THE RUTLES – The closest we ever got to a Beatles reunion in 1978

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“Saturday Night Live’s” creator-producer Lorne Michaels made no bones about taking the British comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” as an inspiration for his show. In 1978, fans of both shows probably wished that the two comedic styles could be combined as fervently as Beatles fans hoped for a Beatles reunion at that time. Combine all three of those concepts, and you get The Rutles.

Of course, The Rutles wasn’t strictly a Monty Python project. Its main progenitor was only one Python member, Eric Idle, who co-wrote, -directed, and starred in the TV-movie. But it certainly had Python’s fingerprints all over it. Michael Palin played a small role in the movie, and Python “guest contributor” Neil Innes performed in the film and wrote all of its songs in ersatz Beatles style. As a Python/”SNL” collaboration (Michaels and cast members of the original “SNL” appear), it satisfied comedy fans and Beatles buffs quite handily.

The Rutles charts the rise and fall of the movie’s titular, Beatles-like rock group, and the movie’s greatest success is in its uncanny creations of high points in the Beatles’ career. Innes, Idle, one-time Beach Boys member Ricky Fataar, and John Halsey serve as adequate stand-ins for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. As fake Beatles, the first two provide the biggest laughs. Idle captures Paul McCartney’s infinite cheeriness wonderfully, and Innes definitively captures John Lennon’s acid wit.

But despite the wealth of Beatles myth to satirize, the movie is actually at its funniest when it pokes fun at the documentary form itself. Idle also plays the story’s on-screen narrator, and one of the movie’s best bits is at the start, as Idle is photographed from a van that keeps moving faster and faster away from him, so that Idle has to run to stay on-camera while telling the story. Another great bit is when Idle interviews an elderly African-American blues singer who claims that The Rutles stole their style and music from him, only to have the man’s wife berate him and tell Idle that her husband tries to make the same claim to every documentarian who visits him..

The movie’s highlight is definitely Innes’ uncanny recreation of the Beatles sound in the movie’s ersatz Rutles songs (e.g., “Ouch!” being his version of The Beatles’ “Help!”, “Get Up and Go” in place of “Get Back,” and so on). Many of Innes’ songs, while certainly not as legendary as The Beatles’, are equally as toe-tapping. (The movie’s soundtrack album received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.)

As it did 40 years ago, the question remains whether the movie’s comedy plays well, if at all, to anyone unfamiliar with the Beatles mythology. (To that end, the 1984 spoof This Is Spinal Tap deals with a completely fictional group and is far more effective in satirizing musical styles in general.) However, the real Beatles enjoyed it (none more so than George Harrison, who even does a cameo in the movie). So if you’re in the mood for Beatles-approved Beatles satire, The Rutles is surely your ticket to ride.

Happy birthday, John Lennon (1940-1980)

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One day in October of 1980, I happened to turn on the radio in the middle of a song that was being broadcast. After about 30 seconds, I shrieked with delight: “He’s back! He’s back!”

I immediately called the radio station and had my happiest wish confirmed — John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE (retd.), had a new single out, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a teaser from his then-forthcoming “comeback” album.

Double Fantasy was touted as a “conversation” between Lennon and his much-maligned wife, Yoko Ono. The album’s pattern was that John would sing a song, and then Yoko would “answer” it with a song of her own.

(Post-era critique of the album: All of John’s songs are wonderful. Most of Yoko’s songs are tolerable, which is pretty good for her. And there are two Yoko songs which brook no middle ground: “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” in which the climax of the song is quite truly, er, the climax of the song; and “I’m Your Angel,” a guilty-pleasure piece of superb schmaltz that I rank as the best song Paul McCartney never wrote.)

At the time of its release, Double Fantasy was mostly sniffed at by critics who resented former rebel John’s newfound cloak of bourgeois respectability. Personally, I wasn’t interested in this “class struggle.” The Voice was back, and he sounded great. When John announced that he might actually do a tour to promote the album, even the thought of Yoko performing with him wasn’t enough to keep me from wanting to buy a ticket to the erstwhile concert.

I neither want nor need to recount the pointless tragedy that occurred two months later and snuffed out John’s voice and life.

At this blog, I have already recounted, ad nauseum, my lifelong love for The Beatles. But I gained a new respect for John long after he left the group.

As a teenager in the mid-1970’s, I decided to collect every solo Beatle album to date, just so that I could compare the good, the bad, and the ugly for myself. When I was 15, I purchased John’s first post-Beatle solo album, starkly titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

I swear to you, that album saved my life.

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I was quite the disenfranchised teenager at that point — gangly and quite socially inept. Listening to the Plastic Ono Band album was like having an intimate conversation with one of the popular kids who had suddenly let down his guard. Hearing John sing about his late mother and his painful growing-up years instantly stripped him of his Beatle veneer. (And having lost my own mother at age 4, it wasn’t difficult to identify with those harsh emotions.)

For me, the true kicker on the album was “Working Class Hero,” where he sang:

They hurt you at home,

And they hit you at school.

They hate you if you’re clever,

And they despise a fool,

‘Til you’re so f***in’ crazy

You can’t follow their rules.

My teenage years in a nutshell.

Indulging in all of the post-Beatles albums, I quickly discovered — as did most Fabs fans of the time — that the separated Beatles weren’t nearly as flawless as they were as a group, John included. (Try listening to John and Yoko’s Some Time in New York City, a tackily bourgeois take on the politics of the day.) But there was still enough of Excellent John to hold out hope, in 1975, that he’d return to recording, if not recording with The Beatles.)

Now that decades have passed, it’s easy to scoff at Rich Man John’s takes on socialism. Just today, a Facebook friend of mine posted a photo of John and Yoko from 1969, waiting for the maid to change their bed linens so that they could continue their “radical” Bed-In protest.

But at least John had the right spirit. I’d be amazed if any current politician dared to espouse his philosophy of non-violence and help for everyone on the planet. And he sure sang it in the right key.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beatles – The gift that keeps on giving

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The following is my entry in The Favorite Foursome Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from July 6-8, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read about bloggers’ favorite foursomes from all venues of pop culture!

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My earliest memory of The Beatles — probably one of my earliest memories ever — is when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of my dinky little record player, listening to The Beatles’ Second Album. Why would a 4-year-old be listening to a Beatles LP? Well, it’s practically part of your DNA when your older sister is a red-blooded, full-throated Beatlemaniac.

My sister Sue, who is 10 years older than me, was one of millions of American females who would scream every time The Beatles came on TV. I have no memory of her watching The Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 (though I’m sure that’s how she got into Beatlemania). But I have clear recollections of her screaming heartily when the film of The Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert was broadcast, and even when ABC premiered their weekly Beatles cartoon series on Sept. 25, 1965. So it seems that I became a Beatlemaniac by proxy.

I have some strange childhood memories of The Beatles. One is that I wanted to listen to my sister’s copies of their albums, and despite her reluctance to let me do so, my father insisted upon it. One time, I left her copy of Rubber Soul too close to our front room’s open radiator. Forever after, when we played the album, the phonograph needle would have to ride over a rotating hill in the grooves.

My dad had the funniest memory of our family’s “encounters” with The Beatles. We lived in Chicago, and The Beatles played two shows there at White Sox Park on Aug. 20, 1965. Against my dad’s better wishes, he bought two tickets to the second show, for himself and Sue. My dad had two overriding memories of the concert. One was that, when he was driving himself and Sue to the concert, they got about halfway there when Sue realized she had left the concert tickets back at home, and he angrily had to drive back home to get them.

His other memory was that he was practically deafened by the screams of the 37,000 other fans who had attended the concert that night. Also, The Beatles performed on a 360-degree rotating stage. Right behind my dad and sister were a mother-and-daughter couple who had brought along a huge banner reading, “WE LOVE YOU, RINGO.” Every time they thought that the band was rotating in their direction, the mother and daughter would jump up, scream at Ringo, and waved their banner at him. 

I don’t remember the first time I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I definitely had a reaction to the album that was radically different from my sister’s. I was always fascinated by the album’s lavish artwork and era-defining music. But for my sister, that album was the beginning of the end of her fascination with The Beatles, as they had become too far-out and psychedelic for her. (She didn’t even bother buying the double-disc White Album, which would have been too expensive for her meager allowance anyway. As a result, I didn’t even know there was a White Album until I checked it out from a local library in 1972.) So from then on, I ended up carrying the Beatle torch for my family.

After 50-some years (!), their music continues to amaze me. They did so many different kinds of music — rock, ballad, country, experimental — and did them all so well, I’ve always regarded The Beatles as a genre unto themselves. And every phase of their career yields something great to listen to — from their early music with its escapist pop lyrics, to their studio-only years when they experimented with any type of sound they could imagine, to their valedictory era with its solid musicianship.

They weren’t perfect, heaven knows. Producer George Martin was probably right in his opinion that The White Album could have been cut down to a really solid single album instead of its somewhat uneven double set (but who would want to be the one to axe any of the album’s songs?). And Let It Be, while it has its moments, makes it clear that everyone (except perhaps Paul) was ready to move on to other things. (I prefer the stripped-down Naked version of the album that was issued at Paul McCartney’s behest in 2003.)

Yet the best of their music — which is surely the majority of their work — continues to reward new generations of listeners. My 22-year-old son has a friend who is as into The Beatles as I ever was. And as the 50th-anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper — remastered by George Martin’s son Giles — proves, we continue to find layers and layers of wonderful sounds in what seemed very familiar songs. I can never get enough of them.