Friday, February 7, 2014

Ouch! An appreciation of the Rutles

I am a huge Beatles fan, so the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' explosion on the U.S. scene on February 9, 1964 of course provides an opportune moment to reminisce about the Rutles, the enduring parody/tribute to the original Fab Four. Naturally, the Rutles were billed as the Pre-Fab Four, comprised of members Ron Nasty, Dirk McQuickly, Stig O'Hara, and Barry Wom. (I touched on the Rutles briefly as part of a previous blog appreciation of Monty Python.)

I had the privilege to see the Rutles perform live in concert in 1994, when they appeared at an iconic L.A. club, the Troubador, as part of a city-wide celebration of the 25th anniversary of Monty Python. Actually, it wasn't the full band that performed, but rather Neil Innes, a longtime Python musical collaborator who wrote the brilliant sng parodies and who co-starred in the original mockumentary, All You Need is Cash, playing the John Lennon knock-off of the band, Ron Nasty. At the concert, Innes was backed up by a Beatles tribute band called the Moptops and a small orchestra. Spotted in the audience that night were Ed Begeley, Jr., and Spinal Tap star/band member Harry Shearer. Spinal Tap and its accompanying film, This is Spinal Tap, of course, are obvious direct descendants of the Rutles and All You Need is Cash. It was fun to be surrounded by fellow Rutles fans that night. Innes and the Moptops billed themselves as "Ron Nasty and the New Rutles" and the concert was followed by a straight Beatles set by the Moptops.

Python member Eric Idle created the Rutles (with Innes) as a short film for his U.K. television series, Rutland Weekend Television. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels saw the short, featured a clip on SNL, then asked Idle to expand it into a comedy mockumentary which was directed by SNL film director Gary Weis. In addition to cameos by SNL regulars like Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi and Bill Murray, Beatles friends like Mick Jagger and Paul Simon also appeared. Former Beatle George Harrison—a fan and friend of Idle and the Pythons—also cameo'd as an interviewer, putting his own blessing on the project.

While response and reviews at the time appeared to have been mixed—most likely because nothing like it had been seen before until This is Spinal Tap a few years later, the film has since gained cult status. What probably has given the project longevity is not the show itself, which was funny because of how much it hewed so closely satirically to real Beatles history, but the music—both melodically and lyrically, the Rutles' songs are nearly as catchy and memorable as the Beatles canon they parody, standing on their own surprisingly well, though of course knowledge of the originals increases the giggle factor. The songs particularly capture the early innocence of Beatlemania as well as the  simplicity of those early songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" (parodied with "Hold My Hand") and "She Loves You" ("I Must Be in Love"), as well as their diverse styles, such as Lennon's Lewis Carroll-influenced poetry ("I am the Walrus" becomes "Piggy in the Middle.")

The songs follow the same trajectory of the Beatles' growth as songwriters: from the early period ("I Must be in Love," "Hold My Hand," and "Ouch!)"; to the Sgt. Pepper period ("Cheese and Onions" and "Doubleback Alley"); to Harrison's Indian-influenced songs ("Nevertheless"); and their later years ("Piggy in the Middle" and "Get Up and Go.") If anything, the parodies underscore the brilliance of the originals, demonstrating how quickly a song, particularly its lyrics, can go south in lesser hands.

George Harrison's involvement aside, the Beatles' reactions to the show was reportedly mixed at the time, though John Lennon apparently enjoyed it. While it's probably hard to be the target of parody and satire, it's clear the show was done with a lot of love and respect, poking fun more at the hysteria and hype that surrounded the band rather than the band itself.

BELOW: "Hold My Hand"

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