Monty Python: The Albums (Part 4)

Outside Center Center, April 13, 1976. Graham Chapman appears to have wandered off for a drink, and has been replaced here by Neil Innes

A year passes from the Holy Grail triumph…

Then the Pythons hit Broadway! After mulling it over, the Pythons accepted producer Arthur Cantor’s long-standing offer to perform in New York, and their stage show crossed the pond to the 2,257-seat New York City Center on West 55th Street.

Rehearsing the Mountie Chorus on “The Lumberjack Song”

They slightly revised their line-up of live material. The sub-standard “Cocktail Bar” and “Secret Service” were blessedly dumped, and the much funnier “Dead Bishop” and “Crunchy Frog” were added. “Blackmail” replaced “Spot the Brain Cell” as the game show parody. “Election Special” was swapped for “Courtroom” (which didn’t make the album, nor did the physical comedy tour-de-forces “Custard Pies” and “Ministry of Silly Walks” — but for some reason the super-physical “One-Man Wrestling” made the cut here and on Drury Lane). Beyond these small tweaks, the show was made up of familiar stuff. Neil Innes contributed two new songs, and Carol Cleveland was back in the fold, having missed the run of shows at Drury Lane.

The Pythons performed their show to sold-out houses from April 16 through May 2, 1976.

Monty Python Live at City Center 

Released: May 3, 1976 (U.S. only)

Produced by Nancy Lewis

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Llama

2. Gumby Flower Arranging

3. Short Blues (Neil Innes)

4. One-Man Wrestling

5. World Forum (Communist Quiz)

6. Albatross/The Colonel

7. Nudge Nudge

8. Crunchy Frog

9. Bruces/The Philosophers Song

10. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. Camp Judges

2. Blackmail

3. Protest Song (Neil Innes)

4. Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)

5. Four Yorkshiremen

6. Argument Clinic

7. Death of Mary Queen of Scots

8. Dead Bishop

9. The Lumberjack Song

Arista wanted the live album out as soon as the show closed — literally. Monty Python Live at City Center was in record stores hours after the last curtain dropped. That meant the recordings had to be made early in the show’s run. Andre Jacquemin did not make the trans-Atlantic trip to capture the shows for posterity, so Nancy Lewis hastily arranged recording equipment and the personnel to operate it, and is credited as the album’s producer.

For the first time, the Pythons had to deal with a full-on, fanatical reaction by their audience — they were now American celebrities. When Americans go big, it can be scary. Fans screamed at them as if they were rock stars. The nightly sold-out crowd dressed up like Gumbys and lumberjacks. The Pythons were fawned over by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Leonard Bernstein. (At an after-show gathering, Bernstein asked Eric Idle to recite a few lines of “Nudge Nudge.” Idle responded by asking Bernstein to hum a few bars of Beethoven.) Their time offstage was a blur of photo sessions, interviews, autographs, limo rides, and boozy, late-night dinners at fancy steakhouses. “We didn’t take drugs but we drank a hell of a lot,” remembers Terry Jones. “In fact I can’t remember how much we drank precisely because of the amount we drank.”

As usual during a long stage run, Michael Palin lost his voice towards the end. Backstage, he was offered a stiff malt whiskey by Neil Innes. “Will it help my voice come back?” “No, but you won’t care anymore.” On the last night, Palin hoarsely croaked out his longest speech of the show, as the man who is applying for a grant to develop his silly walk. He heroically and painfully completed it, and there was a long pause, after which his sketch partner Cleese punked him by simply saying “I’m sorry…what was that again?” 

One night, a short-haired and clean-shaven George Harrison fulfilled what he called a lifetime’s ambition by donning a Mountie jacket and hat, and joining the chorus of “The Lumberjack Song,” completely unrecognized by the audience. (He is known to have checked into hotels under the name Jack Lumber.) On another memorable occasion, someone chucked a two-foot long rubber dildo onto the stage during “Bruces.” “Oh, look, Bruce,” quipped Eric Idle. “One of those little American penises.”

Look carefully and you’ll spot a Mountie that looks an awful lot like a Beatle

Some say City Center doesn’t really merit inclusion the canon of “official” Monty Python albums, due to its very close similarity to Live at Drury Lane, and the fact that the sound quality was below their usual standard — hastily recorded, plagued with microphone issues, and without the loving supervision of Jacquemin. But Drury Lane never received a U.S. release until the 1990s CD box set, so City Center became the only audio representation of their live show for American consumers for almost twenty years. I certainly owned it years before I ever heard Drury Lane, and I consider it superior to the British release — sketchy audio aside — due to the substitution of stronger material. 

The party atmosphere of the City Center shows was remembered fondly by all, even though several of them had the authentic New York experiences of being burgled or pickpocketed. And they did get some work done during a few bleary, hungover daylight meetings — they all committed to doing another movie in the near future, and agreed that it should be set in Biblical times. Some story and character ideas were thought up. A leisurely-paced development period was decided on, and they worked out a lengthy research and writing schedule that would accommodate their burgeoning solo careers.

A few years pass…

Andre Jacquemin and Michael Palin officially go into business together, and become co-owners of Redwood Studios, which is still going strong to this day. 

In 1977, it was decided the time was right for the first Monty Python “greatest hits” compilation album. It had the expected classics (“Pet Shop,” “Bruces,” “Nudge Nudge,” etc.) and a lot of deep cuts, like “Australian Table Wines” and “Word Association.” It also included a bonus track, the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition,” a third-series favorite which had been recorded for Monty Python’s Previous Record in 1972, but left off at the last minute. The title of the compilation was The Monty Python Instant Record Collection (subtitled “The Pick of the Best of Some Recently Repeated Python Hits Again, Vol. II”), and Gilliam designed a special album cover that popped up and could be unfolded into a three-dimensional box, giving the realistic appearance of a shelf full of vinyl. All the dozens of artists and titles barely legible on the album spines were completely made up by the Pythons, of course, and include such classics as A Man Who Once Sold Paul McCartney A Newspaper — LIVE!, My Way or Else by Frank Sinatra, and The Dave Clark Five’s War Speeches. Also on the “shelf” is Rod Stewart’s entire discography, but all credited to Britt Ekland.

The next movie, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, did come to fruition after a long gestation, finally reaching theaters towards the end of 1979. It in terms of structure, writing, technical quality, and the pointed think-for-yourself message it delivers, it is a far superior film to Holy Grail. The Pythons themselves consider it the pinnacle of their career. British audiences generally agreed. But although it did quite well at the U.S. box office, and everyone loves Idle’s wonderful “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” song, it never gets the same amount of warm affection that Holy Grail does among American fans.

Released: October 8, 1979 (U.S); November 9, 1979 (U.K.) — Produced by Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Andre Jacquemin, and David Howman

Sadly, for all its strengths as a film, Life of Brian represents the first time a Python album was an afterthought. The Life of Brian soundtrack is exactly what they didn’t want the Holy Grail soundtrack to be four years prior — just a collection of scenes lifted straight from the film. Michael Palin and Andre Jacquemin did attempt give the Brian audio a lift by creating a stereo soundscape of an appreciative audience, but this was voted down by the rest of the group in favor of a handful of semi-improvised links hastily recorded by Eric Idle and Graham Chapman at the last minute. (As a result, Idle and Chapman nab the record producers’ credit.) In these tiny tidbits, Idle plays the harried voiceover producer, and Chapman is the slightly addled actor who has to deliver the goods. These sequences, admittedly, are pretty funny, it’s just that there’s so few of them. Just a couple of minutes, when added up. The Python audience had grown spoiled — accustomed to big chunks of original material on the records. Python as a team was now strictly part-time, and they could no longer commit their full attention to things like spinoff soundtrack albums in the same way as before. The Life of Brian soundtrack was put out by Warner Brothers Records, not Charisma/Arista, further distancing it from the Python comedy album canon.

On the Brian location in Tunisia, 1978

The success of the Life of Brian movie inspired Python to begin work on another film right away — probably before they were really ready. In early 1980, they began writing before they had a plot, theme, or even a basic structure, amassing a great pile of sketches, half-sketches, song ideas, and random fragments.

Life of Brian’s popular impact had another consequence — Tony Stratton-Smith blew the dust off the Pythons’ old Charisma Records contract from 1971 and pointed out that the group owed him one more album.

“Yes, we had to do it,” confirms Michael Palin. “None of us really wanted to do it, if I were to be completely honest. We were thinking about another film…but we would never have thought about doing another album. I think it was Terry J. who thought of [the title] Contractual Obligation, because that’s exactly what it was.”

This time, it was Eric Idle who took control of the project’s production, determined to emphasize the musical aspects of Python. “One of the ways to get someone to do something new and different was to ask them to write silly songs,” says Idle. The Contractual Obligation Album has far more original songs than any other Python project, some of which were re-purposed from the pile of tentative film material.

“Part of the tradition of Oxbridge cabaret and revue was that you had songs as well,” says Palin. “A lot of people who couldn’t sing very well would have to get up and sing, because that’s the way it was. Eric was probably the most musical, and was very gifted at writing these songs which were quite cabaret-like…”

The album cover was designed to look like no cover at all, just a basic paper inner sleeve, with some handwritten notes. (“Can T.G. do a nice eye-catching cover to help it sell? — E.I.” “Not really worth it — T.J.” Sure enough, in a break with tradition, the credit for what little “design” there is goes to Basil Pao, a photographer and long-time trusted associate of the Pythons.) If you look closely, you can read the track listing visible through the center hole: “1. What Is A Contractual Obligation?” 2. “A Lawyer’s Opinion” 3. “Another Lawyer’s Opinion” 4. “Possible Penalties For Failing To Fulfill A Contractual Obligation (As Explained To The Group”) 5. “Another Lawyer’s Opinion”…and so on. 

Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album 

Released: October 6, 1980 (U.K.); October 7, 1980 (U.S.)

Produced by Eric Idle and Andre Jacquemin

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Sit On My Face

2. Announcement

3. Henry Kissinger

4. String

5. Never Be Rude To An Arab

6. I Like Chinese

7. Bishop

8. Medical Love Song

9. Farewell to John Denver (or “An Apology”)

10. Finland

11. I’m So Worried

Side Two

1. I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio

2. The Martyrdom Of St. Victor

3. Here Comes Another One

4. Bookshop

5. Do Wot John?

6. Rock Notes

7. Muddy Knees

8. Crocodile

9. Decomposing Composers

10. Bells

11. Traffic Lights

12. All Things Dull and Ugly

13. A Scottish Farewell (Here Comes Another One Reprise)

The anonymous author of the Total Rubbish! box set liner notes suggests that if the Pythons were the “Beatles of comedy” as has often been mentioned, then this was their “White Album” — a scattershot affair, highlighting the individual members more than group collaborations. Cleese appears only on the sketches “String” and “Bookshop,” and Gilliam does not appear at all. He was off directing his second film, Time Bandits, during most of the album’s production.

Eric Idle contributes the sprightliest and most energetic songs. “Sit On My Face” is a joyously rude ode to oral sex, sung by a male chorus to the melody of the old Gracie Fields show tune “Sing As We Go.” The 1920s jazz pastiche “Henry Kissinger” is incredibly catchy, and the highly inappropriate “I Like Chinese” will get stuck in your head when you very much don’t want it to, and it’s a reminder that this album came out a long time ago. (“If I like their race, how can it be racist?” as Jerry Seinfeld once put it. Seinfeld, too, is from a long time ago.) Idle’s highlight is the side two opener “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio,” where every few words are supposedly filthy, and censored. The listener is free to fill in the gaps in their imagination. (“You can’t even say I’d like to [——] you someday/Unless you’re a doctor with a very large [——].”) The censorship sounds start as standard bleeps and buzzes, then grow ever more cartoonish and surreal.

There is a theory of comedy that if you repeat something a few times, it becomes funnier. If you repeat it too much, it stops being funny. Then if you continue repeating it beyond that point, and beyond all reason, it magically becomes funny, possibly hilarious, all over again. (A good illustration of this is Sideshow Bob stepping on — and getting whacked in the head by — about three dozen rakes in that one episode of The Simpsons.) The songs of Terry Jones push this to the limit. “Here Comes Another One” is lyrically, shall we say, limited, but done in a variety of genres, including disco, country & western (featuring guest vocalist Mike Berry), and a deeply irritating nasal whine. The weepy “I’m So Worried” and the plodding Paul Robeson-inspired gospel song “Muddy Knees” certainly test the listener’s patience, to be sure. But it’s his jaw-droppingly absurd, dada-esque, robotically-chanted anti-song “Traffic Lights” that tips the listener into the maw of pure insanity. (And his cringe-fest “Never Be Rude To An Arab” makes “I Like Chinese” sound like pure 21st-century woke progressivism.)

Michael Palin’s two songs, “Decomposing Composers” and “Finland,” are typically gentle and cute, as befitting the Python who’s earned the nickname “the Nice One.” Idle and his new pal/musical collaborator John du Prez put a jazzy tune to Dr. Graham Chapman’s lyrics for “Medical Love Song,” detailing a couple’s bonding over a variety of shared venereal diseases and their scabby, oozing symptoms. “Inflammation of the foreskin reminds me of your smile…” (Chapman had received a medical license from Cambridge just before deciding on a career in show business.)

The oddest number is the bouncy Idle/Jones collaboration “Do Wot John?” The lyrics seem to make no sense whatsoever, unless you hear them as a gentle takedown of John Cleese’s domineering bossiness within the group (and it sounds like every Python but Cleese sings along on the vocal part.)

Monty Python, 1980

For most of the non-musical sketches, the Pythons raided their archives. “String,” in which a hopeful entrepreneur employs an ad agency to help him unload 122,000 miles of string (in three-inch lengths), dates back to The Frost Report. They went back again to the old Cleese/Chapman series At Last the 1948 Show for “Bookshop,” which becomes another entry in the classic Python sketch format of “customer vs. shopkeeper.” Idle’s “Rock Notes” is based on an essay written for the companion book to his TV show, Rutland Weekend Television — a music journalist reporting updates and gossip on the trendiest (fictional) rock bands, including one called “Toad the Wet Sprocket,” which became the name of an actual alt-rock band a few year later. “The Martyrdom Of St. Victor” is a sermon from an Anglican bishop (Palin), in which the titular saint’s “martyrdom” consists of God putting a stop to his elaborate, explicitly-described seduction by exotic maidens. (“And Victor, in his anguish, cried out that the Lord was a rotten bastard…”) This, and the lyrics to the children’s choir song “All Things Dull and Ugly,” originally appeared in the scrapbook that accompanied the published Life of Brian screenplay.

“Bells” is a rather surreal “theater of the mind” piece, dug up from the 1972 Previous Record sessions. A neighborhood church’s bells become louder and louder, and the church itself unmoors from its foundations and begins menacing the house of the local atheist, only to be stopped by the deployment of a ballistic missile. It sounds like it would make a terrific piece of Gilliam animation.

If you have a bizarre, masochistic appreciation for the interminable “Traffic Lights,” then the album’s misfire would be “Crocodile,” a Goodies-level sketch that sounds as if it were written in ten minutes, in which “being eaten by a crocodile” is treated as a competitive sporting event.

The Holy Bee’s personal favorite is “Bishop,” portraying some kind of alternate universe in which commercial spokesmen are all bishops. The Bishop of Leicester is heard gamely going through take after take of a radio ad for Treadmill lager (despite his mild misgivings about the “theory of evolution” imagery the ad copy utlizies), but keeps blowing it because he unconsciously adds the phrase “…of fish” at the end of every take. The bored audio engineers wish they were working with the Bishop of Worcester, who once did “an entire Snippety-Dippety gift catalog promo on one ski.”

And controversy! “Farewell to John Denver” was removed from the album on some editions, either because Denver himself objected to the sound of him being violently strangled, or the one-line parody of his “Annie’s Song” violated copyright law. No one quite remembers the specific reason. My vinyl copy of the album has it, and the CD on the Instant CD Collection has it, but the album as it currently exists on streaming and the Total Rubbish! box set has its replacement — an awkward apology from Terry Jones.

Another way in which Contractual Obligation is similar to the Beatles’ “White Album” is the length of recording time, and wealth of material produced. Sessions sprawled (off and on) from January through May of 1980, and a huge surplus was built up. (You can mess around in the recording studio for a lot longer when one of your team members co-owns it.) Unlike the Beatles, the Pythons chose not to release it all as a double album, although they easily could have. The remaining tracks went in the vault, strategically earmarked for use if the group ever wanted to put out another original album with no effort whatsoever. 

“The album was bloody hard work, but I actually really enjoyed it. Sessions were very long and productive,” says Jacquemin. “We recorded hours and hours of material for Contractual Obligation Album. For something none of them really wanted to do, we all put a great deal of effort into it. They were certainly not just throwing something together to wrap up the contract. They took great pride in doing the best work they could.”

At the Hollywood Bowl

The Pythons added several Contractual Obligation numbers into their stage show, which they took to the Hollywood Bowl in September of 1980.

“[Contractual Obligation] sells like fifty times more than the sketch albums,” Idle proudly states (although his hyperbolic sales estimates cannot easily be verified). “Because you can hear a song again, but you can’t play a sketch over and over again.” — The Holy Bee respectfully disagrees — “That’s my favorite Python album because it’s completely bonkers and goes all over the place.” (“Completely bonkers” is obviously a relative term in the Python universe.)

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions that inspired it, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album stands as their last classic record, and for a long time it was the Holy Bee’s favorite Python album as well. (Maybe because this, and City Center, were the first Python vinyl I owned.) It has only recently been eclipsed by the inarguable genius of Monty Python’s Previous Record.

More years pass…

The U.S. version of the Instant Record Collection compilation was released by Arista in December 1981, with a completely different track list. The selection is more traditional (the beloved-in-America Holy Grail material takes up a good chunk of side one), includes some Contractual Obligation stuff, and the old pop-up cover idea has long since been abandoned. In fact, the American Instant Record Collection has a different cover entirely, and looks nothing like its British counterpart.

The painfully protracted three-year scripting and production process for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life finally paid off, and their final film was released in the spring of 1983. It is always regarded as a lesser work than Grail or Brian, even among the group members themselves, but the Holy Bee has always enjoyed it, and in fact mounted a detailed and spirited defense of it in these very virtual pages. 

Filming The Meaning of Life, Summer 1982

Like Life of Brian, the Meaning of Life soundtrack album is an obligatory, perfunctory affair, consisting almost entirely of audio from the film, and no special original material. And, like Brian, it was released by the movie studio’s label, in this case MCA, and not the Python’s “home” label. Michael Palin does do a few new links (and Terry Gilliam pops up to introduce side two), but even these don’t have quite the laugh value of the brief Idle/Chapman links on the Brian album. The funniest thing about the Meaning of Life album is the sticker on its cover — “The Only Soundtrack Album To Be Introduced By Live Fish! (Apart from some copies of Shane)”

Because Meaning of Life was a sketch film, it does play better as a track-by-track album than Brian, which had a stronger narrative flow and was less forgiving of being broken down into individual bits. As evidenced by Contractual Obligation, music seemed to be in the air for the Pythons around this time, and The Meaning of Life is practically a musical. From it we get great Python songs like the title song, “Every Sperm Is Sacred,” “The Galaxy Song,” “Christmas In Heaven” and a few other ditties that would obviously be the highlights of a more traditional soundtrack album. “The songs were vital,” acknowledges Palin. “The film is fairly inconsistent as sketch-based things tend to be, but when it works it really works, and it really works with the big musical numbers.”

Released: April 5, 1983 (U.S.); June 20, 1983 (U.K.) — Produced by Michael Palin and Andre Jacquemin

And that was it, really. The long, unsatisfying slog of producing The Meaning of Life convinced the Pythons that they could not work efficiently as a group any longer. They had all had separate careers for years at that point. Although they never closed the reunion door entirely, even after the death of Graham Chapman from cancer in 1989, the Pythons had functionally retired as a team. They did reunite in 2014 for an epic stage show, titled Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, at London’s O2 Arena, but it was for a very prosaic reason: They needed the money! They were being sued for millions by a disgruntled Holy Grail producer over royalties from Grail’s Broadway adaptation Spamalot.

Charisma Records went defunct in 1986, and its catalog was bought by Virgin Records. Virgin dipped its toe into the water of Python compilations with 1987’s double-disc CD Monty Python: The Final Rip-Off, an ungainly and random collection of sketches that was seemingly assembled by throwing darts at a list of Python material.

Someone decided “Cocktail Bar” would be a good inclusion. And for Christ’s sake, “Traffic Lights”? That’s not casual compilation material. The fourth and final side was mostly just big chunks of Contractual Obligation and Holy Grail mashed together. Michael Palin, game as ever, recorded a (very short) new introduction. The uproariously gory cover art was not by Gilliam, but by horror/sci fi illustrator Les Edwards.

But for all its faults, I have a soft spot for Final Rip-Off because it’s the first store-bought Python material I actually owned, after having videotaped them off PBS, and repeatedly renting their movies. My homemade audio compilation tapes (much more thoughtfully assembled than their source) circulated among my high school friends, and I’m proud to say I converted several people into Python fans.

The extra material from Contractual Obligation and some earlier outtakes were assembled by Andre Jacquemin into Monty Python’s Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album, but Virgin cancelled it just before in went into production. It’s circulating out there as a bootleg.

More successful was Monty Python Sings, a 1989 compilation that’s just what it sounds like — a collection of the best Monty Pythons songs, from the first series’ “Lumberjack Song” through Meaning of Life’s finale “Christmas in Heaven. One of the Contractual Obligation Album’s outtakes made it on Sings as a bonus track — John Cleese’s pet project “Oliver Cromwell,” which pleased him to no end. (A 17th-century history lesson set to a classical Chopin piece, all the multi-tracked voices were painstakingly overdubbed by Cleese, with a few interjections from Idle. The rather bizarre number was a personal favorite of his, dating back to his frequent appearances on the radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. Cleese was reportedly quite miffed when it was cut from its original album.)

Monty Python, 1989 — A few months before the death of Graham Chapman

Virgin put out a Monty Python CD box set in 1994 — The Instant Monty Python CD Collection. A great idea, but fatally flawed. Every original recording (except their BBC-owned first album) was included, and the accompanying booklet was lavish, informative, and hilarious. I owned the set, but didn’t listen to it as much as the material deserved. The problem was that each CD track was an entire album side! Sketches and songs were not indexed separately. If you wanted to find “Elephantoplasty,” for example, you had to scan around on Disc 2, Track 2, which contained Matching Tie and Handkerchief’s entire side one.

Python audio languished for awhile, then Virgin decided to make up for all past mistakes and do everything right. In 2006, they-remastered and re-released every single album they had the current rights to on a new set of “deluxe” CDs (which finally gave a separate track to each sketch.) Much of the treasure trove of Contractual Obligation outtakes finally saw the light of day in official form as bonus tracks on these re-issues. 

Even better, to commemorate the Pythons’ big O2 reunion show in 2014, Virgin put out an expanded version of Sings, re-issued all the albums on high-grade vinyl, and collected the 2006 re-mastered CDs onto a stellar box set called Monty Python’s Total Rubbish!: The Complete Collection, which finally put the long-lost first album back in its proper place.

And the Python albums are also now available on all major streaming services. 

With the death of Terry Jones in early 2020, and the others all hovering on either side of eighty years old, it’s a safe assumption that there will not be any more big reunion shows. But we have their incredibly rich body of work to appreciate — including their sometimes under-rated and semi-forgotten legacy of audio-only comedy.

Monty Python, 2014

SOURCES for Parts 1-4:

Monty Python’s Total Rubbish!: The Complete Collection (liner notes)

The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons — Graham Chapman, John Cleese, et al

Monty Python Speaks!: The Complete Oral History — David Morgan

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years and Diaries 1980-1988: Halfway to Hollywood — Michael Palin

Monty Python Live! — Eric Idle (Ed.)

Monty Python Encyclopedia — Robert Ross

And of course, good ol’ Wikipedia

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