Rutles Highway Re-Revisited: In Memory of Neil Innes

Mark Robinson of Unrest, Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham, King Missle and renowned indie producer Kramer recall the classic 1990 album paying homage to the genius of Neil Innes

Neil Innes / photo remix by Ron Hart

In 1990, the renowned indie rock producer brought together an A-team of underground linchpins to pay homage to Neil Innes and his classic Beatles send-up The Rutles for a tribute album entitled Rutles Highway Revisited.

Recorded and released on Kramer’s own influential Shimmy Disc imprint, once the home of such subterranean titans as Ween, GWAR and the dearly departed Daniel Johnston among many others, the 20 track compilation helped to bring the wit and humor of the beloved Monty Python associate to a new generation of music fans. Produced and Engineered by Kramer at Noise New York. The aforementioned Mr. Johnston, Galaxie 500, King Missile, Lida Husik, Marc Ribot, Shonen Knife, Bongwater and Unrest were among the names brought together to deliver their own individual interpretations of their favorite Rutles songs.

That Rutles Highway Revisited was released within mere months of Rhino’s remaster of the soundtrack to the groundbreaking 1978 mockumentary All You Need Is Cash was pure kismet, and 30 years later its quite easy to reflect upon 1990 and the role this tribute album played in the sonic education of us youngbloods. Especially when it comes to Neil Innes and his role in the Monty Python multi-verse, and even though much of his material was deeply laced in satire and humor, they are and always should be considered quality proper pop songcraft emblematic of his massive strengths as both a singer and lyricist regardless of the punchline attached to each tune.

The producer and players behind the Rutles Highway Revisited album remember Neil Innes

The Rock & Roll Globe reached out to some of the big time players featured on Rutles Highway Revisited for comment on the unfortunate passing of Neil Innes, who suffered a heart attack on December 29th while at home in his beloved Toulouse, France. We were very fortunate to hear back from four serious heavyweights from the album. This is what they had to say, and we thank them immensely for their time and reflection.

 

Various Artists Rutles Highway Revisited, Shimmy-Disc 1990

Mark Robinson of Unrest

To be completely honest I don’t think I knew anything about the Rutles before we were approached to record “Between Us.” I think Kramer may have assigned it to us! Definitely loved all the Shimmy stuff and saw all the Monty Python TV episodes on PBS when I was growing up. We all loved the song. Not sure that we drew an immediate connection to “If I Fell in Love with You”. Phil was always a big Beatles fan. I knew Wings before the Beatles. My first Beatles LP was Sgt Pepper. My next door neighbor had an extra copy. Not sure I ever knew that “Between Us” was similar to “If I Fell in Love with You” until now. There were so many of these covers compilations out at the time. But it was just a great song. No cheese or onions or anything like that.Mark Robinson, Unrest

Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500/Luna

Like most boys growing up in the seventies, I worshiped Monty Python and knew many of their routines by heart. I saw All You Need is Cash, probably when it came out in 1978. Flash forward to 1990, we were working on a Galaxie 500 album and our producer Kramer decided to create a tribute album to the Rutles, or perhaps you’d call it a mock tribute to a mock band — Rutles Highway Revisited. We recorded “Cheese & Onions” with Kramer adding the Beatles-esque production, reminiscent of “A Day in the Life.” And I know our “Cheese and Onions” came to the attention of Neil Innes some years later, as he talks about it in an interview on Youtube. When we came to re-release “Cheese and Onions” for the Galaxie 500 box set, our label Rykodisc discovered that Neil Innes had been stripped of his full writing credit on “Cheese and Onions”; it was now credited to Lennon/McCartney and owned by Sony/ATV Music who had sued. Which I find pretty incredible to this day — I mean, yes “Cheese and Onions” sounds vaguely like a Beatles recording and the lyric might remind you of any silly but self-important Beatles lyric, but to my mind it does not plagiarize any particular Beatles song. Someone out there — and I don’t know if it was McCartney or just the publishers — did not appreciate the humor. – Dean Wareham, Galaxie 500/Luna

John S. Hall with Chris Xefos, King Missile

This is probably going to be more than you need. Below are my thoughts, followed by Chris Xefos, who has more specific recollections about our Rutles cover:

I think I saw All You Need is Cash when it first aired on television in 1978. But my first exposure to Innes was on Monty Python’s Previous Record and Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Matching Tie contained “The Background to History” , with its parodies of reggae, Gary Glitter, and “Hey Jude.” – all in under four minutes! These three little song parodies had an enormous influence on me: the tunes were so catchy, and the lyrics so pedestrian and trivial and yet actually informative. I didn’t know the name Neil Innes then (1974), but I was a fan.

As for the Rutles, All You Need is Cash was like new Monty Python and new Beatles music, so when Kramer told me that Shimmy Disc was going to do a tribute record I was extremely excited, and would have been happy to have done any of the songs. Like all of King Missile’s covers, I wish I had done a better job with the singing. “Doubleback Alley” was a good choice for us: a reimagination of “Penny Lane” with jovial references to child predators (“the funny man in the ice cream van who talked so queer”) and youthful sexual exploration.

 

VIDEO: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

I couldn’t remember how we ended up doing that song, so I asked Chris Xefos, who replied:

“I believe either you or I chose the song. This was initially recorded during a time, in 1990, when Dave Rick and Kramer were on the outs and I was recording a bunch on my own at Noise NY; Wonderama, When People Were Shorter… I actually initially recorded the drums, accordion, bass, piano and background vocals, as well as your vocals. Then, when Kramer needed to finish this, he came in and recorded the trumpety keyboards, and some high background vocals. He also had Dave Ramirez come in and redo the drums. I remember Ramirez saying to me how weird it was to play drums to my original drum tracks, or at least to the rest of the tracks after they were recorded. Also in that intervening time, Kramer patched it up enough with Dave and had him come in and do the guitar including Dave’s famous Digitech-dying-battery guitar solo. I actually just listened to this and it actually came out pretty damned good.”

I just listened to it again myself and I agree. – John S. Hall with Chris Xefos, King Missile

Mark Kramer, producer of Rutles Highway Revisited

About 100 years ago (give or take a few years), I was listening to my favorite band in the world, The Rutles.

I think it was a Tuesday.

At that particular point in the American indie record label scene, everyone was doing “tribute” LP’s.

It was all-the-rage. I was so sick of it. I wanted to do an “anti” tribute LP. I wanted to have my two cents

on the issue. I wanted to express my youthful disdain, in all its arrogance and sweet idiocy.

The biggest problem with these “Various Artists” compilations, as i saw it, was that there was no band truly worthy of such tributes because there was no band that had 15 or 20 truly great songs that might be done better than the original version. The Beatles may have been one of those rare bands that had enough great songs, but that would then lead you to the next big problem; there simply weren’t enough great bands out there talented enough to do justice to those great songs. Listen to any one of those tribute LP’s and tell me if it’s great from the first song to the last. Can’t be done. Most of them just plain sucked ass. They were pointless endeavors that consistently failed to deliver on the promise of the original songs. In fact, most failed spectacularly. There were a few decent ones, but they were few and far between. Not one was brilliant from start to finish. Not one.

But, i digress.

So, one night, I was listening to my favorite band in the world, the Rutles, and…around the same time, I’d been looking for an idea for a Shimmy-Disc compilation that would satirize the whole “tribute LP” craze that had been half-silently burning its way through the indie music marketplace without leaving so much as a fadedc skidmark in its sorry wake.

The Rutles

Suddenly, an idea came to me! What about a tribute LP to a band that never even existed??!!!!

A living breathing goose-step rockin’ tribute to a wholly fictional band!

The Rutles had a grand total of 20 songs, and each and every one of them was a #1 hit in Rutland, so…

First things first; i shot off a letter to Neil Innes asking if he’d be amicable to such an LP. sorry, but i can’t for the

life of me recall how i got his address, though I guess it must have been from my pal at SNL, Hal Wilner (who

also knew a thing or two about making great “Various Artists” LP’s).

Well it couldn’t have been more than a week before I got a hand-written reply from Neil in enthusiastic support of my proposal. I immediately wrote back to say how happy I was to have his approval, and suggested several options for him to be paid royalties. I told him to just tell me what his preferences were in this regard, or to simply have his manager get in touch with me. I basically told him to just name his price.

A few days later, I got another letter from Neil. it contained one sentence;

 

Dear Kramer,

Would you like me to write the liner notes?

– love, Neil

 

Was i dreaming? Neil Innes, the Master himself, was offering to write the liner notes? This was just too good to be true! Not only did I have his permission, but he was offering to participate! I responded immediately and rushed the letter to the Canal Street post office a few blocks from Noise New York…

 

Jesus Fuck! YES! Please? Would you? I would LOVE that! Definitely have your manager get in touch

and we’ll work out the contract details ASAP!

– love, Kramer

 

Days later another letter from Neil arrived. This one contained two sentences;

 

Would you like me to write the liner notes as Ron Nasty?

Just a suggestion.

– love, Neil

 

Needless to say, I nearly passed out.

That’s how it all began. And no, he never did put his manager in touch with me, or anyone else. Nor did he ever reply to any of my subsequent queries about contracts, royalty payments, etc… Not even a peep. Dead silence on that issue.

So I spread the word that I was doing a Rutles tribute LP, and before i knew it, i had way more bands and solo artists offering to contribute songs than i could possibly use. i had to choose 20 artists to do 20 songs, and my phone was ringing off the hook. Some bands wanted to be involved but had no idea which song to do. None of them made their way into the studio, or on the LP. Others knew exactly which song they wanted to do. Like Daniel Johnston, Galaxie 500 and Shonen Knife. They instinctively knew what to do, and how to do it. And whenever they needed a little help, I was in Rutles Highway Heaven.

I sent a cassette tape of all the finished songs to Neil. about a week later, i received liner notes courtesy of Ron Nasty, in which he ruthlessly denigrates each and every band on the LP. More Rutles Heaven. I was ecstatic.

The rest happened pretty fast. I’d come up with the Dylan reference title early on, and the Sarcastic Majesties Request artwork came to me like Uma Thurman in a dream. I knew exactly what to do with her.

Remember, this was 1990. Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen had just come out the year before, and I was still reeling from it. Reeling long and winding and hard. I just followed the music, and when the songs are truly great, as all of Neil songs truly were (both within The Rutles and within everything else hedid, for the Bonzos, for the Pythons, and for all of us), well, it was a Labour of Love, but i’d never call it laborious. The LP was already there; all I had to do was record it, press it up on vinyl, and ship it out.

And now it’s 2020 and the last time I cried when I’d heard that someone had just died, was only a few months ago when I got the call about Daniel Johnston. Before that, I don’t recall crying for anyone (in music, i mean) except Sun Ra. That was a real shock. I was driving my 1975 Volkswagen hatchback on the NY State Thruway, and I heard it on the radio. I had to pull over and cry for an hour. This was in the days before everyone had cellphones, so there was no one I could call, no way to reach out to someone who might console me. I had to just sit there and cry it out.

I almost cried when Leonard Cohen died. but I’d heard that he was on his way out, so when he finally left, I was ready for it.

But Neil Innes? I could never have been ready for that. I wept like a child when i heard.

And I’m weeping now.

Like a child.

do-i-have-to-spell-it-out?

love, Kramer (florida, usa) – Mark Kramer, producer of Rutles Highway Revisited/founder of Shimmy-Disc

AUDIO: Rutles Highway Revisited (full album)

 

 

Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

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