Rutle to the Core
Neil Innes Exposes His Nasty Side
The last image most people have of rock legend Ron Nasty is a scene at the end of the 1978 film All You Need Is Cash. Therein, the embittered former co-leader of the Rutles, wheelchair-bound by choice, turns his back to the camera and on the world and speeds off into the distance. Twenty years later, Nasty's exile has finally ended with the release of Archaeology, a collection of lost Rutles' tracks that were said to be buried forever "to avoid bootleggers. And tax collectors." Today, Nasty recants his long years of self-exile, and with the sparkling wit of his (and our) youth back in full force, quips that he found, "You can't turn your back on the world, because when you do, you look ahead and there's still just as much world ahead of you."
Alright, that's not Ron Nasty speaking at all; it's Neil Innes, veteran of British rock and comedy, who played the part of Nasty -- the John Lennon character -- in the Beatles parody film All You Need Is Cash. And the real reason he gives for the Rutles' long absence is that, "It was funny in 1978 to pretend that there wasn't a Beatles," but since Lennon's tragic murder in December 1980, that hasn't been the case.
Still, in the nearly 20 years since its release, a sizeable cult has arisen around the film. In fact, let's backtrack for a moment: The Rutles made their first appearance in a skit on Rutland Weekend Television, a Seventies U.K. television show in which Innes co-starred with Eric Idle of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Innes had been a member of the Dadaist U.K. rock combo/jazz ensemble/comedy troupe, the Bonzo Dog Band, who had appeared in both the pre-Python TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set with Pythons Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones, and the Beatles' made-for-TV film Magical Mystery Tour. Coincidentally, both Do Not Adjust Your Set and Mystery Tour made their broadcast debuts on the same day in 1967.
The Rutles/Beatles connection hardly ends with Mystery Tour, however: Paul McCartney, under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth, produced the Bonzos' 1968 U.K. hit single, "I'm the Urban Spaceman"; several of the Bonzos turned up on a single with McCartney's brother's band, the Scaffold; and Idle and George Harrison became close friends, leading to the latter's producing (and briefly appearing in) the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian.
Interestingly enough, while All You Need is Cash was often savage in its humor, particularly in its take on the Beatles' messy breakup, the film was reluctantly approved by the Liverpudlians themselves. The Fab Four allowed the "Pre-fab Four" to use some of their footage of screaming young concertgoers, and Harrison again made a cameo appearance in the film. To further blur the difference between Beatlemania and Rutlemockery, the story goes that at one point during the filming, an excited young man ran up to Harrison, who was in costume as an elderly reporter, and, pointing at Innes in his Nasty getup, inquired, "Is that John Lennon?" Needless to say, the fan was disappointed by the truth.
Like the Beatles, the Rutles in 1996 now number only three, with Idle's Paul McCartney character Dirk McQuickly conspicuously absent. In character, Innes replies to questions about Dirk by saying that he left the group to "go into comedy." In reality, Idle had no input in the musical end of the Rutles. He can't play bass, and his singing voice did not approximate McCartney's enough to fill the bill, so another cohort, veteran Brit session man Ollie Halsall (who can be seen briefly in the film as the fifth Rutle, Leppo) took the part of the audio McQuickly during recording sessions, much as Innes replaced animator Terry Gilliam as the sixth Python on their recording projects. So there should still be four Rutles, then? Well, no. Halsall passed away in 1992, leaving them, like their predecessors, a trois.
So why, in 1996, bring the Rutles back to record store shelves? If this were simply a move to cash in on the Beatles' Anthology sales, some might see it as an exercise in bad taste. Innes agrees that the Rutles can no longer exist as comedy sketch material, yet as a gleeful pop excursion back into the world of the Sixties "British Invasion," he feels there's no better time than the present. Even as the Beatles made the decision to "clean out our closets," as Harrison has put it -- and bands like Oasis have garnered (if not outright invited) Beatles comparisons -- Innes had been making appearances at various Beatles conventions and finding that there was great curiosity about the Rutles, and an affection for them that approached that of the Fab Four themselves.
It was about this same time that Innes, now 51 and an editor of children's books who still works in television, came across a batch of gray spools in his closet, which turned out to be unused demos of songs that never made it into All You Need Is Cash. From there, the jump to getting back with Rutles drummer Barry Wom (John Halsey) and the Indian of the group Stig O'Hara (Rikki Fataar) to create enough new tracks to fill a disc, was not far at all. And, ironically enough, though Archaeology was not intended for release on the same day as the final installment of Anthology, a brief delay in the Beatles' collection led to it being moved to October 29 -- Archaeology's release date as well.
"I hope people see Archaeology as more than just a comedy album," worries Innes, though it's hard to imagine anyone picking up Archaeology and expecting a Steve Martin album. The cover is a stark black-and-white Rutles logo, modeled to match not Anthology, but rather the Beatles' Past Masters series, while the back insert features Innes, Fataar and Halsey in their 1964 suits seen from the neck down, their mop-top wigs held mournfully at their sides.
Musically, rather than creating direct parodies of Beatles tunes, the emphasis this time round is on taking songs that Innes has been performing solo (he's always been possessed of a pop sense akin to that of Lennon and McCartney) and embellishing them with sneaky Beatles quotes and various psychedelic trappings. Nevertheless, the Rutles of today have more in common with Blur than "Weird" Al Yankovic.
Archaeology belongs not with your Stan Freberg and Dr. Demento discs, but rather alongside Todd Rundgren and Utopia's Face the Music or XTC/The Dukes of Stratosphear's Chips From the Chocolate Fireball as an example of music that both recaptures a time and goes beyond it into timelessness. The single, "Shangri-La," while nodding to "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" and "Hey Jude," finds its true power in that it embodies the joy of a world that can't be -- a world where a true Beatles reunion will never happen. Counter to the bleak picture of England painted by the Kinks in their song of the same name (which, believe it or not, Innes says he's heard of, but never heard), the Seventies-penned Innes tune cheerfully exclaims that "All day long the sky is blue/And everyone's in love with you/In Shangri-La," as Pepperland strings swirl giddily about the too-catchy melody. It's a pop moment more than worthy of the new batch of British invaders like the Gallagher brothers, of which Innes, unimpressed with the recent tide of industrial and dance musics, notes only, "It's good that people are writing songs again."
A listen to Archaeology is a lot like turning your back on the world and finding a whole new one in front of you. As the years pass, the surviving Beatles have found themselves looking back and wondering why all the petty bickering and legal battles in the wake of the group's breakup took precedence over lifelong friendships. "George says that the Beatles and the Bonzos and the Pythons and the Rutles should've gotten together and had a great time," notes Innes.
Ironically, though, now that the Beatles are friendly with each other and with the Rutles (George has recorded a track for an upcoming Bonzos tribute album, and Innes says that Ringo is working on one as well), the missing Rutle, Eric Idle, has so far declined any comment on the reunion, and the only mention of him on Archaeology is a sterile notice that, "The Rutles were conceived and created by Eric Idle." Innes says he'd like very much to hear from Idle, but hasn't. And after so much water "has passed under the bridge, gone out to sea, turned into a cloud, come back and rained on many a parade," as Archaeology's liner notes explain, it's ironic and more than a trifle sad that in this world, Dirk and Nasty still can't get along.