Some people will tell you they hate a certain band because their music sounds too much like the music of another band they like. But such an argument seems defeating: if you like the sound of band A, and band B sounds like band A, why wouldn’t you like band B? Because you feel like you have to defend the creative integrity of Band A? Well, one band that definitely doesn’t need your sticking up for them is the Beatles, what with their legions of fans, billions of dollars, teams of lawyers, etc. And since it’s a fuck-you to their fans not to offer the Apple catalogue on Spotify and other streaming services—what, does Paul McCartney need another house?—why not support the bands that simply, er, pay homage (to put it politely) to the Liverpudlian foursome?
Like, say, the Magic Mystery Tour-specific stylings of Tame Impala? Or, even better, a band whose output is sometimes indistinguishable from the Beatles’, whose best songs often meld in my memory into the oeuvre of their chief inspiration, and which was sued by the people who own the Beatles’ catalogue and had John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney’s name added to the songwriting credits of all their songs? I’m talking of course about the Rutles, the spoof band that began in the 70s as a BBC gag and rose to semi-notability following the made-for-TV mockumentary All You Need is Cash, which was released in 1978, six years before Spinal Tap, back when the rock n’ roll mockumentary was still new.
The Rutles were a minor cultural phenomenon; the movie was codeveloped by and costarred Eric Idle (also given a codirecting credit), featured cameos by several classic SNL cast members (Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner) and pop stars (Mick Jagger, Paul Simon), and included the involvement of George Harrison himself. But as far as I’m concerned, the star is Neil Innes, whose 20 Bealtes-y compositions play throughout the film and, more importantly, comprise the soundtrack album, expanded in the CD era from the original 14-track LP.
Innes was a founding member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, an art-school rock band that had a hit in 1968 with “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” coproduced by Paul McCartney under a pseudonym. In the mid-70s, Innes was a collaborator with Monty Python, touring with the group and writing songs for their last season on television as well as for the Holy Grail movie. If this was all he’d accomplished, Innes would be remembered by Brit-comedy nerds and maybe even psych-rock footnotists. But thanks to the Rutles project, he will also be remembered by Beatles nerds, a much larger subset that almost qualifies him for cult-icon status.
The Rutles album has three styles of songs: those that quote the Beatles’ music directly and just sorta change the words; those that capture the essence of the Beatles sound without directly plagiarizing the songwriting; and those that could exist elsewhere without anyone spotting but the vaguest Beatles influence. The soundtrack moves through the Beatles career chronologically, starting with a few early rock n’ roll knockoffs that I usually skip. Though “Number One” is kind of catchy, “Goose Step Mama,” “Blue Suede Schubert” and the like aren’t the best introduction to what’s to come—and could unfortunately turn off listeners who just want to give the record a quick chance. Stick with it.
I’d say skip the first five songs entirely except stuck in there is “Hold My Hand,” a riff on “All My Loving” that’s the first kind of Rutles song I identified: a catchy alternate-universe Beatles tune that in the vagaries of a casual Beatles fan’s remembrance might get confused for the genuine article. (Other examples include “Ouch,” a humorous sendup of “Help!,” and “Get Up and Go,” which is just “Get Back” with sillier lyrics.) Songs like the next few are more insidious: Hard Day’s Night-era pastiches like “I Must Be in Love,” “With a Girl Like You” and “Between Us” are clearly influenced by the Beatles, but pinpointing their specific points of inspiration are more difficult; even a serious Beatles fan, hearing them enough times, might start to mix up who wrote what.
The album goes on through the eras of Sgt. Pepper (“Good Times Roll” and “Nevertheless”) and Magical Mystery Tour (“Love Life” and “Piggy in the Middle“), but as it winds down, The Rutles includes a few examples of that last kind of Rutles song: “Another Day” and “Cheese and Onions” are vaguely Beatle-y, but their satire is so broad it ceases to be satire. I mean, sure, it’s smirksome that Innes rhymes “pusillanimous, oh yeah” with “and I must go there,” but more in the way that Ira Gershwin might make you giggle with a clever pairing. The Rutles began as a joke, but even their jokiest songs aren’t hard also to take seriously. It’s pop music par excellence; they used master songwriters as their template, not crafting something as innovative as Lennon/McCartney but something often just as cheering and fun as the best popular music. What else really matters?
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