George Harrison once observed that the spirit of the Beatles was passed on to the Monty Python troupe, which was premiering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” around the time the Fabs were disintegrating in 1969.
But if there’s a bridge between the two, it’s probably in the soul of Neil Innes, a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (which had its biggest hit record co-produced by one Apollo C. Vermouth, aka Paul McCartney), adjunct member of the Pythons (he played Robin’s Minstrel in “Holy Grail” and contributed music and routines throughout the years) and, above all, member and chief composer of the Rutles, still — more than 40 years later — the best Beatles parody.
Innes died Sunday. He was 75. The death was sudden, according to his website, and “without pain.” Which is only appropriate, given the immense pleasure he provided me and countless other Beatles (and Python and Rutles) fans.
I’m often shocked and stunned by the absurd ways so much of this world, especially the pop culture world, is connected. From my earliest memories, I loved the Beatles, spinning my aunt’s left-behind 45s when I was 5 or 6 years old. A few years later, starting to dig into the history of the group, I read Nicholas Schaffner’s neglected “The Beatles Forever,” which noted that its members had done some extracurricular production in the early Apple days, including McCartney’s work on the Bonzos’ “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” (Edit, 9:03 p.m.: I should mention that the Bonzos already had a Beatles connection — they performed “Death Cab for Cutie” in “Magical Mystery Tour.”)
Perhaps a year later, “All You Need Is Cash,” the mockumentary about the Rutles, premiered on NBC. I still remember the date clearly — March 22, 1978 — because it was the Wednesday before my bar mitzvah and half my family had come to visit. I spent the evening running back and forth from the TV, where I watched the film, to the living room, where I spent commercial breaks schmoozing with my aunts and uncles. Sorry that my attention was divided, aunts and uncles, but I was right to be concerned: In those days before we owned a VCR, I had no idea if I’d ever see the Rutles again, and the film finished dead last in the ratings.
Newsweek (or was it Time?) had done a story, however, and I knew there was a soundtrack album, which I dutifully purchased at full retail price. My family had a recordable 8-track player, and I bought a blank 8-track tape to make a Rutles-Beatles comparison record, since losts to the mists of history and crappy technology.
Perhaps a year after that, I was perusing the first “Rolling Stone Record Buyers’ Guide” in a mall bookstore and noticed that the double-LP collection, “The History of the Bonzos,” earned the maximum five stars. I found a copy at the long-departed New Orleans record store Leisure Landing and started immersing myself in “Spaceman,” “My Pink Half of the Drainpipe,” “You Done My Brain In,” and “King of Scurf.”
And, so, Neil Innes — creative, funny, whimsical — became one of my musical heroes.
There were other connections, it turned out. Ricky Fataar, who played Harrison parody Stig O’Hara in the Rutles, was a member of the Flames, a South African band produced by Beach Boy Carl Wilson, who sang lead on “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney has called his favorite Beach Boys song. Like the Beatles, the Rutles lost a member young: Ollie Halsall, a session man who did much of the McCartney-esque work. And, to bring the story full circle, Harrison appeared in “All You Need Is Cash” and mortgaged his house so Python could make “Life of Brian.”
I followed Innes’ career intermittently; I saw he attended the occasional Beatles convention, and would be the subject of an interview every so often. I took advantage of my time as CNN’s Entertainment section producer to interview two Pythons, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and one very ex-Beatle, Pete Best, but never got a chance to talk to Innes. I don’t know what I would have asked him, anyway: “Do you know how happy your music has made me over the years?”
Not very journalistically insightful of me.
I’m sad today, but Innes — who was characterized by John Cleese as “a very sweet man, much too nice for his own good” — had the right perspective on posterity. In the Rutles song “Back in ’64,” he tells of trying to describe the excitement of the ’60s to a grandchild, only to be ignored:
But as you’ve gone on and on
Your audience has flown
And as you find yourself all on your own
Still, he adds: “You may wistfully recall / How Benjamin Disraeli said that /
Life is too short to be small / Or maybe like some old time song / Over all it’s long so, so long, it’s all over …”
Good night, Neil. Your life was anything but small.