Magazine Dec 1996
BY PAUL DU NOYER PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADRIAN GREEN
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."