Most people remember where they were when they heard the news about John Lennon’s death. I was in bed in London that winter morning, not sleeping too well and listening to the radio. In the early hours the announcement came, and I was frozen with shock. I couldn’t listen to the music any more, and switched off the radio and somehow got back to sleep. The next morning I was due to go to Manfred Mann‘s cosy but well-equipped Workhouse Studio in the Old Kent Road to record some songs with Neil for his “Innes Book of Records” TV series (link shows me punking it with Neil, Ollie Halsall, John Halsey, and Paul Martinez). When I awoke bleary-eyed for breakfast, the news announcements were continuing – sadly it had not been a dream. When I arrived at the studio, not much was said, we knuckled down and got to work. All of us knowing that Neil was probably devastated by his friend’s death, even more than we were. To add to it, Neil’s voice sounded particularly Beatlish that day, as it often did.
Sorry for the sad opening, but it comes from one of the most memorable of many otherwise fun-filled days spent with Neil. Not long before that, I had played on John Otway’s album “Where Did I Go Right” which Neil produced, Ollie played on, and Sid James’ son Steve engineered. What a recipe for chaos! But also the occasional tender love song (WARNING! link is to a recent live version of the song featuring, OMG, an Otway violin solo. You Have Been Warned).
OK that’s enough Johns. Neil and I have played together live only twice, if I remember correctly. Once was at The Secret Policeman’s Ball in London in 1979, where I tinkled on “Spontaneous” (link is to a different version), his fabulous lounge singer parody. Two things stand out from that event, 32 years on. First, as I entered Her Majesty’s Theatre for the rehearsal, I could hear some bloke sounding like a really naff Pete Townshend, trying to make a go of “Pinball Wizard” armed only with an acoustic guitar. As the stage came into view, I saw that, um, it was Pete Townshend (sorry Pete!). What’s more, he greeted me warmly by saying, “heard you been playing with Otway” (who’s debut record he produced). Hush my mouth…
Then there was – ah, another John… Williams this time. Not the film composer, the esteemed classical guitarist, one of Britain’s finest, was also at the Ball, and was somehow persuaded to jam with Pete. Well I’m sorry, but he proved the old adage that classical musicians can’t jam, as he spent most of the song watching Pete’s fingers very very carefully while Pete blasted out “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, then fired off, a little too late, a prestissimo arpeggio, hopefully fitting the chord he had just “seen.” Then back to watching till he spotted another “doable” chord. Hmmm…
The second time Neil and I played together was a mere 22 years later in Tokyo. Neil popped over for a short solo tour, and had me come on stage to mess up a couple of numbers during his brilliant set. Just before the gig, Neil suggested that he and I “walk onstage, put our [bald] heads together, bow deeply and make an asshole of ourselves.” Which we did, to much Nipponese hilarity. His wonderful wife Yvonne was there too, and we chatted about how she had been working on George Harrison’s garden.
(Sadly, George passed away just a few months later. Another Beatle pal gone. In 2008 George’s wife Olivia, with Yvonne, created a tribute to George’s garden and the Queen dropped by to say helleow.)
Music for the Head Ballet (we are back to Neil, this time for keeps, I think) stunned me by it’s Satie-esque wit and chordal sophistication, and this more surreal side of his Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band‘s music made me a rabid fan for life. Moving on from the Bonzos (who had appeared in The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour”), Neil hooked up with Monty Python and eventually, with Eric Idle and on Rutland Weekend Television, The Rutles were born, leading to the hilarious mockumentary, “All You Need is Cash.”
Neil’s placid, easy-going nature was in full evidence when the Bonzo’s 40th anniversary reunion gigs happened, and most of the band showed up, in various states of daftness. It took four men (including Steven Fry) to attempt to replace the late, utterly irreplaceable Viv Stanshall. While not able to be in London to watch the pandemonium, I bought the DVD at once and could watch Neil grinning and throwing his hands up in cheerful futility as events on stage got out of hand.
Neil continues to tour and have fun and pun all over the place, and earlier this year he also very kindly contributed a thoughtful track to Artists Support Japan. He is one of the creative luminaries I can truly say it is an honour to know and to have worked with, even if he did have flying ducks on the wall of his London living room.
Next up: a 3D miniatures…