Rutlemania is back,and it’s unreal

A Beatles parody band,created as both tribute and goof,that was almost too good.

Written by New York Times | Published:January 5, 2014 12:26 am

There’s long been debate over who can truly claim the title “the Fifth Beatle”. The disc jockey Murray Kaufman pursued it. Arguments were made for Yoko Ono. A new graphic novel bestows the honorific on manager Brian Epstein. However,the Beatles’ most essential partners may be their fictional counterparts: the Rutles,stars of the mockumentary All You Need Is Cash.

The Rutles were a hapless but well-meaning band created as both tribute and goof by Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame). The group was given musical voice by Neil Innes (Python collaborator and member of the comedy rock group Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). The Rutles were conceived and still exist as inhabitants of a kind of meta-universe where there were no Beatles,no era-defining hits like Penny Lane,but rather a carefully created near-sound-alike titled Doubleback Alley.

Each time there’s a swell of Beatlemania,the “Prefab Four” have been there to keep the Fab Four’s myth in check. In the mid-’90s,the multipart Beatles documentary and album Anthology inspired new Rutles music,Archaeology. In the early 2000s,the real group’s hit album 1 spawned the Rutles’ charming mockumentary Can’t Buy Me Lunch.

With the holidays and the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first trip to America in 1964 fast approaching,there’s another swell upon us. It includes a number of new books; a John Lennon album app; and a collection of BBC recordings. A televised tribute,The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,is scheduled for February. And so,this month sees the release of The Rutles Anthology,a Blu-ray DVD package that collects the two mockumentaries as well as early sketches.

The 1978 film All You Need Is Cash,for which Idle was co-director (with Gary Weis),writer and star,introduced the other Liverpool combo to America. The title is,of course,a play on the 1967 single,All You Need Is Love,but it’s really an attack on the rock of the late ’70s,when artists like the Eagles,Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac sold extraordinary numbers of albums and concert tickets.

“It was time to get a grip,” said Innes,who played Ron Nasty,the Rutles’ Lennon figure. “The Rutles were the perfect antidote to all the hysteria.”

After it had its BBC premiere,the Rutles’ black-and-white short,A Hard Day’s Rut,a spoof of the Beatles’ madcap film debut,A Hard Day’s Night,soon found two crucial supporters. One was Lorne Michaels,creator of Saturday Night Live.

Michaels persuaded an initially sceptical NBC to back a feature-length production and Idle set to work plotting out key points in Beatles lore to revisit,including their tenure in Hamburg,their meeting with Bob Dylan,their sojourn in India,the arrival of Ono and their eventual dissolution.

Meanwhile,Innes was creating the soundtrack. Rutles’ songs are just close enough to Beatles songs to signal their targets (Help! becomes Ouch!) but different enough to skirt parody and stand as melodic triumphs,albeit with occasionally absurd lyrics that tweak pop’s self-seriousness. Many of the performers who portrayed the Rutles in the film,including John Halsey (as the drummer Barry Wom),and Ricky Fataar (as the guitarist Stig O’Hara) actually play the songs. Guitarist-vocalist Ollie Halsall completed the lineup.

Idle portrays the Paul McCartney figure Dirk McQuickly,and lip syncs. “It was quite fun to do his eyes,” Idle said. “He’s slightly cute and knows it.”

Idle’s second ally didn’t need to do much research: George Harrison,perhaps the Rutles’ greatest fan. Harrison appears in a cameo in All You Need Is Cash. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon appear as themselves. “Everything was extemporising,” Simon said. “I just imagined I was answering Beatles questions. Instead of Beatles,I said Rutles.”

A hit in Britain,the Rutles film met with mixed reviews in the US. “People weren’t sure how they were supposed to react,” Michaels said,“because the music was really good.”

“It was almost as much of a panegyric as a satire,” Simon said.

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