Monday, November 15, 2004

Spam, John Denver, and a Lust for Glory

Last week's post about Cheech and Chong got me thinking: They may have had some hit singles, albums, and in the 80s, movies, but the kings of comedy in the 1970s were five Brits and an American expatriate from Minneapolis, Monty Python. The Pythons debuted on BBC-TV in 1969 but didn't come ashore in the States until about 1973, when Monty Python's Flying Circus began airing on PBS. The show aired on only a few PBS affiliates at first, not reaching my local affiliate until 1975 or so, about the time Monty Python and the Holy Grail had a brief theatrical run. Not everybody in my circle at the time got the Pythons, but those of us who did became part of a cult that's still intact today.

Python released several comedy albums during their heyday. The albums were unusual in that they were not simply recycled TV sketches. The British members of Python all had experience on the radio side of the BBC, so their early albums were designed to work without pictures. The albums contained significant amounts of brand-new material, some of which was never performed on TV at all, in addition to recycled TV sketches.

The greatest Python album is probably Another Monty Python Record, released in the United States while Python aired on only a few PBS stations. While most of the album was made up of TV sketches such as "Spam," "Penguin on the TV," and "The Piranha Brothers," they were modified so that listeners who knew nothing of the TV show could still appreciate the comedy. Most of the bits linking sketches together were done especially for the album, and one sketch, "Royal Festival Hall Concert," is classic theater-of-the-mind that wouldn't have been nearly as funny with pictures. The album cover purports to be for a recording of Beethoven's Second Symphony, but the titles and artwork are scratched out with black crayon and the words "Another Monty Python Record" are scrawled across it. (When I bought my copy, the clerk in the record store filled out the sales receipt as if the album really was Beethoven's Second.)

Another famous Python album is Matching Tie and Handkerchief. This is the one with three sides--one side had a set of concentric grooves, which meant that which program you heard depended on how you dropped the needle. (Alas, there's no way to duplicate the effect on CD.) This is the oddest of the Python albums, about 50-50 TV sketches and album-only material, some of it deeply, almost disturbingly surreal--"First World War Noises" especially.

Even the Holy Grail soundtrack contains brand-new material not in the film, but it marks the high point of Python's recorded career. They would do only one other album that wasn't either a concert recording or a film soundtrack--about which more below.

By the time the TV series and Holy Grail became cult favorites in the States, the Pythons had already become like the Rolling Stones--convening occasionally to work on projects, but not working together regularly. (John Cleese had wanted to quit the group in 1970 after the first dozen TV shows, but was persuaded to stay.) On a couple of American concert tours, they professed to be surprised that people recited the lines of the sketches, like they were singing along with rock stars, and sometimes didn't laugh at all the jokes. The group reached its creative and cultural peak with the controversial 1979 movie Life of Brian (original title: Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory).

Python's last non-soundtrack, non-live album was 1980's Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album which is just what its title indicates. Although it contains no TV sketches at all, some of the bits, such as "Bookshop," were written long before the TV series began. The album was pretty funny in spots, especially the lone single, "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio." One sketch, "Farewell to John Denver," which featured the sound of the singer being strangled, had to be removed from later editions of the album because the Pythons didn't get permission to use the excerpt from Denver's "Annie's Song" that led to his strangulation.

After the 1982 film The Meaning of Life, Python's work was anthologized and re-anthologized (one set is called The Final Rip Off) before the original albums were collected in The Monty Python Instant CD Collection. The entire TV series and all the movies are available on DVD. George Harrison, who produced and appeared in Life of Brian, is said to have remarked that the Pythons kept the spirit of the Beatles alive in the 1970s. They certainly were a major part of the spirit of my 1970s, and I can still recite far too many sketches from memory.


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