years of Python culminated last month with a BBC tribute to the team.
Their recording engineer André Jacquemin looks over three decades of
capturing the insanity. JULIAN MITCHELL reports.
It's easy to forget the popularity of the Monty Python experience, but just enter the words into an Internet search engine and you will see how this culture is being kept warm. There are thousands of websites representing personal tributes to what is obviously for some, timeless comedy.
It was 30 years last month that they formed and began the first series for the BBC, and it was also when they started recording their material for release on LP, resulting in their first album: Monty Python's Flying Circus.
André Jacquemin was then a fresh-faced recording engineer, recording audio for commercials in London's Soho; Studio G was one of only a few studios doing such work at the time. André started in 1969 and it was the next year that a certain Michael Palin walked into the studio to record some links. André didn't realise who he was at the time and the two founded a friendship, which is still strong today (André has just finished cutting the audio book of the new Ernest Hemingway travelogue). André ended up being chosen as the man to record the second Python album, which was to be called Another Monty Python Record.
André Jacquemin: "I was working with Mike [Palin] for about a year until I realised he was connected to Python. He said that he was doing an album and would I like to produce it. I thought, 'great but why does anybody want to do a talking record?'. There was nobody outside of the BBC doing that kind of stuff at that time. I went to the first meeting with the Pythons and it was only when John Cleese walked into the room that the penny dropped and I knew who I was dealing with. A pile of scripts about 18 inches high was passed down to me with the instructions 'This is what we need to do'.
"They basically wanted to do two things with the albums, to recreate the TV series but also do some new stuff. They realised very early on that audio was a very cheap way of creating scenes that would cost a fortune if you had to film it. So in these recordings there would be a lot of stuff just made up on the spot."
The Vinyl Revolution
The albums were well known for their titles as well as some very unique vinyl tricks that were being played on the buying public. The album Matching Tie And Handkerchief was unofficially called The Three-Sided Album because on one side there were two grooves and so there were two completely different tracks to listen to. André still meets people who haven't found the third side.
As the Python team became more popular André had to catch them when he could to complete scenes and dialogue. He was also building up a quite large effects library with the help of Terry Gilliam who had been animating for the shows. From the very start André had to be fairly organised in his approach to the recordings because of the sheer volume of work to get through and the non-linear way that the Pythons recorded: "It was a lot harder than people imagined it to be. The first album, which Terry Jones recorded, was at the Marquee or somewhere like that where the control room and studio were separated. They just let the tape run and recorded everything and nobody was logging anything. So they ended up with about 300 quarter-inch reels of tapes with no logging whatsoever. So he had to go through the tapes to even begin to organise it.
"When I joined they thought I was a godsend because they wouldn't have to worry about that kind of thing anymore. For the recordings you had to keep a level head and be pretty organised to actually hold the whole thing together. Principally they would do a sketch, sometimes halfway through, and then decide to do something else. So you have to know where to come back to. They would then go into a different sketch. So you had to make notes of where you came from and where you had to go back to finish off the recordings."
The albums came one a year up to 1974 when the team began filming for The Holy Grail. By then André had the productions of the albums down to a fine art, even if the early days of the productions were exhausting. "I would do a certain amount of pre-production before I went into the studio and source a lot of the sound effects so I could fire them in after the recordings had taken place. Invariably I would have five or six tape machines running, some with bounced tracks on; it was like having a multitrack of lots of different machines. You would be running up and down, hitting buttons all over the place, and then going back and trying to balance the whole thing. It was a bit ad hoc in that way. The first thing I bought after that was a multitrack.
"I developed that technique with them really which was quite bizarre at the time, but all they knew was that the end result always sounded good and very together."
André's studio has always been called Redwood but has moved around London from Neal's Yard, to Camden, to the new site in Great Chapel Street in Soho to complete a full circle from the early days in the late-60s. The new studio in Soho is quite small with an editing room upstairs and downstairs a vocal booth and control room. Eastlake has recently finished the construction of the room and André has put his Pro Tools Mix|24 system upstairs and the Mackie D8B in the control room, which he is very impressed with.
Along the way he has bought consoles from Amek, DDA, and a small company called Redingwood that was run by Rob Haggis, ex-Chief Engineer at AIR Studios. The only reminder of that desk is a specially made EQ module from the desk, which sits in the equipment rack and is used quite often, according to André.
André's other main contribution to the Python sound was some of the music. He and Dave Hawman have written certain songs and 'ditties' as he calls them for the films and TV series. There was a song from The Life Of Brian called The Brian Song which needed a orchestra on it as it was meant to have a Bond-type sound, so he took his one-inch Studer machine down to Abbey Road and tracked an orchestra. As it happened the track never made it to the screen as it was felt that it sounded 'too good' and they ended up using the demo.
They had a big hit with Always look On the Bright Side of Life, written by Eric Idle but recorded by André. In fact, it was the 1980 album Contractual Obligation which really acted as a breakthrough song wise for Eric Idle who went on to do The Rutles. "Eric was sort of commissioned to head that album. It ended up being quite a musical album with a combination of sketches. It was actually the last album they were contracted to do, hence the name."
André has also been involved in the films and has acted as an unofficial sound designer on The Holy Grail, Time Bandits, and Brazil. The last two being Terry Gilliam projects as Redwood Studios was located in the same building as Gilliam's film production offices.
"When we did The Meaning Of Life we had about 50 audio tracks running on the eight-track that we were using at the time, made up of bounces, with no Dolby. We were doing the Oliver-type musical patische Every Sperm Is Sacred. We got away with a lot of things like that."
The BBC gave the team carte blanche to do what they wanted in last month's four-hour tribute. There were new sketches but also new stuff, mainly the Terry Gilliam animation, which André dubbed. Ironically this was one of the first Python jobs that André had done in the new studio. It wasn't ready and in a state much like the studios that he used nearly 30 years ago in that ad hoc way. His work ended up being done not in the control room, but in a small room, upstairs.
It seems that the Python team took to the personality of André Jacquemin as much as his skills as a recording engineer and organiser. He has a definite Pythonesque sense of humour, and although he has no doubt profited from his association with the team, has had to cultivate other business. In fact, a Python album would take up to 12 weeks to complete for him and afterwards he would have to re-establish those contacts he had before the album.
The Pythons were also a great success in America and it was there that the idea of a reunion tour was first mooted. That has come to nothing, but if you were in LA earlier this year you may have caught Eric Idle giving a performance of Monty Python songs to an audience. Tickets were sold out in a day.
André also acts as Chief Archivist for Monty Python and has found many tracks that have never been published, so although there may never be another series or tour, we can rest assured that there will always be something completely different.
© 1999 AM Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.