Comedy songs can date quickly, but the music of Monty Python remains part of popular culture half a century after Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on the BBC in 1969. Eric Idle, one of the original founders of the comedy troupe that included Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman, even performed a live version of his mordant classic ‘Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life’ at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
Comedy songs are a tricky thing: perhaps funny at first, the jokes can quickly outstay their welcome while the melodies get stuck in your head – not in a good way, but in that way that makes you want to rip your ears off. Worst of all, they’re often sung by people so pleased with their own wit, they fail to realise that what they’re actually saying isn’t… well, isn’t funny at all.
Another problem about comedy is that it dates – quickly. Ukulele-brandishing George Formby, who was a massive star in the 30s, and The Goons, the madcap 50s set who featured Spike Milligan, undoubtedly managed a few evergreens between them but, be honest, when was the last time you listened to ‘Eeh! Ah! Oh! Ooh!’?
Something few comedy songs have
But Monty Python changed all that – with no small thanks to ‘The Lumberjack Song’, which first appeared on 14 December 1969, during the ninth episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sure, it has its fair share of silliness (“I cut down trees, I wear high heels/Suspenders and a bra/I wish I’d been a girlie/Just like my dear papa” proves too much even for the Mountie chorus), but it also has something that few comedy songs before it did: pathos.
Take another look at the lyrics and you’ll see: they give voice to those souls trapped doing things – perhaps even being things – they never wanted to do or be. ‘The Lumberjack Song’ stands the test of time not only because it features a chorus of Mounties to ensure that the melody gets really stuck in there, but also because it displays an understanding of human nature new to comedy at the time, tapping into our anxieties over thwarted ambitions and the lives not lived.
Raising the comedy song to an art form
It’s no surprise that Monty Python emerged at the end of 1969. During the decade they were about to leave behind, the pop song had been raised to an art form, so why not the comedy song, too? Across four seasons of the Flying Circus, Monty Python perfected their craft – not only on telly, but on record as well, with a string of intricately thought-out albums that were no lesser artistic statements than the concept albums their rock contemporaries were recording.
A decade after their launch, Python hit their musical peak. Closing out the seminal movie The Life Of Brian, ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ combined everything they had learned in ten years’ worth of groundbreaking comedy. Sending up the Brits’ dogged persistence in the face of adversity – even while imploring everyone to keep on keeping on; laughing in the face of danger, even as the odds are stacked against you – the song carried no less a life message than any of the sermons Monty Python had targeted throughout the film. Full of wit and understanding of the human condition, it was perhaps no accident that ‘Bright Side’ was paired with ‘The Lumberjack Song’ for a promotional 7” issued in advance of the 1989 compilation Monty Python Sings.
Python’s influence on comedy is undeniable and well documented – modern-day sketch shows, satirical movies and anarchic comedians all owe a debt to Python’s startlingly modern output. But it’s also worth remembering their contribution to music, too: Python laid the blueprint for sophisticated comedy songwriting that comedians such as Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey revel in today; that The Simpsons made their own in the 90s; and which South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought to the stage in 2011 with the bitingly funny musical The Book Of Mormon.
Monty Python were right: life is quite absurd and death is the final word, but Python’s direct address to the human condition is what’s kept everyone laughing as they bumble along – and which has ensured that their songs have survived the decades.
5 Hilarious Monty Python Albums You Need To Hear
Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972)
After a compilation record of comedy sketches in 1970 simply titled Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Python gang followed it up a year later with Another Monty Python Record, which included a brief one-minute ‘Spam Song’ skit, in which they all sang chorus-style about the delights of the canned pork. Their third album was 1972’s Monty Python’s Previous Record, which contained ‘Money Song’. This ersatz celebration of greed (“It’s accountancy that makes the world go round”) was a theme Python often mined. There were also four short versions of ‘The Dennis Moore’ song, all brief ditties to cowboy film star Moore, sung to the theme of the Robin Hood song. The lyrics to the ‘Yangtse Song’ were included on the inner sleeve of an album whose cover was designed by Terry Gilliam and which featured an elongated arm wrapped around both sides of the sleeve.
Must hear: ‘Money Song’
Live At Drury Lane (1974)
After 1973’s The Monty Python Matching Tie And Handkerchief sketch album – which included Eric Idle’s Australia spoof song ‘Bruces’ Philosophers Song (Bruces’ Song)’ – Python released their first concert album, Live At Drury Lane, in 1974. As well as their famous ‘Parrot Sketch’, the album also included Neil Innes, formerly of The Bonzo Dog Band, singing his composition ‘How Sweet to Be An Idiot’. The famous ‘Liberty Bell’ Python theme tune was also on the album. The best known song on Live At Drury Lane was a spirited version of ‘The Lumberjack Song’, introduced by Michael Palin with the words “I never wanted to do this for a living… I always wanted to be… a lumberjack.”
Must hear: ‘Idiot Song’
The Album Of The Soundtrack Of The Trailer Of The Film Of Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)
The Album Of the Soundtrack Of The Trailer Of The Film of Monty Python And The Holy Grail is the first soundtrack album by Monty Python, with some additional material from television sketches. The album contained the songs ‘Camelot Song’, ‘Arthur’s Song’ and ‘Run Away Song’, and it reached No.45 in the UK album charts. Neil Innes, who had worked with Idle since their involvement in creating the television comedy series Rutland Weekend Television in 1970, was again a key player in the Python music for the album. Innes said he loved working with the Python gang and said their strength was that “Monty Python always assumes you are intelligent – and silly!”
In 2006, the album and film spawned the musical theatre spin-off Spamalot.
Must hear: ‘Camelot song’
The Meaning Of Life (1983)
After a couple of compilation albums and the soundtrack to Life Of Brian – with the first airing of ‘Bright Side’ – Python issued Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life in 1983, following the success of the Terry Jones movie of the same name. The sardonic title song, sung by Idle in a fake French accent, was followed by ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’, a satire about Catholic teachings on reproduction. The song was nominated for a BAFTA Music Award for Best Original Song In A Film in 1983. The lyrics were by Palin and Jones and the music by André Jacquemin and David Howman. “‘Every Sperm is Sacred’ is a musical song, it’s a hymn, it’s a Lionel Bart-style musical, but it’s not making fun of a Lionel Bart-style musical,” said Jones.
Money advisors were the target of ‘Accountancy Shanty’, while ‘Galaxy Song’ was written by Idle and John Du Prez, a member of pop band Modern Romance. ‘Penis Song (The Not Noël Coward Song)’ came with a warning about “explicit lyrics”. The bonus songs on a 2006 reissue included ‘Fat Song (Deleted Intro To Mr Creosote Sketch)’.
Must hear: ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’
Monty Python Sings (Again) (2014)
One of the best of the Python compilation albums released in the past three decades was 2014’s Monty Python Sings (Again), which was produced by Idle and Jacquemin. Some of the previous Python favourites were remastered and re-sequenced, and there were six previously-unreleased songs, including ‘The Silly Walk Song’, which was written for the reunion show at London’s O2 that year. “Work all day, earn your bread, till you finally drop down dead,” sing the gang.
A standout archive track on the album is ‘Lousy Song’, which was originally recorded during sessions for Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album in 1980. The song was conceived and performed by Idle and the late Graham Chapman. “It is the only totally improvised sketch I can remember Python doing,” said Idle. Graham enters the recording studio while Idle is playing the song and begins to denigrate it. “Absolutely terrible… it’s bloody awful,” says Chapman, to which Idle replies, “Thank you.” Timeless comedy.
Must hear: ‘Lousy Song’
Monty Python Sings Again is out now and can be bought here.