The Rutles. A legend that will last a lunchtime.
An inspired parody of The Beatles, The Rutles, quite apart from their music and comedy, were notable for three reasons. They were the first “mockumentary”, several years before This Is Spinal Tap, Best In Show and many other films, mostly made by fellow comedian Christopher Guest. They were also the first successful fusion between British and American comedy, which when done well has produced some of the funniest moments in comedy’s history. Finally, thanks to the assistance of Beatle George Harrison, they gave the world a parody of The Beatles Anthology years before it was actually released.
The Prefab Four–Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry–made their debut in 1976 on Monty Python member Eric Idle’s series Rutland Weekend Television1. Idle had an idea for a send-up of A Hard Day’s Night, and produced it with fellow Rutland/Python associate Neil Innes writing the song I Must Be In Love. The black and white clip, starring Kevin instead of Barry, made its American TV debut on October 2nd, 1976, when Idle hosted the new hit show NBC’s Saturday Night.2 The Rutles were a smash hit, and upon Idle’s return the following April, he brought Nasty (Innes) along to sing a solo piano rendition of the Rutles classic Cheese And Onions. Lorne Michaels, SNL’s3producer, petitioned Idle and Innes to collaborate on a Rutles special, along with Gary Weis who had done short films for the show. Innes went into the studio with musician friends Rikki Fataar (Stig), John Halsey (Barry; Kevin, like Pete Best, was dropped), and Ollie Halsall (bass and vocals; he appeared in a tiny part as Leppo, Nasty’s best friend) to record twenty songs, of which eighteen were used.4Idle did not participate in the sessions as he was recovering from an emergency appendectomy; he lip-synced while filming to Halsall’s vocals.
The resultant film, entitled All You Need Is Cash, starred members of Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and Rutland Weekend Television, as well as guest stars like Paul Simon (Lorne Michaels’ friend), Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Ron Wood and Roger McGough.5 It premiered on NBC as a ninety-minute special on March 22nd, 1978. Programmed as it was against ABC’s Charlie’s Angels, it came in dead last in the Nielsen ratings that week and was one of the lowest rated shows that season. This was America’s loss, as those of us who watched saw a brilliant parody of the Beatles’ story with songs that came so close to the originals that ATV sued Neil Innes for copyright infringement. (Alas, Innes lost, and aside from the settlement had to credit Lennon/McCartney on several songs for later record releases.)
George Harrison not only gave the project his blessing, he showed Idle a number of film clips from The Long And Winding Road, the work-in-progress which later became The Beatles Anthology. This enabled the producers to create almost exact replicas of famous moments in Beatle/Rutle history. Harrison also starred uncredited in the film as a TV reporter who interviews Eric Manchester (a Derek Taylor parody).6 Harrison did fix Idle and Innes with a glare and proclaimed, “Instant Karma’s gonna get you!” when he first heard the song parodies. John, Paul and Ringo did not participate. John and Yoko loved the film and got themselves a copy after seeing it, which was quite surprising considering that Yoko is portrayed as a Nazi. Paul was ambivalent, but warmed up to the movie with Linda’s help, who loved it. Ringo thought the Rutles were great “after 1968”, whatever that means.
Despite the failure of the film and album in the States, Rutlemania did much better in Britain, and over the years the project gained a cult status. When released on video (and later DVD) it did well enough to spawn The Rutles Archeology, following on the heels of The Beatles Anthology. Sadly, at this point Dirk and Stig, aka Idle and Innes, had fallen out over credits on All You Need Is Cash (entitled The Rutles on later releases), and the Archeology album was Innes’s project alone. Idle used some of its material for The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch in 2002; it’s generally considered to be a disappointing sequel.7
The Rutles album, first released in March of 1978, contained fourteen songs. The lineup below contains the songs parodied in parentheses.
Hold My Hand (All My Loving, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Back In The U.S.S.R.)8
Number One (Twist And Shout)
With A Girl Like You (If I Fell)
I Must Be In Love (This I can’t pin down. AHDN era.)
Ouch! (Help!, duh)
Living In Hope (Don’t Pass Me By)
Love Life (All You Need Is Love)
Nevertheless (Within You Without You)
Side Two: Good Times Roll (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds)
Doubleback Alley (Penny Lane)
Cheese And Onions (A Day In The Life)
Another Day (Martha My Dear)
Piggy In The Middle (I Am The Walrus)
Let’s Be Natural (Dear Prudence)
The CD release on Rhino Records in 1990 added six songs (two unused in the TV special) and rearranged the running order.
Goose Step Mama (Some Other Guy)
Baby, Let Me Be (again, no idea)
Hold My Hand (without the plane sounds and count-in)
Blue Suede Schubert (Roll Over Beethoven)
I Must Be In Love
With A Girl Like You
Between Us (If I Fell)
Living In Hope
It’s Looking Good (I’m Looking Through You)
Good Times Roll
Piggy In The Middle
Cheese And Onions
Get Up And Go (Get Back; this is the song that got Innes sued)
Let’s Be Natural
All of these songs are marvelous parodies and a delight even in their own right. The soundtrack easily stands on its own, whereas the film would be poorer without the songs. I can see why Innes felt slighted when Idle took most of the credit.
All Beatles fans owe it to themselves to see All You Need Is Cash. It’s a legend which will be around long after other living legends have gone.