According to George Perry’s book “Life of Python” ( which is the source of all the behind the scenes material in this article unless otherwise noted ) the story went something like this. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” had been on the air for a season when the BBC asked the cast to if they wanted to record a comedy album based on their best sketches.
It should also be taken in account that in 1970 there was no such thing as the VCR, so the only way to relive the series was through audio recordings. It had only been a couple of years since “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released and everyone including the Python’s were still inspired by it. The Who would go on to record “Tommy”, Pink Floyd “Dark Side of The Moon” and other rock bands their own concept albums. The Pythons dreamed of doing the same for their first album with sound effects, music cues, and playing with the stereo effects itself. Monty Python was groundbreaking in television and wanted to also be groundbreaking with their comedy album.
But the Pythons soon soon realized that the BBC had other plans for the album. They were ushered into the BBC radio studio where their weekly comedy show “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again” was taped where they were expected to record the album in front of a live audience who would provide a laugh track. The audience was less than enthusiastic, the recording equipment was ancient and only recorded mono, there was no way to edit in the sound effects and music cues they wanted, and they were given only a day to record the album. The Pythons were disappointed but were determined to record the groundbreaking album they had wanted to in the first place. They signed a contract with Charisma Records for 7 albums including one “Best Of….” album. The Pythons would go on to release 12 albums, not counting the “Spamalot” soundtrack and “Eric Idle Sings Monty Python”.
The early to mid 70’s would be Monty Pythons most creative period, both as a team and as individuals. While writing and performing episodes of “…The Flying Circus” John Cleese and Graham Chapman were also writing and performing in a weekly live radio comedy show “I’m Sorry. I’ll Read That Again” as well as writing a few episodes of “Dr. In Charge”. The Pythons themselves took on other projects beyond their television series. They also wrote hour long episodes with new material that aired in Germany, at least one record album a year also with new material, two books with new material, television commercials and promotional films for the BBC which was all original Python material, and still had time for a stage tour. And in the midst of this they began writing a movie script that would eventually become “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, not to mention rewriting their television sketches for the movie “And Now For Something Completely Different”. The first album was funny only because sketches such as “The Dead Parrot” worked well in audio form and having only aired once on television were still fresh. But the album sounds rushed. Lines are flubbed or even forgotten.
The only original material on the album was Graham Chapman as the General testing out the stereo effects by marching from the left speaker to the right. But since the album was recorded in mono instead of being able to march from the left microphone to the right microphone Chapman simply marched away from the one mono microphone trying to simulate the effect that perhaps one of the speakers was not working. Otherwise material was performed as it had been on the television show with little or no attempt to link any of the sketches other than using live organ music by BBC musician Anthony Foster. There was even little enthusiasm in the album’s packaging. The front was Terry Gilliam artwork that was originally drawn to promote the television show. The BBC even managed to misspell Chapman’s first name as “Grahame”. The back of the album has a few paragraphs from Ian McNaughton about why the name Monty Python was chosen for the show and positive newspaper reviews of the series. The only attempt at any silliness is the one line disclaimer at the bottom of the album “Delicacies such as CRUNCHY FROG, COCKROACH CLUSTERS, ANTHRAX RIPPLES, and FROZEN ALBATROSS ON A STICK mentioned on this record are probably obtained from: MONTY PYTHON ENTERPRISES.
The first album for Charisma was very different. Now with full creative control over everything from the recording to the packaging design the Python’s were free to do the groundbreaking work they had intended to do. Terry Gilliam’s clever design for the album cover from a suggestion from Jones was to take an already existing album cover for a classical Beethoven record, crossed the words out with a crayon, and wrote in the title “Another Monty Python Album”. On the back cover the liner notes were also crossed out and what looks like a hastily typed set of liner notes on a strip of paper by Stanley Baldwin are pasted over it. Taking a closer look at the original Beethoven liner notes, about halfway through describing his symphony they change to describing him playing tennis, a hidden joke no doubt added in by the other Python members. While there is plenty of new material on the album*, the bulk of the record was sketches that had appeared on the television show that was carefully rewritten for the audio only version. The linking material was carefully re-arranged so that the entire content flowed together as it had on the television series. The record began with brand new material. An announcer apologizes and says that the record is not from Monty Python but is actually “Pleasures of the Dance: A Collection of Norwegian Carpenter Songs” and the Monty Python title appeared on the album cover due to a mistake at the printing plant. A second announcer apologizes for the apology and says that the album is in fact a Monty Python album. This is followed by a brief cut from “Pleasures of the Dance….” which is cut off by the second announcer who apologizes for the mistake. This is followed by something that was not included on the BBC album, the Python theme “Liberty Bell” going into a more familiar sketch “The Spanish Inquisition”.
Aside from adding new lines to the television skits the Pythons also played with the stereo to the point where voices jump from one speaker to another. While some times annoying other times the stereo is very effective, such as the weird noise the Spanish Inquisition makes when it rushes into the room from left to right. And you feel like you are right there in the room listening to the violent death of Mary Queen of Scotts. According to George Perry’s book Terry Jones took fascination in including other effects on the album. During a mock documentary on the Piranha Brothers some hoods enter the recording studio and warn the Pythons not to continue talking about them. After suggesting that accidents can happen there was ( what was then ) the familiar and annoying sound of a record needle being dragged across the grooves. This was followed by one of the hoods saying “Aww, sorry squire. I’ve scratched the record.” The record then skips and the hood repeats his line over and over again. After a few minutes the listener realizes that the record is skipping because clever Jones had recorded into the end groove and into the loop in the center of the record. This effect was short lived as automatic turntables, which became standard by the mid 70s, would lift the needle off the center groove after a couple of revolutions. Sadly this effect does not translate to the latest CD releases, and an entire generation of listeners who never heard a vinyl recording do not get the joke. Inside the original record album along with something called an “effects sheet” which was cut outs of various props there was a script that allows the listener to participate in a skit. Called “Be A Great Actor In Your Own Living Room” you are given a part in a play. This does not work so well as you play Montaque in “A Taste of Evil”, a character that is already dead when the play begins. An announcer apologizes and you do get to participate in another script for the play “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” reading your lines whenever a buzzer sounds so that you have a conversation with Carol Cleveland about a part of your body that was shot off during the war.
The third album, “Monty Python’s Previous Record” had a less ambitious Terry Gilliam cover, a cartoon arm wrapping around the record again and again chasing after a butterfly nearly completely obscuring the title. Most of the album is brand new material with material from their television programs rewritten. The Pythons had a better grasp of using stereo sound effects. Another Terry Jones audio joke happens during the “Travel Agency” sketch. As Smokestoomuch rambles on about past bad vacations he had been on Terry Jones begins to scream at the listener to take the needle off the record. Eventually a scratch noise is heard as Jones removes the needle for you. Once again the center grooves were recorded on only this time designed so that the automatic turntable would lift the needle off during the scratch noise. The following year’s album was “Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief”. The odd name to the album was to accommodate Terry Gilliam’s latest album cover design. Shaped like a gift box the center of the album cover was a cut out revealing a drawing of a tie and handkerchief. The joke was that you were buying the tie and handkerchief which came with a free album. Most of the material is brand new with only a few sketches from the television series. Terry Jones included his best audio joke yet. Two parallel groves were cut into side two. Each grove had a completely different recording which the listener was unaware of. On repeat playings the listener was surprised to find a completely different recording on the second side of the album. Sadly on later pressings this joke was omitted and a standard single grove with both the A and B recordings replaced the double groove.
Continuing to produce albums was going to be a problem. John Cleese had decided that the television show had run it’s course and left the series at the end of the third season. A fourth season consisting of only six episodes was made without him. While he had lost interest in Python continuing with the television series he was still keen on them expanding into movies and was willing to participate in writing the albums. But with the television show now at an end the Pythons had run out of televised sketches to pad the albums out with. And now that the series was no more the members started pursuing their own solo projects and were in no position to write albums with 100% new Python material. Charisma agreed to allow the next album to be a recording of a live concert. “Monty Python Live at Drury Lane” had less than two minutes of new material, and introduction by Eric Idle where he describes the celebrities who have shown up to watch the concert, and during the wrestling sketch Eric returns to talk about the history of the Drury Lane theater. Gilliam passed on creating an album cover and left the design to assistant Katy Hebbern who simply had a drawing of a stage with a television in a spot light showing the Gilliam Foot. It did not seem to bother Charisma that most of the jokes recorded at the concert were visual. Aside from the Wrestling sketch where Graham wrestles himself there was Gumby Flower Arranging, the Albatross sketch, the Secret Service sketch, and the Cocktail Bar sketch which were all visual. There were visual jokes in the other sketches as well leaving the listener confused as to what the audience was laughing at. Still the live album gave Charisma the opportunity to release sketches that up til that time were on the BBC album including The Lumberjack Song, Nudge Nudge and the Dead Parrot Sketch. The Pythons also revived favorite sketches from Cambridge Circus for the show such as Four Yorkshiremen, and invited Neil Innes to the show to sing the Idiot Song. This gave the recording material that had not appeared on any other album.
The Pythons were content with finishing out their contract with soundtrack albums to their movies. “The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail ( Executive Version )” was a return to the enthusiasm of their earlier albums. At first Terry Gilliam’s album cover does not seem that inspired. The name of the album appears in 3D block letters projecting from the background in front of a setting sun with his drawing of the Holy Grail from the movie poster floating by in the background. But turn to the back of the album and it looks convincingly like the front cover was shoddily wrapped around and scotch taped. The Pythons add jokes to the back cover including joke one line reviews, a joke track listing, and a warning that the record can only be played once. It begins with an announcement thanking the listener for buying the more expensive executive version of the record followed by what sounds like a radio program with live coverage of the the premiere. About half of the album is new sketches written just for the album all sticking to the premier coverage format. One of the more memorable sketches which is every bit as good as their classic television skits has an interview with a director who claims to have Marilyn Monroe in his new movie even though she is dead. This would be the last time the Pythons as a group wrote such high quality material for any of their albums.
Had “…Life of Brian” gone into production soon after “….Holy Grail” then it is possible that they Pythons would have produced another great comedy album. But after promoting Grail they decided to take a break from each other. After writing the script for “….Life of Brian” there was a problem getting EMI to agree to finance a Biblical comedy. Inevitably the movie would be financed by ex-Beatle George Harrison who formed a production company Handmade Films just because he wanted to see the Python film completed. Handmade Films would go on to become a legitimate production company producing many British movies. The problem with the delay in the making of “….Life of Brian” was that Monty Python now owed records to two labels, contracts they had intended to complete with the soundtrack album for Brian. Both record labels were not enjoying the delay. The second label was Arista who Python had made a deal with just prior to the release of “Matching Tie & Handkerchief” for five albums which would have been the same five owed to Charisma. For legal reasons Arista was not permitted to manufacture and distribute the Python’s first three albums in North America. They also passed on “Live at Drury Lane” wanting the agreed upon studio album rather than a live show. By the time Arista changed their minds on releasing a live album the distribution rights to Drury Lane had been sold to a different company. To appease Arista the Pythons agreed to record “Monty Python Live at City Center” which was a stop on their North American tour. The cover art by Terry Gilliam is a rushed pen and ink picture of a creature who is a Gumby with only the head and feet yelling out the name of the album. The back has text by the Pythons but it is a reprint of “Monty Python’s American Diary” written for Esquire magazine a year earlier. The recording for the album is the concert only with no new material. In a way it is superior to the Drury Lane recording. The Python’s stage show had expanded with more sketches allowing Arista to include only the sketches with little or no visual jokes.
Charisma also needed to be appeased. The original plan was to release the best of album last. But with the break and a new movie with soundtrack not to be produced until 1978 the Pythons appeased Charisma by releasing “Monty Python’s Instant Record Collection”. The Pythons wrote no new material for the album but included a sketch that had been written for but not included on an earlier album. While the Pythons showed no interest in recording new material for the album they would release it in Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece of an album cover that was specially designed to fold open into a cube that would look like pile of records each with goofy names. Gilliam had the idea since “Matching Tie and Handkerchief” when he had wanted that record to fold out into a box with a real tie and handkerchief. As fun as the idea of an instant pile of records was the album covers kept breaking open during the shipping process and many were damaged and had to be sent back. Charisma discontinued releasing the album in it’s fold out cover and on further released only use a standard record jacket.
When EMI refused to finance “….Life of Brian” production was set back another year meaning neither Charisma nor Arista would be getting their final contracted record until 1979. When Brian was picked up for production by Handmade Films a distribution deal was struck with Warner Brothers which included the film’s soundtrack. Charisma was still owed an album and now demanded that the group return to the studio and record it. The Pythons now owed albums to two record labels and no longer had any television sketch material to draw from. Eric Idle and Graham Chapman were given the Warner Brothers soundtrack album in behalf of the group. “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” had a no frills cover. Just one of the movie posters and publicity stills for the sleeve’s artwork with not additional jokes from any of the Pythons. Most of the album is audio from the movie with very brief voice overs from Chapman and Idle. The most creative moment is the first few seconds of the album which opens with highland bagpipers playing Hava Nagila. Chapman plays a dim announcer hired to narrate the album with Idle acting as the album’s producer. Chapman’s character only talks whenever the movie soundtrack plays a visual scene describing what is going on, such as Brian being chased by the Romans. Each time he has some sort of trouble reading the script and Idle chimes in to help him. At the same time all of the Pythons recorded “The Monty Python Contractual Obligation Album” for Charisma and Arista. The album cover has the appearance of a blank inner sleeve of an album with a few joke tracks listed. The album itself was pretty much any material any of the Python members felt like contributing. Idle seems to have contributed the most which were mostly songs including “I Like Chinese”, “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio”, and one song that would go on to be a Python classic “Sit On My Face”. Since they had used every possible non visual skit from the Flying Circus television show on the previous albums the Pythons began contributing skits from other shows they worked on. Cleese contributed the brilliant “String” and “Bookshop” from “At Last the 1948 Show” while Eric Idle contributed a skit where he is a rock and roll news reporter from “Rutland Weekend Television”. Here he mentions the name of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket as one of the joke names. Years later a real band would use the name crediting it to something they heard on the Monty Python album. The only real skit written for the album was called “Bells” where a cathedral comes to life and attacks a couple who luckily are armed with their own missile. The rest sounds like it was made up in the studio just to pad out the album. Jones sings “I Like Traffic Lights” over and over again for about two minutes.
“……Contractual Obligation Album” was the last true Python album. Once again the group separated to pursue solo projects. Arista could not release “…..Instant Record Collection” as other companies owned the rights to cuts from “Another Monty Python Album”, “Monty Python’s Previous Album” and “Live at Drury Lane”. Instead Arista waited for “…Contractual Obligation Album” to be released and used cuts from that and “….Live at City Center” to produce “Monty Python Instant Record Collection, Vol II” which has overlapping material from the first volume along with cuts from “……Contractual Obligation Album” The Pythons reunited to film the concert “…..Live at the Hollywood Bowl” and then set to work on the script for what would be their last movie “….The Meaning of Life”. According to the Pythons in their autobiography it took so long for the group to agree on a script that they made no plans for any further Monty Python movies. It did have a soundtrack album, but by this time Python as a group were no longer interested in making groundbreaking comedy albums. This was why so little Python input went into “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. The Original Soundtrack Album” on RCA Records. Gilliam was no longer interested in designing the album covers so the job was left to James Campus who used one of the promotional posters for the movie. On the front is a Python written joke that is also repeated on the soundtrack “THE ONLY SOUNDTRACK ALBUM TO BE INTRODUCED BY LIVE FISH ( Apart from some copies of ‘Shane’ )” The back of the album has an essay of the group which was probably written by someone working for the record label. The only bit of material that seems to have been written by a Python is a short list of “Other Great Philosophy L.P’s” The record itself is mostly the soundtrack with some voice over jokes written and performed by Michael Palin with the exception of a brief introduction to side two by Terry Gilliam. Five years later Charisma’s parent company Virgin Records released a double album called “Monty Python: The Final Ripoff Album” this time with cuts from all the Charisma owned albums. Although promising previously unreleased material the only new thing on the album was a short voice over by Palin not used in the Holy Grail soundtrack. The cover art was by Les Edwards and the text and jokes written inside the album were once again most likely written by a record company employee. It would not be the final rip-off. A year later “Monty Python Sings” was released which had the previously unreleased track “Oliver Cromwell” along with songs from “….Life of Brian” and “…..Meaning of Life”. Virgin Records now owned all but the Arista City Center concert an the first album released on BBC records. The only contribution by the Pythons was Eric Idle overseeing the sound remixing and song selection. In the mid 90’s Virgin released all the albums they owned in a single box set “Monty Python Instant CD Collection”
*On examination at least one sketch on “Another Monty Python Album” was not that original. The sound effects of someone getting up, freshening up in the bathroom, and walking down the stairs seems to have been a parody of a Mr. Rogers album called “A Place Of My Own” that came out earlier the same year. The Mr. Rogers album has identical sound effects of a man getting up, brushing his teeth in the bathroom, and walking down a staircase.