Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Until such time as a record company can be persuaded to put together a Spinal Tap tribute album (and really, how did that never happen?), the award for Best Tribute Album To A Fictional Band has to go to Rutles Highway Revisited. The Rutles were a takeoff on the Beatles with songs written by Neil Innes that were SO close to the originals that Innes now has to share royalties with Lennon and McCartney. They had a brilliant (and little-seen at the time) TV special with many Saturday Night Live members and a few quality musicians (including a heavily disguised George Harrison). The Shimmy Disc label saluted the band in 1990 with an album designed mostly to promote the label’s frequently eccentric artists, but with such cheerful pastiches to work with, the hits-to-misses ratio was pretty darn good.
Okay, not all the covers were classics – I’m on record as loathing Peter Stampfel’s cover of “Ouch!” – but the ones who came through came through in a big way, as you’ll soon hear…
Galaxie 500 – Cheese and Onions (The Rutles cover)
“Cheese and Onions” was so Beatlesque that it famously showed up on a Beatles bootleg called Indian Rope Trick. The Galaxie 500 version only sounds Beatlesque when it samples the chaotic orchestra music of the original – better than that, it sounds like it was written specifically for the band’s slow underwater sound.
The Pussywillows – Hold My Hand (The Rutles cover)
“Hold My Hand” is the Rutles version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” right down to being quoted toward the end of “Love Life,” the Rutles version of “All You Need Is Love.” The Pussywillows’ version sounds more tentative, but maybe that’s appropriate for a girl-group sound.
Daniel Johnston – Baby Let Me Be (The Rutles cover)
“Baby Let Me Be” wasn’t on the original LP, but showed up on the CD, sounding like one of the Beatles’ early attempts at emulating ’50s rockers. When Daniel Johnston played it, it sounded like nothing more than a Daniel Johnston song – home-recorded, stumbling, somewhat scared vocals, altogether touching something in you that you can’t quite understand.
Shonen Knife – Goose Step Mama (The Rutles cover)
“Goose Step Mama,” first performed by the Rutles at the Cavern, is an absolute natural for Shonen Knife. The oo-oo-ultra-eccentric-super-cult-punk-pop-band makes the tune sound like one of their own with little to no effort.
Syd Straw and Marc Ribot – I Must Be In Love (The Rutles cover)
“I Must Be In Love” may not be the most radically reworked song on Rutles Highway Revisited, but Syd Straw and Marc Ribot make it an acoustic duet that has earned its place on more than a few earnest, romantic mix tapes over the years. Any sense of pastiche or jokey tribute is gone, and the song might just be all the better for it.