It was 35 years ago today … well, not exactly 35 years, but sometime in 1978 a group called the Rutles created the Beatles satire film, "All You Need is Cash." The mockumentary, which followed the the trials and tribulations of a not-so-fabulous mop-topped quartet with tight pants and great one-liners, debuted at the bottom of the ratings for the week.
By network standards it was a Tragical History Tour, a flop better forgotten. Yet somehow "All You Need is Cash" grew into a popular cult film that served as a template for numerous mockumentaries, including Rob Reiner’s classic "This is Spinal Tap."
Not only did "All You Need is Cash" spawn a popular soundtrack, which was reissued in 1990, it inspired songwriter Neil Innes (Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) to write the 1996 album The Rutles Archaeology, which coincided with The Beatles Anthology.
"I didn't realize how much Beatles fans liked the Rutles until I was invited to go to a Beatles fest in 1994,” Innes told Yahoo Music. “There was one in L.A. and one in New York and I spent hours and hours signing Rutles albums. I thought, 'Blimey, every Beatle fan is a Rutle fan.'"
A fully restored version of Meet the Rutles as well as the follow-up, the (the notably second-rate) Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch, were issued on DVD earlier this month as The Rutles Anthology, timing almost perfectly with the Beatles' 50th anniversary celebration. Rhino previously issued Meet the Rutles in 2001 and Can’t Buy Me Lunch in 2005. The story behind the creation of the Meet the Rutles and the actions that took place after its release are almost as interesting as the movie itself.
"I certainly didn’t want to trivialize any of the Beatles songs because I'm a big fan myself," said Innes, who wrote clever spoofs of many Beatles songs including "Help!"("Ouch!"), "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" ("Hold My Hand"), and "I Am the Walrus" ("Piggy in the Middle"). "I was having a go at how silly pop culture can get in terms of losing reality," he said. "At the height of Beatlemania, it got really silly. At one point, people were talking about getting them back together again and Sid Bernstein offered them $20 million each. It was so absurd. So all these planets aligned."
Innis, who had previously worked with future Monty Python star Eric Idle on the TV show "Do Not Adjust Your TV Set," teamed with Idle again on the variety show "Rutland Weekend Television." The show was searching for an affordable, humorous project, so Innis proposed a parody of the Beatles' "A Hard Day’s Night" as part of a larger sketch about a genetic illness called "love."
"I figured it would be cheap," Innis said. "Shooting in black and white, running around in tight trousers and wigs, and then speeding up the film wasn't very expensive. The next thing we knew, 'Saturday Night Live' was running with the gag of the Beatles getting back together again and offering George Harrison $3,000 and then getting Eric Idle to host it for $300. Everyone was in the mood for some sort of spoof."
While neither Idle nor Innes saw the gag progressing any further on "Rutland Weekend Television," "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels decided there was still plenty of room for satire, so he put together a sketch in which Eric Idle was invited to host 'SNL' on the condition that he promised to get the Beatles back together for the program.
"Lorne came on the air and said he was getting worried, so he phoned Eric, who said, 'No it’s fine, but it was a bad phone line,'" Innes said. "He hasn't got the Beatles, he’s got the Rutles. So they showed the clip from 'Rutland Weekend Television' and lots of viewers wrote in. Some sent albums with 'Beatles' crossed out and 'Rutles' written in. Everybody wanted to play the game. The next thing we knew, Lorne went downstairs to where the money is at NBC and they said, 'Yeah, go and make the whole story.' That’s when people suddenly looked at me and said, 'Could you write 20 more Rutles songs by 12:30 next Thursday lunch time?'"
Surprisingly, late-Beatles guitarist George Harrison ultimately convinced Innes to undertake the task and recruited Mick Jagger and Paul Simon to be interviewed in the film. "George got those guys to basically tell true stories about the Beatles but change the names," Innes said. "And then you had John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray – all the 'Not Ready For Prime Time Players' pitching in because of Lorne's involvement."
Much of the dialogue for "Meet the Rutles" was improvised and the movie was done and dusted in a little over a month. The only hitch came when the Rutles were recording vocals for the soundtrack and Idle, who played both the narrator and Dirk McQuickly – the Paul McCartney character – suffered appendicitis.
"The album took 10 days to record, and right on the first day we went into the studio Eric came hobbling in," recalled Innes. "I said, 'Eric, you can't do it. Ollie [Halsall]'s been doing guitar and he sings.' So in the movie, Eric mimes to Ollie's voice. I said, 'Go and get well for the filming.' Eric’s never really forgiven me for that, but it was the right thing to do."