“It is with deep sorrow and great sadness that we have to announce the death of Neil James Innes on 29 December 2019,” his family said in a statement reprinted by the BBC. “We have lost a beautiful, kind, gentle soul whose music and songs touched the heart of everyone and whose intellect and search for truth inspired us all. He died of natural causes quickly without warning and, I think, without pain. His wife Yvonne and their three sons, Miles, Luke and Barney, and three grandchildren, Max, Issy and Zac, give thanks for his life, for his music and for the joy he gave us all.”
Born on Dec. 9, 1944 in Danbury, Essex, England, Neil Innes first rose to fame during the late ’60s in the U.K. playing guitar and piano in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, merging rock, music hall, psychedelia and absurdist humor. Their career got a boost in 1967 when they appeared in the Beatles made-for-TV film Magical Mystery Tour singing “Death Cab for Cutie,” whose title was eventually used by an indie rock band. A year later, Paul McCartney, billed as “Apollo C. Vermouth,” produced their biggest hit, the No. 5 “I’m the Urban Spaceman.”
They were also the house band on the British children’s television show Do Not Adjust Your Set, which starred Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, who would later form one-half of Monty Python. The Bonzos broke up in 1970, and Innes started writing music for Python’s show. Innes sang his own compositions on their albums Live at City Center and Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and was spotted in their movies, perhaps most famously singing his “Brave Sir Robin” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Reportedly, that’s his whistling on The Life of Brian‘s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
After Python’s breakup, he remained close with Idle, writing songs for his sketch show Rutland Weekend Television. The program saw the birth the Rutles, a Beatles parody band with Innes, as Ron Nasty, was the John Lennon to Idle’s McCartney-esque Dirk McQuigley. A 1978 mockumentary called All You Need Is Cash, told the history of the “Prefab Four,” from their formation in Liverpool to their final concert on a London rooftop and featured cameos from George Harrison and many of the original Saturday Night Live cast.
Innes revived the Rutles, without Idle on a couple of occasions. The first was in 1996, with the Archaeology album coming in the wake of the Beatles’ Anthology project, and he and John Halsey, the Ringo Starr doppelganger, did a U.K. tour in 2014.
In 2008, a documentary about Innes’ life called The Seventh Python premiered.