He's been a Bonzo and a Rutle, appeared on film alongside Pythons and Beatles, written everything from kid's TV shows to hit singles, and kept a sense of humour throughout it all.
Neil Innes has had the sort of career that could never have been planned, and has been all the better for it. We caught up with Neil to talk everything from appearing in Magical Mystery Tour to the knowledge of the ancients, the birth of The Rutles and the importance of finding the fun in everything you do...
What drew you to music initially? Were you from a musical household?
"My dad used to amuse us with a guitar, and sing terrible old Scottish songs about dead horses. You know, 'there's a bridle hanging on the wall,' or 'don't go down the mine daddy there's plenty of coal in the bin.' They were wonderful, they've stuck with me all my life.
"Then I got piano lessons when I was seven, and I was quite interested with that. There was a critical day when I had to play something different with my left hand to my right hand, and I declared at the age of seven that it was impossible. I had this really gentle teacher, he was a German guy because we lived in Germany – my father was in the army – and he said 'well, if you observe me closely, you will see that my left hand is doing something different to the right hand!'
"So I knew I had to apply myself. I really did, and I got quite decent at it. But then at 14 when I was playing Chopin, reading the dots and all that, I suddenly thought 'who am I working for? Every time I finish a really difficult piece they give me a harder one!' So I rebelled and got a guitar for thirty shillings. It was terrible, more like an egg slicer than a guitar. I met somebody later who had a real guitar, a Hofner, and it was really easy to push the strings down. That's how we all start, I think."
Music was presumably a hobby at that stage – when did you start thinking about making a career of it?
"Well, I had a twin interest which was painting and drawing. That was winning the race as it were, and so I ended up going to London Art School. When I was in London, and living in the house with Vernon Dudley Bohay Nowell on the floor below, he came up and said I've met these blokes called The Bonzo Dog Dada Band, you'd really like them and they need a pianist. And I thought ok, I'll give it a go.
"So I went up to the Royal College Of Art every Tuesday night and started thumping out these silly old jazz songs. That was the first time I'd used chord sheets. I quickly worked out what to do. I learned more about composition from chord sheets that from reading sight music."
Had you played in bands before? Because that sounds like quite an introduction to playing with others...
"But it wasn't really a band! It was a bunch of enthusiasts, some came, some went, but it was just a chance to have a good laugh. The Bonzos in the early days was just a bunch of art students having a laugh. Vernon and I, because it was a long way from where I lived in Blackheath to South Kensington, we found this pub in Forest Hill call The Bird In Hand, and it was a big room.
"We asked if our band could play in there, and they didn't mind. It was empty! We turned up and we started playing, and we passed the hat round. By the end of the evening the place was heaving! The bloke there said 'can you come back next week, we'll give you twenty five quid.' Whatever we were doing, it was brilliant drinking music."