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Let's turn to The Rutles now. It was a sketch initially on Rutland Weekend Television, wasn't it?
"The way it worked was that Eric wrote stuff, and then I was covering the music bases and coming up with musical ideas. It was supposed to be a television station, so it wouldn't just be talking, you'd have to break it up. So it was my job to think up cheap musical ideas and song ideas. One of them was to do a spoof of Hard Day's Night, because it was black and white, speeded up, four guys, four wigs, tight trousers, pointy shoes, running around a field. It's got to be cheap! It was a cheap joke!
"Eric had this idea for a documentary maker who was so dull the camera ran away from him. And so it started off as a scene with someone suffering from love in the hospital, as if it was a disease. Then it turned into the spoof, and then it turned into talking about the Rutles. We then coined the word 'Rutle', which I didn't like at the time. I wish we called it The Bootles or something. Bootle was a part of Liverpool, and it's very close to Bootleg. Anyway, that's how The Rutles started, and then of course it was shown on Saturday Night Live.
"Sid Bernstein was trying to get The Beatles together again, and offering them millions of dollars each. It was getting silly, and something sillier had to be done. So we showed it on Saturday Night Live – they'd got Eric to do the hosting because he said he could get The Beatles back together for $300. They set it up, and when Eric took over the hosting, they said 'sorry, he hasn't got The Beatles back together, it was a bad phone line. He's got The Rutles!'
"They showed the clip, and that's when the audience all kicked in and started saying 'We want The Rutles!' So we did the whole story, went and got the money and made the now famous mockumentary All You Need Is Cash. Everybody knew somehow that The Beatles were never going to get back together again, and the real story, Brian Epstein dying and everything, it was too sad. Something sillier and funnier needed to be done, and that's when George thought 'I want to see this'.
"That's when he got really involved. He got footage from Neil Aspinall that turned into Anthology, and we actually used bits of teenagers and audiences from there so that we could shape it and tell the story in a new way. George of all of them, probably, wanted to put the suits in the cupboard and move on. John really loved it too. Ringo might have thought some of the drumming jokes were a bit out there. Paul was fine about the music, I've talked to him about it since, but I think he took exception to the way Eric played 'him' as it were."
All You Need Is Cash features songwriting that's so sharp, and the sound is so good and so close to those Beatles records. Did the songwriting come easily? How did you approach it?
"I knew if I had to write all these songs that were going to be credible as Beatles songs, I would be sunk if I listened to a lot of Beatles songs! I didn't do which lots of people think I did, which is take a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I decided not to listen to any Beatles songs at all, and instead tried to remember where I was when certain Beatles songs came out. I used my life and my memory to think about teenage love and things like that – Hold My Hand, you know.
"The psychedelic ones are fun to write. I had to be more disciplined then, because not any old thing will do. It's not just putting a pickled onion on a hairbrush. It's not surrealism, you have to have a bit more to it than that. I didn't want to trivialise Beatles songs, so I tried to make the songs about things. Even Cheese And Onions, which is about 'man and machine, keep yourself clean, or be a has-been like the dinosaurs.' It is only pop. You can only do so much!"
Cheese And Onions - The Rutles go psychedelic.
"The sound was definitely down to Steve James, the engineer – Sid James' son. He wanted to take no chances. We recorded it at 30 inches per second on 2 inch tape. We got it to where it was all sounding fantastic, but it still wasn't right. It suddenly dawned on us: it sounded too good! So we took the mix and compressed it, took a bit off the top and a bit off the bottom, that was more like it. We did the same thing again, and it started to sound like it had been made on four tracks. The first album was like that, the second album we made it a bit more hi-fi. Archaeology, that was such a joy to make. I think it's the better album if you look at the music and the songs.
"No, I didn't want to do anything to diminish their songwriting. But mostly The Rutles is production sounds, and speaking Rutlese every now and then!"
You managed to achieve certain sounds and styles that many bands have tried to do in a very serious way since. Your creativity seems to be based in play, but the end result is always better for it.
"You can't force that. Analysing something kills the spark. It's more to do with, let's play Batman and Robin now. You get happiness coming into it. Even though it is a miserable world, you can't shirk it but you can have it in there. It's not dominating anything. I've written other songs, but the songs in Archaeology were more or less my songs. They weren't written to be any particular Beatles songs. When I went to see George to play him some of them, he was sitting there with a smile on his face waiting to hear which song was which, and then he suddenly realised: 'these are your songs! Don't be shy.'
"You can take the song Joe Public and do it a hundred ways. We decided to do it like an indian sitar thing, but the song is still the song. Somebody said to me the thing about Bach is that you can play it on school recorders and it will still sound good. But you can't do that with Tchaikovsky, because it's all in the arrangements.
"The other thing I didn't mention was that when I'd written the Rutles songs for the first album, the rule was if I could play it just on the guitar or on the piano to somebody else, and it works as a song, then I know it's alright. Not hiding behind harmonies or dressing, it's a basic song.
"It's funny, the only down thing about The Rutles is that it branded me as a parodist. But I'm not! Not really, I write songs. Some of them are silly, but some of them are not, some of them you can think about. But that puts people out of their comfort zone in the music business. They like you to be one thing or the other. And I refuse to be like that, because I'm a Bonzo!"
You never seem to have gone after fame or anything like that.
"No. You have to work to be famous, or want it. And I've never wanted it, and I'm a complete stranger to work! I love all the toys and being able to play with great musicians, and being able to make enough of a living to be able to do that. I'm happy with that.
"I have to quote Seneca now – some of the best ideas in the world are a thousand years old, but Seneca said it most succinctly. 'We should measure wealth not by how much we have, but how little we need.' And that's my philosophy."
It's a good one...
"It's not bad!"