What do you call a guy who can’t seem to settle on a rock ’n’ roll style? Well, you could call that kinda guy NEIL INNES, except that name is already taken. It belongs to the British songwriter who fronted the ’60s comedy rock troupe The Bonzo Dog Band. You know, the guy who wrote many of Monty Python’s clever movie tunes (“Camelot,” “Sir Robin”) and was considered the “7th Python.” He’s the guitarist/pianist who created The Rutles, wrote all of their great music and portrayed John Lennon parody character Ron Nasty on television. His first solo album, 1973’s How Sweet to Be an Idiot, has just been reissued by Grapefruit and it’s a timely way to discover Innes’ wide spectrum of greatness.
This reissue was already in the works when Innes passed away in December, so it doesn’t feel like a record company cash grab. What is nice is that it captures on CD the album in its original running order and adds a number of singles-only tracks, marking the first time that the full-fledged Idiot has appeared in the digital age. In fact, the album is so scarce here in the USA that the only way I was familiar with any of its tracks was through an almost as obscure compilation album called Re-Cycled Vinyl Blues (the title track of that comp and one of the bonus songs on this release). By the time Neil Innes recorded Idiot he’d apparently decided to tame down the Bonzo humor and go for something a little more palatable to “normals” but his particularly peculiar way of looking at the world still exhibited a wry (or maybe an awry) vision. He was the classic case of a guy whose talents were so expansive that there was no genre or category that could possibly contain him and therefore consigned him to the sidelines. Too bad, too, because there is so much to enjoy in Neil’s work that you’re cheating yourself by ignoring his existence. (At least if you’re ignorant of his existence you’re a bit off the hook.)
How Sweet to Be an Idiot is an album from the early ’70s so it can tend to sound a bit soft but don’t let that put you off. There are blues/boogie tunes like “Momma B,” poignant ballads like album closer “Singing a Song Is Easy,” and of course humorous ditties like “Topless A-Go-Go” and bonus tracks like the genius and timeless “Lie Down and Be Counted” and “Fluff on the Needle.” My favorites (besides those) are the ones that have not only poignancy and humor but the musicianship displayed in “Dream,” a powerful yet curious tune that ends so abruptly that not only do you wish it wasn’t over but you actually write an email to the record company asking if there’s been some kind of mistake in the mastering process! (That you is me and yes, that is how the song’s supposed to end.) This CD reissue also features ten extra tracks, all of the singles sides from the period and includes the solo, single version of the title track and an oddball recitation called “The Age of Desperation.”
If you like your CD purchases to be multi-dimensional then How Sweet to Be an Idiot might be a good choice. If you also like some humor in your listening then Neil Innes’ unsung classic will likely more than fulfill your comedy needs. We’re talking comedy with a lowercase “c,” comedy that’s less of a pie in the face and more of a pie aimed at you that instead grazes your ear and leaves a little cream on the lobe for you to taste. — Marsh Gooch
4/5 (Grapefruit/Cherry Red QCRSEG073, 2020)