New York, May 2, 1976. It is the final evening of Monty Python’s sold-out run at the New York City Center. It's been a strange few weeks for the British comedy troupe. Harry Nilsson and George Harrison have turned up on stage dressed as Canadian Mounties to sing in the chorus line of the Lumberjack Song. Paul Simon, Keith Moon, Leonard Bernstein and Julie Andrews have been spotted in the audience. As the show begins the Pythons can’t hear themselves speak, amidst the screaming fans. Seconds later, as the sketches begin, all is hushed, as the audience silently mouth the lines in unison. “You have to understand this is a pop concert,” a stagehand will tell John Cleese later. “They’ve come here for the experience of being with you. They’re not going to laugh because they know the stuff better than you do.”
After the show the Pythons are driven through crowds of screaming fans back to the hotel. Once there, a decision is made. They’re being treated like pop stars, they should behave like pop stars. They decide to wreck Michael Palin’s hotel room.
“We pushed the bed across the room and started taking the pictures down,” remembers Python’s “glamour stooge” Carol Cleveland. “What shall we do next, push the TV out the window? Oh dear, we thought, that’s going a bit far isn’t it. That was Monty Python’s brief attempt at being pop stars. We rearranged the furniture.”
According to TV history, Monty Python’s shifting of the ’70s cultural decor began on BBC 2 at 10.10pm on the evening of October 6, 1969 with the transmission of the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
If it had been left solely in the hands of the BBC then that’s exactly where it might have stayed: marginal, late-night, British, overlooked. However, in the space of six years this resolutely English troupe of comedians somehow wheedled their way into the stoner-conciousness of ’70s America, becoming stars of FM rock radio, an integral cultural reference point in the rock’n’roll circles of George Harrison, The Who and Led Zeppelin, thanks in part to the now overlooked role played by the long-playing Monty Python LP. This parallel tale of Monty Python’s recording career began, somewhat inauspiciously, in April of 1970, at the BBC’s Paris Theatre, in Lower Regent Street.
The six Pythons – Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, and Terry Gilliam, along with glamorous TV assistant and “seventh Python”, Carol Cleveland – had been tasked with re-performing first series highlights in front of a comatose audience of bused-in ordinaries eerily at odds with the unique humour on show.
“We wanted everything to be distinctive and never boring.”
Over the previous nine months this group of five Oxbridge graduates and one Minnesota-born son of a travelling salesman (Gilliam) had set about transforming the form and function of TV comedy. Although clearly influenced by the ’50s radio comedy of the Goons, Python applied the same self-referential surrealism to the then more “realistic” form of television, resulting in a fragmented, often stream-of-consciousness visual comedy, twisted lampoons of such po-faced British institutions as hospital, army, church and state, interspersed by Terry Gilliam's plump Hieronymous-Bosch-meets-Tex-Avery stop-frame animations. The BBC album was a step back.
“We wanted everything to be distinctive and never boring,” explains Michael Palin. “[But] the first two ancillary things that came up were both very conventional. The And Now For Something Completely Different film financed by Playboy executive Victor Lownes, was just Python’s top sketches re-filmed for America cinemas. Then there was our first album, a very pedestrian, BBC affair. Both were great warnings to us that this was not fun if someone else was telling us what to do.”
“Python was still looked upon suspiciously by the BBC,” remembers Terry Jones. “We felt on-the-line with everything we did, so Mike and I supervised the first proper album. Those Goon Show records really influenced us. There’s one, the Bluebottle Blues 78 where Bluebottle say “Exits through little hole in middle of record”, and then you hear him do exactly that. We wanted to play around with the form like that.”
For this second, more adventurous album the Monty Python team moved as far away from the staid BBC world as possible, booking themselves into the distinctly rock’n’roll Marquee Studios (at the back of The Marquee Club) in the summer of 1971.
“Python was adopted by the pop world very early on,” explains Palin. “George Harrison sent a congratulatory telegram to the BBC after the first show. We never received it because [the BBC] probably threw it away. Paul McCartney would stop recording sessions for Python, and we ended up on the Charisma label which was home to Genesis. That perhaps explains our initial mistake with the choice of studio.”
“The guy in the control room must have been stoned,” holds album producer Terry Jones. “He made no notes about which take was which. We had to re-listen to every bloody thing again – 24 hours of recordings...” Finally, an album was salvaged.
After first informing listeners that they had mistakenly purchased “Pleasures of The Dance, a collection of Norweigan carpenters’ songs” – Another Monty Python Record presented expertly re-recorded versions of such TV classics as the Spanish Inquisition the Spam sketch and The Piranha Brothers but, more importantly, ushered in a rich new audio world of locked grooves, twisted radio parodies and sound quizzes (“What Famous Person Is This Getting Up In The Morning?”) that totally undercut the normal record listening experience.
“That’s exactly what we were trying to do,” agrees Palin. “One of my favourite things on that record was The Death Of Mary Queen Of Scots. It only worked on record.”
Coming out on Charisma in October of 1971, (packaged in a sleeve for Beethoven’s Symphony No 2, title and artwork scored through and replaced with the words “Another Monty Python Record”) alongside two of the label’s big-hitters – Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts And Genesis’ Nursery Cryme – Python’s second outing accrued a measure of art-rock cool, reached Number 26 in the charts and soon sat happily in the bedroom collections of all discerning greatcoat-wearing heavies who fancied something else to get stoned to after they’d worn out their copy of Atom Heart Mother. However, AMPA had been a nightmare production. It had to get easier.
Salvation came, somewhat ironically, along the road from the Marquee Club at Redbus Studios on Soho’s Wardour Street.
“I was recording some voiceovers,” remembers Michael Palin, “opposite that famous shop with the very large Durex sign. Buy your condoms in there without embarrassment! Anyway, this engineer, Andre Jacquemin worked very fast, he was very easy-going and good at his job. I liked him very much. We got to the point where there was a problem with doing another Python record, and I invited him down to meet us.”
“I was 17, 18 doing radio commercials. I’d never heard of or seen an episode of Monty Python,” remembers Jacquemin. “I had no idea who these people were. It was only when I saw John [Cleese] that the penny dropped. I thought, Shit, I’m in trouble here. I think it was then they came up with the idea of a three-sided album.”
“The idea was originally to have one side with five different starts,” explains Terry Jones. “There was a 78 from the 1930s, a betting game. It sounds like the same commentary but there are five different grooves where five different horses win.”
Plans for the record began at Radio Luxembourg’s London studios in October of 1972.
“We settled on a four-sided record,” explains Jacquemin, “One side with three separate grooves, each beginning with the same announcement: 'And now a massage from the Swedish Prime Minister.’ We had about eight attempts but the grooves would all run into each other. We decided to give it a rest. But that’s why you hear that ‘massage’ announcement three times on the album.”
With its special composed sketches that delighted in both use of sound and lack of images (The 1972 Eclipse Of The Sun, Alistair Cooke Being Attacked By A Duck) Monty Python's Previous Record saw the team pushing the sonic boundaries further than their fellow prog labelmates. In a fittingly Pythonesque manner the team’s next album, entitled Matching Tie And Handkerchief, would be recorded in a garden shed.
“Andre wanted to start his own studio business,” explains Palin, “so he’d started very small in a shed in a garden in Finchley where his mother and father lived. We used to go there and walk through the house out to the back garden where he had the little set up and every half hour or so Mrs Jacquemin would appear with these fantastic cakes and we all had to stop and go out and eat these cakes. It wasn’t hard labour but it was a start. From that moment on we decided Andre was best, and he should be working for Python rather than working for commercials.”
“I got more involved on Matching Tie And Handkerchief,” explains Terry Gilliam. “Terry J had had a go, Mike had a go, and now it was my turn. Plus, I think I was the only one short enough to get into Andre’s shed.”
Matching Tie… also saw the arrival into the Python fold of former Bonzo Dog Band frontman and old alumnus from pre-Python ’60s kids TV, Neil Innes.
“They’d written some songs,” remembers Innes. “Michael had written something about agrarian reform in the middle ages. Then John Cleese said, ‘What sort of music would go with that!?’ I said, ‘Reggae?’” The resultant track, Background To History – a seminar on the medieval open-field farming system delivered as a reggae skank, glam-rock chant and Hey Jude singalong joined such abstract highlights as Grandstand parody, Novel Writing Live From Wessex (“A very good crowd has turned out to watch local boy Thomas Hardy write his new novel, Return Of The Native”) and Bruces’ Philosophers Song ("Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable / Heidegger Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table") to make the now three-sided Matching Tie And Handkerchief the peak of Python’s sonic exploration. The twin grooves on side two were finally cut by legendary record cutter George 'Porky' Peckham. “Ten goes that took,” he told Q Magazine in 1989. “A right bugger of a red-eye job.”
“We didn’t tell anyone about the three-sided record,” says Gilliam. “The idea was they’d play it, want to replay a track for a friend and... it wouldn’t be there. The danger of chaos!”
“Terry also had the idea of a one-inch spring that would be released when you took the record out,” laughs Jacquemin, “bursting your cover so you could never get the record back in.”
The release of Matching Tie… coincided with Monty Python’s first real foray into the rock’n’roll world – a 30-show UK tour, followed by a June tour of Canada where Python had begun airing in September 1970. “By the time we toured we actually were a rock’n’roll band,” Eric Idle told Bob McCabe in 2003. “Up one side of England while Bowie was coming down the other. When we got to [Canada] there was this huge cheer, hundreds of fans. We all looked behind because we thought a rock’n’roll group was coming in.”
"With the three-sided record the idea was they'd want to replay a track and.. it wouldn't be there!"
Palin: “That Python tour of Canada was when we met Nancy Lewis, who worked incredibly hard for us in America.”
“I’d worked as a publicist for The Who,” explains Lewis, “and I’d just started working with Neil Bogart for Buddah Records’ PR department. Tony Stratton Smith, came to see us about launching Genesis in the States. He had a box of Charisma albums and, at the bottom, two Python albums. Tony’s saying, ‘Please! They’re unknown here!’ But Neil, who didn’t get it at all, said, ‘If they make you laugh I’ll put the records out’. A lovely gesture.”
Lewis was charged with the job of introducing Python to the most powerful group of early ’70s US taste-makers, FM radio DJs. It was boom time for FM radio in the US, with listeners moving away from the top 40 AM format and losing themselves in the more expansive, album-based FM world.
“I had one copy of And Now For Something Completely Different that I sent round radio stations,” remembers Lewis. “The DJs really started to get into them. They had people writing to their local PBS TV station [the US’s non-profit TV service] and demand Python on the air.”
Lewis flew up to meet the troupe on tour in Canada.
“The first thing they said was, ‘We appreciate all the work you’ve done but we’re never going to work together again.’ Nice introduction. I’ll slash my wrists right now.”
Three TV series in, the team had had enough of each other. John Cleese was refusing to eat or travel with the others. Graham Chapman was drinking heavily.
“In Toronto they didn’t serve alcohol on Sundays unless it was with food,” remembers Lewis. “Graham’s hotel room would be wall-to-wall plates of wilting green salads, the minimum order with a drink. I was saying, 'Come on, you’ve got America to crack.’”
Palin: “She persuaded us to go on to the West Coast to do the Tonight Show...”
“Elton John was doing Python lines on stage... Zeppelin were talking about Python to everyone they met.”
“Oh dear,” murmurs Jones, “it still hurts to admit I was involved in this. Johnny Carson was on holiday so a comedian called Joey Bishop was sitting in for him. He introduced us with, ‘These guys from England, they’re supposed to be funny...’”
Palin: “An audience of 45 million and we went into this sketch about people having their cat put down... to silence.”
Lewis: “It was dreadful. They walked off convinced they were never going to work in America again.”
Palin: “That’s why it was the albums that broke America. That FM stoner crowd was quite important. US television was very commercial and safe but with a lot of rock DJs Python was exactly the sort of stuff they were looking for. People like Dave Herman on WNEW in New York would play Python clips and have us on their show and ask us about the rock world. I remember telling him that the greatest living rock musician was Duane Eddy. He looked at me like I’d spat on his mother’s grave.”
Python was launched in the US in September 1974, on KERA, a PBS television station in Dallas, Texas. It beat the station’s highest ratings ever by 400 per cent. Word of mouth spread quickly. By October, fifteen PBS stations were carrying the series.
Palin: “Once Python had taken off on PBS we were fêted. Clive Davis held a launch party for Matching Tie And Handkerchief in Sardi's in New York, playing the novel-writing sketch to a bemused crowd of New York socialites. A great moment.”
Nancy Lewis: “When people heard it was coming on TV it was something they knew from FM radio. The timing was brilliant. People over here like Elton John and Led Zeppelin who were behind the show. Elton John was doing Python lines on stage! Zeppelin were talking about Python to everyone they met.”
The rock'n'roll connection carried over into the comedy team's next project, Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
“That had a lot to do with of the tax business in Britain in the ’70s,” explains Terry Gilliam. “When we announced that we were making Monty Python And The Holy Grail tax was 90 pence in the pound. A lot of rock stars tried to unload their tax problem on us.”
“Grail had no money,” remembers Neil Innes, who was asked to help out on the music. “The whole thing cost £175,000. Tim Rice had a bit, Zeppelin… Pink Floyd had £10,000 of it, and it did them jolly well.”
Palin: “We hoped the bands would turn up at the investors’ screenings but the only two who did were Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. They came to premieres of Holy Grail in London and New York. Did we meet them? No. We just stood shyly in the corner of the room.”
The March ’75 release of Holy Grail in the US – conveniently coinciding with the PBS transmission of the second series of Flying Circus and the Stateside release of Matching Tie… – ferried the Pythons into a world of American fame and ’70s rock superstardom.
In the six months between the release of the film and The Album of The Soundtrack Of The Trailer Of The Film Of Monty Python And The Holy Grail the Pythons travelled across America, visiting FM and PBS stations who’d lent their support, hanging with rock celebs and somehow finding time to successfully take ABC TV to court for transmitting a compilation of three episodes of Python’s fourth series with some 22 minutes of unauthorised cuts for “offensive” material.
The Pythons stayed on in New York City for a month following the court case, performing at Manhattan’s City Center, to a rabid New York crowd and the cream of ’70s celebrity. George Harrison proposed a “Harrison-Python roadshow with,” remembers Palin, “us swinging out over the audience on wires, etc. [All the same] very flattering to hear one of your four great heroes of the ’60s say he’d like to meet for a glass of beer and tell you how much he loves you.”
“Eric became very thick with Paul Simon and Mick Jagger,” remembers Terry Gilliam, “hanging round with every rock’n’roll star you could find... Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson were drinking buddies of Graham. We were much loved by the rock’n’roll crowd but John always hated it. I remember him raving about Marc Bolan. He just couldn’t understand it! How could this guy be so successful?”
"George Harrison thought the spirit of The Beatles had been passed on to Monty Python."
Also keen to meet the Pythons were Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, fledgling members of new TV comedy show, Saturday Night Live, set up by a young Canadian producer and Monty Python enthusiast Lorne Michaels. The show, aired on NBC on October 11, 1975, was a looser, stoner-rock’n’roll version of Python, seemingly born in those late-night Lynyrd Skynyrd/Parrot Sketch segues on ’70s FM radio. When Eric Idle was invited to be the guest host of SNL on October 2, 1976 the team wanted to know all about the Pythons’ writing methods.
“[SNL]’s idea of writing a script was to pull all-nighters,” says Nancy Lewis, “They’d say to Eric, Wow, you must have been out of your brains when you wrote this! 'Erm, no. We started our writing meetings at nine in the morning, go for lunch, come back, end at six. It’s very disciplined.’”
From then on, it becomes a different story. Having altered the landscape of American comedy, The Pythons spent three years working on their next movie, The Life Of Brian, financially assisted by Keith Moon before his death on September 7, 1978, financed to the sum of £4m by George Harrison after. Harrison, along with SNL’s Lorne Michaels also involved himself in a finely-crafted Beatles parody by Eric Idle and Neil Innes entitled All You Need Is Cash.
“It wouldn’t have happened without George Harrison,” says Neil Innes. “He helped The Rutles, he paid for Life Of Brian, because he wanted to see them. He was a fan. He once said that the Beatles, the Pythons, and the Rutles should all get together for one big concert. He thought the spirit of the Beatles had been passed on to Python.”
There was however, one slight return to that rock’n’roll world. In September 1980, with the success de scandale of Life Of Brian and the release of the Pythons’ final album for Charisma, The Contractual Obligation Album, George Harrison’s business manager Denis O’Brien booked the troupe in for three nights at The Hollywood Bowl.
“We were like rock stars,” says Terry Gilliam. “If the audience weren’t on their feet cheering, we wouldn’t go on! But ultimately you walk away [from that] because it’s not Python.”
“There was a party afterwards at Steve Martin’s house,” remembers Carol Cleveland, “Everything was white, very little furniture, like a museum. Hugh Hefner was there, Lauren Hutton... Michael Palin was sitting at the edge of Steve Martin’s pool when this young lovely came up in front of him and, of course, her bikini top had fallen off. Michael just looked embarrassed.”
“I’ve always liked Steve Martin’s company,” says Palin, casting his mind back, “but LA was very oppressive in its lust for, and celebration of, success. Python was always saying, Let’s see the way the world really is. Just celebrating power and success? There’s no laughs in that really.”
In 1998, nine years after Graham Chapman’s death from cancer in 1989, when the idea of a Las Vegas 30th Anniversary stage show was mooted, just as Eric Idle began handling the business side of it, Michael Palin backed out.
“I knew what would happen,” Palin says today. “We’d just be patted on the back and given hollow promises. I worried about a Python stage revival without Graham. What more could we add by just doing another stage tour?”
Stymied on the Vegas stage show, and subsequent talks about a Holy Grail sequel, Idle absented himself from Python’s 30th Anniversary celebration on the BBC. He next appeared as the man behind the West End and Broadway success that is “Monty Python’s Spamalot”.
“When Spamalot was first mooted we had to make a decision,” says Palin. “Were we happy to let other people do our material? Spamalot is not Monty Python, it’s Eric Idle basing something on Monty Python. And I’m very pleased because it’s doing very well and it’s taken the steam out of the ‘Let’s do a stageshow reunion’ bandwagon. But, in the end, Python isn’t a rock band playing greatest hits. It’s a group of writers and performers who do good, complex interesting and original stuff, one of whom is dead.”
However, Palin Gilliam and Jones, for three, have not completely ruled out one final Python album.
“I’d be interested,” says Palin. “You exaggerate the ease of getting everyone into a studio but I’d quite like that. If Python have differences it tends to be about lifestyle, money or whatever. But the fact is, we all still make each other laugh.”
With special thanks to Nancy Lewis (now Nancy Jones).
For more information on Monty Python's 2014 one-off live show, head here.
A version of this feature was published in the October 2006 edition of MOJO.
PHOTO: Getty Images