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Album of the Week: #5 “The Wheat Album” (The Rutles) [And memories of Neil Innes RIP]

The Rutles might have passed you by. They never had a hit single or album and they rarely performed live. They were a spoof band with origins in a mid-1970s TV comedy show here in the UK, “Rutland Weekend Television”, hence the first part of their name. As their nickname “The Prefab Four” suggests, they were an affectionate tribute to the Beatles. Their singer, guitarist, piano player and main songwriter was Neil Innes. He died at the end of last year, as reported here on the BBC website. May he rest in peace.

For my fifth Album of the week I have chosen a limited edition CD that I bought at a Rutles show in 2018, “The Wheat Album”. It has prompted me to draft the 2,000 words that follow, about the band and about the late Mr Innes. Not for the first time, I have got rather carried away with my memories. If you’re pushed for time, you could scroll through this piece and look at the pictures. The final four paragraphs are about the album itself.

WheatAlbum_Cover

For people of my generation, a bit too young to stay up late for the early series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” when they originally aired on TV, we had a variety of follow-up projects to watch instead. We had the films, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in 1975 and “Life of Brian” in 1979. In between those two cinema releases, former Python members were involved in projects such as “Ripping Yarns” (Michael Palin), “Fawlty Towers” (John Cleese) and “Rutland Weekend Television” (Eric Idle).

“All you need is cash”, a spoof documentary that introduced us to The Rutles, was broadcast in 1978. As with every other TV show mentioned so far in this piece, the only opportunity people of my generation had to see it was when it was screened live. None of us had video recorders, but between us we managed to absorb and remember a lot of information from a single viewing. For me, the process would begin at home, immediately after a show ended. My memory of John Cleese giving his car “a damn good thrashing” in “Fawlty Towers” is completely bound up with my father’s reaction to it, tears of laughter running down his cheeks and then quoting his own version of it for years afterwards: “I’ve laid it on the line for you … I’ve told you time and time enough …” I haven’t checked if those are the actual words Basil Fawlty utters, but the meaning is the same.

The morning after an episode of “Fawlty Towers” or “Ripping Yarns” was shown, a group of us at school would continue to recall, quote and even act out lines and scenes. It wasn’t a pre-arranged thing. We just watched the same TV shows and talked about them. “All you need is cash” was first screened during our Easter holidays, so we didn’t have the immediate “morning after” discussions at school about it. My father wasn’t around for it and has probably never seen it. I watched it with my brother. We understood all the Beatles references. Although the Fab Four had split up 8 years earlier, their history and their songs were Universal Knowledge to people like us.

Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles “documentary” and played the part of Dirk McQuickly (loosely based on Paul McCartney). Neil Innes wrote the songs and played Ron Nasty (loosely based on John Lennon). Real live Beatle George Harrison appeared in the film, as did Mick Jagger and Paul Simon. That single 1978 screening was the only time I saw or heard The Rutles for nearly 25 years. The show might have been repeated, but I don’t recall ever seeing it again, though I remembered large chunks of it.

In the early years of this century, I bought the DVD and was able to watch the band again. They also played two dates at the 100 Club in Oxford Street in June 2005 (minus Eric Idle). I would have gone to both nights but already had tickets for The Cribs at the Garage in Highbury for the second of them. It will not surprise anyone who knows me that I still have both tickets:

Rutles_Cribs_June2005

At the 100 Club I did my usual “50 quid man” thing: I bought two CDs and two t-shirts. The CDs were the original Rutles album and “Archaeology”, which came out in 1996, the same time as the Beatles “Anthology”. One of the t-shirts is similar to the old “Legalize Weed” design and reads “Legalize Tea”. I had enough cash to cover the transaction but was able to pay by credit card, possibly for the first time at a gig. There was definitely a family vibe to the evening, and I think it was Neil Innes’s wife operating the credit card machine. It was the kind you never see these days, the mechanical device which gives an imprint of your card (no electricity required), and the receipt is a rectangular piece of translucent paper. They had borrowed the machine from a hotel or B&B in Cambridge, so Mrs Innes (if it was her) warned me that that’s what would appear on my credit card statement the following month.

The show was wonderful, a complete run-through of all the material I knew, and a whole lot more. As Neil Innes headed to his dressing-room before the first encore I handed him a CD of songs that I had written and recorded in the previous 10 years. I had done the same thing over the years with many artists I admired, including John Cooper Clarke at the same venue, and Joe Strummer at the venue known at different times as LA2 and the Mean Fiddler (after the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden had closed down). All I wanted was for people whose work I enjoyed to have something of mine. I don’t know whether they kept the CDs or listened to the songs. They had the opportunity to do so, and that’s all that mattered to me.

Early in 2006 there were rumours that there would be another Rutles appearance, at a show at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road (a venue that was pulled down many years ago to make way for the Crossrail project). I went along, wearing my “Legalize Tea” t-shirt (over a sweatshirt – it was a freezing cold January night), hoping that there would be at least a few Prefab Four numbers. But it was, as advertised, a “Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band Revisited” show.

Bonzo_Dog_Ticket

Back in the 1960s, Neil Innes had been a key member of the Bonzos and he and his bandmates put on a great show at the Astoria. There were many guest artists too, taking on the parts that Viv Stanshall originally performed. As I recall, Phill Jupitus, Paul Merton and Stephen Fry were there, and it was Fry who talked us through “The Intro and the Outro”, one of my favourite Bonzo recordings. The Astoria was a much bigger venue than the 100 Club, and the show was sold out, reflecting the fact that the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were a proper band, not just a spoof, and they had a bigger fanbase. They even had a Top 5 hit, “The Urban Spaceman” (4 weeks at #5 either side of Christmas 1968, sung by Neil Innes).

As far as I know, the next time that the Rutles played in London was in the spring of 2014, at the O2 Islington Academy. It clashed with a Quiz Night that a group of us were hosting at the primary school that both of my children attended. One of the other organizers, with whom I was sharing emcee duties, was a big fan of the band, and had never seen them. We discussed whether to play truant for the night and go to the gig instead, but we performed our quiz host duties (for charity, you know) and I, at least, had the consolation of having seen the band before.

And then, in May 2018, as part of their “Major Happy” tour, the Rutles played London again, at the Garage. I went with an old schoolfriend, who is usually based in New Zealand, and a school dad friend, who is now based in Hong Kong. Just like the 100 Club show 13 years earlier, it was a great night, although it all ended much earlier than I’m used to. The band were onstage before 8pm and it was all over by 10pm. The three of us had a few drinks in the “Famous Cock Tavern”, almost opposite the venue, until closing time. I tried to persuade my gig-going mates to come and see the band the following weekend, down in Margate, but they weren’t up for it. As things turned out, I wasn’t able to go either. My souvenirs from the night comprise a t-shirt (“The Rutles 1978 – 40years – 2018”) and a CD of “The Wheat Album”. The back cover of the latter reads:

“The WHEAT ALBUM – For RUTLES Fans – with Ears!”

These demo “Archaeology” songs were first recorded in a barn in Suffolk by Steve “All You Need Is” James with Neil “Nasty” Innes, John “Barry” Halsey and Mickey “Magic Samples” Simmonds – a little over 20 years ago today …

“Major Happy Tour” Limited Edition

On the cover, and on the CD itself, are printed “0001 of 2000”. I’m sure that every copy says that, but it still gave me a bit of a thrill to think that I might have the very first numbered edition.

WheatAlbum_0001

Beatles fans will not need reminding that some copies of the 1968 album “The Beatles” (commonly known as “The White Album”) also had serial numbers printed on the cover. Number 1 (with however many zeroes there are in front of it) apparently went to John Lennon, with the other band members getting 2 to 4. My childhood memories of “The White Album” appear in a short piece in “1000 Memories”, copied into this similarly brief Blog Post.

When I bought “The Wheat Album” in 2018 I played it a few times in the car, but never got all the way through it. Most of my car journeys are with my son, and in recent years he has preferred live radio to music from CD. He has been known to make a bit of a fuss about the CDs I play, even when they contain music that he likes, which is why I never made it to the end of this final Rutles release.

As with my four previous Albums of the week I have mostly been listening to this one on my phone, either through the speaker (and therefore in mono) or through earplugs (in stereo). With the previous Rutles albums, especially the first one, there was a progression, spoofs of (or tributes to) the different phases of Beatles recordings. You can often tell which songs are being referenced simply by the titles: “Hold My Hand”, “Blue Suede Schubert”, “Ouch!”, “Cheese and Onions” and “Get Up and Go” recall “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Help!”, “She’s an Onion” and “Get Back”, as you can probably guess. But it wasn’t always as simple as that. There might be echoes of three or four different songs in the words and music to one Rutles recording.

“The Wheat Album” does not take a linear route through Beatles history. It mostly echoes later Beatles recordings, especially “Sergeant Pepper” and “The White Album”, as you’d expect. The way that “Major Happy” (or “Major Happy’s up and coming once upon a good time band”) segues into “Rendezvous” is similar to how “With a little help from my friends” follows “Sgt Pepper”. “Questionnaire” references both “Fool on the Hill” and “I am the walrus” musically. “Evolution Number 10” is mercifully much shorter than “Revolution #9” and, as you’d expect if you’re familiar with the original, it has a male voice intoning “Number Ten … Number Ten … Number Ten” throughout.

Listening to previous Rutles albums over the years was always a fun experience. It was particularly enjoyable after my brother gave me a complete set of Beatles albums on CD. They were on offer through weekend editions of a newspaper in Spain, where he lives, and made up part of my Christmas present one year. I would play early Beatles albums and my wife wasn’t always sure whether we were listening to the Fab Four or the Prefab Four, because she was less familiar with “Please Please Me”, “With the Beatles” and “A Hard Day’s Night”. She knows the later albums well, especially “Abbey Road”, so there was no fooling her when it came to songs like “Cheese and Onions” or “Love Life” (a homage to “All you need is love”). Listening to “The Wheat Album” has been enjoyable, but not as much as fun as earlier recordings. The songs have a more wistful feel, made more so by the knowledge that there will be no new Rutles recordings, and no more opportunities to hear them played live. I am grateful to have been to a couple of Rutles gigs. They were among the most enjoyable I have attended, and it’s the closest I ever got to seeing the Beatles.

 

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