The Rutles

TrackAlbum
Hold My HandThe Rutles
I Must Be In LoveThe Rutles
Between UsThe Rutles CD
Ouch!The Rutles
Doubleback AlleyThe Rutles
Piggy In The MiddleThe Rutles
Let's Be NaturalThe Rutles
QuestionnaireArchaeology
We've Arrived (And To Prove It We're Here)Archaeology
Lonely-PhobiaArchaeology

The Rutles photo

 

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Contributor: Rob Morgan

Ransom Stoddard: “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”
Maxwell Scott: “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)

It’s tricky, dealing with the Rutles, because there’s two versions of their history. There’s the story of how a short musical skit on a post-Python TV show in the mid-seventies grew so very far beyond parody that two of its members were sung one of their songs by two members of the group they were parodying. Then there’s the story of the fictional band itself. So which to choose? Let’s stick to the facts, while dropping into the imaginary world from time to time.

The roots of The Rutles can be found back in the late sixties when ITV broadcast the children’s entertainment show Do Not Adjust Your Set. This half hour show introduced a generation of kids to some anarchic, stream of consciousness comedy from Denise Coffey, David Jason, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin. Musical interludes were provided by either Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band or the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. By the time the final show was aired in mid 1969, the latter band had issued a few albums, appeared in Magical Mystery Tour and had a surprise hit single with I’m The Urban Spaceman, produced pseudonymously by Paul McCartney. The Bonzos had two focal points – the crazed genius of Vivian Stanshall and the (slightly) more considered genius of Neil Innes. The Bonzos fell apart by 1970, by which point three of the Do Not Adjust Your Set team had moved to the BBC to create Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the ultimate anarchic stream of consciousness comedy. Much loved by critics, obsessive fan boys and the Beatles (who recognised kindred spirits), Monty Python revolutionised TV comedy, leading the way for everyone from The Goodies to The Young Ones. However by 1974, creative tensions within the Pythons led to the various members making what can only be called solo projects. John Cleese created Fawlty Towers, Michael Palin and Terry Jones created Ripping Yarns and Eric Idle created Rutland Weekend Television (RWT).

Through some quirk of BBC funding, RWT was given a very limited budget to produce two series, broadcast in 1975 and 1976. The shows were from a fictitious local TV station modelled on London Weekend Television, the sketches being shows on the station linked by Idle in a cupboard studio (not unlike Philip Schofield in the broom cupboard a decade later). The limited budget forced the show to mock itself as low budget, coming from Britain’s smallest county, Rutland. But there was always a musical element. Idle called on his old friend Innes to help here, and while there were some musical sketches which may not have weathered the passage of time (the wasted rocker Stoop Solo and his album How Could You?), two brief skits, I Must Be In Love and Children Of Rock ‘n’ Roll were well received, being parodies of the Beatles – the former being chiming ’64 Moptoppery, the latter being in the style of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The band was mentioned as The Rutles. When Rutland Weekend Television finished in 1976, there was a book and an album Rutland Weekend Songbook and everyone moved on – Idle to America and Innes to his own TV show The Innes Book Of Records.

In America, Idle hosted an edition of Saturday Night Live – because the Americans adored and revered the Pythons – and brought the clips of the Beatles parody with him. At the time, people were offering silly money for the Beatles to reform, and SNL said they had the next best thing, showing the clip of I Must Be In Love instead. The response was instant, people loved The Rutles and everyone wanted more. A deal was struck with Lorne Michaels (SNL producer) to create an hour long special on the history of The Rutles.

As any decent pop historian will tell you, the story of The Rutles – the Pre-Fab Four – is a tale of rags to riches. Of how Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry – managed by Leggy Mountbatten – progressed from the Rat Keller in Hamburg to the heights of Che Stadium in New York, expanding their minds with tea, creating Rutle Corps (which lost so much money they had to call in Ron Decline to save the day) and finally falling apart amid much acrimony and lawsuits. Along the way they changed the world with albums like A Hard Day’s Rut, Ouch!, Sgt Rutter’s Only Darts Club Band, Tragical History Tour and their final album Let It Rot. Or so the film All You Need Is Cash would have you believe. A perfect mockumentary on The Rutles, this film not only captures a glimpse of an alternate sixties, but is a time capsule of late 70s humour too, with numerous guest appearances (who knew Mick Jagger and Paul Simon had senses of humour? And playing star spotting is a lot of fun – look out for John Belushi, George Harrison, Dan Ackroyd and Ronnie Wood). Of course it’s the Beatles’ story seen through black humour tainted glasses, but the story is told so lovingly and with such affection that for those sixty minutes the viewer is immersed inside this parallel universe. One of the keys to this success was George Harrison who had worked with both Idle and Innes on the promo video for his single Crackerbox Palace in 1976, which was coincidentally shown on SNL … Harrison loved the idea of the Rutles and helped Innes and Idle in the production of the film, allowing them to see The Long And Winding Road, a documentary made by Apple head honcho Neil Aspinall in 1971 (which would eventually become Anthology two decades later) and giving them the rights to use some Beatles clips for the film. No matter how good the film was, it stood or fell on the music.

The real life band The Rutles were of course led by Neil Innes, but the rest of the band were no slouches and had years of experience behind them. Drummer John Halsey and guitarist Ollie Halsall had been working together since the mid sixties through the Bo Street Runners, Timebox and Patto while multi instrumentalist Ricky Fataar had worked with the Beach Boys through the early seventies alongside his fellow countryman Blondie Chaplin. So there was plenty of pedigree in the musicianship – but what about the songs?

Every one of the twenty songs included within the film was a note perfect homage to a different aspect of the Beatles’ body of work. Innes used his memory of Beatles songs to create the Rutles catalogue rather than closely analyse their songs, and it is this half remembered stylistic amalgam of musics that works so well – which is why the Rutles is a homage rather than a parody. Each song takes a specific Beatles song as a starting point and works around it, taking in other signifiers from other Beatles songs from that period. For instance, Hold My Hand has the swing and triple strummed guitars of All My Loving throwing in some “yeah yeahs” for good measure. I Must Be In Love has a 12 string Rickenbacker chime, the “ooh la la la” backing vocals of Nowhere Man and a nod to the off kilter rhythm of Ticket To Ride. But pulling the songs down to their constituent parts is a pointless exercise; every song is a little gem. Personal highlights include Doubleback Alley – their Penny Lane (and note how the end piccolo trumpet figure is the same as the one which closes the early American mix of Penny Lane itself, available on the US Rarities album), Piggy In The Middle’s I Am The Walrus knock off, Let’s Be Natural channelling Dear Prudence perfectly … Ouch! mocks Help!.

To be honest, I picked the songs here based on how much they made me grin like an idiot while I listened to them, you may well pick others – “Wot, no Cheese And Onions?” (see clip below) – and you are free to disagree with my choices, and you may even pick better songs than me. But for today these are my favourites, it may change tomorrow. Everything about the songs is perfect for the job at hand, sometimes too perfect – Get Up And Go wasn’t included in the original 16 song album in 1978 as John Lennon advised it may be too close to Get Back for Northern Songs to tolerate.

Which leads to the question: What did The Beatles themselves think of The Rutles? Lennon loved the film and the album and refused to return both when they were sent to him for approval. Harrison had clearly supported the project from the start and Starr enjoyed it, except for the darker moments towards the end of the film with the breakup. Perhaps it opened old wounds or was too close to home for those at the centre of that particular whirlpool. McCartney has never stated any opinion, though Linda had found it funny. Apparently Starr and Harrison once sang Ouch! to Idle and Innes – a very surreal moment if true.

When All You Need Is Cash was broadcast in late 1978 the reception was lukewarm to say the least. Maybe the general public didn’t understand it or maybe the time wasn’t right, but the ratings weren’t good. The accompanying album also met with confusion; Robert Christgau in the Village Voice called it a “limp aural satire”. The time wasn’t right for it; the late seventies were about moving forward not looking back. But over the years, The Rutles would become more popular. The film would be shown on late night TV where it could be videotaped and crucial passages learned. This is how I would discover it in the mid 80s, probably on Channel 4, and I was immediately smitten. This was clever, funny and affectionate too. Soon I picked up the album from a second hand shop and fooled a few Beatles loving friends by sticking Ouch! and Love Life on a bootleg tape – “Listen to these early versions of the songs!” There was even a Rutles tribute album released in 1990 – Rutles Highway Revisited – featuring alternative bands like Galaxie 500 and Unrest covering their songs. By the mid 90s Oasis were peddling third hand Beatles-isms to the nation (and getting sued by Innes for the similarity of Whatever to his How Sweet To Be An Idiot) and the Beatles’ Anthology film and CDs projects had finally come to fruition and the time was right for The Rutles to return.

1996 saw the release of Archaeology, a new collection of Rutles songs. Sadly, Ollie Halsall had passed away but the rest of the band were back, and while Archaeology isn’t as consistent as its predecessor it still contained enough delights to please fans. We’ve Arrived (And To Prove It We’re Here) was a joyous semi-live romp in the style of Back In The USSR, Shangri-La dated back to the SNL shows in the mid 70s, Lonely-Phobia could easily sit on side two of A Hard Day’s Night and Questionnaire is perfect Pepper-corn with a sting in its final verse.

The Rutles may not have recorded any more material but they are occasionally a touring outfit and I was lucky enough to see them play live in Cardiff last year. It was a great night, the band were note perfect, the crowd sang along to every song and Neil Innes played a touching tribute to George Harrison with a heartfelt version of All Things Must Pass. There is so much love and care for the Fabs in the Rutles’ music that the Pre-Fabs have become more then a tribute; they are a beautiful expression of fandom and any Beatles fanatic would get as much pleasure from a Rutles LP as from the Fabs’ LPs themselves.

 

 

Official Rutles Website

Neil Innes official website

Eric Idle official website

Ollie Halsall (1949-1992) – The Archive

John Halsey on wikipedia

Rutlemania – history of the Rutles

The Rutles – All You Need Is Cash

The Rutles biography (iTunes)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves at his website, A Goldfish Called Regret. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost.

TopperPost #472

5 Comments

  1. Paul Kindred
    Sep 7, 2015

    Three words for you old friend – “It’s Looking Good”!!! Surely an oversight?!? Then there’s “Goose-Step Mama”, “Blue Suede Schubert”, “With A Girl Like You”, “Living In Hope”… Later there’s the fab “Unfinished Words”, “Hey Mister!”, “Joe Public”, the poignant “I Don’t Know Why”, the hilarious AND sad “Back In ’64″…. For the real anoraks (I wear it proudly) there are the extra “Archaeology” tracks “Baby S’il Vous Plait” (the French language version of “Baby Let Me Be”) and (full circle) the great alternative take on the awesome “It’s Looking Good”. Neil Innes is a genius, the writing is wonderful. I cannot praise the late, great Ollie Halsall enough though. His rock ‘n’ roll guitar is some of the best ever, period. Perhaps that’s why I love the raucous, “Rat Keller “tracks so much. Utterly brilliant – as you would expect, given the pre-eminent, omnipotent source.

  2. Peter Viney
    Sep 7, 2015

    Suitably enthused! I have the DVD of All You Need Is Cash, and the 45 of It Must Be Love, but I’d never thought of buying a Rutles audio CD. Having been reminded by your selections, I certainly will. Piggy In The Middle, after many years since I last heard it, is fantastic.

  3. David Lewis
    Sep 8, 2015

    I saw ‘All You Need Is Cash’ when I was about 12. Most of it went over my head (and I was even hipster enough then to recognise Zappa had done ‘We’re only in it for the money’ years before.) My favourite Beatles parody remains the Simpsons ‘Be-Sharps’. But I’ll see if I can revisit this one and look at it through fresh and older eyes. Certainly I enjoyed the playlist.

  4. Alex Lifson
    Sep 10, 2015

    Fabulous! The most surprising and welcomed Toppermost that none of us would ever have seen coming.

  5. Barry Monks
    Nov 6, 2015

    Good article, Rob. Well done.
    (Barry keeps Ollie Halsall’s legacy alive with the fantastic website devoted to the late guitarist here … Ed.)

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