Monty Python On Song (1976)

This entry originally appeared on the official Monty Python website here as part of the discography, about the Pythons’ double-pack single from 1976

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This double-disk set with gatefold cover contained two 45s, with “Lumberjack Song” and “Spam Song” on one disc, and “Eric the Half a Bee” and “Bruces” (from “Live At Drury Lane”) on the other.

Although Python were quick to exploit the advantages of the audio domain, going so far as to release flexidiscs containing exclusive material, adapting their albums’ elaborate packaging to accommodate both cassettes and the now-extinct 8-track cartridge format, and even going to the trouble of including unique links and segues on the cassette versions of their albums, Python singles were very much an afterthought, which makes the existence of this 1976 double-pack of 7” singles all the more surprising.

Wrapped in a gatefold picture sleeve, with some pressings fastened with a wax seal-style sticker and boasting signatures of the Python team, “Python On Song” collected together their most recent A side – a specially recorded studio version of “Lumberjack Song”, backed with their first Charisma single, formally titled “Spam Song” but in fact the famous sketch in its entirety, using an alternate stereo mix culled from the long-deleted original UK edit of “Another Monty Python Record” (this mix later resurfaced on 1987’s “The Final Rip Off” album).

It’s worth noting that “Lumberjack Song” was not cherry picked as a single until 1975, years after it was first introduced to viewers as part of the Pythons’ first BBC TV series. Palin’s diaries reveal that there was some deliberation whether to release the Drury Lane performance of the song (sung by Eric Idle) or to produce a new studio recording. The latter option won out, and a unique studio version was committed to tape, produced by no less a figure than George Harrison at his Friar Park studio, marking the beginning of a long and enduring association with the former Beatle and the Python team. A remix of this recording, using an alternate take of the spoken intro, was later included on “Monty Python Sings”, but the original single version remains a vinyl exclusive.

The second disc consisted of evergreen Python singalong, the “Bruces’ (Philosophers) Song”, lifted from Live At Drury Lane, coupled with “Eric The Half A Bee”, the hit single that never was from “Monty Python’s Previous Record”. The original single release of this song was backed by an extended version of “Yangste Song” from the same album, with the fade-out leading into Michael Palin inviting the listener to sing along to a unique instrumental version of the song, which must have been good fun on pub jukeboxes!

Pythonmania was high when this double-pack was issued, but like its predecessors it failed to make any commercial impact, remaining a covetable collectable. Python would release further singles – “Brian Song” in 1979, and “Galaxy Song” in 1983 (the latter also issued as a highly collectable picture disc) – but would not reach the dizzy hits of the UK singles Top 10 until “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” was a surprise number three hit in 1991, held off from the top spot by Bryan Adams’ endless vigil at the top spot that year with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, the theme from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”.

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The Monty Python Instant Record Collection (1977)

This entry originally appeared on the official Monty Python website here as part of the discography, under the heading ‘A Bit More Background’, in order to flesh out some more detail on this compilation

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Under the headline, ‘Would You Buy A Totally Useless But Rather Amazing Album Cover From These Men?’, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman appeared in the pages of UK music paper Sounds in 1977 to promote “The Instant Monty Python Record Collection”. Of the album’s elaborate, fold-out packaging (which revealed a stack of 52 totally fictitious albums), Terry Gilliam revealed, “The record company wanted a ‘best of’ collection out before Christmas, we were not very keen as it goes against our doing new things, but we bargained and said that the record would be okay if we did the sleeve.”

Gilliam admitted, “It not only looks expensive to do, it is expensive, so much so that we have gone halves on the costs. But I think that as the material is old then at least we should give people something new, something good to look at. Also, I believe that people do buy ‘Best Ofs’ who don’t buy all the other albums…” In reference to the then-recent BBC repeats of the series, Gilliam continued, “Then there are people who have only recently caught up. At the same time I think it is terrible for the people who already have our albums. It’s a crummy thing to do to them!”

Perhaps as a sweetener, “The Instant Monty Python Record Collection” is notable for featuring a previously unreleased sketch – a studio version of “The All-England Summarise Proust Competition”, a sketch which incurred the wrath of BBC censors with one of the contestants referring to his main hobbies as: “Strangling animals, golf, and masturbation.” As New Musical Express noted at the time, “Masturbation is right out, said the BBC. Strangling dogs is cool. But no wanking. And no wanking while you’re strangling that dog.”

The offending word was snipped from the original broadcast version of the sketch, and so until the sketch was restored for BBC repeats and certain home video releases, this album was the only way to hear the sketch in its unexpurgated form. A leftover from “Monty Python’s Previous Record” (although the album confusingly includes a credit for “Proust Song”), it remains a rogue track in the Pythons’ discography since the album was deleted. It’s thought that the sketch was omitted from the album after it was premiered to a less than amused audience at the Great Western Festival, where Python debuted the sketch to a live audience several months prior to their third series appearing on BBC 1.

The album also included a new spoken introduction for “Alistair Cooke Being Attacked By A Duck”, but as it’s nothing to write home about, we’re writing about it here instead.
 

When Does A Dream Begin?: Neil Innes interview

A version of this interview with Neil Innes from Summer 1992, conducted with the assistance of Louise Marriott, appeared in issues 3 to 6 of ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’.  We think you’ll agree that it’s an interesting and amusing read…

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JG: Hi, Neil.  So, you first met the Pythons on ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.  Did you get to know them fairly well on the programme?

NI: Well, yes.  Because we did 26 programmes in all.  We didn’t know too much about each other when we started, but pretty soon we got to be quite chummy.  The Bonzos used to take them out to Indian restaurants and they used to take us out to Chinese restaurants.

JG: And how exactly did you get dragged into Python?

NI: Eric rang me up one day and said “Our warm-up man’s ill so do you want to come and do our warm-up?” at the BBC where they were making ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’.  So I said, “I don’t do warm-ups!”  He said, “…it’s 25 quid” and I said “Done!”  So anyway, I went there for the laugh more than anything else and found myself doing music on the albums and tours, scribbling a bit here and there and whatnot…

JG:  So what items did you contribute to the fourth, final series without John Cleese?

NI:  I wrote ‘Appeal on Behalf of Very Rich People’ and I was responsible for the awful family – with Terry Gilliam eating baked beans and Eric ironing the cat.  So I started that one off and worked it through with Graham.  And some of the others contributed memorable ideas, like Palin’s memorable “Dad? Why is Rhodesia called Rhodesia?” but I thought of the awful family.

JG: What were the scripting sessions like when sketches would be chosen for a show?  Were they ruthless over what would go in?

NI: Well, I only had a few meetings.  That was in the very last series.  Before that, Eric had told me that if people laughed at the script meeting it would go in.  You weren’t allowed to say, “Well my wife liked it!” or anything like that.  That meant it was definitely out!  And everyone would try and get Michael Palin to read their sketches, because he was the best reader and had the best chance of making the others laugh.  So yes, they were very tough with each other.

JG: Just before Series Four, you were in “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”.  Was your role as Sir Robin’s Minstrel your sole involvement in the film?

NI: No.  Every time a large object, like a cow or a wooden rabbit, needed to be lobbed at anybody, it was lobbed at me.  I think the boys have always been trying to tell me something…  when we did “The Missionary”, I had a bar stool lobbed at me.

JG: It clearly wasn’t the most glamorous of films to be in!  What was it like for you?  Did the atmosphere affect the cast’s attitudes?

NI: Erm…no.  It was quite good fun.  All the chainmail was in fact made out of string sprayed silver but this got soggy halfway up a Scottish mountainside, and we did crosswords and kept ourselves in good spirits.  I invented a game called “Decline the verb: to sheep worry’” – you know, I am sheep worried, you are sheep worried, and Cleese came up with the future pluperfect which was ‘I am about to have been sheep worried’.  He won that one, I think.

JG: You were prominent in the Pythons’ First Farewell Tour.  Was it an early decision that you would be brought in to do songs and sometimes be in sketches?

NI: Well, yeah.  When the tour was first put together I was necessary as a kind of link, really, because sets and costume changes had to be made.  A live thing you can’t do like television with edits and things like that.  So I was built into the design of the live performances.

JG: Having had it both ways, was there any difference between touring with a rock band and a comedy team?

NI: Very little in fact.  The Bonzos as a rock ban d didn’t really inspire the same sort of adulation as other rock bands!  And when we played the City Center in New York fans were literally jumping on the cars and things like that.  Which was quite frightening, actually!  (adopts Colonel voice)  I don’t approve of that sort of behaviour at all.

JG: There must have been some memorable incidents during the various shows, on and off stage.  Can you recall any particularly?

NI: Yes.  I remember Cleese used to be really naughty on stage.  And if you were about to go on, he’d sometimes come up behind you and grab you in a vice-like grip.  And you knew you were supposed to be on.  Your cue was there and you’d be yelling, “John!  John!  What are you doing?” and he would hold it, and hold it, and hold it.  After much struggling, he’d let you go and you’d come on and try and do your line.  So we had a lot of fun, and there was a lot of sabotage going on, in fact we never did the sketch with the bishop on the landing ever properly, ever.  Palin would rush in with his flashing cross on top of his policeman’s helmet, go “Ullo, ‘ullo, ‘ullo, AMEN!”  …We couldn’t possibly do that one properly.

JG: Did you enjoy playing the Hollywood Bowl?

NI:  Not as much as having it both ways!!  Yes it was a demanding role.  First of all, I had to get myself into shape – a bowl is not a very easy character to play…  No, it was fine.  Loved it.  I’ll tell you what, if there had been a shred of hostility in the crowd the answer would be no but everyone was so pleased to be there, you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself.  It was so warm and friendly.

JG: When Eric came up with ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, how involved were you in its conception?

NI: Eric thought it would be a good idea for me to be a part of it.  He wanted to do it with me.  In fact I said I didn’t want to do television.  I remember on the ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, with the Bonzos the cameras never pointed in the right place, and he said, “You can tell the cameras where to point.” so I thought, “Yes, why not”.  So I went off and wrote songs, and he went off and wrote sketches and we would meet together and see what we’d got.  And we constructed the shows between us.

JG: ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ was made on a very small budget.  Was it a problem or didn’t you mind much?

NI: It was sometimes a problem but that was in fact the whole raison d’etre of the programme.  It was such a cheap budget programme that it worked in our favour.  You could actually show how cheap and cheerful it was because it was ‘Rutland Weekend Television’.  It was made in a studio at the BBC called Presentation B, which is where they do the weather from.  So you get some idea of how big it was!  And when we had the court of Queen Elizabeth I in there, I think the cameras were out in the corridor somewhere.

JG: What are your favourite bits in RWT, as there were many classic sketches and songs during its two seasons?

NI: Oh, that’s hard.  Erm… Well, I suppose my favourite bits of the thing where when we’d finished filming and going to the bar!  I’ve obviously got fond memories of the Rutles and I liked the “Hawaii Five-O” thing we did – it was sort of a spoof.  I got to play an American policeman.  (Camply) I just LOVED the uniform!  There are too many bits to remember.  I liked it all, really.  I liked doing it.

JG: Would you like to see it re-run?

NI: I’d like to see it first I think!  When you see things that were done all that time ago, you sort of wonder how well they’ve travelled through time!  But I’m sure there must be some highlights they could put out.  We could make a five minute programme I’m sure.   I haven’t seen Eric for ages.  I wonder how he is.  He’s a daddy now, with Tania as his new missus.

JG: When the Rutles clip was shown on NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’, were you surprised by the massive interest the clip provoked – two years after it was made, in a country that hadn’t even had RWT?

NI: Yes, I was agreeably surprised, but on the other hand it was very recognisable as a kind of Hard Day’s Night spoof.  As I say, I went off and wrote songs for RWT on my own and I though – again because it was a cheap budget – that a black and white, silly film Beatles parody would be a good visual.  So I wrote a Beatleish song and Eric came up with the name The Rutles.  Eric had close connections with Lorne Michaels, the producer.  It was funny, on one ‘Saturday Night Live’ I did the John Lennon impersonation with the white piano and the big long wig singing “Cheese & Onions”, and the NME rang me up and said, “Did you know one of the Rutles songs is on a Beatles bootleg?”.  I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t told, and what’s it doing on there…  I asked them to play it to me over the phone and it was ME!   On ‘Saturday Night Live’!  And it had ended up on a Beatles bootleg!  So I thought, never underestimate the power of the NME!

JG: When you and Eric were approached with the idea of the Rutles rockumentary, were you a bit wary about having to parallel the all-too-real Beatles story?

NI:  Yes I was (laughs), who wouldn’t be?  I’d done one as a bit of a laugh and they said, “Can we have fourteen more – by Thursday lunch?”  I thought it was a good challenge.  I would have a go, but the annoying part is that I’ve been labelled as a pop parodist ever since.  I think I’ve written some ordinary songs – quite normal, really.
It was fun to do.  The whole project was fun to do.

JG: In 1990 you and some of the Rutles did a one-off gig in Liverpool.  With the Rutles reissue on CD, the tribute album (Rutles Highway Revisited) and everything else, could you foresee a proper Rutles reunion?

NI: No.  I don’t think so.  Ricky (Fataar) is a nice chap.  John Halsey doesn’t live too far away from me in Suffolk.  I can’t imagine what we would do – we could have a reunion socially, in the pub. The Rutles were a media joke of their time.  It’s nice that people linked onto the Beatles legend, because it was an affectionate biography of the Beatles whatever way you looked at it.  It was probably the only way you could tell the Beatles story without it being too sad.  Because it really was sad when it broke up.  If you look at the real footage, which we did, we thought, this is wonderful, wonderful, and then Epstein dies and it all starts to fall apart.  The overall emotion you get is one of depression by watching the real thing.  But you can make fun of it through the Rutles to tell more that way, than by telling the real Beatles story… and George Harrison is always keen to get up there and act his bottom off.

JG: Where would you rate the Rutles on your list of achievements?

NI: What?  Rutland!  That’s where I’d rate it, I’d rate it in Rutland!

JG: You did a cameo for ‘Life Of Brian’.  Were you present for the whole film’s making?

NI: No, I wasn’t.  I was making the first series of ‘The Innes Book Of Records’.  I was going to be out on location doing a lot more but Bernard Delfont pulled all the money out and it was put back, and by then I was filming.  So I managed to go out there for the last week to a lovely hotel on a beach in Tunisia, and they’d been in the desert with diarrhoea, getting bitten by various things, including camels.  Dr. Graham had been an ace sort of chap to have on location.  I got the luxury bit, and I didn’t even have to do anything till the last day of filming!  So I had more or less a week’s holiday on the beach, and in the evening Eric and I had decided to do an album of unsolicited jingles.  One of which was called ‘For Gitane’, the French cigarette.  “Fumez, fumez Gitane; fumez, fumez Gitane; as many as you can; fumez Gi-ta-ne…

JG: Being the Pythons’ first collaboration for many years, had the Pythons changed in relation to each other by then?

NI: When we were doing RWT, Eric and I thought we’d write a musical about God, called ‘Good God’ but a lot of those things evolved in to ‘Life Of Brian’.  And I think the Pythons worked really well together on that, and in terms of writing a whole integrated thing, like the ‘Holy Grai’l was an integrated movie.  Whereas ‘The Meaning Of Life’ wasn’t – it was going back to sketches.  So I think ‘Brian’ was the last piece of integrated writing they did.  Very good it was too.

JG: How did the 1974 single ‘Recycled Vinyl Blues’ with Michael Palin come about?

NI: I had done it anyway as a song, and poor old Michael, I talked him into it.  At the time they were talking about getting old records and melting them down because there was a vinyl shortage.  And I thought about the idea that when you melted these old records down, some of the bits would come through.  So I proceeded to write this thing, it was very funny.  We did this wonderful arrangement and the record company loved it, put it out, but then we found that 8 publishers wanted a share for every little bit of quote on it.  It was getting airplay at first until people realised they had to fill out 9 PRS forms – that’s Performing Rights Society – every time it was played.  So it’s a collectors’ piece.  In fact it’s out on the Bonzo CD (‘Cornology’)  – it’s an added track on the Dog Ends one, track number 19.

JG: You’ve also been involved, to varying degrees, in ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘Erik The Viking’ and ‘The Missionary’.  How did your association in these films evolve?

NI: By telephone!  Everybody who has ever done anything with Python has sort of rung up and said, “Do you want to do a bit in this?”  In fact, it was more or less a case of “Come down and do a bit” for ‘Jabberwocky’.  They’d given me this page role and Maggie – Terry Gilliam’s wife – said that everybody has to have this medieval hair cut.  I said, “Come on! You’re not going to see the back of my head, I’m just stood there playing a drum!” but she insisted, “No, everyone has got a have it” – this awful ruddy haircut, like a funny farm haircut.  Actually it’s quite trendy now (laughs), but I didn’t like it at the time!  You didn’t see the back of my head once!  And once again, in the great Python tradition, John Bird lifted up the drum and cracked it over my head.  But what he didn’t know was that I was going to carry on playing the drum.  He nearly corpsed and ruined the whole scene, but no, good times, that’s ‘Jabberwocky’.

‘Erik The Viking’, well, I just did the music for that of course – I forgot how it happened.  Oh, I asked why, always in film-making, does the music get added last?  I thought it would be a good idea if I went along to see how things were going and get some ideas.  So I went out to Malta with them and found myself up to my knees in a huge tank flooded with water and a lot of other extras and Maltese, doing silly things in Hy-Brasil with King Terry J.  There’s an amusing anecdote – when we did the music we had to do it quickly, as we had so little studio time, the leader of the string section asked me to give them all some idea as to what each scene was about.  So I was giving them these little thumbnail sketches and as time as slipping by faster and faster, these were getting shorter and shorter.  We got to this bit, which is supposed to be very sad.  “Well, what is going on in this scene?” they said.  “The King dies”, I replied.  The leader tutted exacerbatedly, “But – do – we – like – him?” and an engineer pointed out that it was the film’s director!  ‘The Missionary’ – Michael came up and asked if I had any old music hall songs, “We need a music hall scene.  Would you like to be our music hall singer?”.  I have got these old music hall songs and I found, ‘Put On Your Tata, Little Girlie’, which we proceeded to record with Mike Moran.  And of course, written into the script was the bar stool flying through the air!

That was swung down from the ceiling on a bit of tungsten wire, which the camera couldn’t really spot.  And there was another piece of tungsten wire which was supposed to pull it up short of my head.  So I was to mime with gusto this very last note, and down would come the bar stool.  So there we were and they said, “OK. Turnover” and I said, “Just, just, just a minute.  Don’t you think we should test this thing?”.  Richard Loncraine (the director) told me not to be a wally, that everything was alright, and really I don’t mind doing anything, as long as it’s tested first.  So Richard stood there, miming.  It came down and snapped.  He got his hand across his face just in time.  So we tried a bit of thicker wire… (sighs) THREE thicknesses of wirelater, it was deemed safe, and we did the shot.

JG: What was your involvement with Terry Jones’ ‘East of the Moon’ for Yorkshire TV?

NI: Terry Jones was approached by Joy Whitby – the head of Yorkshire TV Childrens – to adapt his Fairy Tales.  He then said, “Very nice.  But I think I’d like Neil to adapt it”.  So he gave it all over to me to rewrite for television.  Obviously, the pen is mightier than the budget and you can write things in a book that you can’t necessarily film that cheaply.  So I changed a few things like using sneezing powder instead of flames and chopping off dragons’ tails, and things like that.  And I just generally designed the programme.  We spent a lot of time and effort trying to get it done as an independent production.  It took about four years to make it.  It was made as a co-production with Channel 4 Wales for Channel 4, and German money was in it as well.

Terry only did a couple of cameo roles.  I got my own back!  He was an elf and he had to wear these huge glued-on ears, and a beard.  He was miserably uncomfortable for a day… it made up for all the things they’d lobbed at me in the past!

JG: How many series were there?

NI: Well, they commissioned thirteen but they only filmed seven because not
long after that, Michael Grade came and said he didn’t see the point in Channel 4 making childrens’ programmes because they were in competition with the networks.  So he virtually cut out the childrens’ television except for those imported Sesame Street lunchtime kind of things.

JG: Having mentioned these more recent involvements, I assume you’ve still got strong ties with the Pythons.  Do you often see them socially?

NI: I don’t know about strong ties…  Loud ties, revolving bowties… I haven’t spoken to Terry Gilliam lately and I’ve just heard that Terry Jones has got a new film.  I wrote him a cheeky postcard saying, “I’m glad to hear you’ve got a new film.  If I promise not to argue, interfere or put tunes in where you don’t want them, would you consider letting me do the music?”

JG: Being so linked with Python, do you ever regret that many prejudge you as a zany comedy musician in spite of your diversity?

NI: I used to jokingly say to the lads that working with them for another year put my own career back ten years!  But you can’t help it.  Even though I was working on other things at the time, because Python are so much more famous you are linked with them.  And ever since the Bonzos I’d been called wacky, madcap, zany…  ‘Do Not Adjust your Set’ was pre-Python but that’s when we met Mike and Terry, and Terry Gilliam and Eric.  And of course we were sort of winding up as they were more or less getting going as Python.  So that’s how it happened, that’s the whole story, and I’m going to bed now…

A Buyer’s Guide To The Wider World Of Python

It does what it says on the tin. Originally posted on now-dormant cult TV website The Fan CAn, 18 June 2012.

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Where next after you’ve finished the series and the movies?

So you’ve got the complete Flying Circus box set. Which is nice – although not as complete as you may have been led to believe, suckers. Where next? We’ll assume you have the films…

ESSENTIAL:

The Best Of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (2Entertain)
Python compilations are best avoided. The thing about Python was not so much how the sketches worked in their own right but how they fitted into the manic flow of each episode, complete with callbacks and contrasts, no matter how ratty or uneven the episodes were. But, this does contain a longer version of The General Public Are Idiots/BBC Programme Planners from series four than can be found anywhere else, and all the extra stuff from BBC2’s Monty Python Night broadcast in 1999 including the very rare Euroshow 1971 sketch in which the Fish Slapping Dance originated.

Ripping Yarns (Network)
A splendid package from the ever-reliable Network – all nine episodes of Palin and Jones’ pitch-perfect homage to Boys’ Own adventure serials, with some handy extras and a detailed booklet.

Fawlty Towers (2Entertain)
Reissued and repackaged in various media ad infinitum, the most current DVD box set is the one to go to for, digitally remastered and with various extras culled from Gold’s Fawlty Towers: Reopened weekend including contributions from the reclusive (and still snoggable) Connie Booth.

How To Irritate People (Prism)
A one-off 1969 TV special, produced by David Frost for the American market, starring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke Taylor and Michael Palin. Lots of proto-Python stuff here, including many mother-baiting sketches, the Car Salesman skit (which was retooled as the Dead Parrot sketch), two sketches tweaked for Python (Take Your Pick, Silly Job Interview) and the classic Airline Pilots sketch (“I’ll do the worried walk”).

Monty Python Live! (A&E, US)
An American DVD box set, rather handily containing Parrot Sketch Not Included (20th anniversary compilation that does actually work, thanks to some skilful editing and inspired clip selection), the Hollywood Bowl film, and the first of two absolutely superb and incredibly surreal TV specials the Pythons made for ZDF-TV Bavaria (German with English subtitles).

Life Of Python (A&E, US)
Another American DVD release (sometimes included in the NTSC boxed set) – duplicates the Monty Python Night material but also contains the second of the two German shows made for ZDF-TV, which is essential.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (Second Sight)
Eric Idle’s finest hour and a half, thanks in no small part to the talents of Neil Innes. A pitch-perfect pastiche of the Beatles story, with every Pathe interview, film clip, interview and knowing voiceover – a study in detail of how to tell the Beatles story with affection. Rent out Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love for a cue by cue pointer sheet for influences on key scenes.

The Secret Policeman’s Ball: Complete Edition (ILC, 2005)
Bumper box-set of all the Amnesty International comedy and music galas, from 1976’s Pleasure At Her Majesty’s to The Big 3-0 (1991). A rich crop of live performances by various Pythons and fellow Oxbridge luminaries such as Peter Cook, alongside then-rising stars from the alternative comedy circuit and members of the rock aristocracy. Across the six discs on this (now deleted) collection are legendary performances of crowd pleasing classics (Dead Parrot, Cheese Shop, Four Yorkshiremen) and more obscure delights such as a medley of Python courtroom sketches (with Peter Cook standing in for Eric Idle, the only Python conspicuous by his absence from these charity shows), Top Of The Form and the 1948 Show sketch Bookshop, with Connie Booth in the role originally performed by Marty Feldman.

OF HISTORICAL INTEREST:

At Last The 1948 Show (Boulevard)
In 1990, five compilation episodes of this sketch show, written by and starring Cleese, Chapman, Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke Taylor, were found. These appear (in very pants NTSC quality) on this DVD. The show is raw proto-Python, with Cleese at his “deranged headmaster” best, Brooke-Taylor inventing the pepperpots, and sketch after sketch defining Python tropes before Python existed. It’s not the DVD it could have been; most of the episodes exist as off-air audio recordings, many exist half-complete, and several have been reconstructed (one even aired on BBC4’s Missing Believed Wiped season), so we’re hoping someone else has a crack (come on, Network!).

Do Not Adjust Your Set (Boulevard)
In 1969, schoolkids waiting for their beans on toast got Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, David Jason and Denise Coffey arsing about without even once condescending their juvenile audience, while the Bonzo Dog Band provided the music weekly. Kids today! As with the 1948 DVD, a handful of shows (or bits thereof) were put out onto DVD, but the Do Not Adjust Your Stocking (where Terry Gilliam debuted with his “Christmas Cards” animation) is notable by its absence, as is anything from the second series.

The Magic Christian (Universal)
Cleese and Chapman had a hand in getting this adaptation of Terry Southern’s novel to the screen, and while a lot of the scenarios are Southern’s own, there’s a lot of business here that filtered into the first season of Python which went into production soon after. Cleese and Chapman turn up in the Sotheby’s and Boat Race scenes respectively.

The Rise & Rise Of Michael Rimmer (Digital Classics)
More Cleese/Chapman-script doctored insanity. A project David Frost lumbered them with, before star, Peter Cook, turned it into a thinly-veiled satire of Frost himself (predating Python’s own attacks on the man who rose without a trace); the Election Grandstand scene is a very tame first draft of Election Night Special from Python series one.

The Best Of Marty Feldman (2Entertain)
The very skimpy highlights here are Cleese and Chapman’s classic Bishop sketch (“You get up there and tell Him you’re agnostic, He’ll smash your teeth in, in His infinite mercy!”) and a bit of Gilliamation and Palin and Jones in a football sketch. Plus those interminable Day In The Life Of silent movie sketches Python spoofed as The Dull Life Of A City Stockbroker.

Frost On Sunday (Network)
Part of David Frost’s triumvirate of LWT progs, Sunday was a testing ground for sketches that ended up in Python, to Frost’s detriment: both Nudge Nudge and The Mouse Problem were offered for, but rejected from, this show. But you do get to see Michael Palin as early Python staple, LF Dibley, in this case claiming to be Julie Andrews.

Six Dates With Barker (Network)
A series of one-off comedy plays (with Ronnie Barker assuming a number of roles) of note to Python fans is the Chapman-penned The Odd Job Man, later retooled into a film with Chapman taking Barker’s part, and John Cleese’s Come In And Lie Down starring Michael Bates, with Barker as an insecure psychiatry patient who is a blatant dry-run for Basil Fawlty’s defensiveness and paranoia.

The Two Ronnies, Series 1-4 (2Entertain)
The various Pythons gave a helping hand to their Frost Report muckers, Ron and Ron. Palin and Jones co-authored Slap Up Party, Library, Grublian and Hello, and Cleese appears in a remix of The Three Classes and New Fads. Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Palin and Jones contributed various bits to early shows (some new, some recycled from Cambridge days) but nothing notable for the Two Ronnies “classic” era.

Doctor At Large (Network)
LWT’s Humphrey Barclay picked up the option to turn the Doctor In The House franchise into a sitcom and it ran and ran. Cleese and Chapman wrote the pilot episode just before cracking on with Python, but contributed to later seasons, with Chapman’s experiences as a medical student providing some inspirations. This set includes No Ill Feeling, about a ratty hotelier and his shrewish wife, inspired by the Pythons’ experiences staying at the Hotel Gleneagles while filming Python series two in Torquay. And thus Fawlty Towers was born…

INESSENTIAL:

Monty Python’s Personal Best (Sony)
Another American produced unit shifter, it does at least include the uncensored Prince And The Black Spot animation and Terry Jones’ new edit of The Killer Joke (basically the same as the movie version, so ho-hum). Tends to use the NTSC dubs of Python shows, so picture quality is not always great.

Romance With A Double Bass (Liberation)
John Cleese. Connie Booth. Chekhov. Nudity. More fun than it sounds, but Cleese is inodordinately proud of it. Possibly ‘cos his then-missis is in the nip.

AVOID:
John Cleese – The Strange Case of the end of Civilization as we know it
The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilisation As We Know It (White Star, US)
Cleese as Holmes with Arthur Lowe as Watson. Not as good as you’d think, and this was Cleese’s second crack at the super sleuth. Not as bad as the Cook/Moore Baskervilles but what is, short of an aneurysm?

Monty Python: Almost The Truth: The Lawyer’s Cut (Eagle Rock)
The concept is great, a Python documentary in the style of the Beatles Anthology, and to be fair the Pythons themselves are never less than fascinating talking heads, being the most intelligent, witty, sharp and thoughtful people to ever create and discuss comedy, but you can get all that undigested on the bonus disc of extended interviews, and in truth it doesn’t tell you much that the 50 minute 1989 Omnibus Life Of Python did more economically. And what about the albums?

You can read the original feature here, via the Wayback Machine, or here

The last temptation of Monty Python: Flogging a dead parrot?

This think-piece was originally posted by Daily Waffle in November 2013 pending the announcement of Monty Python’s 02 reunions (Well, things turned out all right in the end, but you musn’t ask how ‘cos it’s naughty).

Comebacks and reunions are funny things, aren’t they? Let us hope that in Monty Python’s case, their recently mooted reformation for a series of live shows, it’s funny ha-ha rather than funny peculiar. In rock and roll, many bands have grasped the poisoned chalice of a reunion – a prospect that always has the equal capacity to disappoint and disillusion as it does to surprise and delight devoted fanbases – seminal acts such as the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols and the Pixies. The surviving members of two of the most influential bands of their decade, the Beatles and Queen, even proved that the death of a prominent figurehead was no impediment, sparkling studio magic onto unfinished recordings with commercially successful but critically mixed reception.

In comedy terms, the Monty Python troupe occupy a similar place in pop culture to the Fab Four, and similarly the absence of a key member – Graham Chapman, co-author of such quotable classics as Dead Parrot, Argument Clinic, The Upper Class Twit Of The Year Show and The Architects and leading man in their much loved movie breakthroughs The Holy Grail and Life of Brian – seemed to draw a line under the remaining members taking part in a full-blooded collaboration under the Python banner.

Until this week. Eric Idle had been enticing the faithful via his Twitter account, with enigmatic hints about a big Python announcement to be made at a forthcoming press conference on 21 November. The ever-enthusiastic Terry Jones let the cat out of the bag two days prior by informing the press, it would be a “now or never” stage show reunion of the five surviving Pythons (or Py-THARNS, if you’re American).

In this multimedia age, Python as a collective consciousness has never really gone away. Always keen to adopt new innovations, the Python spirit has been kept alive in non-corporeal form with CD-ROMs in the ‘90s and more recently iPad and iTunes apps reconstituting old material in new permutations, with a sprinkling of rare and unreleased material as ‘unique selling points’, and special editions of their movies for DVD and Blu Ray enhanced with special features and commentaries.

Since the Flying Circus hit the big 3-0 in 1999, every anniversary date in their calendar – and like the Rocky Horror phenomenon, virtually every year brings around a tenuous anniversary of one kind or another – has been accompanied by an ‘audience with’ reunion, a nostalgic theme night, a bumper-sized career anthologyor a Sky Arts round table (this year’s The Meaning of Monty Python). In each case, it has been a case of the Pythons unadorned, five well-aged, comfortably well-off, accomplished gents kicking about some well-worn reheated anecdotes, spiced up by the occasionalresurfacing of those famous interpersonal dynamics, usually when the team’s most volatile personalities,John Cleese – as English as Colman’s Mustard – and Terry Jones – the team’s fiery Celt – lock horns.

As the juggernaut-sized anthology series, 2009’s Monty Python: Almost The Truth, proved, the Pythons remain the most erudite, sharp, self-aware and fiercely intelligent and hyper-critical clowns in the business and it’s always a pleasure to hear these five men hold forth on their craft, responsible for some of the silliest and smartest comedy every created, but the prospect of them hauling their frames on stage, behind silly voices, false moustaches and deliberately unconvincing female drag is likely to be greeted with feelings of jaded cynicism.

It’s an entirely reasonable reaction. After all, the work of the Pythons during their imperial period of 1969 to 1983, was the work of six young men, five of whom (Terry Gilliam being an American expat) reaped the once-in-a-lifetime advantages of having come through post-war austerity, reaped the benefits of a meritocratic state education system and social mobility, learnt their televisual craft when the BBC under the aegis of Hugh Carleton Greene was ringing in the cultural changes of the 1960s. They were able to use this background as alaunchpad for comedy that not only broke new televisual ground when the medium was still in its infancy but also picked up the ‘60s mantle of challenging and questioning the attitudes and values of their parents’ and teachers’ generation, pricking pomposity wherever they saw it, and gleefully pushing the envelope as far as they could when it came to matters of taboo and taste – sex, death, authority, the military mind, bureaucracy,organised religion and society’s stifling of eccentricity and individualism were all grist to the Python’s mill.

They did the job so comprehensively that one can safely say that the elder Pythons have nothing left to prove. So what’s in it for them? The Pythons have always been cynical and unsentimental about the Python brand ever since they became early adopters of multimedia with innovative books and records in the 1970s, and every multimedia project they have unveiled since their dissolution has been undercut with jokey comments about pension funds, paying the mortgage and having to pay for expensive alimony cases in Cleese’s case. This has always been a clever bit of subterfuge in order to head off such accusations of cashing-in before third parties can make the case, belying the fact that most of the posthumous projects under the Python banner that they’ve been directly involved with, have had to go through the intense quality control approval of five individuals with equal power of veto.

It’s also why rumblings of comebacks and reunions have until now come to naught. Around the time of their thirtieth anniversary in 1999, a series of live shows at Las Vegas and a film script knowingly titled Monty Python’s Last Crusade, a self-referential sequel to Holy Grail that would also acknowledge the pitfalls of what happens when a past-their-prime troupe attempts to recreate past glories, fell to the wayside due to prevarication from various parties, volatile egos, and impossible schedules – after all, to this day, the Pythons are the busiest septugenerians in the business, with fingers in so many pies, as distinguished actors, writers, directors and performers across many genres.

A straightforward live revue reviving all the old favourites seems the most likely outcome at this point. The prospect of five limber but elderly gents reviving ancient routines may not set all hearts alight, but there’s no reason to speculate why this couldn’t still be surprising or interesting. The last time Palin and Cleese performed the Dead Parrot, for a Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1988, they surprised everyone when Cleese’s customer not only received a refund for his purchase but also shot back to the audience, “Well, you can’t say Thatcher hasn’t changed some things!”

There’s also the potential the Pythonic alchemy is still dormant, ready to be awakened. In less guarded moments, many of the surviving Pythons have acknowledged that, no matter their eminently respectable solo achivements in numerous spheres, nothing quite matches the perfect storm and culumative energy that happens when they are working together.

Michael Palin recently observed, during an interview I held for a Python book I am currently researching that, “I think that was an important part of the success of Python, that we all brought different preferred areas of performing into the mix and no one merely duplicated what anyone else was doing, everyone came in with a different kind of performance from a slightly different direction, informed by a different interest in life and characters. All of us could realise these characters, could play them pretty well, but they’re all different.”

If the five remaining Pythons are to reband in order to recreate that very special magic, they would be best to keep in mind what kept them functioning during their most active period – they wrote and performed in order to keep one another amused and surprised. One would sincerely hope that old age and their own individual achievements would not dilute this, but intensify it – if they were to simply recreate the past without adding anything new or original to it, I am pretty certain they would be the first to detect a sense of routine, a feeling of the familiar.

The big question is, how to incorporate the absence of chief loony Graham Chapman amongst the proceedings? In many ways, the most underrated performer of the team, Chapman had a unique ability within Python to occupy two extremes – on the one side, buttoned-down, repressed and stoic ‘straight men’ (pun fully intended), often wrestling with some form of incipient madness, and in contrast to that, freewheelingloonies who didn’t only accept the liberating effect of unconventional behaviour but embraced it, often sailing right over the top with a commitment to manic intensity that was second to none.

The advantages of technical wizardry means there’s every chance Chapman could manifest himself in the archive of the Pythons’ recordings for Charisma Records, but also the footage from their two shows made entirely on film for Bavarian television, which could indeed by interspersed into the proceedings one way or another.

The other outstanding question regarding a Python stage show is, what’s in it for the surviving members creatively, is there a sense of unfinished business?

It’s fairly well known that their last cinematic venture, The Meaning Of Life, was felt to be something of a disappoint to all involved. This in itself says something about the incredibly demanding standards the Pythons set for themselves, as thirty years later, to my mind it is still an incredibly accomplished, audacious and inspired movie, with moments of genius other filmmakers would kill for.

Eric Idle once told biographer George Perry that it was one rewrite away from being a perfect movie, and evidence suggests that as with their last long playing record, the pointedly titled Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, there’s a sense of compromise andthat one last big push could have provided the project with some grace notes that would have offered a stronger sense of coherence that their most accomplished work shares.

Eric Idle is a much maligned and often misunderstood player in the Python story. It’s become received opinion that he’s the “money man”, but if Idle’s goals were merely material, would he have slavered away at Spamalot to repurpose the Holy Grail, a film that subverted all the clichés of heroic, Gothic, medieval epics, into a musical that similarly pays cynical homage to all the tropes of the Broadway musical? There’s a strong, little made, counter argument that Idle is the keeper of the Python flame – he curated Monty Python Sings! and The Illustrated Monty Python Songbook;edited Monty Python Live!, a keepsake of the team’s live shows over the years; and reconfigured Life of Brian into a mock-oratorio Not The Messiah!

These are not lazy choices for the lowest common denominator. They all suggest a determination to continue the spirit of the Python books and record albums, where familiar material was repurposed and complemented with original material that took advantage of a particular medium, simultaneously subverting and exploiting it.

Idle was often the unofficial script editor for the shows, the man who would suggest during the Pythons’ infamously combative and brutal writing meetings how one sketch could be grafted onto another before seguing into a particular link in order to give an episode a distinctive shape and form, and was the man who turned the Contractual Obligation Album into something releaseable when tentative stabs at various concepts – a day in the life of a public school, a Silly Olympicscommentary, a song by song tour through national stereotypes, the world’s worst audition – failed to coalesce into something album-worthy.

As a seasoned Python watcher and commentator, my own personal fancy is that, having taken on the Holy Grail and Life Of Brian on stage, the remaining Pythonsreturn to their last swan song, The Meaning Of Life, and turn it into a conceptual whole, that can embrace well-loved existing material, pieces that were abandoned and brand new material that could acknowledge head-on the seventh age of man, the age that the Pythons themselves are currently inhabiting. It’s a flexible format that could offer something old and familiar alongside something new and refreshing.

Comedy is ostensibly a young man’s game, but when you have five of the most ferociously intelligent, critical and exacting writers/performers interacting creatively,Pythonic humour is dark and delicious, and there’s definitely massive potential in seeing how these five men could milk comic potential from staring their own mortality right in the face.

It’s.,. one last chance to see something completely different.

You can read the original post here

Review: Monty Python’s Total Rubbish (2014)

My review of the nine-disc Monty Python CD/LP box set, Monty Python’s Total Rubbish. Originally posted on The Quietus, June 18 2014.

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In the face of the download revolution, the recent resurgence in popularity and demand for the “super deluxe box set” has proved that the heritage wing of the music industry is one of the few areas of conglomerate rock in rude health. Who knew, until 2013, that what the world needed was a fifty pound, four disc box set of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, in spite of the fact that many of the faithful already owned the attendant tracks included on numerous previous reissues and remasters?

What is surprising, however, is seeing a comedy group afforded the same reverent treatment – in this case, those irreverent wunderkinds of the baby boom, Monty Python, shortly to be delighting and dismaying in equal measures generations of fans with a high profile engagement at London’s O2 arena for what promises to be the very last time these elder statesmen of alternative comedy will be performing for the masses.

It’s a worthy tribute, as the Pythons, during the heyday of their cult BBC sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970-1974), occupied equal affection with rebellious teenagers and young adults as their peers in ’70s rock and pop – many of whom, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis and former Beatles, funded their movies Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). These cheeky grammar school boys’ irreverent take on the absurdities and follies of establishment institutions, from schoolteachers and civil servants to the BBC and the Tory government, established them as the clown princes of Britain in the beleaguered 1970s; their famous sketches – Dead Parrot, Nudge Nudge, Cheese Shop, The Spanish Inquisition – widely recited up and down school yards, pub bars and offices throughout the decade and beyond.

A major factor in their popularity was that they produced a string of vinyl albums which recreated many of their most loved sketches alongside original material that took advantage of the imaginative potential of the audio medium when stereo was in its infancy, as well as extending their subversive approach to mucking about with television formats by playing the same games with the LP format. Anyone who purchased their first genuine album, Another Monty Python Record (Charisma, 1971) – jacketed in a bastardised pastiche of a classical record, complete with graffiti and misleading sleevenotes – would have been lead to believe by the opening announcement that they had purchased ‘Pleasures Of The Dance’, a collection of Trondheim hammer dances, and would have found their enjoyment of side one’s closing item, ‘Ethel The Frog’, a note-perfect surreal satire of the Kray Brothers’ gangland antics, severely curtailed when Michael Palin’s Mafioso mobster Luigi Vercotti abruptly ends the side with a scratched record sound effect that continues in a looped inner groove, until the needle lifts off!
Even more adventurously, their third Charisma album, entitled The Monty Python Matching Tie & Handkerchief (1973), was enshrouded in a sleeve designed to resemble said sartorial gift, whose die-cut sleeve and pull-out insert revealed the tie and hanky to belong to a Terry Gilliam grotesque hung by the neck. In the black grooves of the vinyl itself further audience confounding mischief was to be had, with the second side of vinyl containing two concentric grooves of audio material, both featuring exclusive material. The listener would never know what he would be hearing, whether it be history lectures in the style of the Beatles, the Glitter Band and Bob Marley, or the charmingly named Mrs Niggerbaiter spontaneously combusting in the living room of the Minister for Overseas Development, depending on how the stylus fell.

In the days before wall-to-wall repeats and home video releases, it was through their albums that Python gained their enduring cultural currency. Fans committed the sketches to memory over repeated listens and transcriptions, and cassette dubs of the LPs were furtively exchanged in school corridors.

For many, the audio renditions of the sketches, much more polished than the TV versions, and lacking the disruptive audience laughter, to the wildly imaginative ancillary material – from Cleese’s verbose advocate of Word Association Football, to Palin’s heated commentary on Novel Writing Live From Wessex and eminently hummable, silly songs on such diverse topics as bisected pet bees, the dubious delights of Finland, and (of all things) a jaunty, ragtime tribute to Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Secretary of State – became the set text for generations of Python fans, so it’s small wonder that when the TV series was more widely viewable in the 1990s and onwards through repeats, DVDs and latterly YouTube, fans weaned on the albums felt short changed and spoiled. For many, these are the definitive texts and see Pythons’ wild, surreal flights of whimsy and scatological schoolboy satire exceed the low budget, studio bound, heavily censored limitations of the Beeb – for one thing, swearing is much more widely found on these albums; after all, who can forget Graham Chapman’s introductory warning on the Holy Grail album that it contains “four cunts, one clitoris and a foreskin”? As with the last time the Python albums received a respectful treatment on shiny silver disc, they all appear digitally remastered, sound much less muted than their 1980s CD counterparts, and boast bonus tracks culled from the Python vaults, which give a tantalising taster of what else must be lurking in the audio archives…

It’s a grand legacy, bundled together in this repackage covering nine albums – including an unsuccessful freshman effort for BBC Records, recreating highlights from their first season for a confused audience deader than the proverbial parrot, for the first time united with the rest of their audio oeuvre – and replete with Terry Gilliam’s customary baroque-meets-burlesque artwork and affectionate sleeve notes by Michael Palin. As Python has become more of a gift for merchandisers than a living, breathing concern, it’s a reminder that there is more to keeping the Python legacy alive than Holy Grail ales, Biggus Dickus bottle openers and Mr Creosote keyrings.

The prospect of another rehash of familiar material may engender sighs for hardcore fans who have paid for this material many times over, who may quibble over the omission of more esoteric material, but it will be a useful artefact for the YouTube and Spamalot generation of Pythonites, and the loving recreation of the Matching Tie & Handkerchief album’s parallel grooves and inclusion of a very rare NME flexidisc from 1974 is a thoughtful gesture for aficionados.

You can read the original article here 

Monty Python ‘Record Collector’ discography

My interest in Monty Python, which has manifested itself in my ongoing work on a book about the Flying Circus, really began when I wrote and edited a Python fanzine while I was still at school, from 1991 to 1995. I had subscribers all over Europe and in Japan and the USA.

To drum up readership, I would submit my zine to Record Collector magazine’s fanzine pages. At the time, RC was edited by the music journalist Mark Paytress, and he commissioned me to write a six page discography of the Pythons’ audio adventures,  which was published 20 years ago this month and for which I was paid the princely sum of £120! Good money for a teenage boy about to start University!  I did not get the opportunity to write again for RC but soon immersed myself into my University’s student newspaper, where I edited the music pages. Here’s the original pages…

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