The Rutles - Biography
By Bill Kopp
The mockumentary/rockumentary genre didn't start with the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. As far back as 1978, NBC-TV aired All You Need is Cash, a prime-time special that purported to tell the story of The Rutles, England's "Pre-Fab Four." Former Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle had conceived of the project years earlier, and the project's musical director (Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band) had already written and produced a few songs in a mock-Beatles vein both with The Bonzos and The Grimms.
The group assembled to portray the Pre-Fab Four onscreen included Innes on guitar as the John Lennon doppelganger Ron Nasty. A miming, non-playing Idle portrayed Dirk McQuickly, the Paul McCartney character. South African multi-instrumentalist Rikki Fataar (Flame, Beach Boys) as Stig O'Hara played the George Harrison role. Portraying Richard Starkey / Ringo Starr's double (Barrington Womble, shortened to Barry Wom) was drummer John Halsey. On record (and for the film's soundtrack) the lineup was Innes, Fataar and Halsey, augmented by ace session guitarist Ollie Halsall (Timebox, Patto, Boxer).
The first appearance of The Rutles was in 1975 on Idle's BBC program Rutland Weekend Television. Over the next two years, The Rutles would make a pair of short but well-received appearances on Saturday Night Live. Idle subsequently developed a program-length story based on The Rutles, doing so with the tacit approval of at least one actual Beatle, Idle’s close friend George Harrison. (Harrison appeared in the film with a small speaking role.) In developing All You Need is Cash, Eric Idle took many cues from a very early work print of the Beatles documentary The Long and Winding Road (subsequently renamed Anthology) that Harrison allowed him to view.
The television show aired as a special on NBC-TV's prime-time schedule in 1978, and was a modest critical success. It would, however, bear the dishonor of being among the lowest viewership-rated specials ever broadcast on NBC.
The Rutles film followed the history of The Beatles very closely, changing key details to hilarious effect (Shea Stadium became Che Stadium; the album Magical Mystery Tour became Tragical History Tour; "Help!" became "Ouch!"; the Rutles got in trouble with the law for drinking tea) while deftly tracing the story arc of the Liverpool group. Narrative elements playfully rewrote every detail of The Beatles’ history: on the footnote-length discussion of the original bassist and “fifth Rutle” named Leppo (based on Stuart Sutcliffe), narrator Idle explained that “His influence on the other Rutles was so immeasurable that no one has ever bothered to measure it.” The 1966 controversy over John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark was recast in mock newspaper headlines as “Ron Nasty Says Rutles Bigger Than God,” and then explained away by asserting that Nasty claimed (to a “slightly deaf journalist”) only that the group was bigger than Rod (Stewart), who, the narrator explained, “would not be big for another eight years, and certainly at this stage hadn’t had a hit.”
Cameo appearances abounded in the film, including Harrison (as a journalist seeking details on the Rutles’ failing business enterprise Rutle Corps), Keith and Bianca Jagger, Ron Wood, Paul Simon and many members of the Saturday Night Live cast. SNL star John Belushi gave a memorable portrayal of the imposing Allen Klein ringer Ron Decline.
The soundtrack album (originally a gatefold LP with a colorful booklet full of humorous narrative and stills from the movie) was released to coincide with the broadcast. The songs were careful rewrites of Beatles songs, with painstaking attention paid to lyrical, instrumental and arrangement signatures that evoked the actual group. Every song mimicked one or more specific Beatles songs. “Hold My Hand” offered up a simplistic arrangement with the chorus of “please please hold my hand.” The Beatles’ acoustic Rubber Soul era excursions were aped on “With a Girl Like You” (shades of “If I Fell”). The Rutles lampooned the mid-period Beatles baroque stylings of Sgt. Pepper on “Doubleback Alley” (a thinly-veiled rewrite of “Penny Lane”). Fun was poked at John Lennon’s psychedelic period on “Cheese and Onions.” That song had been performed by Innes on SNL before the film’s broadcast; in the movie it was the centerpiece of a brilliant animated parody of Yellow Submarine. The tired, washed-out vibe of late-late period Beatles was showcased on “Let’s Be Natural”, closely modeled on “Dear Prudence”. The soundtrack LP reached #63 on the Billboard charts. A subsequent CD release added tracks.
Innes and Halsey plus other musicians performed some live UK dates, and one single was issued with Idle's musical participation in 1979.
In the mid-1990's Innes re-formed the group to perform at a Beatles fan festival, and subsequently booked studio time to record a new album, the 1996 release Archaeology. Modeled after the Beatles' contemporary Anthology, the album included both old and new tracks, and featured vocals and guitar by Halsall, who had died in 1992. Again, the songs were modeled on Beatles tunes, though with a marked emphasis toward mid-period Beatles. “Major Happy’s Up and Coming Once Upon a Good Time Band” opened the disc and segued into “Rendezvous,” mimicking the opening twofer of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Questionnaire” blended stylistic elements from Paul McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” and John Lennon’s “I am the Walrus.” “Back in the USSR” plus the false start of “Taxman” equaled the clever “We’ve Arrived (And to Prove it We’re Here).”
Meanwhile, even Ringo Starr’s country outings like “Don’t Pass Me By” and “What Goes On?” get the piss-take on “Easy Listening.” A few songs come off as retreads; “The Knicker Elastic King” is almost a rewrite of the first album’s “Doubleback Alley” with a bit of Sgt. Pepper’s “Getting Better” added toward the end. Yet overall, while the songs were all created in service to the Rutles concept, some approach the cleverness of the songs they intend to parody.
All of the myriad production and arrangement techniques The Beatles had added to the popular lexicon were lovingly turned on their heads on Archaeology. The swirling, heady “Tomorrow Never Knows” is recast as “Joe Public.” Equal parts of “A Day in the Life” and “Hey Jude” are put through the Rutles filter to create “Shangri-La.” The wistful “Back in ‘64” is cleverly based on McCartney ditties “When I’m 64” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and closes the album with a witty variation on “The End.”
The group’s legacy continued to rutle along well into the 21st century. Several Rutles bootleg recordings circulate: these are comprised mainly of tracks recorded for TV prior to the NBC airing; a 1978 demo reel; and audience recording of Rutles performances, most notably at a 1996 "Rutlefest." A 2002 film, The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch featured no new music plus a preponderance of clips from the original film. In 2004, the Innes-led Rutles performed concerts in the UK. In 2008, the original lineup (Idle, Innes, Fataar, Halsey) reunited again to appear at a gala in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary. Also in 2008, Idle organized “Rutlemania,” a tribute concert performed by a Beatles/Rutles tribute band.