Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Rutles Hold My Hand

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, March 23, 2008)

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the great parody rock band, The Rutles. I don’t want to go into much of their history here. For that, you can read all about them at these sites:

You should be able to find out all the information you need at any one of those sites. But in short, The Rutles were a fictional band that were formed by ex-Monty Python comedian, Eric Idle, and ex-Bonzo Dog Band member, Neil Innes. They started out as single sketch on Idle’s BBC television program, Rutland Weekend Television, basically as a funny tribute to the Beatles. Later, when Idle was host of Saturday Night Live, he showed the Rutles sketch there and got such a strong response, that SNL producer, Lorne Michaels approached him about doing a full mockumentary of the band for American TV. The show flopped at the time, but has now gone on to be legend. Over the years, there have been several Rutles sequels, but none have caught on like the original.

Back in 1978, when the film was originally shown in America, I was sitting in my parents’ living room watching it in glee. Both my parents couldn’t figure out what was going on and left, but my sister and her boyfriend stuck around and watched with me. They didn’t laugh once. My sister is three years younger than me and had a series of idiots for boyfriends. After watching the whole show, with me falling out of my chair and laughing hysterically over it, the boyfriend turned to me and said,

"So let me get this straight. These Rutles guys were around at the same time as the Beatles?"

I asked my sister to remove the bonehead from my presence and fortunately they split up shortly afterwards. (She’s now been thankfully married to a very nice guy for the last couple of decades.) But it all made me wonder just how much of the show the vast American public actually understood and after hearing that the show was a flop, I knew it had flown over most people’s heads. That’s not unusual for Americans, especially when it comes to esoteric, British humor.

The "band" marked their anniversary this week here in LA with two very special events. The first was a showing of the original film at the American Cinametheque Egyptian Theatre that hosted the promise of the first ever live appearance of the group on stage, or, as Eric Idle later said, it was "the first time in history a band has reunited before they have actually united in the first place."

The evening opened with a short introduction by Eric Idle and Neil Innes. We first got a look at some Rutles rarities. There were showings of the SNL skits, including the original skit and a solo performance of Nasty doing "Cheese & Onions", some scenes from one of the sequels called "Evolution", and a video for the song, "Shangri-La", from the "Archeology" album that came out in 1992. Then we got the original film, "All You Need Is Cash". It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this film and I had forgotten just how funny it actually was. The film takes the Beatles history and turns it on its ear. And it was great hearing all that Rutles music again. Written by Innes, it is actually really good. Sure, it’s amusing to hear songs that parody well-known Beatles songs, but you still find yourself humming the parodies long after the film has ended.

After the film ended, we were introduced to the four actors who made up the Rutles. Eric Idle played Dirk McQuickly (Paul McCartney). Neil Innes was Ron Nasty (John Lennon). Ricky Fataar was Stig O’Hara (George Harrison) and John Halsey was Barry Wom (Ringo Starr). But first, a message was read that was sent by Mick Jagger, who was interviewed about the "band" in the original film. He complimented the "band" for their influence on him and voiced his regrets for not being able to make it to LA to take part in this tribute. It was all pretty amusing.

The four guys had taken the stage on chairs set in front of a band’s set up, so excitement was high that they would actually play some songs. But first, they talked about the history of the band and how it all came to be, starting with the Rutland Weekend Television skit. They didn’t have much to add to the already written history, but they did pay tribute to the "fifth" Rutle, one Ollie Halsell. Halsall was an extraordinary guitarist who played in such early (and fairly unknown in America) British bands as Timebox, Patto, Tempest and Boxer. These are some great bands and it would be worth your time in looking them up and giving them a listen. Halsall played the guitar parts on the Rutles songs. He was also featured as Leppo (Stu Sutcliffe) in still photographs of the band during their Hamburg years in the film. From what the guys said, Eric Idle was originally supposed to do the guitar parts himself, but suffered a severe appendicitis attack and had to miss out on the recording due to surgery for the problem. Even the vocals turned out to be Halsall’s. When it came time to film the special, Idle lip-sync everything.

Idle also talked about his new play, "Rutlemania", which I will be talking about later.

After talking for about 20 minutes, the four members said their goodbyes and left, leaving us all to wonder what the instruments were set up for. We were then introduced to a band called the Pre-Fab Four, who took to the stage and played three Rutles songs, complete with canned crowd screaming. Although all four Rutles guys are musicians in varying degrees, they didn’t play the Rutles music themselves. For the purposes of this event and the "Rutlemania" play, they drafted in a Beatles tribute band called the Fab Four ( They are now a Rutles tribute band, playing Rutles music for the crowd. While I would have preferred seeing the originals actually recreate the music, I have to admit that the cover band did a great job. They played the songs "Number Two", "I Must Be In Love" and "Hold My Hand" in true Rutles fashion and the evening came to a close. It had been a fun and very enjoyable evening.

The "Rutlemania" play was performed five times over the week. I went to the last one. When it was first announced, the description made it sound as if the Rutles were actually playing live. It wasn’t until after we had bought tickets that the LA Times ran an article telling the public about the tribute band that was filling in for the live songs. I wasn’t happy about that (especially since tickets ran $35 each), but after seeing the band play at the film showing, I decided to calm down and give the performance a chance before judging it.

And I’m glad I did. I don’t know if it was worth the $35 it cost, but it was a fun night out at the theatre none-the-less. Basically, it was a live version of the television special. Using the Fab Four band with films and a few actors, the story unfolded smoothly and enjoyably.

The show started with Eric Idle explaining that the idea for this show came together fast and that the staging we were about to see was put together in three weeks. Just because of that, the play was an admirable thing to watch. Throughout the duration of the play, which ran about an hour and a half with a 20 minute intermission, the band played just about every Rutles song that a fan would want to hear. They dressed in clothes for the period, from collarless jackets, to Sgt. Pepper-like satin jackets. The films were a combination of the original television special and the sequel that appeared several decades later. There was also a smattering of new material that hadn’t been seen yet. My favorite parts were an interview with comedian Gary Shandling, where he confuses the Rutles’ movie, "Ouch", with Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List". That was from the sequel special. There was also a very funny, unseen bit about the Rutles’ album, "Shabby Road".

There were two actresses that played go-go girls, Rutles fans, and various Rutles girlfriends throughout the play, and an actor who played Rutles’ manager, Leggy Mountbatten. The script was spare, with the Fab Four guys adding a few bits of dialog here and there, but the story was mostly told through the films. There was a nice and funny swipe at Dirk (Paul) when the band breaks up and Nasty (John) tells him that he should leave and get married to a prostitute that will cost him 50 million dollars some day. OUCH! But the play was mostly about the music and there was plenty of that. And that was a good thing.

Watching this I realized what made the Rutles so special. It was the music. Despite lampooning the Beatles in a very funny way, Innes music is actually really good. You can hear the clever way he uses signature chords and phrases from each Beatles’ song he’s characterizing, bending and recreating them so they’re recognizable but still original in themselves. He did a fantastic job on those songs, which is why they stand alone away from the satire so well. (And I still wonder why no punk band ever covered "Goose-Step Mama"?)

The Rutles story ends on a London rooftop with the band playing their song, "Get Up And Go’. It was then that the Fab Four dropped their Rutles guise and took on the real band, the Beatles. They did the song that "Get Up And Go" was based on, "Get Back", as well as "The End" from "Abbey Road". It brought the audience to their feet, singing and clapping along.

When this play was first announced a few weeks ago, Idle claimed in interviews that these five performances were the only performances he was going to do. But now he’s taking the show to New York and if it does well there, he’s planning on taking it elsewhere as well. I would love to see this develop into a real play with real production values. It’s a lot of fun now. With some time and development, it could be great.

I’m really glad to see the Rutles get all this renewed attention. Everyone who’s a fan of rock history should see the television show. It’s been seen by many more people now then when it was originally released. And that’s great. Both the music and the story are a true work of art and full of fun. It’s about time people noticed.

No comments:

Post a Comment