interview
NEIL INNES


They were a sensation amongst sensations. They were without peer. A musical force so huge, so bloated, so blatantly commercial. Ron Nasty, Dirk McQuickly, Stig O'Hara and Barry Wom. They were...
THE RUTLES
Interview with Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) by Vinni

 

For those of you who are wondering, "What the hell is he talking about?" Well, I'm talking about the brainchild of Eric Idle and songwriter/performer Neil Innes, best-known for their work with Monty Python's Flying Circus. In 1978, Innes and Idle made a TV Special and album spoofing the meteoric career of The Beatles. I say "spoof,"but it was never mean-spirited. How could it be? After all, Innes maintained a close friendship with George Harrison, who himself appeared in the special as a TV interviewer. "All You Need Is Cash" received critical acclaim-- if not high ratings (they finished last for their week)-- and The Rutles went on to become a cult classic.
Rutles memorabilia can be found at every Beatles convention, which Innes found out, much to his surprise. It was however, a factor in his decision to revive The Rutles.


"In '94, I went to America," says Innes with his familiar British accent. "I was invited by the people who run the Beatle-fests there. I was amazed to discover that The Rutles music has survived the test of time with all The Beatles fans. And then the news came out that The Beatles were going to release Anthology, and people started ringing me up, saying, 'Why aren't The Rutles doing anything?' So I asked George (Harrison) what he thought and he said, 'Why not? It's all part of the soup.'" Innes listened to his old friend and his fans and has released, Archeology, a collection of new songs as well as three "archival" songs featuring all four original musical members, including singer/ guitarist Ollie Halsall, known as the "fifth Rutle." Halsall, who was key to the recording and film projects the first time around (Eric Idle mimed his parts), passed away in 1992 at the age of 43.


Although The Rutles were in fact conceived by Eric Idle as a skit for his short-lived British TV show, Rutland Weekend TV, it was Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels who brought The Rutles to American TV. Idle is not involved with the new project. According to Innes, "We asked Eric if he wanted to get involved and he declined. But it's understandable because Eric. . . really didn't have anything to do with the music the first time around."
The music on Archeology is surprisingly good, to the point of where it stands up quite well on it's own. These songs are not the wacky parodies of Weird Al Yankovic or the irreverent comedy of Monty Python. The recording has a subtle humor that is best appreciated by Beatles fans. Innes, like all good comedians, sees truth as being at the heart of good humor. That said, it's hard for many people to take this music seriously. "I went through this with the Bonzos" says Innes, speaking of his first big gig,

The Bonzo Dog Band. "There's a fine line between stupidity and comedy. (Laughter) There is a serious side to comedy that you really can't extract from it. I'm getting a bit facetious now-- because I've done a lot of interviews-- but it popped into my head the other day to describe the album as being like Shakespeare, but with better songs. Because Shakespeare never had a hit song, you know? And Shakespeare was able to go from drama to comedy."


"All You Need Is Cash" was a star-studded affair boasting cameos from former Python alum Michael Palin and SNL legends, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon played themselves, discussing their memories and feelings about the mythical band. Innes was pleased to find that the star power translated to fans as well. "I did an impromptu type of show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and loads of people came down. Julian Lennon came down, Seal came down. You know, doing all these interviews. . . somebody said, 'have you still got your sex appeal? ' And I said, 'Yeah, women love The Rutles because we all do our own ironing."

Comedy is what Innes is best-known for and his role as the principle songwriter in Monty Python's Flying Circus suited him well. His first love though, will always be The Bonzo Dog Band. "That was just so anarchic" laughs Innes. "The Bonzos had a kind of cross-fertilization with people like Eric Idle and Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. We had all worked on a children's television program called, Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was pure embryonic Python, mixed with Bonzo madness."


Python's impact, although minimized by Innes' genuine humility, is not lost on the British comedian. "The Pythons did take television and stand it on it's head" says Innes thoughtfully. "But like The Beatles, they wrote some brilliant sketches. It's really great to be in a group where the chemistry's going, you know. Nobody necessarily sees eye-to-eye or likes one another, but it's really sort of like, fighting to make the thing better. And that's very stimulating to be near. I imagine it was the same with The Beatles. "


Performing with the Pythons was certainly a highlight of Innes' career, but when you're working with a group of guys like that, you know there's gonna be trouble. . . "Having done one-man shows, it's a lot better to do a show with a lot of other people. . . even if they are bastards like John Cleese. You know, his idea of a practical joke. . . You know the rule about timing in comedy? Make the right timing entrance. So, you're just about to make an entrance in a sketch, and he creeps up behind you and holds you by the arms! So you're going (makes struggling noises mixed with British expletives). Then he lets you go and you have to go on and pull it all back. There's a lot of that, a lot of anarchy."


It is frankly impossible to talk to this man without bringing up Monty Python. Innes is very accommodating and shared this story; "When we did Drury Lane, we did it for four weeks. We were only supposed to do two but the promoter kept prevailing upon us. But we said, 'Four weeks. That is it.' So it was the last night and they had a mobile outside recording it. For four weeks, on this "election" sketch-- we all had to do different things-- but the bit I hated was. . . I had to put on these frogman's flippers and this raincoat and appear as the candidate for the City Party. And Eric would say, "Are you at all downhearted?" And all I had to say was, 'No, not at all. Try again next time.'


So, on the last night, Eric said, 'Are you at all downhearted?' I looked him in the eye and I snatched the microphone from him. He was grinning, wondering what was going to happen. I said, 'No, not at all. Try again next time. As I always say, climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, (Innes begins to sing) until you find your dream.' And I was flapping towards the front of the stage, singing, and I can see Cleese sitiing there, clutching his head to his desk and groaning, waiting for the sketch to be over. Then I put the mic back in the stand and just sort of flapped off. The upshot was, they kept it in on the album, but they had to pay the publishers of The Sound Of Music. (Laughter) Cleese said, "You bastard. Your adlib cost us a fortune."


For fans of The Rutles, Innes delivers a well-executed and surprisingly "serious" recording with Archeology. In other words, there are many moments on the record where you feel it's not a parody at all, but a work of art that deserves to be judged in it's own light. I'm certain all Neil Innes would say is, "It was a lot of fun."



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