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.

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