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ROCK / The Rutles at 30

They were the originals. Thirty years ago this month, four wry young lads had their first hit single. In the decade that followed, they would single-handedly change pop - its lyrical possibilities, its melodic scope and the trousers it was performed in. The single was 'Twist and Rut'. And the band was The Rutles.

It is hard even now to account for the impact of albums like A Hard Day's Rut and With the Rutles. Never was popular music so well-poised to reflect and at the same time shape the spirit of its age. The Rutles were working-class boys from Rutland (Dirk McQuickly, Ron Nasty, Stig O'Hara, and Barry Wom), but they were at once talented and shrewd and they reached across the petty divisions of class, chiefly by making more money than everyone else put together. A film documentary compiled in the 1970s summed it up precisely: 'The Rutles story is a legend. A living legend, a legend that will live long after lots of other living legends have died.'

But it could not be sustained. Their unprecedented American success turned sour when Nasty was reported to have claimed The Rutles were 'bigger than God'. (In fact, he had merely claimed they were 'bigger than Rod' - meaning Rod Stewart - a fact indisputable then, and still.) They quit touring in favour of experimental studio work and long periods of lazing around.

The result was the seminal Sgt Rutter album. But personal differences now had time to percolate. Rutle Corps, the band's ill-advised egalitarian business partnership, designed to 'help people help themselves', foundered when people helped themselves - to the money and the furniture. Then as the decade closed and the fans tensed themselves against the impending disaster, The Rutles split in a shower of writs.

Analysts have long since ceased wondering who will be 'the next Rutles'. They were, we have come to realise, strictly a one-off - the product of a unique coincidence of forces, both musical and social. But, 30 years since its birth, their music lives on. And in, say, the spritely charm of 'Doubleback Alley', or the feisty punch of 'Ouch]', or the brave philosophy of 'Let's be Natural', we hear at once a plangent testament to times and possibilities that were, and a still strong call to optimism in our own, bleaker age. Giles Smith