The Post-Prefab Three

      Q Magazine Dec 1996

Way beyond a joke, The Rutles have re-formed, made an album and tapped into America.  "I don't want to milk it!" creator Neil Innes assures Paul Du Noyer.  "I don't call every 18 years milking it!" says a bloke called George Harrison.

Who does not know the story of The Rutles by now?  The four Liverpool lads who shock the world.  In the 1960s they brought us Rutlemania.  At one point the so-called Prefab Four had 19 songs in the Top 20.  Deftly handled by their strange manager, Leggy Mountbatten, they made history
playing the legendary Che Stadium, rashly claiming to be "bigger than Rod", founding the ill-fated Rutle Corps.  Taken over by the ruthless US hard man Ron Decline, they fell to arguing among themselves.  At their final business meeting, 134 legal advisors and accountants entered an eight-by-ten foot room.  Only 87 came out alive.

Who can forget The Rutles' names and personalities?  Acid-tongued Ron Nasty, natural leader of the band; winsome Dirk McQuickly, ever hopeful; Stig O'Hara, the quiet one, serene as an Eastern mystic; and, of course, lovable little Barry Wom.

Who is not in love with their timeless music?  The youthful innocence of Hold My Hand; the darker undercurrents of Ouch!; the trippy nostalgia of Doubleback Alley; the psychedelic insight of Cheese And Onions, or the Joycean word play of Piggy In The Middle ("Bible-punching heavy weight evangelistic boxing kangaroo")...

By 1970 The Rutles were history, their position in pop's mythology rivalled only by rock behemoths Spinal Tap.  But people never stopped asking, will The Rutles ever get back together?  It seemed out of the question.  Until now.  The unbelievable has happened, as The Rutles
or, if you will, The Thrutles released their Archaeology set of rare archive recordings and new material by the band's three remaining members.

Late summer, these middle-aged survivors filmed a video for their comeback single, Shangri-la, in New York.   With them was an all-star supporting cast, ranging from Peter Gabriel to a large man in stockings dressed as Cher.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, a man called Neil Innes takes off his silvery Rutle moptop wig, and wipes his perspiring bald head.  "It hasn't been easy," he confides. "It hasn't been easy, being a Rutle..."

The Rutles: a throwaway joke that grew into a movie and became a cult; a gag that, remarkably, has been sustained for 18 years by thousands of people who have been willing to play along.

Beneath the studio lights, Innes and his two colleagues are on a video set that replicates the real Fabs' footage of All You Need Is Love.  Around them, next to placards saying "Cheese And Onions" in various languages, is a cast of hippy extras, a string quartet of Chinese children, a juvenile marching band, lookalikes representing Elizabeth Taylor, Rod Stewart, Marilyn Monroe and so forth, as well as authentic "celebrities" including Eartha Kitt, Cyndi Lauper, Ben E. King and Gloria Gaynor.  Not quite the usual suspects.  They're all trilling the absurd chorus of Shangri-la, in honour of a band that does not actually exist.

The party is marred only by the non-arrival of the Rutles-with-attitude, Oasis, who had hinted they might interrupt their US tour to pay homage.  (Actually, as headlines would confirm a few days later, the Oasis camp was experiencing the kind of turbulence that The Rutles themselves know only too well.)

What Neil Innes, alias Ron Nasty, really did in the '60s was form The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, playing musicianly foil to anarchic frontman Viv Stanshall.  Of his Rutle comrades, drummer John Halsey (Barry Wom) served in a number of British beat groups and South African multi-instrumentalist Rikki Fataar (Stig O'Hara) had a long stint with The Beach Boys.  Guesting in this evening's chorus is Beach Boy Al Jardine, who stares at the bewigged Fataar in amazement: "I never knew you were a Rutle!" he gasps.  Interesting Rutle trivia: Barry Wom does not wear a wig.  It's his own hair.

Gone from the line-up is Dirk McQuickly, played by The Rutles' inventor Eric Idle of Monty Python (According to a terse press statement, "He went into comedy").  The band began as a sketch on Idle's 1970s BBC2 show, Rutland Weekend Television.

Innes takes up the tale.  Post-Bonzos, he worked as Idle's musical collaborator: "Our brief was to do things very cheaply.  Eric was writing things like War And Peace, four old pensioners staggering back from Russia down a Surrey lane, with a hand coming in to set fire to a model of Moscow.  So I thought, why don't we do A Hard Day's Night, and spoof Richard Lester's film ideas, because they're cheap and cheerful and Benny Hill used them to good effect.  I had this lyric, 'I feel good, I feel bad / I feel happy, I feel sad / I must be in love', and it sounded vaguely Beatley so I thought, We'll do that, with the four of us dressed as The Beatles.

"Eric said, Let's call them the Rutles, and I (wincing) said, Oh, do we have to? Then he had the idea for a spoof documentary."

Idle enjoyed a spell as guest presenter of the US comedy programme Saturday Night Live.  When he showed the Rutles clip, response was phenomenal, prompting the show's producer Lorne Michaels to back Idle's full-length feature plan.  The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash became a TV special, a cinema release and a home video.

Naturally it required a soundtrack. "Before I had time to think," Innes recalls, "it was, Can you write 16 Beatle/Rutle songs by next Thursday lunchtime?

"And that's how I became a parodist... I didn't listen to one Beatles song, I wrote songs based on my memory of them.  The hardest part was coming up with genuinely affectionate songs like Hold My Hand, working in stories from your own adolescent experience.  We needed something from each period, because The Beatles never did the same thing twice.  That was the brief for the film.  The thing was to make the lyrics just parallel, or askew, and not use the same tune."  (Hereby hangs a rather sorry tale, which we'll come to in a moment.)  Idle, however, did not play on the 1978 album; the McCartney part was taken by a real musician, the late Ollie Halsall.

Years went by and the Rutle myth acquired a life of its own, encouraging Martin Lewis, who'd produced Python offshoots such as The Secret Policeman's Ball, to consider a revival.  "I went to these Beatlefests here in America," says Innes, "and I saw it for myself, people wanting their Rutles things signed and asking me, Can you sign it as Ron Nasty?  Everyone was happy to play this game.  So I thought, Why not? There seems to be a lot of genuine affection for the Rutles songs, so I came up with some more.  That's all it is, a collection of songs for people who like playing this game."

A couple of US appearances got Innes back into Rutle mode, culminating in Archaeology.

"This time around I was free to make more of an album, not a soundtrack.  It's all very well to take the piss, but I admire the songs of The Beatles too much not to try and put something back, an understanding of what they achieved."

Fataar took time off from Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs, while John Halsey
now running a Suffolk pub came out of retirement.  As for Idle, Innes says, "I wanted Eric to be involved.  He's got a very good comedy voice, he does One Foot In The Grave and things like that, but he has not been that communicative.  I think it's a shame, but he was probably right.

"But when I told George Harrison I was thinking of doing some more songs he said, Why not?  It's all part of the soup.  I said to him, I don't want to milk it.  And he said, I don't call every 18 years milking it.  You should do it."

Neil Innes's Beatle connections date back to the Bonzos, who played support slots for Cream and The Bee Gees at Brian Epstein's Saville Theatre.  They also appeared in The Magical Mystery Tour.  And it was Paul, in 1968, who helped the Bonzos achieve their only Top 5 hit, I'm The Urban Spaceman.

"Viv and Paul got on well.  We wanted to do Urban Spaceman, but our manager was keen on spending no more than two hours on a track.  Viv was bemoaning it to Paul and Paul said he'd produce us.

"He came along and played the ukulele.  Viv got out his garden hose with a trumpet mouthpiece and wanted to whirl it around his head.  The engineer said, You can't record that thing! And Paul said, Why not? Just put a microphone in each corner of the studio.  It was wonderful to have the power he had over convention.  But the Bonzos were impossible to manage.  We said to Paul, Well, we're certainly not going to do it on the back of your name.  D'you mind if we call you Apollo C. Vermouth?  And Paul goes, Sure, why not?  And the manager's going, What!?!"

Python admirer George Harrison was the real Beatle closest to the original Rutles, to the extent of appearing in their film as a TV interviewer.  What did the other three make of their alter-egos?

"John was fascinated but he said we ought to watch out about the song Get Up And Go, as it was fairly close to Get Back.  So we left that one off the album.  Paul was a little miffed because he had his album London Town coming out at the same time.  So everywhere he went to promote it he was asked about The Rutles.  It was not a way to thank somebody who had been so kind in the past.  I saw him a couple of years ago at George's and said we didn't mean for that to happen.  He said, Oh well, never mind, it's all just water under the bridge.

"I don't really know what Ringo thought.  But somewhere along the line they all gave approval for footage to use in the actual film, which wouldn't have happened without George's tremendous help.  At the time it was a way of releasing the pressure on them to get back together.  It was almost like an official send-up biography."  (Aptly, the compliment is returned in The Beatles' own Anthology film, which borrows some Rutles' footage to portray the darkest days of Apple.)

"George said a nice thing: What should have happened is that the Bonzos and The Beatles and The Pythons and The Rutles should have got together and had a lot of fun. And that's still where I'm coming from.  The music business takes itself very seriously.  Every 18 years you can come up with a project that might have a fun label attached to it. Warning: This Product May Contain Fun."

Rather less fun for Innes was the response of ATV, owners of The Beatles songs, who claimed his pastiches were in breach of copyright.  "Everybody thought we were such a great laugh," sighs Innes, "And the album was nominated for a Grammy (as Best Comedy Recording).  But somebody at ATV thought it would be fun to see if they could clobber it.  That's what they did.  Most people who know music think it was grossly unfair and I tend to agree.  I threw down my teddy with the music business and I kicked it.  I spat out my dummy.

"In the end they took 50 per cent of the copyright.  I had nobody to stand up for me.  It reminded me of school.  There are big boys and if you've got sweets they'll take them away from you."

As it happens, Noel Gallagher had a similar difficulty over the Oasis song Whatever. He made an out-of-court settlement when it was held to be similar to a previous record, How Sweet To Be An Idiot.  The author of the original was
irony of ironies one Neil Innes.

In between his Rutling stints, Innes worked quite happily in children's TV.

"I liked it. You could deal with more grown-up subjects than you can in grown-up television."

But the lure of his imaginary band is strong.  If people are interested, he says, The Rutles may tour once more.  "Only now do I feel like taking on this three-ring circus that the music business has become. It's been fun putting this together. I've been touched by the affection people have for the songs, so this is a Thank You for their support."

His silver mop top sits obediently in the corner, awaiting its master's call.  "It hasn't been easy, being a Rutle.  Though it's a lot easier than being a Beatle.  They really went through it.  I think they'd swap if they could be Rutles.  If they could be allowed to take the wig off at the end of the day."

Thanks to Dr. Andrew Warrilow for contributing this!


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