The Rutles: Piggy In The Middle
[purchase the album]
[purchase the DVD of All You Need Is Cash]
It’s my fourth TV related post in a row (fifth, if you count the section of my In Memoriam piece about Fred Tomlinson, who did much of the music for Monty Python’s Flying Circus). And speaking of Monty Python, we’re going to discuss The Rutles, created by Python member Eric Idle and Neil Innes, who became part of the extended Python family late in their TV run, performed live with them and wrote music for, and appeared in, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. More about Innes’s distinguished career can be found here.
Idle and Innes created The Rutles, “The Prefab Four,” for a sketch show called Rutland Weekend Television. Innes, who had worked with Paul McCartney in his Bonzo Dog Band days, was able to brilliantly, but, for the most part, lovingly, parody The Beatles. Idle later played bits from Rutland Weekend Television, including The Rutles segment, when he hosted Saturday Night in 1976 (before Live was added to the show’s name), and Lorne Michaels suggested expanding it to a one hour show. A few months earlier, Michaels had taken the stage at Saturday Night and offered The Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show, and when they never collected, it seems that he thought that The Rutles might be a good substitute. Years later, it came out that Lennon and McCartney were together that night watching the show in Lennon’s apartment in New York, only a short cab ride to the Rockefeller Plaza studio, and considered showing up to try to claim half the money.
In 1978, years before Spinal Tap popularized the rock mockumentary as a genre, All You Need Is Cash appeared featuring Idle as Dirk McQuickly, Innes as his writing partner Ron Nasty, Ricky Fataar, who had a stint in the Beach Boys, as guitarist Stig O’Hara and drummer John Halsey, who played with Lou Reed, as Barrington Womble, better known as Barry Wom. Ollie Halsall actually sang and played the McQuickly parts which Idle mimed and lip synched in the film. Halsall also appeared in the movie as “Leppo,” the Fifth Rutle, at once a commentary on his behind the scenes performance and a parody of both Stuart Sutcliffe and Zeppo Marx. Andy Brown played bass on the album, but didn’t appear on screen.
The film is, essentially a series of sketches that parody and follow The Beatles’ history. There were some pointed barbs at the band, but apparently they (mostly) didn’t mind—George Harrison, a huge Python fan who also helped to finance Life of Brian—appears in the show as a reporter. The cast also featured Python Michael Palin, SNL performers John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, Bianca Jagger, and Ron Wood. Paul Simon and Mick Jagger appeared as themselves.
But the best part of the show, and what has lasted, are the songs, often direct parodies of specific Beatles songs, and others pastiches of a bunch of tunes. Innes, in fact, was sued by the former holder of The Beatles’ publishing rights, and was required to add Lennon and McCartney as co-writers to many of the songs.
“Piggy In The Middle” is the alt-“I Am the Walrus,” if John Lennon had used different nursery rhymes as inspiration. The title refers to a game that I remember better as “monkey in the middle,” or less insultingly, if not less infuriatingly, as “keep away.” Here’s a piece from American Songwriter about the song which explains it better than I can.
A few semi-reunions of the Prefabs took place after the release of the movie. In 1996, a new album, Archeology, was released, parodying The Beatles’ Anthology, and a weaker sequel film was released in the early 2000s. And in 2014, Innes put out what he called Ron Nasty’s last song, “Imitation Song,” a parody of "Imagine."
The spot-on quality of the music and cleverness of the parody have continued to make The Rutles one of the most beloved fake bands ever. There even is a Rutles tribute album and Rutles cover bands. Which is still pretty odd.
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