Listen To The Band: ‘The Rutles’ at 40

❉ Pastiche? 1978’s ‘The Rutles’ album is nothing less than a classic album in its own right. Respect is due, writes Eoghan Lyng.

“Look at the calibre of musicians working alongside Neil Innes. There’s Ricky Fataar (whose credits included a stint with The Beach Boys), John Halsey (whose drumming graced Lou Reed’s Transformer) and guitar wizard Ollie Halsall. There’s a high quality of musicianship to these tracks that’s comparable only to, well, The Beatles themselves!”

Pastiche, comedic, parody, satire. These are the labels The Rutles have been addressed with again and again and again. True, they did parody The Beatles brilliantly in the 1978 film All You Need Is Cash, and yes, Eric Idle and Neil Innes didn’t name their fictional band members Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry for any reasons beyond the purely comical. But it is a disservice to the brilliant collection of songs Innes and co. put together that they are still being labelled “Beatles Parody Band The Rutles” as of 2018.

The Hee Bee Gee Bees were a parody band, Spinal Tap are a parody band. These two units comprised of comedy writers and actors whose primary oeuvre were those of comics and voice over artists. Not so with Neil Innes, a songsmith first and foremost. Before he collaborated with Monty Python for their underrated fourth series, First Farewell Tour and the magnificent Holy Grail, he was one of the lead songwriters of the batty art school psychedelic sixties group The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. They ventured into the music hall, played the avant garde quite hard and could write a psychedelic pop standard that matched the cerebral and elegiac wordplay of Syd Barrett, Ronnie Lane and Roy Wood.

They were respected by the Swinging London inhabitants; feted by Jimi Hendrix (Innes: “[Jimi] said, you know, we’re doing the same thing…”),  the Bonzos made a guest appearance in the cult Beatle classic Magical Mystery Tour and (credited as Apollo C. Vermouth) Paul McCartney himself produced their #5 smash I’m The Urban Spaceman, which won Innes an Ivor Novello award. Vivian Stanshall, raconteur and frontman, guested on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973), and Innes’ association with Monty Python began with the Bonzos’ residency on Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-1969) as the house band.

Above: Proto-Rutles track ‘Fresh Wound’ by Bonzo Dog Band – “Come on George, snap out of it!”

Pre-empted by a successful sketch introduced on Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television (which mimicked Richard Lester’s mock-doc directorial style of A Hard Day’s Night with jangle pop jive I Must Be In Love, as part of a larger item), Idle and Innes set out – at the instigation of Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels – to make a project which paid satirical tribute to the Fabs (quoting chapter and verse from Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love), with one focusing on the plot and characters (Idle), the other on the songs (Innes).

In their own way, they made a fine Lennon-McCartney combo of their own; both strikingly independent in their work and manner, but incomparable when melded together, and at fairly short notice: “I’d done one as a bit of a laugh and they said, “Can we have fourteen more – by Thursday lunch?”  I thought it was a good challenge”, Neil Innes told We Are Cult‘s James Gent:  “It was probably the only way you could tell the Beatles story without it being too sad.  Because it really was sad when it broke up. But you can make fun of it through the Rutles to tell more that way, than by telling the real Beatles story…!”

“The Dukes of Stratosphear wrote an entire E.P. based on Beatley psychedelia, Radiohead made several musical callbacks to The White Album on The Bends and Ok Computer, hailed as critical darlings in the process. Innes’ genius (and we’re not being too liberal with that word) is that he writes songs that sound like they could have been Beatle songs, rather than Beatle parodies.”

Straight off listening to the songs, pastiche they ain’t. Look at the calibre of musicians working alongside Innes. There’s Ricky Fataar (whose credits included a stint with The Beach Boys, filling in for Dennis Wilson), John Halsey (whose drumming technique graced Transformer (1972)) and guitar wizard Ollie Halsall. There’s a high quality of musicianship to these tracks that’s comparable only to, well, The Beatles themselves. Meaningless Songs (In Very high Voices) and Bitch School are hilariously written, lyrically on the nose, but musically uninteresting: Very cutting to the Bee Gees’ incredulous falsetto on the former, and on the latter a necessary address of the disgraceful levels of misogynistic hair-metal deemed socially acceptable back in the day.

Not so The Rutles. Take Hold My Hand for example. Three pitch-perfect harmonies, a driving percussive section and a palette of colourful guitars and the result is a pop song that stands nicely with many of the tracks Badfinger, ELO and, even, Wings released around the same time. It borrows heavily from George Harrison’s 1964 Rickenbecker sound, but if Roger McGuinn and Johnny Marr could get away with it, why not The Rutles?

The Dukes of Stratosphear wrote an entire E.P. based on Beatley psychedelia, Radiohead made several musical callbacks to The White Album on The Bends and Ok Computer, hailed as critical darlings in the process. Innes’ genius (and we’re not being too liberal with that word) is that he writes songs that sound like they could have been Beatle songs, rather than Beatle parodies.

There’s a wide scape of musical cues, nuances and influences, Innes understanding that The Beatles could not be compartmentalised to a twelve-bar riff and a couple of snarly “yeah, yeah, yeah”’s (which Liam Gallagher seemingly still hasn’t grasped!). He writes folk blues (Between Us), country rock (It’s Looking Good), twelve bar beerkeller rocker (Goose-Step Mama), cod-oriental mysticism (NeverTheLess) and an uber-hippie anthem (LoveLife).

Yes, there’s that piano call back to Don’t Pass Me By (Living In Hope) and those spacey Walrus cahoots (Piggy In The Middle). But it is to Innes’ credit that the soundtrack only once ventured into the area of  outright duplication, Get Up and Go a little too similar to stomp rocker Get Back (Legend has it John Lennon, who loved the film, was one person who heard the similarities and advise it not be released. Dutifully, it did not appear until 1990’s Rhino Records expanded CD issue).

So good were his songs, Cheese and Onions was released on a Beatles bootleg, Indian Rope Trick. “I did the John Lennon impersonation with the white piano and the big long wig singing “Cheese & Onions”, Innes recounted to We Are Cult’s James Gent. “The NME rang me up and said, “Did you know one of the Rutles songs is on a Beatles bootleg?”.  I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t told, and what’s it doing on there…  I asked them to play it to me over the phone and it was ME!   On ‘Saturday Night Live’!  And it had ended up on a Beatles bootleg!  So I thought, never underestimate the power of the NME!”

Unfortunately, those in the legal profession failed to see the funny side, and despite George Harrison’s involvement in the project, as well as Lennon’s blessing for it, Innes found himself the recipient of a legal action which necessitated the publishing royalties of the fourteen tracks siphoned off to Lennon and McCartney’s Northern Songs plc – even for the Harrison and Starr parodies! What’s even more cruel about this is that the best songs on the soundtrack sound nothing like any song the Beatles released: Another Day (which admittedly shared a title with a McCartney single) is glorious vaudevillian pop, Good Times Roll had a thriving slick seventies New Wave chorus and Let’s Be Natural is a magnetic and glorious seismic song that transcends the seventies, perhaps the best thing Innes has yet written. Innes may have gravitated towards a Lennon sigh on some of these tracks, but so did Elvis Costello, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry when it suited their songs.

So, rather than call it pastiche, perhaps Innes wrote the first postmodern classic album. Listening to it on musical merit, it stands nicely alongside the delightfully kitsch likes of Modern Life Is Rubbish and His ‘n’ Hers. And it’s a much better buy than another Beatle compilation album!


❉ ‘The Rutles’ was originally released by Warner Bros, distributed by WEA Records Ltd, on 7 April 1978 (UK: K56459/US: HS 3151). An expanded version was released by Rhino Records in 1990 (R2 75760), with a Japanese-only reissue in 2007 (8122-79968-9).

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5 Comments

  1. I would say that “Another Day” is a take on “Martha My Dear” while “Good Times Roll” is based on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Let’s Be Natural” sounds like “Dear Prudence”

    • I take that point, but I would disagree on the following three areas:
      1) Besides a vaudeville piano, they don’t sound alike and I would say Another Day has more in common with the Bonzos a la Equestrian Statue.
      2) I clearly said the chorus was New Wave, and vocally, sounds as much Elton John as it does John Lennon.
      3) The only similarity Natural shares with Prudence is the finger plucking technique- which Donovan and Jimmy Page had perfected on records in 1966, and one Donovan personally taught Lennon.

      You’re not the only one to make these comparisons, but they are ones I disagree with.

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