Neil Innes is one of my favourite songwriters. He started off his adventures in music with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. They made splendidly surreal and melodious records and made a memorable guest appearance in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.
After John Cleese left Monty Python Innes stepped in for the fourth series writing songs, contributing to sketches and performing. He also featured in Python movies and sang songs at the Pythons’ now legendary concert at The Hollywood Bowl, including How Sweet To Be an Idiot (a tune that Noel Gallacher borrowed for ‘Whatever’).
After the Python team stopped making TV shows Neil joined Eric Idle to make Rutland Weekend Television for BBC2. One sketch in 1975 featured a mini documentary parodying The Beatles. The group created for that sketch was The Rutles. Then after appearances on Saturday Night Live in America there was a Rutles made for TV film ‘All You Need is Cash’ featuring cameos from S.N.L. regulars including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray plus George Harrison, Paul Simon and Mick Jagger. Rutles songs have been covered by acts including Teenage Fanclub, Shonen Knife, Galaxie 500 and my own group BMX Bandits.
Now almost 40 years after their inception The Rutles are about to embark on a major tour and have a new live album coming out. I had a chat with Neil Innes about The Rutles and more.
Duglas: My introduction to The Rutles was seeing the original sketch on Rutland Weekend Television and buying the Rutland Weekend Television album in 1975. So how did the idea for that sketch come about?
Neil: Well Eric (Idle) asked me to do the television series with him and in agreeing to that he said I could tell the camera where to point and he wanted me to come up with musical interludes that we could televise as part of the idea of Rutland Weekend Television being the smallest television station. The ideas had to be cheap as it was BBC2 and one of the ideas I had was to do a parody of Hard Days Night because it was in black and white, had speeded up bits like Benny Hill and directed by Dick Lester who did The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
A Hard Days Night had a comedy feel to it anyway and everybody knew it so you only had to put four guys in wigs, tight trousers and pointy shoes and then run around a field. So it was my idea to do the spoof of The Beatles and Eric came up with the idea of calling them The Rutles and the idea of the documentary who was so boring that the camera ran away from him. So it was both of us throwing things in the pot really.
Duglas: And did you think that was going to be it? Just like all the other musical interludes it was going to be a one off?
Yes but then real life can be as silly as anything you could make up and offers you opportunities you would never expect. Sid Bernstein, the promoter, was trying to get The Beatles back together to play in America and was offering them crazy money, something like twenty million dollars each.
So he couldn’t get them, so he got you?
Well that was exactly the joke that Saturday Night Live were running with, how could they get The Beatles cheaper. They had George Harrison on and the producer Lorne Michaels had three thousand dollars which was the American musicians union rate for four musicians appearing live on the show. So he waved it under George’s nose and said this could be all yours if you just get the guys back together and get them on the show. So George says “Wow all of that for me” and Lorne says “No, you’ll have to share it with the other guys but maybe you don’t need to tell Ringo”.
Then Eric was hosting the show under the pretext that he could get The Beatles to perform for three hundred dollars but then the gag was that it’s been a bad phone line and there’s been a mix-up. He hasn’t got The Beatles, he’s got The Rutles instead. So they showed our Rutles clip. Then the Saturday Night Live mail bag went crazy. People started sending in pictures of Beatles albums with The Beatles lettering cut out and The Rutles put in instead. So the public decided they wanted more Rutles.
Then you had the job of having to create a whole bunch of other material.
I could see it coming. I was sitting to one side in the NBC offices in the Rockefeller Centre at a meeting and everyone was getting very excited about the public response. I was just waiting for it to occur to them they needed more songs and then they said can you write us another 20 Rutles songs and I said I’d try. I was sitting on the plane going back home and I decided I couldn’t listen to any Beatles songs or I’d be sunk, I wouldn’t be able to come up with any original ideas of my own.
So then I decided to think where was I when I first heard milestone Beatles tracks. I found myself remembering being at art school dances and having a snog and other circumstances that helped me remember how they had made me feel. It was a very useful exercise for conjuring up ideas and Eric was a great help. He suggested the title ‘Ouch’ which was perfect. It appealed to the part of me that likes cryptic crosswords because it was really like puzzle solving, finding the songs and in crafting these songs I knew you couldn’t have any flab on them. They would need to grab people’s interest in just a few seconds.
So once I had songs that I could sing to someone with just a guitar or a piano and they worked, we could add copycat production styles to make them sound like they fitted into the times and sing them in Liverpool accents and then they would start to sound like Rutles songs.
I think a lot of people think of you as some one who just writes comic songs but although some of them are funny there’s a lot of the songs that appeared in The Innes Book of Records and were written for The Rutles that aren’t comic songs at all, they are just good songs and that’s maybe one of the reasons they have a life beyond their original context.
Well, people like to give you a label and then they can stop thinking. From the beginning I didn’t want to trivialise what The Beatles had done. I thought they dealt with big issues in a way that was very accessible and I’d tried to that in the Bonzos too. It wasn’t all just silly songs in the Bonzos. A song like Equestrian Statue for instance had a thoughtful side to it. There are big issues out there and although there aren’t always easy answers the more we are made aware of them then perhaps we’ll be less inclined to crap up the planet all the time. If we all die out and the bacteria take over are they going to be impressed by what wonderful shiny golf shoes and other junk we could make.
At what point did The Rutles go from being a fictional band to being a real band?
I think it must have been in 1994, about the time when The Beatles Anthology was being prepared for release I was invited to go to three Beatles-fest events in America in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. I had no idea that all these Beatles fans were also Rutles fans. I was spending literally hours on end signing all these Rutles albums and people kept asking me are the Beatles going to do an anthology album. People seemed to genuinely want it and so I went down to see George and I said to him what do you think about the idea of more Rutles and he’s got this wicked sense of humour and says “Oh yeah, which one of you is going to get shot?” But he said it was all part of the soup and if The Beatles had their Anthology coming out why shouldn’t The Rutles have something too.
Doing The Rutles again was never really a career move. I thought it could be more a homage to the greatest pop stars ever and writers of their generation. We invited Eric to take part but he declined in fact he tried to stop the album coming out.
It seems kind of ironic and a bit sad that you had the blessing of the surviving Beatles but not the blessing of Eric Idle.
Yes, well doing the album made me realise that a lot of pop music is copycat. Like when The Beatles came out and were successful any band that had a Liverpool accent was signed up. Rutle should be a verb, to rutle, to copy or emulate some one you admire, brackets especially in the music business. That’s what pop music does, it rutles each other.
And I guess The Beatles rutled quite a few different people too like Arthur Alexander and The Isley Brothers and Goffin and King.
Yes, one of the tremendous things about The Beatles is they took the best from everything and never did the same thing twice. They were screamed off the stage and forced into the recording studio and they revolutionised the recording industry.
I remember speaking to a friend in a band about being influenced by The Beatles and he said “Oh I love The Beatles but I’m probably more influenced by The Rutles”. Were you surprised when groups started to quote The Rutles as an influence and recorded versions of Rutles songs or played them live? In Japan there’s a Rutles tribute group The Mountbattens (named after The Rutles fictional manager Leggy Mountbatten).
I think it’s fabulous because they really like the songs and I’ve never been someone very interested in playing the fame game. I think it’s tedious. George and I saw eye to eye on that. He’d say it’s all very well wanting to become rich and famous but if you are lucky enough to get wealth and fame you’ve still got to work out who you are.
That’s why I don’t like this celebrity culture and money culture that is so prevalent today. We’re all in the same boat and it should be more about trying to make things better for everyone rather than trying to elevate yourself out of the reach of others around you. I’m firmly a Woody Guthrie guy and not Simon Cowell.
After you finished with The Rutles, first time round, you started working quite a lot in children’s television. How did that come about?
Like a lot of things I’m not totally sure, it wasn’t really a plan. I find myself in life leaning against doors, then some of them fly open and I find myself falling into whatever is inside. After The Rutles film things got a bit bloody and ugly with publishers threatening to sue and I just thought “sod it”. So I wanted to get away from all that.
Then a girl I was at art school with ended up being a producer at Yorkshire television and she called me up and said would you fancy doing this reading scheme programme called Puddle Lane? And I said I think I would, I’m fed up with the music business they can’t take a joke and so I did Puddle Lane. While I was doing that someone said have a look at this idea and it was Raggy Dolls and I though it was a wonderful idea. It was about reject dolls cooperating with each other. It gave out the idea that nobody’s perfect and we need to help each other out and what better than sending out this message to pre-school age children. So I wrote about a hundred of those and got to do all the voices. I was happy as Larry. I couldn’t understand why people were desperate to get out of children’s TV and go do grown up television.
Going back to your earlier musical adventures, you really started off more as an art project than a pop group?
Going to art school and learning to draw made you look at things objectively but also got your subjective juices flowing and art is more than just drawing or painting. So you can apply these things to making music. I’ve always thought of myself as more of an artist than a pop musician.
So were you surprised when the Bonzos ended up having a hit single?
Well we’d never thought about doing a single and we were surprised when our record company said we had to do one. We had a producer who said we’d have to do it all in just three hours and we didn’t want to do that because we knew The Beatles spent much longer doing stuff and it allowed them to be more creative. Then Viv (Vivian Stanshall) bumped into Paul McCartney and he said he would come and produce it for us and he did a cracking job. Then we outraged the record company by saying we didn’t want to put his name on the record. He was credited as Apollo C. Vermouth. They couldn’t believe we didn’t want to use his name to help sell the record but we insisted and out it came and got to number 5 all on its own.
Neil: He totally got it. He was really cool. He was an arty guy. He was into Bunuel and all the art films. He and The Beatles had an understanding of artistic ideas that allowed them to create the epoch where popular songs could have more to them than just the moon in June.
I saw The Rutles in Edinburgh last year and I am delighted that I’ll be getting the chance to see them again this year in Glasgow. It’s a evening full of fab songs that will have you smiling inside and out. One particular highlight of the Edinburgh show was a tender tribute to Neil’s late friend George Harrison. I won’t spoil it by revealing the exact nature of the tribute.
There are also some very funny moments, like original Rutles drummer Barry Wom (John Halsey)’s totally awesome drum solo. The Rutles live show is a rare and precious thing in its warmth, humour and in the connection Neil and co. make with the audience. As Neil says “You may not be able to change the world but you can keep parts of it nice”, I very much approve of that sentiment.
The Rutles UK dates:
- Weds 7 May Exeter Phoenix
- Thurs 8 May Stroud Subscription Rooms
- Fri 9 May Cardiff The Globe
- Sat 10 May Frome Cheese & Grain
- Sun 11 May Southampton The Brook
- Weds 14 May York Fibbers
- Thurs 15 May Newcastle O2 Academy 2
- Fri 16 May Leeds City Varieties
- Sat 17 May Nottingham Rescue Rooms
- Sun 18 May Didcott The Cornerstone
- Weds 21 May Birmingham Town Hall
- Thurs 22 May London o2 Islington Academy
- Fri 23 May Farnham Maltings
- Sat 24 May Bridport The Electric Palace
- Sun 25 May Swansea The Garage
- Weds 28 May Clitheroe The Grand
- Thurs 29 May Manchester RNCM Theatre
- Fri 30 May Glasgow o2 ABC 2
- Sat 31 May Liverpool o2 Academy 2
All words by Duglas T Stewart. More writing by Duglas on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.