets the audience to blow a defiant group raspberry which rumbled through the tiers of seating. It’s a more honest form of rebellion than the eternally extended adolescence of rock, and is more true to the gadfly instinct at the heart of the anti-authoritarian impulse, the desire to mock the powerful and deflate the pompous in the most direct and playful manner. Innes’ childish absurdism also connects with an open-minded inquisitiveness, an ability to view the world with an imaginative clear-sightedness which untangles needless complexity whilst admitting of illogic, paradox and grim irony, sometimes with delight and sometimes sadness. He may not have sung How Sweet To Be An Idiot tonight, but it could stand as something of a signature song. Other numbers like Disillusioned and City of the Angels, which he did sing, voice discontent with the state of the world without ever descending into cynicism or nihilistic hopelessness and hyperbole. Disillusioned details the process of coming to see things as they really are, the narrowing down of vision which can come with knowledge and time (a literal disillusionment, or disenchantment, which means that ‘my eyes no longer play tricks on me’). City of Angels’ central image of a man shot by the police whilst reaching into his pocket to produce a card explaining his muteness was all the more horrifying for having derived from a news story Innes heard whilst staying in LA. The ‘paradise lost in the city of angels’ which it bleakly conveys was ironically counterpointed in musical terms by what he described as LA chords; those smooth, gliding progressions of major 7ths beloved of Joni and the Eagles.

City of Angels witnesses Innes at his angriest and most direct, his ironic couplets and wordplay comical only in the most desperate sense. Other songs dealt more obliquely with the passing of time, memory, regret and mortality – grand philosophical themes (or thinking about thinking, as he put it) which are also the stuff of universal human experience. Stealing Time was one such, which ‘takes a lifetime’ as the chorus gnomically points out. The wistful quality often found even in his comical songs draws on his love of clowns and clowning, and also of the great silent and early sound movie comedians. The raised eyebrows and cheeky side-smiles with which he accompanies certain lyrics definitely have something of the Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin about them, and he later paid tribute to the sublime silliness of Max Wall. His song Eye Candy updated Buster Keaton’s short The Cameraman for the multi-channel age, with its passive TV viewer finding himself inhabiting the worlds on the other side of the screen, making disorientating, channel-hopping jump-cuts between programmes, much as Buster did in his cinematic dream montage many years earlier. Innes ended his final pre-encore song by getting the audience to sing a Country Joe style cheer, spelling out SOD OFF. At which point he shuffled disconsolately towards the wings with the slump-shouldered and headhung pathos of an old pierrot clown, the odd pitiful backward glance inviting sympathy which was duly given in a series of ‘aaaahhs’.

Innes is also an expert pasticheur. He reminisced about the early days of the Bonzos, and their recording of a novelty song (My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies) at Abbey Road. The Beatles were putting together Revolver at the same time. Having heard the sound of George Harrison’s dense, pounding chord from I Want To Tell You forcefully echoing along the corridors, he had to go back to playing rinky dink piano on the silly 20s number they’d dusted off from a 78 unearthed in a junk shop (and he demonstrated the gulf between the two to amusing effect). Clearly his musical radar wavered more towards the future which George and the others were sounding out as opposed to the archaeological artefacts which he and his enthusiastically amateur cohorts were digging up from the past. He did sing a song drawing on the charmingly contrived rhymes of those corny old songs, though, which he accompanied on his ukulele, an instrument for which George showed an increasing fondness in his later years. Innes got to be the next best thing to a Beatle: a Rutle, and there was a splendid medley of Rutles songs which he played at the piano. He folded together choice extracts from the nostalgic Doubleback Alley; the psychedelic Good Times Roll (‘written after we’d discovered tea’, as he observed, and ending with a discordant swell full-stopped by a distinctly unresonant piano ping parodying the lengthy decay of the final Day In The Life chord); the McCartney bright Another Day, which includes the marvellous rhyming of pusillanimous with animus; and my favourite, the nonsense-filled Cheese and Onions (from the film Yellow Submarine Sandwich, of course), with its fantastic ‘do I have to spell out’ chorus (C.H.E.E.S.E. etc.). Unlikely as it may seem, this song was covered by the late ‘80s dream pop band Galaxie 500 (just as long running indie rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo covered the Bonzo’s Readymades in 2000). So his modern pop sensibilities been disseminated wide and far over the years, finding receptive ears in surprising places.

Another Rutles song provided the encore which, with typical subversion of conventional logic and order, came immediately after the interval. Shangri-La (originally a song from a 70s solo album) was included on the Rutles’ Archaeology LP, their response to The Beatles’ Anthology releases. It has a long fade-out chorus which combines elements of Hey Jude and All You Need Is Love, inducing a similar impulse to singalong in unison. It would indeed have been a good way to end it all, but for Innes, that would have been far too obvious and odiously showbiz. Protest Song, of the tunes randomly thrown up by the dada gameshow wheel, offered pastiche of another 60s musical titan, Bob Dylan. Prefaced by some hilarious comic fumbling with guitar strap and harmonica stand (which demonstrates that Innes is a skilful clown himself), and endless peg-twiddling tuning which only succeeded in returning to the same wincingly off-key note (‘I’ve suffered for my music, and now it’s your turn’, he warned us), this caught his Bobness circa ’65 (or perhaps one of his many subsequent imitators) with keenly observed accuracy, both vocally and lyrically. His harmonica solos were excruciating in a manner similar to his ‘ecstatic’ guitar solo on the Bonzo’s Canyons of Your Mind, a transcendent awfulness which could only be achieved by someone possessed with real musical talent and the ability to thoroughly abuse it. In his final song, Surly Morning Blues, his Roland keyboard provided the Beach Boys pastiche through a preset sound (another readymade?) which, he suggested, seemed to indicate that Brian Wilson was trapped inside (something on the order of the keyboard in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, perhaps). It produced some hilarious faux-vocalising, which he put to use with great comic timing.

As an acknowledgement of his various collaborations with Eric Idle in The Rutles, Rutland Weekend Television and Monty Python (as well as in Do Not Adjust Your Set, before they hit the big time) he sang his Philosopher’s Song (which he put forward as his most clever lyric). As originally sung by a professorial chorus of Bruces in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, its elucidation of the drinking habits of various famous philosophers provided a suitable way to herald the interval exodus to the bar. The Wheel of 4 Tunes also blessed us with Quiet Talks and Summer Walks, a Bonzo song from the Keynsham album (‘when the madness had set in’, Innes added with a touch of Vincent Price melodrama). It’s a gorgeous ballad sung from the perspective of a flower observing strolling young lovers passing by. Its Donovanesque surface of summer of love whimsy is underlaid with a more poignant reflection on time and love, which was in tune with the philosophical themes of the evening. It also provided the basis for a memorable Innes Book of Records film, with Innes going all Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and donning the guise of a giant daisy. The evening did in fact have a loose overall structure, without ever becoming too ‘slick’, as Innes put it with evident aversion to going through over-rehearsed routines. Random events (or mistakes) were still given space, and welcomed. A running theme had adds from his purported sponsors, ‘Fiasco Superstores’, intruding upon songs or forming interludes, a pop art device reminiscent of The Who Sell Out. The blue-striped Fiasco motif (now who could he be thinking of?) also extended to the banner hung above the merchandising stall outside.

There was also a deal of anecdotage, stories of Viv Stanshall, the Bonzos, George Harrison and others, with jokes thrown in along the way (I particularly liked his retelling of Barry Cryer’s Stannah Stairlift gag). They were all related with a natural ease and self-effacing warmth and wit, remembrances of someone who ‘went through the 60s and is now going through them again’. Some of his recent CDs have themselves provided a kind of aural set of memoirs. Such modesty leads him to praise the work of others, heroes and collaborators. He finished (before his non-encore encore) with a rendition of a routine which Max Wall used to end one of his shows, involving two sticks of rhubarb and two potatoes (here imaginary specimens). It was a hugely enjoyable from a consummate (but not too much) professional who can stand proudly amongst such company, thumb firmly pressed to nose. And as a bonus extra-mural encore, I got his jokes about air of freedom and freedom air (fruits de mer) and his satnav telling him about the mysterious Exeter Head on the way back home. The old brain’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes.

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