Urban spaceman's latest mission

TREVOR HEATON, EDP Whats On Editor Chief Rutle Neil Innes is back in Norwich on April 8 with his new show. Trevor Heaton spoke to the former stalwart of the much-loved Bonzos.


Watch out mass media, Neil Innes is gunning for you. With a guitar, a couple of musical friends and some spot-on (and funny) songs, the one-time Bonzo will be “cocking a snook” at the modern world in his new show Ego Warriors.

Neil's show - which has played to great acclaim in the United States as well as this country - sees Neil back in Norwich, a city close to his heart.

He was a pupil at Thorpe Grammar School, then studied for a couple of years at Norwich School of Art before heading off to London in 1962 - and the madcap whirl of the Sixties.

But more anon. For Neil's concern these days in Ego Warriors is to strike a satirical blow at what he dubs the “mass mediocrity”.

“It seems the individual isn't getting a look-in these days - when you phone up you get a menu of options. And then there's all this identity theft,” he says. “Heavens, it's all getting so bland and Machiavellian and horrible.

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“I looked up the meaning of 'civilisation' the other day and there was this supporting quote from Sir Arthur Helps: 'The more advanced the civilisation the less powerful the individual.' I thought: but that's now! And Sir Arthur was a Victorian.”

The show even has its own thumbing-the-nose logo. “It would be nice to have a profile as ubiquitous as Nike,” deadpans Neil.

The new show includes friends JJ Jones (drums) and Tom Fry (double bass) and includes songs from his

well-received CD, Works in Progress, as well as some old favourites.

And it would be a brave gambler who would bet against one of those old favourites being Neil's best-loved song, Urban Spaceman. It was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's sole chart success - in 1968 - but its singalong qualities make it a song just about everyone recognises even almost 40 years on.

Neil met the wayward comic genius Viv Stanshall in a pub in 1964. Between them the two steered the band through line-up changes, relentless touring and a series of zanily inventive albums. On the way they met and became firm friends with the Beatles, appearing in the Fab Four's Magical Mystery Tour - and the compliment was returned for Urban Spaceman with production duties being handled by one Apollo C Vermouth, better known as Paul McCartney.

Neil recalls exactly how the song first came about. “The Bonzos were on the road in a Manchester hotel overlooking what they now call brownfield sites, but then called urban spaces. So I got to wondering what an 'urban spaceman' could be - and then there were these faces on the television with perfect teeth, impossibly perfect people.”

Neil's friendship with the Beatles made possible the making of his much-loved spoof All You Need is Cash - the debut of the Rutles.

Eric Idle and Neil had an idea for the show, a spin-off from a Rutland Weekend Television sketch, but “it was George Harrison who made it happen. It was a labour of love for him.”

When a Beatle asks you, you say yes - so George was able to secure the likes of Paul Simon and Mick Jagger for appearances in the send-up. George even popped up himself in a cameo role.

Then, in the mid-1990s when the call for new Rutles songs grew, it was George who encouraged Neil to produce the Archaeology album. “I went to see George and said I'd had my arm twisted to do some new songs. He sat there grinning while I played them and asked me 'which one is this supposed to be?'

“I miss George such a lot - he was such a funny man.”

Neil gives an example of the

ex-Beatle's impish humour. “One time he was in his garden and came in and said he urgently needed a picture of a moray eel. So someone looked it up on the web and printed out something on A4. And George just wrote 'That's a moray!' on it - and went out again!”

Of course, as well as rubbing shoulders with the Beatles, Neil also made the acquaintance of members of the soon-to-be Monty Python team - which led to appearances in live shows and, gloriously, on-screen and in music in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Four of his original Grail songs are included in Eric Idle's hit Broadway musical Spamalot, a show poised to repeat its US triumph when it opens in the West End in the autumn.

Busy times for Neil, then, and happily no sign of the ex-Bonzo - “I'm decimal - 6.1” - slowing down.

Projects include an egowarriors.com website, where he will be doing his own radio show podcasts, and Neil has also set up a Museum of Modem (sic) Art where he will be collect those funny emails, spoof ads and film clips which do the rounds in cyberspace. He's already registered the name… Spamalittle.

And then there's a long-planned book, working title The Chronicles of Gammaland: An Explanation of Human Consciousness, which will weave autobiographical material with Neil's thoughts on the world.

“I want to make people think - and laugh,” says Neil. “I'm basically still just an art student up for a bit of fun.”

And, let's face it, that's not a bad philosophy.

t Neil Innes' Ego Warriors show plays the Maddermarket Theatre, St John's Alley, Norwich, on Saturday April 8 (7.30pm). Tickets £12, call the box office on 01603 620917