Join Date: Aug 14, 2003
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Art imitates strife: Rutles launch feud
Art imitates strife: Rutles launch feud
By Mark Caro
Tribune entertainment reporter
May 10 2005
First came Paul vs. John, which begat Dirk vs. Nasty, which begat Eric vs. Neil.
Monty Python member Eric Idle and comedic songwriter Neil Innes were the close friends and collaborators who created the Rutles three decades ago as a parody of the Beatles -- a very popular band, you may recall, whose bitter breakup left close friends/collaborators Paul McCartney and John Lennon at each others' throats.
In the wake of the recently released straight-to-DVD "The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch," Idle, who plays McCartney stand-in Dirk McQuickly, and Innes, who plays Lennon stand-in Ron Nasty and wrote the Rutles' dead-on parody songs, are going at it.
"Neil is a clever and gifted singer and song-writer who's determined to be a failure, and his determination succeeds," volleyed Idle, who wrote and co-directed the 1978 NBC special "All You Need Is Cash" and made a virtual solo project out of the new sequel.
Innes, who tends to be more restrained in his rhetoric, returned, "I look at it all with some kind of amusement because I'm not showbizy and I think probably Eric is, and if people want to be possessive and don't want to share their toys in the sandpit, I couldn't care less."
George Harrison, friend to both Idle and Innes, and British-born humorist Martin Lewis, who has helped produce various projects involving the Beatles and Rutles, couldn't help but notice the parallels.
"The word 'irony' can be certainly applied to the fact that some of the problems that manifested themselves within the Beatles' personal relationships also manifest themselves in the Rutles' personal relationships," Lewis said. "The person who found it most amusing was George Harrison, who said, 'You're supposed to be sending us up. You're not supposed to be emulating us.' "
Idle and Innes go way back together. "Too far," Idle laughed. "And no further."
Innes, whose Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band appeared in the Beatles TV movie "Magical Mystery Tour," made musical contributions to Monty Python's TV shows and films. That's Innes as the minstrel singing about Idle's "brave Sir Robin" in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which Idle recently refashioned as the Broadway hit musical "Spamalot."
After the Python series ended, Idle and Innes created and starred in the 1975-76 sketch-comedy show "Rutland Weekend Television." One segment showed a quartet of mop-tops running around a la "A Hard Day's Night" to Innes' first Rutles song, "I Must Be in Love."
That clip aired on "Saturday Night Live" when Idle hosted in 1976, and on his return visit, Innes performed the Rutles song "Cheese and Onions." Soon "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels was producing "All You Need Is Cash," which featured appearances by "SNL" performers John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray as well as a gray-mustached Harrison.
The special was the week's lowest-rated program, yet the "Pre-Fab Four" have remained dear to Beatles and Python fans and others who have discovered the show's sharp wit, loopy humor and infectious music over its prolonged life on home video and CD. "All You Need Is Cash" put the "mock" into "mockumentary" six years before Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" coined the phrase.
The story would end happily there if not for subsequent attempts to extend, and lay claim to, the Rutles legacy. Innes revisited the music side with the well-received 1996 Rutles album "Archaeology," a takeoff of the Beatles' "Anthology" CDs being released at that time.
Idle, who didn't write or perform on either Rutles album (he lip-synced as Dirk), actively opposed "Archaeology" as well as Innes' proposal to mount a Rutles concert tour.
"Neil seemed to forget that it was a joke," Idle said on the phone from Los Angeles. "The Rutles is a parody of something that exists. You're constrained by what's happened. He seemed to have missed that point slightly."
Idle solo project
Yet Idle liked the "Archaeology" songs well enough to include them in "Rutles 2," which he made in 2002 and which gathered cobwebs until Warner Bros. released it on DVD this spring.
"Rutles 2" essentially is an Idle solo project in which he reprises his narrator character and essentially retells the Rutles story intercutting new celebrity interviews (Tom Hanks, Garry Shandling, Bonnie Raitt and Salman Rushdie among them) with outtakes and recycled footage from the first special.
Idle desired no participation from Innes or the other Rutles, John Halsey (Barry Wom/Ringo) and Rikki Fataar (Stig O'Hara/George).
"He said, `I'm a one-man band on this, all right?'" Innes recalled. "So I said, `Well, all right, if that's the way you feel about it.'"
To Idle, the project was "a labor of love. It made me laugh. It was an exploration to see what I could come up with.
Still, he'd hoped he could interest an American cable network in showing it.
"I tried like hell, but does America want funny stuff? No, they certainly don't," Idle said. "I couldn't sell it to HBO, Comedy Central -- you name it, I couldn't sell it to any of them."
Halsey, a.k.a. Barry Wom, doesn't blame them.
"It's lousy, `Rutles 2,'" Halsey said from the Castle Inn, the pub he owns in Cambridge, England. "He should've just left it alone. It was one of the best things he was ever involved in, the first Rutles movie. Now he's just ruined it. It's just stupid. It doesn't work at all."
More than a few reviewers on Amazon.com agree. Sample headline: "Stop Eric Idle Before He Kills Again!"
Innes was more diplomatic, saying "Rutles 2" was well received when it was shown at the New York Metro area's Fest for Beatles Fans in April. His biggest complaint: "I thought this is about a fictitious musical band, but it's still a musical band and why isn't there more music? But that was overruled by those who know."
While Innes was in New York, he also had a chance to check out "Spamalot," Idle's far more commercially successful plundering of his past. Innes wrote the music for two of its songs, which originally appeared in "Holy Grail": "Knights of the Round Table" and "Brave Sir Robin."
"He wrote the music for the Sir Robin song, not the lyrics," Idle pointed out. "After all, how funny is the music?"
Innes had no other involvement in "Spamalot."
In a `tea' trance
These days Innes' version of the Rutles occasionally performs live, such as at last summer's huge Glastonbury rock festival, where fans sang along and tossed tea bags on stage in reference to the show's joke that the band's landmark "Sgt. Rutter's Only Darts Club Band" album was recorded under the influence of tea.
"If I do anything with the Rutles now, it's largely for the fun of it," Innes said, noting that he and Halsey plan to perform a few Rutles shows in England this summer before a final August date in Liverpool.
At that point, Innes said, he'll continue playing Rutles songs -- but never again as the Rutles.
"It's rather like George wanted to put the Beatles suit back in the cupboard and move on," Innes said.
"I now want to put the Rutles suit back in the cupboard and move on. And say, `So long and thanks for the tea bags.'"
"Excuse me, do you mind not farting while I'm saving the world?" -The 9th Doctor, DOCTOR WHO episode "World War Three"