The Sweet Idiocy of Neil Innes

A new reissue of his classic solo album may help in getting people to rediscover its charms

Neil Innes (Art: Ron Hart)

Neil Innes had the bad luck to release his solo album, How Sweet to Be an Idiot (1973), between two rather more high-profile releases he was involved with at the time.

The comedic English singer/songwriter (who died last December of a heart attack) had got his start in the 1960s with the anarchic Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, then moved on to work with the Monty Python troupe and the GRIMMS collective (a mash-up group involving members of the Bonzos and the Liverpool outfit Scaffold) in the new decade. So, amidst the likes of The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief and GRIMMS’ Rockin’ Duck, both also released that year, Innes’ effort got lost in the shuffle.

A new reissue of Idiot, on Grapefruit Records, may help in getting people to rediscover its charms. Innes was known for his comedic work, and while Idiot does have its share of humor — most obviously seen in the album’s title — he wanted to take a broader approach on his first solo album. “I’m really working towards a situation where I don’t have to be funny,” he’s quoted as saying in the liner notes. “I don’t think any of the songs are particularly doomy or anything; they’re more in pastel areas, than red-nosed comedy.”

Indeed, comparisons to ‘70s-era Elton John and Randy Newman are apt. This is a collection of tuneful songs, with engaging wit. “Feel No Shame,” for example, is a chunky rocker about the pleasure of getting down without regret. The rockabilly jive of “Momma B” will also make you want to get up and boogie. “Immortal Invisible” ruminates about the nature of God.

But Innes is at his best when he does dabble in those “pastel areas.” A title like “Topless-A-Go-Go” naturally raises your curiosity, and turns out to be a cautionary tale, set to an improbably upbeat mid-rock tempo. “L’Amour Perdu” is a jolly, nonsensical singalong in fractured French, with an accent to match. The dreamy music of the opening number, “Prologue,” lulls you into momentarily overlooking such lyrical non sequiturs as “The sky looked blue, and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky.”

Neil Innes How Sweet To Be An Idiot, Grapefruit 1973/2020

And then there’s the title track. It became something of a signature song for Innes, frequently used to close his live shows, a lushly melodic piece riffing on the bliss that comes from ignorance (and must surely be the only song where “pedant” is rhymed with “dead ant”). The single version of the song, included here as a bonus track, pushes Innes’ voice up in the mix, underscoring the inherent melancholy. 

The single mix is one of ten bonus tracks that nicely expand the reissue, adding non-album singles and their B-sides. “Re-Cycled Vinyl Blues” is a delightful send up of the ingredients you need to make a hit record (tossing in bits of “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “In the Mood,” among others, along the way). Relegated to the flip side of that release was the astonishing “Fluff on the Needle,” a joyous five minute romp of wordplay with a stinging guitar line that wends its way through the track. While Innes played it straight on Idiot, the non-album tracks reveal how playful he could get when he was let off the leash. The single “What Noise Annoys a Noisy Oyster”/“Oo-Chuck-a-Mao-Mao” is wonderfully unhinged, wild and raucous and goofy.

Idiot’s title track was issued as a single in February 1973, and failed to attract much interest. Such was the fate of the album when it appeared in October 1973. By then, Innes was preparing for work on to the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with his iconic role as “Ron Nasty” in the Beatles’ spoof The Rutles waiting a few years in the future (not to mention the excellent songs he wrote for both projects).

One person who listened to “Idiot” closely was Noel Gallagher, as was revealed some twenty years later when British DJ Nicky Campbell played that track, followed by Oasis’s “Whatever,” on his show in 1994. The similarities were obvious, and a lawsuit followed, settled out of court, with Innes receiving a co-writing credit as a result. Innes had the last laugh, recycling the melody once again in “Shangri-La,” from the Rutles’s reunion album Archaeology.

It was the perfect touch, from a performer who always wanted to leave you with a smile.

 

VIDEO: Neil Innes performs “How Sweet To Be An Idiot”

 

 

 

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

One thought on “The Sweet Idiocy of Neil Innes

  • June 21, 2020 at 3:48 am
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    It is one of the great albums of all time, and deserves rediscovery. However, the reissuers screwed up this release royally.

    The sixth track on the CD, which is the title track, is the strident, orchestrated single version, which is an entirely different take and arrangement from the sparse album version, which is unfortunately at track fourteen, and mis-labelled as the single version. I’ve read several reviews of the album where the reviewer seems to think the orchestrated version is in the proper place, but a review of earlier versions will show this not to be so. I’m a huge Neil Innes fan since the late 60’s, and I’ve never even heard, much less heard of the previously rare single, orchestrated version ’til this year.

    Also, the original album presented most of the tracks going from one to the other as suites, and here they are with two second pauses arbitrarily placed between each track. This may not seem like much, but the charm of the listening experience the artist intended is utterly lost; the end of one song originally led to the downbeat of the next in a fashion not unlike the long suite on Side 2 of Abbey Road by The Beatles, which partly inspired the track arrangement here. Imagine that whole exquisite run of Beatles songs with pauses arbitrarily put between them, the momentum and drive would be lost. That’s what it is like listening to this when you know how it’s SUPPOSED to go. (Sad face).

    The 11th track, Singing a Song Is Easy, is also plagued with digital artifacts and clicks throughout, most noticeably heard in what should be a smooth Hammond B3 organ. If you can ever hear the original album, you’ll understand how very sad all these glaring errors are. They make what should be quite a seamless and magic experience disjointed and jolting by comparison.

    The remaining tracks are well mastered and nice to hear in one place, and the package and art are beautiful. I can only hope that these mistakes can be remedied in future pressings, as this gifted artist’s work deserves to be heard as was intended.

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