When the rare conversations regarding the merits of the Bonzo Dog Band are had, a fair portion of that time is spent discussing the work of Viv Stanshall, he of the instantly recognisable voice, weird lyrics, variable solo career and someone generally held to be a cult hero. While Stanshall and his creative career certainly deserve to be celebrated, it is often done so to the detriment of his Bonzo band mates, none more so than co-creative lead, Neil Innes. Being the source of The Bonzo’s more accessible numbers, Innes career maybe didn’t have the dramatic rises and falls of his bandmate, but neither has he had the labels of ‘eccentric’ or ‘national treasure’ stuck on him by the types of folks who like to be able to label things without any thought for individuality. Instead Innes just went about his way being quietly brilliant at what he does, at various points being involved with short-lived comedy pop supergroup, The World, before branching into television comedy, first with Monty Python (in whose films he made regular appearances), then on to Rutland Weekend Television (which itself led to The Rutles) and the Innes Book of Records, and eventually becoming a children’s television mainstay with series like Puddle Lane and Raggy Dolls.
In regards to Innes’ music, following The World, his musical career would weave deftly between infrequent solo albums, The GRIMMS, and the occasional live appearance with the Pythons. As the main songwriter for The Rutles project, Innes would reach something of a creative pinnacle of his career, however as it was Eric Idle who was the famous face fronting the well received (and in retrospect, way ahead of its time) mockumentary, Innes perhaps didn’t receive the credit he deserved, as Idle had no input into the music that made the whole endeavour such a success.
Innes’ second solo album, Taking Off, was released in 1977. Given that Innes would have been in the middle of writing songs for The Rutles project at the time, it’s tempting to assume that Taking Off would consist of material written at the same time that just wouldn’t have fitted The Rutles project, and therefore the album as whole as little more than a collection of cast offs, but there’s much more than that to it, as it is probably far closer to where Innes’ muse lay, rather than the affectionate Beatles tribute pieces he was penning at about the same time. Innes always had a solid grasp of what made a great pop melody, and there’s many melodious passages to enjoy throughout Taking Off. It’s not all pop fluff though, as there are instrumental passages here that take a sharp turn to explore vaguely darker textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on an album by Matt Berry 40 years later. Lyrically,on the whole, the songs on Taking Off are as strong as anything Innes has penned during his solo career, with the only real misfire being “Randy Raquel”, though I’m only really giving “Crystal Balls” a pass, as former Bonzo fans would have expected Innes to provide something ‘zany’ as an opener.
As solid an album as it is, Taking Off just seems out of step given everything else that was happening in pop music at the time, punk was exploding here in the UK, disco was similarly gaining ground, and if you were a little more old school, the mega acts from the beginning of the decade were still filling the stadiums, and there was still plenty of AOR rock being released to slate the thirst of the American market and those that just hadn’t bought into the new fangled punk and disco sounds. With all of this going on, it didn’t leave much room for an album of tuneful humorous pop songs featuring a shirtless artist proudly showing a duck to the bemused listener. As a result, Taking Off just didn’t take off, which is a shame really, as it is a good album that deserved to find a larger audience. Perhaps if its release had been held back until after the success of The Rutles, it would have found greater success, but I suppose there was no guarantee of that happening.
If you’re a fan of The Bonzo Dog Band or The Rutles, you owe it to yourself to investigate Taking Off, as Neil Innes post-Bonzos career deserves far wider recognition than he has received to date.