Don’t You Think the Joker Laughs at You?
You can’t expect to be the most famous rock band in history and not get a few comic swipes taken at you. It would take a government grant and a research team to compile all the TV skits, editorial cartoons and other Beatle spoofs originating from the 1960s onward, though these days all it takes is YouTube to find a wide variety of more recent music parodies (and some vintage ones) skewering the Fab Four. The truly serious Beatle people out there are already familiar with the best known of the parodists, The Rutles. For those of you who aren’t (and those who don’t mind revisiting the subject), here’s a quick overview before we move on to a few unrelated videos.
After an appearance on Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle’s BBC show Rutland Weekend Television in 1975, the then-fictional, Beatles-modeled Rutles were exposed to American audiences on a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live. The U.S. comedy-sketch show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, suggested making a documentary-style film based on the concept, and the resulting All You Need Is Cash aired to little effect on NBC in early 1978. (The mockumentary fared somewhat better on BBC-TV.) Former Beatle George Harrison appeared briefly in the film, portraying a straight-laced record company accountant. (Harrison was also a friend of the Python troupe who funded their controversial film The Life of Brian.) While the participation of Harrison and other rock notables gave the project a certain legitimacy among Beatles fans, the durability of The Rutles is primarily due to the cleverness of the songs created by Python associate Neil Innes (best known as the genial if ineffective minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail).
A number of Innes’ compositions mirrored various aspects of Beatle classics so accurately that Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which owns the rights to the Beatles originals, successfully sued for half of the rights to the songs on The Rutles’ Warner Bros. debut album. That’s not so funny, perhaps, but at the very least it’s ironic that they are now legally (if incorrectly) listed as having been composed by the team of Lennon/McCartney/Innes. The songs range from affectionate parody of the early Beatles to full-on send-ups of the group’s more indulgent and idiosyncratic work in the psychedelia-informed later 1960s. Below are two: one from each Beatles-era extreme.
The Beatles made no secret of their admiration for actor-comedian Peter Sellers, who first became known to Britishers as part of the comedy team The Goons. In what must have been a satisfying full-
circle experience for the lads, Sellers himself recorded a parody of the band’s “Help!” that cast the song as a serious mini-sermon. Perhaps unwittingly, Sellers tapped into the sober quality of the Lennon-penned song, later revealed to be an authentic expression of distress that was masked by the upbeat arrangement heard on the 1965 hit. (A quick online search will also take you to two different versions of Sellers reciting the lyrics to “She Loves You.”)
This relatively recent video featuring multi-talented Brit Peter Serafinowicz is based on the premise that John Lennon invented an analog prototype of the iPod in the late ’60s. The personal characteristics of Lennon and McCartney were particularly ripe for comic impersonators to tackle, and Serafinowicz turns in extraordinary impressions of both.
In 1980, rock artist-producer Todd Rundgren and his sometime band Utopia released a full album of Beatles-inspired songs. While not intended completely as parody, the tellingly-titled Deface the Music certainly straddled the line between sincere tribute and Rutles-inspired tongue-in-cheekiness. Again, here’s a pair of videos covering both early- and late-period Beatle imitations. The first is a tuneful and energetic pop-rocker in its own right; the second selection spotlights the eccentricities and larger-than-life nature of John Lennon circa 1967. These ought to leave you singing, laughing or, if possible, both.