Big Issue Vendor

Dip My Brain in Joy is a delightful celebration of Neil Innes

Celebrating the genius of Neil Innes with those who loved him is vital listening, says Robin Ince
Neil Innes died last year but his memory lives on. Image credit: Takahiro Kyono/Flickr

A man is walking in what sounds like a desolate cave or labyrinthine subterranean chambers.

There is a sense of disorientation, the silence is broken with a voice erring towards desperation: “Does anyone know who I am?”

We do. It is Neil Innes, a polymath artist, musician, comedian, writer, Bonzo and delight who died one year ago.

Dip My Brain in Joy, which justifies its existence with that title alone, is a three-part series in celebration of him. It is clearly made with love by Laura Grimshaw, a beautiful collection of archive conversations and songs mixed with new interviews and presented by Diane Morgan.

Innes is described as “David Bowie with puns” but “regularly with a duck on his head”. Of all Bowie’s famed chameleon changes, sadly none involved wildfowl as a hat.

In an archive review from Anarchy Must be Organised (a 2016 Radio 4 special on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band), Morgan worries that there is just not enough weirdness around any more.

Innes replies, “You call it weirdness, but I think it’s closer to the truth.”

Yvonne Innes remembers an early date. On the train home, perhaps sensing that the relationship might go further, he felt it only right to say, “I think I’d better tell you that I’m going bald.” This delightful piece of honesty sealed the certainty that Yvonne would marry him. 

Their wedding night was spent at a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band gig in Ilford, where they were supported by an old man in briefs with knobbly knees who swung his wife around precariously.

Yvonne remembers it as a surreal day, and there would be plenty more of them. Michael Palin, who so fondly remembered Innes on Radio 4’s Last Word earlier this year, says that from the moment they met “I just had feeling that Neil was one of us.”

In episode one there are conversations with Kevin Eldon, Stephen Fry and Terry Gilliam. The Gilliam conversation is a particularly lovely one about art, including the Flemish painters, and when creativity is hijacked and monetised by other people “the one with the most money when they die wins”.

It also focuses on how Dadaism remained an influence throughout Innes’s life, and with it the desire to create joy. Another treasure within the show is an interview with John Walters, fondly remembered as the John Peel Show’s producer, and fellow Bonzo Viv Stanshall talking about the deliberate chaos of the gigs.

In one retrieved bootleg recording the audience are handed instruments to play along to It Was a Great Party Until Someone Found a Hammer. 

That rather wonderful title was taken from a magazine of lurid true stories – also on the cover was the title Death Cab for Cutie.  There’s potential art in every rag. At some Bonzo gigs everyone in the band would just move one instrument along to see what would come out.

As Gilliam pointed out, theirs was the first generation that refused to get old so quickly – “We all get bigger and older but none of us ever really go away.

“We are all trapped in bigger bodies, like Russian dolls.” They vaulted away from stifling maturity and kept on playing and to greater and greater effect.

Yvonne said he was always in the here and now, he did not return to the past or worry about the future.

He stayed in the present.  This series should be listened to by anyone who has ever thought of making anything, the energy of creativity erupts throughout the show.

It will make you sad that Neil Innes is no longer in the world, but very happy that he was such a dynamic part of it.

Dip My Brain in Joy is on BBC Radio 4 Extra @robinince