The Rutles are back with their unique blend of music and humour. The irreverent songwriter and satirist Neil Innes talks to Chris Bond.
THE RUTLES have probably had more comebacks than the great Frank Sinatra, although according to the band this really is it. “Last time was just the last time. This time it really is the last time.”
For the uninitiated (where you have been all this time?), The Rutles are an affectionate, and at times hilarious, pastiche of The Beatles conceived by Monty Python star Eric Idle and Neil Innes for Idle’s comedy series Rutland Weekend Television during the mid-1970s.
What started life as a one-off sketch turned into an hour long TV special, All You Need Is Cash, and spawned two albums as well as a touring schedule that’s still going strong today. Charting the career of Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry (Innes, Idle, Ricky Fataar and John Halsey) the 1978 “rockumentary” featured cameos by luminaries like Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Paul Simon.
All You Need Is Cash predated This Is Spinal Tap and paved the way for the torrent of tribute bands that have flooded the music scene in recent years. It also made The Rutles overnight stars and next month they embark on their latest UK tour which takes in Fibbers in York and Leeds City Varieties.
The line-up has changed over the years, only Innes and Halsey are still involved, but the band still has a loyal following. “We did a farewell gig in Glastonbury about five or six years ago and I never thought we would do it again but here we are. It’s not a career move it’s just a lot of fun and we like doing it,” says Innes. “It wasn’t planned it just happened, but I still get young people coming up to me today and saying they got into The Beatles because of The Rutles.”
It all started in 1975 when Eric Idle persuaded Innes to join him in a comedy series for BBC 2 about a spoof TV station churning out cheap programmes on a shoestring. “I thought it would be fun to do a spoof of A Hard Day’s Night speeded up like a Benny Hill kind of thing, where we’d put on wigs and tight trousers and run around in a field. Eric liked that and he said he had a sketch about a man making a documentary who’s so dull the camera runs away from him.”
But what started out as an irreverent bit of fun soon took on a life of its own. The Beatles had split up five years earlier and already there was mounting pressure for the band to reform (given the fact the Bay City Rollers had the biggest selling UK single that year it’s perhaps not surprising).
But it wasn’t until the following year when the clip was shown in the US on the hugely popular Saturday Night Live show that they realised they’d tapped into something. Idle then came up with the title All You Need Is Cash and the story of the Pre-Fab Four and The Rutles were up and running. Everyone seemed happy to be in on the spoof. “It was George [Harrison] who got it. He had a real sense of mischief and he asked Mick Jagger and Paul Simon to get involved,” says Innes.
They were happy to play along, as were the likes of Bill Murray and John Belushi, but with the back story in place what they needed now were some songs. “I remember sitting in an office in New York and being asked if I could write 20 more Rutles songs by next Thursday lunchtime. I said I would try,” says Innes.
During the 60s he’d been a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band which parodied and subverted just about every musical genre going, something that stood him in good stead. “With the Bonzos we would go looking for strange records like I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight, we were just after the silliest songs we could find,” he says.
But when it came to writing songs for The Rutles he didn’t want to trawl through The Beatles’ vast back catalogue for inspiration. “I knew I couldn’t just listen to their songs and pick them apart, it would have ruined them for me. So instead I started thinking back to my own memories of being a teenager in the early 60s and listening to songs like I Want to Hold Your Hand.
“The psychedelic stuff came quite easily and was a lot of fun, but I had to be quite disciplined and not be too silly because I had to write songs that could be played on the piano or guitar. But they’re not really Beatles songs in any way that you can put your finger on, they just capture the sound of that period.”
So what did the former Beatles themselves make of it? “John and Ringo really liked it and John sent us a message saying the songs were great. Paul was impressed with the music but didn’t like what Eric did, which was maybe a bit over the top.”
Sending up a band like The Beatles, arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, could very easily have backfired but The Rutles are more of a homage than a satire. “The Beatles were phenomenally successful and what The Rutles did, and what George really liked, was it told this story without all the hysteria. They were just four guys who happened to be very good at what they did and who liked to have a laugh, and this sometimes gets overlooked and we tell this side of the story.”
But while Rutlemania might not have sent screaming girls into paroxysms of delight like the mop tops famously did, they still have a loyal following. “People who come along to the shows are in on the joke and in many ways it’s more like a Bonzos tribute evening than a Beatles tribute evening,” says Innes.
“The Rutles are more real than a lot of stuff that’s pretending to be real, it’s all about the absurdity of life and blowing a raspberry at it.”
• The Rutles play Fibbers, York, on May 14 and Leeds City Varieties on May 16.