Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Rutles: Novelty Act or Super Group?

It was 40 years ago, on March 22nd, 1978, that the rock mockumentary, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, aired on NBC.  It was a cult classic from the moment it aired, which is really just a nice way of saying that nobody watched it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be long before the lovingly scathing send up of the Beatles would go from obscurity to notoriety. And frankly, given the talent involved, how could it not? We’re talking about a show that featured the razor-sharp absurdist/satirical writing of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, memorable appearances by John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd…  And oh, by the way, George Harrison showed up too.

Arguably, though, the enduring quality of the show has more to do with the music. The songs that Neil Innes created for the soundtrack beautifully captured the feeling and style of the Beatles’ music without directly copying (mostly). The lovingly and expertly crafted pastiches reminded many viewers of what it was like to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and then pick up a guitar or tennis racket and pretend to be a Beatle in the bedroom mirror.  According to Innes, “Rutle” is a verb, meaning to emulate someone you admire.

It’s not surprising, then, that the movie was popular with musicians, many of whom were of the age that they were first inspired to learn to play by the Beatles, and loved how the irreverent parody humanized and demystified their heroes. “That was my Ed Sullivan show,” reminisced guitarist Ken Thornton, who currently plays with the reformed edition of the Rutles, comparing the broadcast of the 1978 special to the Beatles’ legendary first appearance on American television, “as a Beatles fan, a Monty Python Fan, as an SNL fan.”

It didn’t hurt that Innes recruited incredible players. Even if they originally came together for a comedy show, history treats them as a unique band in their own right. When one looks at the quality of the songwriting and the caliber of musicianship, the Rutles start to look less like a novelty act, and more like a super group.

Neil Innes aka “Ron Nasty” (guitar, keyboards, vocals, music and lyrics)

As keyboardist, guitarist, and musical director of the inimitable Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Neil already knew how to co-opt, adapt, and pervert different existing musical genres. Still, even when much of the Bonzos’ repertoire consisted of Dada-esque assaults on British trad-jazz, Innes already had an innate facility with Beatles-esque melodies (perhaps due to the fact that when the Bonzos were recording their first single, the Beatles were in an adjacent studio, and as Neil eavesdropped on the Fab Four in the process of recording George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” and a light bulb just went off).

Neil’s work after the Bonzos’ breakup in 1970 included straight ahead pop-rock (his sadly short-lived band, the World), performances blending poetry and music (the GRIMMS), and his work with Monty Python (“Brave Sir Robin,” anyone?).

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

The Bonzos’ debut album Gorilla (1967), is an audacious assault on the sensibilities of sense itself. Covers of old songs from the 20s (“Jollity Farm”) are side by side with original calypso inspired pieces about self mutilation during the process of courtship (“Look Out, There's a Monster Coming”). Meanwhile, Innes’ sublime “Equestrian Statue” sounds like it could plausibly be an outtake from the Magical Mystery Tour sessions, due in no small part to the fact that Innes’ voice naturally resembles Lennon’s.

Ricky Fataar aka “Stig O’Hara” (guitar, bass, sitar, tabla, vocals)

Fataar's facility with both western and non-western instruments gave the band the ability to execute the more densely arranged material as well as to emulate Harrison’s Raga influenced pieces. After the breakup up of his first band, the Flames, he was invited by Carl Wilson to join the Beach Boys as a full member in 1972. He took on most of the drum duties after Dennis Wilson (not the best drummer to begin with) drunkenly punched through a window in his house. Fataar and fellow ex-Flame Blondie Chaplin would be instrumental in punching up The Beach Boys’ sound, and updating the band’s image. His later work would include a laundry list of session work, as well as being the drummer in Bonnie Raitt’s band for the last couple of decades.

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

The 1973 live album, The Beach Boys in Concert, really shows off how much energy and funkiness Fataar and Chaplin brought to the band. It also includes the previously unreleased Fataar/Chaplin/Love composition, “We Got Love.”

John Halsey aka “Barry Wom” (percussion, vocals)

Halsey had previously been a member of Patto, a band that never achieved major mainstream success in spite of (of perhaps because of) its dizzying mix of hard-edged blues-rock, and progressive. Fronted by vocalist Mike Patto, and also featuring another future Rutle Ollie Halsall, the band released three well-received albums during its short lifespan between 1970 and 1973. After the split, Halsey would play on albums by the likes of Joan Armatrading, Roy Harper, Annette Peacock, and Lou Reed.

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

Arguably, Halsey’s most famous drum work would be his playing on Lou Reed’s Transformer album, but to hear Halsey’s playing at its most creative and muscular, check out Patto’s self-titled debut (1970) or its follow-up, Hold Your Fire (1971).

Ollie Halsall aka “Leppo” (guitar, keyboards, vocals)

Though in the film, he only appears for a second in a still photograph of “Leppo,” (basically a doppelganger of early Beatle Stu Sutcliffe) on the soundtrack, Ollie Halsall handled the lead guitar work as well as the vocals on the more McCartney-esque songs (to which Idle would lip-sync in the film). He was a veteran of a number of different British bands including Tempest, Boxer, and the aforementioned Patto, and also worked extensively with the mercurial Kevin Ayers. Never a household name, he was a guitarist’s guitarist, known for his innovative technique and outside thinking. Jon Hiseman, his old band mate in Tempest, would remark: “He was on a different planet to the rest of us.”

Notable “Extra-Rutular” Recording:

For Tempest’s second album, Living in Fear (1974) Halsall replaced (and was reported hand-picked by) original guitarist Allan Holdsworth, no small shoes to fill. Halsall’s playing flickers, and cuts like shards of shattered gems. The tracks “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and their cover of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” also illustrate that much like Innes’ innate vocal similarity to Lennon, Halsall’s resemblance to McCartney in terms of range and timbre was no put on.

Take a listen to some of these tracks and judge for yourself. Even if you still say that they are no super group (which, even I admit is pushing it a bit), you’ll have to admit that, parody or not, the Rutles are no joke.

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