Behind The Song: The Rutles, “Piggy In The Middle”

the rutles

Videos by American Songwriter

I watched The Rutles’ film, All You Need is Cash, while eating a sausage biscuit for lunch. It seems I just stumbled upon them at random, although I recall hearing about them during a loose round of Trivial Pursuit. I watched these men poke fun at the musically revered Beatles. It was initially unsettling. The whole parody punctured my brain. Had I been a sucker my whole life, believing that The Beatles were lyrically “untouchable?” Have I taken them too seriously for too long? And I sat there, stoned by The Rutles, and ate a sausage biscuit.

After finishing the film, I learned that Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, first brought The Rutles to an American audience in 1976. It was known that Michaels had a running gag to reunite The Beatles. He even offered them a $3,000 check. This wasn’t a realistic endeavor while drama had splintered the group — the band that had once been “more popular than Jesus,” couldn’t entertain a “come-back.” Instead, Michaels introduced The Rutles, a post-Python creation from Eric Idle and Neil Innes’ BBC-2 series, Rutland Weekend Television, that originally aired in 1975. This was perfect timing for Idle, who was hosting SNL that evening. The Rutles received solid praise, leading Michaels to produce All You Need is Cash in 1978.

Idle directed and created the concept of The Rutles and Innes wrote their lyrics. The lyrical process came down to two central motifs: love and psychedelia. For Innes, psychedelic came easy: “You just rhymed anything with anything else, but the earlier songs were difficult to get right,” he said in an interview with Q Magazine. The lyricism targeted The Beatles, making it possible for internal references to lie beneath parody. For instance, “Piggy in the Middle,” sung by Ron Nasty (Lennon) on Tragical History Tour, evokes the ridiculous ingenuity of Lennon’s lyricism in “I Am the Walrus.” (Also, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was a tragic mess. Innes attended it with his band Bad Dog Doodah Band.) Not knowing “I Am the Walrus” would make Innes’ song absolutely nonsensical.

I know you know what you know
but you should know by now that you’re not me
Talk about a month of Sundays
Toffee nosed wet weekend as far as I can see
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
Piggy in the middle
Bible punching heavyweight
evangelistic boxing kangaroo
Orangutang and anaconda
Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse
even Pluto too
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
Piggy in the middle
(Stig is dead, honestly)
One man’s civilization
is another man’s jungle, yeah
They say revolution’s in the air
I’m dancing in my underwear
’cause I don’t care
Hey diddle diddle
The Cat’s in the fiddle
Piggy in the middle

[The following four lines can be heard in Rutles bootlegs,
but do not appear on the released recording]

Civilizing jungle bunnies
guinea pigs including me and you
Talk about a knock-kneed frog
Second cousin to a nun living in the zoo
Walky talky man says hello, hello, hello
with his ballerina boots
you can tell he’s always on his toes
Hanging on a Christmas tree
Screaming like a bogey man
getting up my nose
Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
Piggy in the middle
This little piggy went to market
This little piggy stayed home
This little piggy had roast beef
and this little piggy had none
This little piggy went
All the way home
(repeats, fades)


Grasping the humor of these lyrics depends on the listener’s “competency” with The Beatles or Lennon’s “Walrus.” Lennon brought out some Lewis Carroll, mixed in dashes of “Three Blind Mice” with an altered playground chant from his middle-school years, and bits of baby-babble. Of course there was intent despite the acidic nature of the song. With a heavy dose of a Mellotron, “I Am the Walrus” was his first major rant against the Establishment. George Martin’s production brought in blurry cellos, backing vocals by the Mike Sammes Singers who provided “Oompah-oompah, stick it up your jumper!” and “Everybody’s got one!”, along with a sample of Shakespeare’s King Lear, from which we hear “Oh, ultimately death!” The song was lit with a Lennon-Martin complexity. Even though this album was mostly a “Paul album,” Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” brings out that cynical dominance The Beatles eventually perfected up to the White Album.

“Piggy in the Middle” also takes from a few traditional nursery rhymes such as “This Little Piggy” and “Hey Diddle Diddle.” As for the opening lines, Innes lingers closely to Lennon’s “You are me,” but tells the listener the opposite: “I know you know what you know / but you should know by now that you’re not me.” He avoids picking at Lennon’s refrain “I’m crying” and keeps lyrics up-tempo for a majority of the song and includes a parody of Beatles’ mythology with “Stig is dead seriously,” a reference to Stig O’Hara (George), the lead guitar player who never speaks after 1962. (George actually plays a role in All You Need is Cash as a reporter.) The muddled words come before “Walky talky man says hello, hello, hello,” which sound like the snarls of a toilet.

Could The Beatles have dressed songs up with strange lyricism? Certainly “pornographic priestess” and “you let your knickers down” weren’t the easiest to swallow for conventional Beatles die-hards. And it didn’t sell. Magical Mystery Tour flopped. So it was a fool-hearted effort, an artistic venture, to really try something different and new — a transition from Revolver to Sgt. Pepper’s. Through The Rutles parody, we essentially see the genius of Beatles lyricism.

The Rutles will actually be reuniting this month in the UK.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Golden Suits: Golden Suits

Pete Townshend Let’s One Direction’s “Baba O’Riley” Homage Slide