It’s tempting, when explaining to people who Neil Innes was, to immediately associate him with the world-famous English exports he had connections with. But I think the first I heard of him was not as a hanger-on of The B**tles or M*nty Pyth*n but as a solo act singing How Sweet to be an Idiot on television in the nineteen-seventies.
That song, from his first solo album in 1973, seems to be pure Neil. What he appeared to do most in his songwriting, however, was inhabit other characters. These could be specific people, like J*hn L*nn*n, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison or Frank Sinatra. They could be generic: lounge acts, country singers, reggae stars, punk rockers, Parisian cafe artistes, laid back Californians etc. Or they might just be comedic caricatures of himself
When he wasn’t clowning around (to great effect) Innes seemed to be pushing a personal philosophy. He would often ridicule the media’s love for simplification and exaggeration, as well as its supposition that new technology will make us happier, when what it frequently does is create more distance between us.
I couldn’t really summarize the key points of his Ego Warrior movement but maybe it had something to do with thumbing ones nose at the more artificial and superficial aspects of western society.
The BBC2 series ‘The Innes Book of Records’ (1979-81) showed Innes’ versatility as a musical satirist, humorist and performer. On some songs he gets it so ‘right’ that, even though it’s meant to make a person laugh, it can make them cry too. Especially in the light of his unexpected passing.
Today’s world seems to be obsessed with music videos, with no end in sight, but in 1979 they were a rarity. The BBC commissioned Innes to make three series of six thirty-minute programmes consisting of visual interpretations of his songs. The results were funny, charming and featured excellent material.
Never one for hiding away or resting on his laurels. Innes made the most of his talents between the ages of fifty-five and seventy-five. There was much performing, recording and more video making.
2005’s Works in Progress album had a rootsy, acoustic flavour, with several memorable songs and a refreshing honesty, as well as the customary Innes humour.
Nearly Really, Neil’s unwitting swan song, has its share of great compositions, is the length of a double album and explores some global and spiritual themes.
The production style is far more digital than you would get from a live Neil Innes performance. As always the humour is prominent, with an impersonation of contemporary Bob Dylan in Surly in the Morning and a sending-up of his own generation in Soft Shoe Shuffle. So Long. Big Smile. Bye-Bye.