British musician, writer and comedian Neil Innes has enjoyed a wide-ranging career as part of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, close collaborator with Monty Python, TV personality, solo artist, and more. This weekend, he’ll appear as a featured guest of Chicago’s 41st Fest for Beatles Fans. The visit will emphasize Innes’ role as Ron Nasty of ingenious Beatles parody The Rutles, and his real-life camaraderie with George Harrison.
Innes is a veteran of Fests in host cities including New York and Los Angeles, but holds special love for Chicago’s annual gathering of Fab Four fans. “I promise you I’m not being schmoozy-smoothy, but Chicago has always been the happiest one,” says Innes. “People are more in groups, sitting together and playing the songs. It’s one of my favorite places.” Innes will speak, meet fans, perform with Rutles guitarist Ken Thornton, and join house band Liverpool.
Innes’ association with the Beatles sprang from fandom on the Liverpool legends’ part, who were taken with the Bonzos’ public displays of musical eccentricity. “They used to come see us, in the days when they wore false beards to go out,” says Innes.
In 1967, the Bonzos were invited to perform “Death Cab for Cutie” in the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” film. Innes and Harrison struck a lasting friendship. “George used to tease me, and I’d tease him,” says Innes. “We were walking around the garden one day, and I said, ‘You’re a lazy bastard with your lyrics.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, if you can’t come up with a rhyme, you just put a bloody guitar lick in.’ I was talking about ‘Something,’ which of course is beautiful. And he started to go, ‘Yeah, but …,’ and then he realized I was winding him up.”
The Rutles are a satirical love letter to the Fabs that began on Rutland Weekend Television, a mid-’70s comedy series by Innes and Monty Python’s Eric Idle. “Rutland Weekend Television was Eric’s idea of a cheap TV station,” says Innes. “Quite frankly, the only reason BBC2 went for it was because it was going to be cheap. My job was to come up with songs and cheap ways of filming them. I said, ‘Why don’t we do something like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’? Black-and-white film, speed it up, very simple. Four guys in wigs and tight trousers running around in a field.’ He said, ‘Great. I’ve got this idea about a documentary filmmaker who’s so dull the camera runs away from him.’ That’s how it started.”
At 72 and newly relocated from England to France, Innes hasn’t approached anything resembling retirement. “I’ve got enough songs for a solo album, and I’m chipping away at them,” he says. One album contender is “Come Dancing.” “It’s about a character called Diego, from Tierra del Fuego,” says Innes with a laugh. “It’s taken me years to settle on the lyric. When I was 20-something, if I thought of a silly rhyme, I thought I was a genius. I’m just getting pickier, I suppose.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.