On Two Musical Mischief Makers: George Martin and Neil Innes

Today a little thing on Beatles and Bonzos. We’ve been overdue for a tribute to Sir George Martin (1926-2016, it’s his birthday today), having done 20 posts on the Beatles over the past decade. Martin’s death four years ago was the logical occasion, but I wasn’t able to get to it. But the death just a few days ago of Neil Innes (1944-2019) provides a logical occasion for talking about both of them, for a common theme unites them both. Musical vaudeville.

I’m pretty forthright in asserting that all my favorite Beatles work is the stuff that has the most George Martin involvement as a creator, the pinnacle being Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1969, half of which Martin composed), and to a lesser degree, Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and the White Album (1968). And of course earlier things like the string arrangement on “Yesterday” (1965), which opened the door to expanding beyond the relatively restrictive two-guitars-bass-drums which had been the starting point. It would be too much to say that the Fifth Beatle is my favorite Beatle, but I will say that I like the Fab 4 less as solo artists (with the conspicuous exception of George Harrison), and I also like them less when they began to sideline Martin, as in the White Album, Get Back/Let it Be (1969/70); and Abbey Road (1969). It’s not just that with his greater education and experience he was their tutor and mentor. He shared their youthful spirit of play, adventure, and experiment. I want pictures that draw from a full pallet, including orchestras, exotic folk instruments, comical sound effects, and the possibilities of the recording technology itself. That’s what Martin brought to the table.

Martin was classically trained on piano and oboe at Guildhall School of Music and Drama on a veteran’s grant, attending from 1947 through 1950. (His oboe teacher was actually the mother of Jane Asher, later the fiance of Paul McCartney). He started at EMI/Parlophone shortly thereafter. His tastes were always wide-ranging and eclectic. He produced not only classical and jazz records, but original cast recordings of musicals, and comedy records starring the likes of Peter Ustinov, Bernard Cribbins, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore (most famously 1961’s Beyond the Fringe). He was to tap into this experience for many Beatle songs, such as “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Morning Good Morning”. He also produced old-timey trad jazz things like “You’re Driving Me Crazy” (1961) by The Temperance Seven, and “Morse Code Melody” (1962) by The Alberts, which made him the perfect person to oversee the recordings of such Paul McCartney songs as “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Honey Pie.”

Despite his buttoned-up image, Martin was also interested in rock and roll, and had been producing British rock and pop records since the mid 1950s. He began working with the Beatles in 1962 in fact because he was actively seeking a hit-making group to work with. His early rock hits included stuff like The Ivor and Basil Kirchin Band’s cover of Bill Haley’s “Rock a-Beatin’ Boogie” (1956), The Vipers Skiffle Group’s “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” (1957), and “Be Me Girl” (1957) by none other than Jim Dale. Dale was later to co-write “Alfie” (1966), sung by Cilla Black, one of the numerous acts in Martin’s stable once the Beatles made it big. Black was to be the most successful of these discoveries, although he also produced hits for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Fourmost, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. He also worked with Shirley Bassey, producing (among other things) the hit theme song to the 1965 James Bond film Goldfinger. 

Nor was that Martin’s last James Bond theme. He produced Paul McCartney’s theme song for 1973’s Live and Let Die, and composed the soundtrack for the film as well. As is well known, McCartney was Martin’s most simpatico collaborator from among the Beatles. In addition to the Beatle work, Martin arranged and produced McCartney’s soundtrack music for the 1966 film The Family Way, and later the solo albums Tug of War (1982), Pipes of Peace (1983), and the soundtrack for Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984). He also (not too surprisingly) produced Ringo Starr’s solo record of Tin Pan Alley classics, Sentimental Journey (1970), a foray not unlike stuff Martin had produced ten years prior.

By contrast, John Lennon was not as much of a fan of Martin — Phil Spector became his producer of choice after the break-up. I’ve grown to be less fond of Martin’s weird string sections on Lennon trips like “I Am the Walrus” and “Glass Onion”, but it has to be said that on songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love”, their interaction was very fortunate indeed.

Later, Lennon very unfairly smeared Martin, claiming that he was nothing without the Beatles, and that he had no hits afterwards. Neither claim was true. Other than McCartney, Martin’s most successful post-Beatles acts included America, with whom he recorded several hits in the mid ’70s; Jeff Beck, Little River Band, Kenny Rogers, and Neil Sedaka. I didn’t say you had to like it, I just said he was successful. After all, he was pushing 60 by the ’80s: back then I imagine that meant your tastes running to easy listening dreck if you wanted to stay in the pop business. It would have been better for all of us if he worked with someone more like, oh, this guy:

Yesterday, I went on social media and mentioned the absurd fact that I was weeping while listening to Gorilla. No less than three people wrote back inquiring if I was referring to the 1975 James Taylor album. No. For the record, no. Despite the fact he was one of Apple Records’ first discoveries, as I indicated in this earlier post, there is no one I revile more than James Taylor as a musical artist. I want to melt his records, freeze the puddle, shatter the result, sweep the fragments into the sewer, then fill the sewer with gasoline and set the sewer on fire. THAT is how much I hate James Taylor. Anyone with even a particle of a clue knows that I refer to the 1967 record by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, of which one of the principal members was the late, lamented Neil Innes (1944-2019).

The Bonzos owed so much to Martin’s legacy it’s pretty astounding they didn’t directly collaborate (beyond I would imagine some slight interaction on Magical Mystery Tour — some of their music was used in the film). Initially the Bonzos mixed elements of the trad jazz style employed by acts Martin produced like The Temperance 7 and The Alberts, with the comedy records he produced starring guys like Spike Milligan and Bernard Cribbins. The Bonzos sounded like a band from the 1920s. The “Doo-Dah” had evolved from “Dada”, for the band, fronted by singer, songwriter and tuba player Vivian Stanshall, had a surreal, nonsensical sense of humor, one that would fit unexpectedly well with the psychedelic spirit of the 1960s. What Innes contributed was more of a modern, pop sensibility, most prominently evident on their one bona fide hit single “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (1968), produced by none other than Paul McCartney.

It was at McCartney’s behest that the Bonzos had performed their Elvis parody “Death Cab for Cutie” in Magical Mystery Tour (later supplying a name for an indie rock band). That same year of 1967 they became the house band on the weekly ITV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, which starred several future members of Monty Python. Innes would write material for the Python tv show and their comedy records, as well as the songs “Knights of the Round Table” and Brave Sir Robin” for Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). He also acted in small roles in Holy Grail as well as The Life of Brian (1979) and Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky (1977).

As if all that weren’t enough, Innes collaborated with Eric Idle on the Beatles parody project The Rutles in the mid 1970s. In America we know it best from the 1978 mockumentary All You Need is Cash, produced by Lorne Michaels, and featuring SNL cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, in addition to Innes and Idle, fellow Python Michael Palin, and rock stars like the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Ron Wood, and none other than George Harrison himself, who was also an advisor on the musical arrangements. Frankly, this movie spoiled the later and much more popular This is Spinal Tap for me. For me there is no comparison (and perhaps it is unfair to make one). At any rate, I often listen to the Rutles soundtrack album in lieu of an actual Beatles’ album, the parodies are that spot-on.

Later there were Bonzo and Rutles reunions and Innes solo projects, and he never stopped writing or performing, but the ’60s and ’70s were really his glory time. Et Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.