The Reunited Rutles Are Upping The Ante

The Boston Globe

Oct. 30, 1996 -- At the start of the Rutles' latest album, "Archeology," you hear a band faintly tuning up, and then bursting into a triumphant-sounding "Major Happy's Up and Coming Once Upon a Good Time Band." Then a cheery, if nasal, singer - could it be the drummer, Barry Wom? - kicks off a jaunty tune called "Rendezvous," a question-and-response number where he finds himself blissfully sitting in his "dandelion den."

After the Beatles - and before Spinal Tap - there were the Rutles. Like Spinal Tap, they went away for a stretch and then semi-reformed. Like the Beatles, they've got an album on the shelves come today.

Reads the Rutles press release announcing the 16-track opus: "Unlike many albums of historic recordings, which contain only outtakes and alternative versions, the Rutles album will consist of entirely fresh material. The recordings are drawn from the album the band was working on when they broke up amid squabbles and lawsuits. The project was abandoned and the master tapes were buried. Literally."

Or maybe not.

The Rutles, you may recall, were the purveyors of a 1978 television mockumentary called "All You Need Is Cash," in which they sent up the Beatles. There was an accompanying soundtrack called "The Rutles." "Archeology," which has no companion film, ups the ante musically and lyrically. One of the Beatles' trademarks was to spew profundities that, on second thought (or in hindsight about a quarter-century down the line) may be closer to mock-profundities; to craft nonsense verses that may have made psychedelic sense but are rather ... nonsensical. The Rutles have 'em in spades here.

The lush, multi-part first single, "Shangri-La," is a standout, both melodically resplendent and terminally hippie-dippy, with its group chorus/endless coda: "La di di/La di da/Here we are in Shangri-La!" Make a tape, segue the song into the Beatles circa "Magical Mystery Tour" and try to tell the difference.

"I didn't ever intend being a parodist, it was sort of thrust upon me," says Neil Innes, 51, co-founder of the legendary British group the Bonzo Dog Band and, more recently, known as Ron Nasty of the Rutles. "Because I'm such an admirer of the Beatles, I certainly didn't want to do any cheap tricks. I'm not trying to be pompous, but I didn't just want to do cheap little sound-alike things. I wanted them to have a life of their own."

So, the Rutles - well, some of them; Eric (Dirk McQuickley) Idle is "off to do comedy" - are back. Stig O'Hara (Ricky Fataar) and Barry Wom (John Halsey) are in the crew. Idle never actually sang or played - he lip-synched. The late Ollie Halsall sang and played Idle's parts on the film and soundtrack.

It started, says Innes, as a small gag on a BBC televsion show. Idle then brought the idea to "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels, and then "it snowballed into something else."

At the time of the film - a cult success but a commercial bomb when it was first broadcast on American TV (it's now a Rhino video) - one of the intentions, says Innes, was "to take the pressure off the Beatles getting back together again," says Innes. "It did the job as a semi-autobiographical silly account of the Beatles." George Harrison was the film's executive producer and played the part of an interviewer. (Keep in mind, this was all before John Lennon was shot - cheer was the order of the day.)

This time, the musicians had more time to work on the songs, and it shows. There are dozens of familiar Beatles licks that pop up, but the sum is more than that. "Being an ex-art student," says Innes, on the phone from London, "I think it's like a painter sits down and paints a landscape. He sees something in it and wants to capture it in a bit of another form. I think that's the way I approach (the Rutles) - if the subject matter excites me I can put something more into it, that reflects the nature of the thing. Even though it's on the surface it's resembling something else. And it has a life of its own."

Indeed, "Shangri-La," which features Peter Gabriel, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Gaynor and others, is a mix, says Innes, of "gloomy realism and almost Disney-esque color choruses, the juxtaposition of that."

The last time the Rutles released an album it coincided with a McCartney release, "London Town," and McCartney - "a good pal to me in the Bonzos," says Innes - found himself answering Rutles questions at every "London Town" interview. McCartney good-naturedly answered the volleys.

Any feedback from the Beatles this time? Before undertaking the project, says Innes, "I ran it by George to see if he thought it was a good idea. `Why not,' he said, `it's all part of the soup.' He has got a copy, and I saw him the other week and I said to him, `Have you listened to it?' and he said, `To be honest, I've had a year of putting together the Beatles, and it's nothing personal, but the last thing I want is to hear anything like them."'

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