“Neil Innes And Friends”

Today was the fourth time I’ve seen Neil Innes live, and you never know what to expect. He’s one of the true greats of both comedy and music, but precisely because of that he’s hard to fit into a neat category.

The first time I saw him was in a smallish theatre, with a two-man backing band playing songs from throughout his career and telling stories in between them. The second time was for the Bonzo Dog Band reunion, where there were about twenty people on stage including all the surviving Bonzos, Phill Jupitus, Adrian Edmondson, and the bloke who plays Paul McCartney in the Bootleg Beatles. And then last year I saw him play in a small pub in Chester to an audience of no more than fifty people, solo, playing mostly stuff from his recent Works In Progress and Recollections CDs.

But this show was unpredictable in more ways than normal. I’d seen it advertised as at three different venues, on two different days, and as “The Rutles”, “Neil Innes with Legs Larry Smith” and “Neil Innes and Friends”, with various people mentioned as being involved.

The reason for the confusion was mostly because this wasn’t really a show aimed at the general public, but at Beatles fans.

I’ve never really understood Beatles fandom. That’s not to say I don’t understand loving the Beatles — I have multiple copies of all their albums, tons of bootlegs, almost all their solo work, and twenty or so books on them (I even wrote one myself…). But… fandom as I understand it is as much about group membership, making friends and so on as anything else. And liking the Beatles, even liking the Beatles a lot, doesn’t seem to me to really be enough of a shared interest.

“I like the most popular band in the whole history of music!”
“Really, me too! So do these billion other people!”

I don’t know, it just seems a bit like being a fan of chocolate or sex or something — things that definitely make the world a much better place, but which are so ubiquitously loved that they don’t really count as a shared interest. (This should not be taken as IN ANY WAY being a knock on Beatles fandom though — it’s a group of people including many of my friends, and which has bonded around a shared love of my favourite band. I’m not going to knock that, ever.)

But anyway, Beatles fans-qua-fans do indeed exist, and Liverpool in the last week of August is the home to thousands of them, who come for Beatleweek, a week-long holiday where they get taken round all the Beatles-related tourist sites, see more Beatles tribute bands than one could have reasonably imagined existed (including The Bertils, The Beatelles, Let It Beatles, and Classic Stone, who just don’t seem to be trying), and also see performances by people connected in some way with the band. This year’s special guests included Joey Molland of Badfinger, Joe Brown (a minor British 50s rock star who was a close friend of George Harrison), Mark Hudson (of the Hudson Brothers, and Ringo Starr’s musical director for his solo tours for twenty years)… and this show.

It turned out that we weren’t going to get “Legs” Larry Smith, as advertised, but what we did get was more than enough.

The show openers were John Gorman and Mike “McGear” McCartney, two thirds of the Scaffold (Roger McGough is now a well-known poet and doesn’t perform very often). The two have worked with Innes many times over the years — they were the G and M in Innes’ post-Bonzos band GRIMMS — but they’re also locals, and most importantly to this crowd Mike McCartney has a rather well-known brother.

They opened with an a capella performance of Long Strong Black Pudding, their classic B-side, with the lyric changed to “A long strong black pudding up David Cameron”, which got a huge amount of applause from the front, which seemed to be mostly people who knew what they were getting themselves into, and utter bemusement from the bulk of the crowd.

The two Scaffold members, incidentally, were backed by a band calling themselves The Spiritualists (or something like that), but which contained Roddy and Rhino from The Muffin Men, the world’s best Frank Zappa tribute band, also from Liverpool.

After Long Strong Black Pudding, we got two of John Gorman’s songs from Tiswas, originally released as by “The Four Bucketeers” (described by Wikipedia as “an ad-hoc music/water-throwing group”) — Bucket Of Water Song (actually a top thirty hit), which involved Gorman throwing buckets of water onto the audience, and Raspberry Rock, an audience participation number which involved the audience blowing raspberries.

As you’d expect from someone with such a long pedigree in comedy, Gorman is an achingly funny performer, but Mike McCartney (who now looks like a camp cross between his brother, Alan Bennett, and Laurence Payne) is an equally good straight man. Most of their comedy routines were fairly standard stuff — reading out two diary entries, alternating phrase by phrase, so that innocuous phrases became doubles entendres, singing “Ten bottles of whisky hanging on the wall” and drinking each bottle as it falls, becoming progressively more drunk, the sort of thing one gets on a sub-standard episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue — but the performances were exquisite, master-classes in comedy and timing.

The people at the back were leaving in droves, saying “what is this shit?” (and to be fair, a bunch of American and Japanese tourists who are mostly interested in Beatles tribute bands would probably not be the audience Gorman and McCartney would have chosen either), but anyone who had some idea of what they were in for — which was the few hundred people at the front — was loving every second. It was a lovely, lovely performance.

We got all the hits — 2 Days Monday, Thank U Very Much, Liverpool Lou and Lily the Pink, and the crowd sang along with all of them. At the end, my sister, who’d come along with me but didn’t know anything about the Scaffold, said “Paul McCartney’s brother’s far better than Paul, isn’t he?”

She wasn’t far wrong.

As soon as they finished, half the remaining audience (who were presumably just there for the novelty factor of seeing a Beatle Brother) left, leaving a hard core of a couple of hundred people.

After a short interval, The Rutles came out, or at least two of them (the last couple of months seem to be “seeing two members of a band time” for me, what with seeing Two Beach Boys last month, and now seeing Two Of The Scaffold, Two Muffin Men and Two Rutles all in the same day).

This version of the band had Neil “Ron Nasty” Innes and John “Barry Wom” Halsey, along with a three-piece backing band whose names I didn’t catch (although I know the keyboard player also did some work with the Bonzos on their reunion album). As for the rest of the Rutles, Ricky Fataar is currently busy touring as Bonnie Raitt’s drummer, and Eric Idle never really performed on the music (and apparently has also badly fallen out with Innes as well). Ollie Halsall, who sang the “Dirk McQuickly” parts that Idle mimed to, sadly died around twenty years ago.

From the moment they came out and opened with Number One everyone was singing along with stupid grins on their faces. It’s not until you hear these songs live, with an audience that knows them and sings along, that you really realise how well they work as songs, divorced from any satirical context. They’re just bloody good songs, some of them very funny, which happen to sound quite a lot like some other, also good songs.

As my sister, who again wasn’t at all familiar with the Rutles songs (though she loves the Bonzos) said — “they’re so catchy you can sing along with them after the first verse even if you’ve never heard them before”.

Pretty much everything in the twenty-one-song set was a highlight, from hearing the crowd all singing along to “shoot me down in flames if I should tell a lie, cross my heart I promise that it’s true, I’ve been in love so many times before, but never with a girl like you” — there’s nothing quite like being in a crowd of people all singing along to a favourite song that almost no-one knows — to the reaction to the backing vocal argument in Rendezvous (most of the audience seemed less familiar with Archaeology, and so had a fresher reaction to it).

There were only two flaws with the show, neither enough to spoil it, and neither the fault of the musicians. The first was the amount of dry ice flooding onto the stage, which by about forty minutes in was having a clear effect on Innes’ voice (he said at one point “I’m what musicians call pony — a little hoarse”).

The other problem was that, as so often with what is nominally a comedy show (though this was the most music-focussed of the shows I’ve seen Innes do by far), a few idiots in the audience thought the show was about them, and shouted ‘hilarious’ responses to things he said — usually treading on a prepared punchline. Innes tolerated this with good grace, but it was easy to see his patience wearing a little thin when three of them started singing Raggy Dolls (the theme from a children’s cartoon that Innes did in the 1980s) while he was talking.

But these were minor flaws in what was an astonishingly good performance. Oddly, though, the best point came when Innes got out a ukulele and started playing All Things Must Pass, the only non-Rutle song of the evening. It was a lovely, touching arrangement, and brought out far more beauty in the song than the rather heavy-handed rock arrangement on George Harrison’s original.

The setlist concentrated on the first Rutles album, but with a smattering of tracks from Archaeology. I can’t reproduce it exactly, but it was something like:
Number One
It’s Looking Good
With A Girl Like You
Ouch!
Questionnaire
Major Happy’s Up And Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band
Rendezvous
Hold My Hand
Doubleback Alley
Good Times Roll
Cheese And Onions
Living In Hope
Love Life
Joe Public
Easy Listening
Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik
Piggy In The Middle
All Things Must Pass
Get Up And Go
Shangri-La
Back In 64

The songs are all right, and the first few and last few are in the right order, but the middle is possibly mixed up quite a bit.

For those who don’t know Innes’ work, he has a *lot* of music available for free download here. Go and listen to it — and then go and buy the stuff you have to pay for, and go to his shows. He’s one of the true greats, and deserves a much wider audience than he has.

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One Response to “Neil Innes And Friends”

  1. Richard says:

    Permission to seethe with jealousy requested, sir! Especially since I’m one of those people who knows the words to all the Rutles songs so this sounds like an audience I would have fit right in with. Thank you for letting me enjoy this vicariously at least.

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