Prologue — The Holy Bee Discovers Monty Python
It must have been the spring of 1988…our family home was way out in the middle of nowhere, a rented farmhouse surrounded by thirteen acres of walnut trees. I was enduring a lengthy bus ride to and from the psychological threshing machine known as middle school. Due to our house’s isolated location, I spent the ages of 11 to 14 without cable. Just antenna-based stuff including the three big networks, a couple of regional UHF channels…and PBS. So I watched a little more public television than the average middle-schooler. In between all the nature shows and war documentaries would be an occasional short promo for something called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I remember the promo being just a silly voice over a faux-Gilliam bit of cut-out, high-contrast photography where Jim Lehrer‘s head was replaced with Big Bird’s. I was a little intrigued, but didn’t yet go out of my way to try and catch the show. (The connection between Python and PBS will be explored in next month’s entry.) An older classmate would occasionally sing “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay/I sleep all night and I work all day,” but I never recall him saying where it came from, or singing any of the rest of it.
I had a little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom. I used to stay up late to catch Saturday Night Live at 11:30 from under my covers. (It was the second season featuring the classic late 80s-early 90s cast of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, etc.) One night before the show started, I got up and wandered out to fix my favorite late-night snack (a plus-sized bowl of pre-sweetened cereal), and I passed my dad in the living room, in front of the big console TV in his favorite TV-watching position (laying on the carpeted floor on his side, head propped up on his elbow). On the screen was one of the weirdest things I’d ever seen. An English-accented narrator was breathlessly hyping footage of what appeared to be a film trailer — someone was on a random beach in a fur coat, having a life-or-death struggle with a stuffed lion. Yes, the first bit of Python that ever passed before my eyes was their series 2, episode 10 sketch “Scott of the Sahara.” (I wouldn’t say Dad was a real Python fan, but he had a sophisticated sense of humor and was a great devourer of all things PBS. Also, TV options were limited.) I went back in my room, and after awhile, decided to switch over to PBS, just in time for “Fish Licence.” I was hooked from that moment on.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into my regular viewing rotation at that point. It was on Saturdays at 11, just after a Tom Baker episode of Doctor Who* and just before SNL. Right after Python, PBS would usually show the minutes-long astronomy show Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, informing viewers of any observable events going on in the cosmos that week. Its spacey, cheesy closing theme was always my signal to switch over to NBC just in time for the SNL cold open. When our family splurged on a new VCR, I took the old one and hooked it up to my little TV. I wish I could say I captured all 45 original episodes, but my local PBS station was pretty inconsistent, often repeating an episode within weeks of the first time I saw it (and never once dipping into the first series). But by the time we moved away from that farmhouse and back to cable-ready civilization, I had amassed most of series four, some of series three, and a few episodes of series two on a collection of slightly fuzzy VHS tapes that I watched over and over.
As far as Python audio went, my birthday in 1989 yielded me the double-CD compilation The Final Rip-Off, and under the Christmas tree that year were vinyl copies of Live At City Center and Contractual Obligation Album. More on all of those in Part 4. Pretty soon I was in high school in a bigger town, where Python was very much a known thing, and I was finally among my tribe (and I made a few converts with all the zeal of a missionary — thanks entirely to my painstakingly compiled mixtapes of Python audio, as PBS had stopped showing them by the early 1990s.)
And now on with our main discussion…
The group’s first film, And Now For Something Completely Different — a re-filmed collection of their best TV sketches intended to introduce the group to American audiences via “college cinemas” (again, those existed?) — came out in September of 1971 after languishing on the shelf for almost a year. Producer Victor Lownes had managed to shop it to Columbia Pictures…who put it out in Britain only! This flew in the face of the original intent and the Pythons were horrified that re-hashed material was being shown on their home turf. However, it actually did moderately well at the box office in a country where they already had a built-in market (despite some people, as predicted, carping about a bunch of material already seen on TV being presented as “something completely different”). The initial concept of being released exclusively to American college cinemas was dropped somewhere along the line. Columbia seemed to have no interest in releasing it in the U.S.
In the summer of 1972, Nancy Lewis was the head publicist for Buddah Records, a New York label specializing in bubblegum pop and light R&B. Just a few years before, she had been living in London, and had been captivated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. When Tony Stratton-Smith came over to New York to meet with the head of Buddah Records, Neil Bogart, to secure a U.S. deal for Charisma artists, the eagle-eyed Lewis spotted Another Monty Python Record in the stack of albums he was carrying. She energetically advocated for the group, and Buddah Records agreed to put out the album (and at least one future album) in the States. (Eagle-eyed, but maybe not elephant-memoried — she always recalls seeing both Another and Monty Python’s Previous Record in the Stratton-Smith’s stack, but Previous hadn’t even been recorded yet.)
It was Neil Bogart who convinced Columbia Pictures to finally release And Now For Something Completely Different in the U.S that August, with Buddah Records helping to cover the cost of promotion as they released Another Monty Python Record at the same time. Prints of the film were shipped across the country…to radio stations, who were then responsible for arranging screenings. At times, tickets were literally given away.
The group as they appeared in And Now For Something Completely Different‘s “Dirty Fork” sketch (with the non-performing Gilliam photo-bombing on the right)
Not all that surprisingly, the film bombed, despite Buddah’s enthusiastic-if-misguided cross-promotion efforts. “Some idiot designed a poster with a happy snake with a funny hat on,” griped John Cleese. It’s not clear if the idiot in question worked for Columbia or Buddah, but the team made sure going forward that all graphics and visuals associated with the Pythons would come from the mind of Terry Gilliam, at least for the foreseeable future. (In all my research, I have not been able to find the image of the be-hatted snake that Cleese found so irritating.)
And Now For Something Completely Different was written off (for now), but the album…it was starting to get some attention from FM radio stations. “The albums never sold in enormous numbers, but they provided a wonderful base,” says Lewis. Large chunks of first-rate Python material began hitting the American airwaves, usually in the overnight hours in the big city markets. “That FM stoner crowd was quite important,” says Michael Palin. “U.S. television was very commercial and safe but with a lot of rock DJs, Python was exactly the sort of stuff they were looking for…WNEW in New York would play Python clips all the time.”
By this time, the Pythons had long finished producing their third series of Flying Circus, but it remained unaired (due to a crowded BBC schedule, and head office concern over some of the edgier content). They were gearing up to do an original 45-minute episode for German TV (their second), and decided it was time for another album.
On Monty Python’s Previous Record, original material had roughly equal time with material drawn from the TV show, this time from the third series which had finally started being broadcast at the time of the album’s recording. (One sketch, “Fish License,” they pulled from all the way back in the second series.) Once again, the Jones/Palin team were in the producer’s seat, but just as Terry Jones shepherded the the second album (much to his distress), Michael Palin stepped up and took point on this one, bringing in Andre Jacquemin.
Andre Jacquemin was a teenage apprentice working at a London studio under the supervision of an old-school recording engineer, Alan Bailey (whose claim to fame was engineering several Cliff Richard sessions and working for Radio Luxembourg). One day in 1971, on his way out to lunch, he fortuitously bumped into Michael Palin, who was shopping around for a studio to record some voiceovers. With Bailey being all booked up, Jacquemin took on the session himself — and deeply impressed Palin. “What Andre was doing with music and sound effects was incredible,” remembers Palin. The debacle of recording Another was probably pretty fresh in his mind. “I asked him if he wanted to help me make [the next] album. Thankfully, he says ‘Yes.’”
“Mike explained what he needed and pointed to a three-foot high pile of scripts,” says Jacquemin. “He said ‘Just take those home and have a look at them, then you can tell us when you want us and what you want us to do.’ The only thing that kept going through my head was, ‘Oh God! These are all Cambridge and Oxford graduates…all I had was a swimming certificate and a bicycle proficiency test in terms of qualifications, so I thought ‘oh, crumbs! I’m in big trouble here…’ Anyway, I embraced it and told them I’d put together a budget and let them know.”
The album cover was a typical Gilliam flight of fancy, and the original inner sleeve advertised completely fictional albums supposedly also available from Charisma Records, such as Friday Night is Bath Night by J.P. Gumby, and Party Time! by Princess “Piano” Margaret. (Sadly, later pressings had an inner sleeve featuring actual Charisma products, and another good joke was ruined by the men in suits.)
Included with the initial pressing was a small flexi-disc called “Teach Yourself Heath,” providing the record buyer with lessons on how to imitate the speech and mannerisms of Britain’s current Prime Minister. “Eric and I spent a day listening to Heath’s speeches,” says Palin. “At a certain point I went to sleep…I feel the record hasn’t done justice to the boredom and inanity of those party political speeches. If it is funny, thank Mr. Heath for that. It’s all him.”
Monty Python’s Previous Record
Released: December 8, 1972 (U.K.); ? 1973 (U.S.)
Produced by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Andre Jacquemin, and Alan Bailey
2. Are You Embarrassed Easily?
3. A Book at Bedtime
4. Dennis Moore (Part 1)
5. The Money Programme
6. The Money Song
7. Dennis Moore (Part 2)
8. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 1)
9. Australian Table Wines
10. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 2)
11. Argument Clinic
12. How To Do It
13. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 3)
14. Pepperpots (How To Put Your Budgie Down)
15. Personal Freedoms (Jean-Paul Sartre)
16. Dennis Moore Theme Song (Part 4)
17. Fish Licence
18. Eric the Half-a-Bee
19. Radio Quiz Game
20. Travel Agent
1. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (I)
2. Silly Noises
3. Anne Elk
4. The Yangtse Sketch
5. We Love the Yangtse
6. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (II)
7. A Minute Passed
8. Eclipse of the Sun
9. Alistair Cooke
10. Wonderful World of Sound
11. Funerals at Prestatyn
12. A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (III)
13. A Fairy Tale (Happy Valley)
Beware starting this one with the volume too high. The listener is immediately jolted by the introduction on side one, which features Terry Jones screaming at the absolute top of his lungs “Not this record! Not this record! Not this record!” until the needle is pulled and we are lulled into a gentle attempt to get uptight British listeners over their innate embarrassment at certain words (“megaphone”) and sounds (which have to be heard to be appreciated, but they’re…rude.)
The well-known classics here are “Travel Agent” and “Argument Clinic,” but long-time fans will appreciate series three sketches such as “Anne Elk” (and her controversial theory about the brontosaurus), the Blue Peter parody “How To Do It” (“How to play the flute: blow here and move your fingers up and down there”), and the reappearance of Mr. Praline, who we last encountered trying to return a dead parrot to the pet shop. This time he’s applying for a license for his pet fish, Eric (a halibut). “Fish Licence” concludes with the only Python song to feature the deeply non-musical John Cleese singing a solo vocal part, “Eric the Half-a-Bee,” an album-only treat not included in the TV version of the sketch. It was never performed live, but you can always tell who’s a hardcore Python fan based on their deep love for this song. The running gag through side one is the adventures of Dennis Moore, a Robin Hood-style, 18th-century highwaymen who can’t quite get the hang of redistributing wealth. More precisely, it’s Dennis Moore’s theme song that gets constantly revised. (The running gag through side two is a “massage from the Swedish prime minister” — but it doesn’t vary. Each time it appears, it says the exact same thing. Very un-Pythonlike, but there’s an explanation.)
The real treasure, of course, is the album-only material. “Eric the Half-a-Bee.” Alistair Cooke being attacked by a duck. The virtues of Australian table wines. (“This is not a wine for drinking — this a wine for lying down and avoiding” “This one really opens up the sluices at both ends,” etc.) The humorous possibilities of monotonous repetition are explored with the mind-numbing “A Minute Passed.” (This sort of thing would become an obsession on the later Contractual Obligation Album.)
And there’s more gleeful playing with audio — as made clear by sketch titles like “Silly Noises” and “Wonderful World of Sound.” The big closer is “A Fairy Tale,” adapted from a lengthy sketch written for one of their special German episodes. (“Stake Your Claim” from Another also originated from the German episodes.) Long-time Python musical associate Neil Innes (most know him as the leader of Sir Robin’s minstrels in Holy Grail) provided appropriately medieval background music for the story about the bizarre royal family of Happy Valley.
The album was recorded over October 12 and 13, 1972. Andre Jacquemin, still not fully confident in his abilities, had booked them into the Radio Luxembourg studio so he could rely on the experience of his mentor, Alan Bailey. Bailey later somewhat sniffily remarked he “wasn’t much of a fan” of Python, but he lent his years of technical know-how to the proceedings, even gamely adding a few random voices and shouts (he was also the sneezing cockroach).
The one thing Jacquemin couldn’t pull off — yet — was the original idea of having three sets of grooves cut into side two of the record, each with a different set of tracks. What set of tracks you heard depended on where the needle dropped as the record revolved. That idea would have to wait. “That’s why you hear ‘And now a massage from the Swedish prime minister’ three times on it,” Jacquemin explained. “Each groove was supposed to start with that.”
The recording went twice as fast and was five times cheaper than Another — and ended up sounding even better, richer and more detailed within its sonic space. Alan Bailey ended up with a co-producer credit, but the Pythons agreed that it was teen prodigy Jacquemin who was the real find. Palin and Jones dreamed up what they wanted to hear, and how they wanted it to sound, and Jacquemin made it happen. He has worked with them ever since. “The fools still think I know what I’m doing.”
Monty Python’s Previous Record made it to British store shelves in time for Christmas 1972, neatly coinciding with the conclusion of the original broadcast run of the third series.
I can’t for the life of me find the precise date when Buddah Records put Previous out in the States, only that it was sometime in 1973, where it joined Another as a late-night FM radio staple and in the collections of discerning comedy album aficionados. It is probably the Holy Bee’s favorite of all the original Python albums (recently surpassing the nostalgia felt for Contractual Obligation).
1973 promised to be another busy Python year. The earliest draft of what would one day be Monty Python and the Holy Grail was done by the end of March, then the team hit the road, performing their best sketches to wildly appreciative live audiences. Monty Python’s First Farewell Tour criss-crossed Britain in April and May, then hopped the Atlantic for a coast-to-coast Canadian tour in June. (The Canadian network CBC had been airing Flying Circus for some time.)
It was on the flight to Canada that John Cleese told the rest of the group he would not do a fourth series of the TV show. Another movie, yes. Live shows, absolutely (they were lots of fun). Books and records, he would do his (minimal) part. But another round of grinding out episode after episode of sketch comedy for the BBC was something that made his stomach hurt. “It wasn’t that I hated Python,” says Cleese. “What I hated was ten-and-a-half months per year of Python.”
Nancy Lewis met the Pythons in Toronto (or Montreal or San Francisco — depends who you ask and when you’ve asked them), where she was attempting to arrange some in-person U.S. promotion for Buddah. Still reeling from Cleese’s announcement, the first thing they told her was that the group might be over. Shaken but undaunted, she arranged to have them travel from Vancouver to California at the end of the tour to make some personal appearances. Once the initial knee-jerk panic settled down, they all agreed the group was far from over — but Cleese did not join them in their initial visit to the U.S. It was five Pythons who showed up in Los Angeles to tape an appearance on NBC’s late-night rock music show The Midnight Special on June 26, 1973 (the episode aired in October).
The team performed “Children’s Story,” “Gumby Flower Arranging,” “Nudge Nudge,” and Chapman’s solo tour-de-force “One-Man Wrestling,” an oft-used standby dating all the way back to his university revue days. Neil Innes performed a song on stilts. They also showed some Gilliam animation and the “Silly Olympics” film from the German show, and taped several little inserts and wrap-arounds that were used by the show for years afterwards. By all accounts, they went over quite well. “We really promoted Python more as a rock band in a funny way, going through radio channels, because that was their [initial U.S.] audience,” says Lewis.
Less successful was an appearance the next night on the more mainstream Tonight Show. They were given a dismissive intro by guest host and sentient cardboard cut-out Joey Bishop (perhaps the least funny person in the history of entertainment to ever call themselves a “comedian”) and their sketches played to corn-fed, middle-aged Yankee silence…as expected. So convinced were they that America would never like them, the Pythons deliberately steered into the hostility, picking their least-accessible sketches (including the pepperpot screech-fest “How To Put Your Budgie Down”) and laughing off the stony silence they played to as a colossal joke.
“If they had cared at all [about succeeding in the U.S.], they would have been ready to pack it in after The Tonight Show,” says Lewis, who may have been having second thoughts about trying to break the difficult group in the States at this point.
Michael Palin does a Gumby, The Midnight Special, June 26, 1973
So when they returned to Britain, after the jet-lag wore off, the Pythons continued to be convinced that — modest albums sales aside — the U.S. would never be a going concern. Still, they had no shortage of work to do. A second draft of the Holy Grail script was needed before budgets and locations could be arranged. Methuen wanted a second book. A Cleese-less fourth TV series was being negotiated.
And it was time for a fourth album, and that album was recorded in a garden shed.
“Ah, the famous garden shed days!” says Andre Jacquemin. “My Dad had just finished building it in the back garden. Literally on the day he finished it, I said: ‘Oh, can I have it?’ He said: ‘What are you going to do with it?’ I said: ‘I’m going to put a studio in there’ and he said: ‘Oh, all right, then.’” Jacquemin partnered with his friend David Howman, and began building an independent sound recording company.
Feeling a little burned out after Another and Previous, Terry Jones and Michael Palin gladly handed the production reins to Terry Gilliam. “I got more involved on Matching Tie and Handkerchief,” Gilliam said. “Terry J. had a go, Mike had a go, and now it was my turn. Plus, I think I was the only one short enough to fit into Andre’s shed.”
Designed to look like a shirt box, the original album cover had a die-cut, cellophane-covered hole in the center, looking inside. On the inside is the titular tie and handkerchief, actually part of the inner sleeve illustration. When the record is opened and the illustration is unfolded to its full dimensiosns, we see that the tie and handkerchief are being worn by a green, bloated, decaying corpse hanging from a noose. Each side of the album itself was labeled “Side 2.” And they finally mastered (literally) the double-groove concept.
The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief
Released: December 7, 1973 (U.K.); April 21, 1975 (U.S.)
Produced by Terry Gilliam, Andre Jacquemin, and David Howman
1. Election Forum
2. Dead Bishop
4. Novel Writing
5. Word Association
7. The Philosophers Song
8. Ralph Mellish
9. Doctor Quote
10. Cheese Shop
11. Wasp/Tiger Club
12. Great Actors
Side Two, Groove One
1. The Background to History
2. Record Shop
3. First World War Noises
4. Boxing Tonight
Side Two, Groove Two
1. Infant Minister for Overseas Development
2. Oscar Wilde
3. Pet Conversions
From the Python’s Greatest Hits canon we have “Cheese Shop,” “Bruces,” and the musical number indelibly associated with the Bruces, “The Philosophers Song,” which became a favorite part of Python’s live shows. A lot of people (meaning, I guess, me) forget that, like Previous‘ “Eric the Half-a-Bee,” it was never a part of the original TV sketch, but an original album creation. Solid series three material includes “Oscar Wilde,” and “Dead Bishop,” which was slightly pedestrian as a TV sketch, but came to life when the Pythons used it towards the end of their live shows at the City Center and the Hollywood Bowl. (Sometimes listed as “Church Police” or “Salvation Fuzz,” it came right before the closing “Lumberjack Song,” so the group used it as an excuse to mess around, go off script, and try to crack each other up.)
New material now outweighs stuff from the TV show, highlighted by Holy Bee favorite, “Elephantoplasty,” in which a surgeon transplants most (pretty much all) of an elephant — involuntarily — onto the innocent Mr. George Humphries (whom the surgical team had snatched off the street). The surgeon responsible is being interviewed on the talk show Who Cares? (“What was Mr. Humphries’ reaction to the transplant of the elephant’s organs?” “Surprise, at first. Then shock. Then deep anger and resentment.” “Is Mr. Humphries still able to lead a fairly normal life?” “No. Oh, no, no. He still has to wash himself in a rather special way, he can only eat buns, and he’s not allowed on public transport.”) Faintly in the background through the whole interview, we hear the irritated trumpeting of an elephant.
Neil Innes turns up again to do a few rock music parodies for “Background to History.”
As writer Robert Ross put it, Matching Tie and Handkerchief is Python’s “most ambitious and complex use of the recorded medium,” but there is the smallest indication that the well of inspiration for records may have become slightly depleted. They had to go all the way back to the first TV series for “Pet Conversions,” and “Novel Writing” is pretty much a rewrite of Previous’s “Eclipse of the Sun” — treating the activity/event as a spectator sport, with a stadium full of fans cheering things on.
Recording took place in late September of 1973. “Lovely, Indian summer weather,” remembers Michael Palin. “I have this wonderful image in my head of all of us cramped into this shed in Finchley and [six-foot four] John Cleese sat on a stone outside in the ornamental garden, with a cup of tea in one hand and a slice of Andre’s Mum’s homemade lemon drizzle cake in the other. He would sit there just waiting for us to call him in to do a silly voice. Then he would go back to his tea and cake.”
Andre Jacquemin, Michael Palin, and David Howman, just outside “Garden Shed Studios”
Sometimes Gilliam would show up to do some production work when nobody was home, and would have to scale the back garden fence to let himself into the “studio.” “I have wonderful memories of working in the garden shed. Andre’s four-track recorder and my two-track recorder were all we had to work with. Creating atmospheres and sonic worlds was a game of bouncing the sounds back and forth between one recorder to the other.”
They finally made the double-groove concept work. It wasn’t a new idea — in fact it had been done with old 78-rpm “horse racing” records back in the 1920s, which usually had three grooves. Depending on which groove the needle landed on, one of three horses would win the audio “race.” They used to play them in pubs and collect bets. But doing it for a 33-rpm long-player was much more difficult.
The Pythons originally wanted three grooves, but had to settle for two. To make it work properly, each groove had to be relatively short, just over eight minutes each, and it had to be done with precision detail. The grooves were cut by legendary disc-cutter George “Porky” Peckham at Abbey Road Studios. “We were delighted with it,” says Terry Jones. “In theory you could play that side four, five, six times and always hit the same groove. Then, one day, you’d play it and it would be something completely different, to coin a phrase.”
To maintain the surprise, the album credits did not have a track listing. “Some people thought there was an alternate version because they would hear talk of these mysterious sketches that they had never heard on their record,” says Michael Palin. “It drove people mad. That was precisely why we did it, of course.”
As always, later pressings of the album ruined the joke, and the two sets of sketches played consecutively. (Wouldn’t have worked on CD or streaming anyway, but a deluxe vinyl reissue in 2014 restored the double grooves, this time cut by Porky’s Abbey Road protege Sean Magee.) The die-cut jacket was eventually replaced by a regular cardboard one.
Charisma put the album out in Britain in December of 1973, but the Pythons had reached the end of their two-record deal with the hip but small-time Buddah Records. The one-two punch of Another and Previous had done its job superbly in America, creating a vista of opportunities in that market, but it was time to move on. Nancy Lewis shopped them around to several major labels. Matching Tie and Handkerchief came out in the U.S. almost a year-and-a-half after its British debut, in conjunction with the American release of their Holy Grail film. They were now artists on Clive Davis‘ brand-new Arista Records. (They remained on Charisma in the U.K.)
*a note on Doctor Who. I realize the Venn Diagram of Doctor Who fans and Monty Python fans is practically a single circle, but I guess I’m on the outer edge, because I never warmed to the show at all. It was always my tedious TV chore to get through in order to be rewarded by an episode of Python. I suppose I could have not watched anything at all from 10 to 11 on Saturday nights, and read a book or something, but that honestly never occurred to me.