Rychard Carrington reports on Neil Innes & Fatso – The Junction, Cambridge 2 October 2008

Neil Innes
Neil Innes & Fatso

I've always thought that Neil Innes has never been given his due. In fact, I'm quite certain of it. His manner, musically and personally, is so unimposing that it has allowed itself to be overshadowed by louder talents - Viv Stanshall's and Eric Idle's, in particular. But contained within Innes' mild offerings are a uniqueness of approach and a subtlety that provide something beyond the parodic, something poignant, delicate, incisive and humane, delivered in broadly comic guise but achieving far more than mere humour. 


Many of Innes' songs revitalise familiar sentiments through knowing pastiche which brings out the appealing essence at the core of familiar styles, rather than merely mocking their contrivances by exaggeration. Innes creates sufficient ironic distance to position the originals in a broader perspective than they could allow themselves, while actually enhancing their positive qualities. Hence the popularity of The Rutles' lovingly precise Beatles parodies, which reposition the Beatles' appeal beyond earnest belief in what they stood for, which alas is no longer possible with 60s aspirations now so forlornly remote.


The Rutles songs, of which there were quite a few tonight, are also redolent with classic examples of Innes' distinctive employment of diction, rhyme, metre and enjambement:


You're so pusillanimous

Oh yeah

Nature's calling an' I mus'

Go there

A glass of wine

With Gertrude Stein

I know I'll never share

But I don't mind

That's just the kind

Of cross each man must bear


(Another Day)


While some Rutles numbers very obviously refer to particular Beatles numbers (tonight's encore Get Up And Go to Get Back, for instance), others, particularly from the second Rutles album, are really quintessential Innes compositions performed à la Beatles. For instance Easy Listening, in which, as the title implies, the music is jaunty yet soothing, the lyrics unusually candid:


Never mind the world outside

Famine, war and genocide

Forget the loony on the loose

Rising crime and child abuse

Ignore the poisoned atmosphere 

Open up another beer

The media feed yer everyday

What to think and say


(Easy Listening)


Such good-naturedly castigating commentary on media has become increasingly typical of Innes' oeuvre. His solo album of 2005, Works In Progress, which is my favourite album of this decade, has as its thematic context a thoroughly sceptical, at times angry, depiction of contemporary culture:


I'm just one of those people

Who want to feel good all the time

I don't want no bad news messing with my mind

I don't want no smartarse media clown

Wising me up and then dumbing me down

I'm just one of those people

Who puts up with crap everyday

Not just any ordinary crap

I'm talking about a constant stream here

Continually getting in my way

I got crap in the workplace, crap on TV

Crap in the global economy


(One Of Those People)


Within this, though, Innes' humanism still finds inventive amusement, compassion and joy. Again, the subtle ludism transcends the limitations of protest.


It's a challenge to communicate such nuance in the context of live performance, where more immediate effects would seem to be the more potent. Clearer humour is provided in Elvis And The Disagreeable Backing Singers, while Ego Warriors is both more of an overt political affirmation and more of a comic routine than the numbers from Works In Progress. We even get two crowd-pleasing Monty Python songs - Brave Sir Robin and The Bruces' Philosophers Song, as well as the Bonzo Dog Band's hit I'm The Urban Spaceman, which is more typical of Innes, with its final ‘twist' so cunningly potent.


Neil's band tonight was Fatso, his cohorts from Rutland Weekend Television days: Roger Rettig, Billy Bremner, John Halsey and Brian Hodgson. Apart from the proto-Rutles numbers there were only two songs from the Rutland Weekend Songbook album tonight - Testing and Protest Song, but several others from the late seventies - Crystal Balls, Fortune Teller and the utterly magnificent Dreams Shine Through, which deserves the status of Imagine, expressing our latent romantic idealism, with distinctive playful Innes style refuting mawkishness superbly, to make for as moving a ballad as ever I've heard.


The band clearly enjoyed playing together again, and, Innes' writing apart, it was good to hear these able musicians gently rocking out together, as they did on several non-Innes, non-comic numbers, the most enjoyable being Poco's You Better Think Twice, which brought their country-rock inclinations to the fore. Altogether, then, a thoroughly enjoyable evening, but I think you'd need to get to know an Innes album such as Works In Progress, Off The Record or Taking Off (and then, in lieu of an official DVD release of the quite wonderful TV series of 1979-81 The Innes Book Of Records, watch video vignettes on You Tube), to appreciate quite what a unique and benign master Neil Innes is.

Writer: Rychard Carrington