(Pictured: John Cleese, Neil Innes, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle in a candid moment on the Holy Grail set.)
(This post is rebooted from some stuff I have rebooted before. If you don’t like that, get your own blog.)
Fifty years ago, on October 5, 1969, the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on the BBC. The show came ashore in the States sometime around 1975, and I became one of those Python nerds who can recite entire sketches from memory. Not only that, I was committed to spreading the Python gospel. I was the prime mover behind our high school literary magazine showing Python’s sketch film And Now for Something Completely Different as a fundraiser—which means I was also responsible for getting us into trouble, after a highly conservative family who had come to the movie expecting a film about an actual circus sic’ed the school board on us.
George Harrison is supposed to have said that the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 70s. I think he was onto something. Let’s see where extending the metaphor might take us as we look at the Python oeuvre, album by album.
—The story goes that Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970) was recorded in front of an audience of elderly people who had been recruited to watch a comedy show but were in no wise prepared for what they saw. It’s made up of sketches from the first 13 episodes of the series, aired in 1969 and 1970. If it were a Beatles album, it would be one of the early records, on which they showcased songs they’d learned in their scuffling early days.
—Another Monty Python Record (1971) features a scratched-up cover from a recording of Beethoven’s Second Symphony—which is how the clerk at the record store where I bought mine wrote up the invoice. Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972) was the first to contain sketches that never appeared on TV, and one that came from Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. These albums have a feel similar to Rubber Soul: the group is pushing their boundaries and refining their art.
—If George was right, The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973) is the group’s Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious than their earlier material. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle.
—And if Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is their Sgt. Pepper. It’s a complete comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made. (Hear it all here.)
—Monty Python Live at City Center (1976) was rushed out less than a month after the group’s April 1976 live shows in New York City. Some of the sketches were featured on the syndicated radio show The Kingbiscuit Flower Hour in May, and if you think I was listening (and rolling tape) that night, you’re right. The radio show featured a special introduction recorded by host Dave Herman and John Cleese. In their catalog, Live at City Center has been replaced by the 1974 UK-only Live at Drury Lane. There’s not really a Beatles analogue to this one, unless it’s the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl album, released in 1976.
—If the Holy Grail soundtrack was Sgt. Pepper, then the Life of Brian soundtrack (1979) was Let It Be—some nuggets of good stuff padded out to album length by any means necessary. Ditto the final album of new Python material, the soundtrack to The Meaning of Life, released in 1983.
(I don’t love Life of Brian the way other Python fans and movie critics do. It’s fine, but Holy Grail is better. And unlike Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life doesn’t hold up for repeated viewing.)
—Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album was released between the two film soundtracks, in 1980. It’s rather like the White Album—most tracks feature only one or two members. Two of the major sketches are rebooted from material going back to pre-Python days.
A half-century from their debut, Monty Python shares something else with the Beatles: remaining eternally ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. The best tribute to Python’s innovation is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: Beatlesque and Pythonesque. Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.