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What Happened to the Urban Spaceman

He’s been called the Count of Crazy, the Duke of Droll, and the Satrap of Silliness. I know, because I called him that. Just now. Doesn’t matter, these appellations are true. Neil Innes was one of the funniest musical comedians of the mid-60s and early 70s. He was so funny he made a living at it. For decades!

I named the above video “Here Comes the Twist” after a line in his only top 40 song, “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” For this Innes won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Novelty Song in 1968 and it became a staple of his satirical group, the Bonzo Do Dah Dog Band. This 60s/early 70s group was hilarious: It rivaled Frank Zappa’s work for sheer jollification. Innes was humble about such comparisons, however. He said, “Zappa’s far more musical than the Bonzos ever were.” True, but largely irrelevant. The Bonzos were decent musicians; they played tight musical lampoons and were adept with traditional rock instruments as well as the more offbeat ones like tuba and sousaphone. Most importantly, to quote the lyrics of “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” they “never made a boo.” Well, maybe they did once or twice, but here in America we’re too dense to catch them.

I am grateful to Innes for easing me through a dark period in my misspent youth. In the late seventies, I had a nasty motor vehicle accident and spent a nerve-racking amount of time recovering. To cheer me up, my girlfriend gave me the compilation album, The History of the Bonzos. Boy, did it ever. I wore out this “twofer” LP, an easy to thing do with vintage LPs you audiophiles out there. It made me intermittently happy, far more so than reruns of “The Muppets” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Innes made me wonder what the life of a British comedy musician must have been like in the 70s. I understand doing such ventures as a lark, since that’s what I just did re: the above-posted video. But what could it have been like as an occupation? Would you have had to work a 9 to 5 day of silliness production and squib recording? How would you fare in a fallow period? Would you have had to work at the British equivalent of Home Depot? Did life as a jokester put a strain on relationships, or could you just make light of every conflict with your mate to squirm out of trouble?

Taking Off Album Cover

Innes went on to star in The Ruttles, a comedy rock group that shamelessly mocked the Beatles. I didn’t find them that funny actually, nowhere near as unhinged as the Bonzos. But they were slicker than most silly musicians at the time (1978), like Dr. Demento or that unfortunate devolving of The Turtles, Flo & Eddie.

I was going to send him my video take-off on his song, but he’d died the year before of a heart attack. So I’m doing it through this poignant tribute. I know for a fact that Internet connections are not allowed in heaven, so there’s no way he’ll be able to catch this. But hopefully his surviving colleagues will. And maybe add their comments below.


Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog Stylus.

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  1. Matt Temple Matt Temple

    This is great, but I want to say, being a jokester puts a strain on a relationship for sure, unless of course, your Bessie girl is just another one. Somewhere, someone will say, with a raised eyebrow, “But seriously…”

    • Peter Peter

      Good point Matt! Whenever some lady would say “but seriously,” I would. For a short while. Then I would devolve into silliness.

      • Matthew Temple Matthew Temple

        This is called reversion to the norm. Its why diets, best intentions, and mea culpas fail. There’s some horrible magnet sucking you back towards who you really are.

        Also, I too wore out many records before the era of the first real turntable I owned. Sometimes, when I make digital recordings from those records, the various injuries I’ve caused it.

        An aged record is but a plastic thing.
        A winding path upon a spinning plate
        Unless soul clap hands and sing
        For each hiss and pop in its failing groove

  2. Larry Larry

    I loved your post. It took me to a different place. Now I’m back again. Wright more.

    • Thanks. Hopefully that place was “outer space.”

  3. Eric Eric

    At first I took your comment seriously that listening to “The History of the Bonzos” made you “intermittently happier” than watching reruns of “The Streets of San Francisco.” Then I realized – “That’s just Peter himself being humorous!” because how could anyone possibly derive greater happiness than from watching Karl Malden joyriding up and down the steep streets of San Francisco? And, I must correct you about Innes not being able to receive your video following his demise. He has. You have overlooked the one exception to the internet connection ban in the Promised Land. I thought everyone knew that Jesus IS able to pick up earthly created-videos with an interplanetary theme using the rabbit ears (and just a little aluminum foil added) on his receiver. I understand God allowed Neil Innes to sit at his right hand during last night’s screening. (Unbeknownst to those in heaven, like Innes, who are only allowed to view videos such as your tribute, the video to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs,” that privately, God spends most of his day secluded from others watching episodes of “The Maury Povich Show” (“Which one of these five men is actually the father of the child?”), “Divorce Court,” and “Judge Judy.”

    • This is a great eschatological explanation. Mind if I quote it in this comment section? Wait. . .

  4. Eric Eric

    I loved the video tribute, Peter! Great job!

  5. Your tribute to Neil Innes is both touching and humorous. 🎶 His work clearly had a significant impact on you, and your reflections bring his spirit to life. It’s a beautiful homage to a legendary comedy musician

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