EDIT NEWS: Monty Python's Previous Record... With Bells On
First published July 23 2008
Monty Python's Previous Record... With Bells On
In a world where comedy fans are too busy wittering on about which episode of Peep Show goes best with their bathroom curtains, SOTCAA loudly exclaim 'Hang on, you do realise you can go into a shop and buy an unreleased version of 'Mortuary Hour' don't you?' and decide they really ought to get those celebratory cartwheels started...

Monty Python's Previous Record was the team's third album, recorded at the Radio Luxembourg studios (38 Hertford Street, London W1) on 12 and 13 October 1972. It was released by Charisma records on 8 December and reached number 39 in the UK charts the following month.

The sound engineer was Alan Bailey, who - along with Michael Palin and Terry Jones - shared a production credit with André Jacquemin. Bailey recorded the album onto a Studer four-track using Neumann microphones. He was also responsible for voicing many of the sound effects, including the sneezing ant, the prince falling out of the tower, and chemist who's invaded by a herd of zebras.

About half of the album consisted of re-performances of material from the third Flying Circus TV series, although it's worth remembering that sketches like 'Argument' and 'Dennis Moore' weren't necessarily the crowd-pleasing classics they later became - the album was not only released midway through the series (Python fans could purchase it the day after 'The Cycling Tour' went out), but was also recorded a full week before the series even started.

The follow-up LP, Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973), is famous for having a double-groove on its second side - two grooves, each containing different material, run parallel with each other, meaning the listener experiences a different set of sketches depending on where the stylus is dropped. One little-known fact, however, is that the stunt originated in an even more ambitious form on Previous Record - the team's intention was for the flipside to boast a triple-groove, presenting the listener with three separate sketch-suites; each beginning with the phrase "And now a massage from the Swedish Prime Minister" followed by brisk slapping sounds (once again c/o Bailey).

The trick was not a new one. Both Bailey (who suggested the idea) and Eric Idle knew of the technique being used in an old party game, where half a dozen grooves on a 78rpm gramophone record would each reveal a different winner to a fictitious horse race. Sustaining decent sound quality on something with the sonic complexity of Previous Record, however, was a challenge. In the October 2006 issue of Mojo magazine, Terry Jones remembers the technological headaches which eventually caused the idea to be dropped, while a contemporary record of the team's frustration is captured in Michael Palin's diaries:

Saturday November 4, 1972

Spent three hours with André [Jacquemin], editing and tightening the B side of the new album until it was in a very strong and satisfying shape, then, with Terry [Jones] and André, walked across Regent Street and into Savile Row, where the Apple Studios are situated in a well-preserved row of Georgian town houses. They seem to be the only place that has the technology to cut our multiple B side. Finally left about 8pm - the cutter, John, promised to have more attempts at the cut over the weekend, but the chances of producing this highly original B side don't seem too rosy.

Tuesday November 7

Heard during the afternoon that Apple were unable to cut the three-track B side. Terry took the tapes round to EMI for them to have a go, so we can only cross our fingers.

Wednesday November 8

All is quiet for a bit - the sun shines in onto my desk, and I feel all's well with the world. But the phone soon starts ringing - EMI cannot do the cut, what shall we do? Almost an hour is spent ringing round the Pythons to get them to a meeting on Thursday to listen to the record. We decide to cut the B side in mono, which apparently will allow the three-track cut to work. So Apple now have the job again. Looked at a book of yoga exercises.

Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years
Phoenix Books, 2006

After this, the diaries contain no further reference to the triple-groove prank. A year later, George 'A Porky Prime Cut' Peckham, who had worked on mastering The Beatles' back-catalogue, successfully cut the double-groove on Matching Tie and Handkerchief, although not without destroying several acetates in the process.

Sadly, Palin didn't record diary entries for the Previous Record recording dates themselves. As a bit of context, though, it's worth noting a few Python-related events that occurred around the same time - 27 October and 7 December, for example, were the dates of the team's infamous meetings with Duncan Wood and Bill Cotton to discuss the cuts to two Flying Circus episodes (the team's first real taste of censorship), and 4 December was the day John Cleese first voiced his dissatisfaction with the Python TV series. Palin's visit to Apple was also the first day he met George Harrison, later to produce the 7" version of 'The Lumberjack Song' (at the Work House studios on Old Kent Road on 3 October 1975), and of course to bankroll Life of Brian.

But we digress.

What may remain of the aborted triple-groove wheeze, however, is the structure of Side 2. Since Palin's diaries reveal that the triple-groove was still being worked on very close to the album's release, it's possible (although far from certain - stay tuned for some exciting alternate theories, paperwork fans...) that the LP-as-released simply features the proposed 'sides' plonked one after the other. Indeed, if we examine the three chunks of material, we find they all have approximately the same duration:

SECTION A (7'01")
A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (1)
Silly Noises
Ann Elk
We Love the Yangtse

SECTION B (6'09")
A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (2)
A Minute Past
Eclipse Of The Sun
Alistair Cooke
The Wonderful World Of Sound
Funerals In Prestatyn

SECTION C (6'50")
A Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (3)
Happy Valley

One reason to be sceptical about this theory, however, is that the three 'sides' would need to be of near-identical, rather than merely approximate, duration. Any discrepancy would result in a long period of silence at the end of the shorter sides (in this case, Section B which is 52 seconds shorter than Section A). So when Palin talks of tightening the album to 'a strong and satisfying shape', was he perhaps referring to material being edited to achieve a uniform duration for each of the three Side 2s, rather than for purely artistic reasons? The fact that he only mentions editing Side 2, rather than the whole album, perhaps suggests as much. It's also worth ruminating on whether the 'Funerals in Prestatyn' and 'Slater Nazi' small-ad quickies were contributed by Eric Idle as a last-minute way of bumping up the durations by a few seconds in the event of a running time shortfall (although, in the end, only the former ended up on Side 2).

With this in mind, it's interesting to examine the durations on Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Side 1 of the original LP ran at 23'55" (ending on the exchange "Sir Edwin, get stuffed" / "I've enjoyed it"), while the two 'sides' on the reverse ran at 8'51" (the section starting with 'Background to History') and 8'27" (the section starting with 'Mrs Niggerbaiter') - duration-wise, not an exact match, but closer than the potential Previous Record presentation above.

It would appear that George Peckham's big solution to the double-groove problem involved cutting Side 1 with wider-placed grooves to stop them running into each other (technologically, not entirely dissimilar to the 'cutting-in-mono' solution offered up earlier for Previous Record). However, one downside to this solution was that it lessened the amount of material they could fit on that side of the disc. As such, despite sporting two alternate tracks of material, Side 2 is actually shorter than it might otherwise have been.

For later - non-double-grooved - 1980s reissues, the material was rejiggled slightly so that Sides 1 and 2 were of similar length - 21'22" and 19'55" respectively - presumably for no better reason than to avoid a load of dead air at the end of Side 2 of the cassette edition (although the reissued vinyl and CD also followed the restructuring). The newly-edited Side 1 now finished at the close of 'Tiger Club', while the remainder of that side's material (beginning with "Before the next joke there will be a short raspberry" and culminating in 'Great Actors') was dumped at the start of Side 2 - with the two original alternate grooves-worth of material (beginning with 'Background to History' and ending with 'Phone-In') following as one continuous chunk.

A couple of final observations on the subject of Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Since both sides of the original release were actually labelled 'Side 2', it could be argued that it sported three Side 2s and no Side 1 (on a disc which, lest we forget, was purportedly a 'Free Record' given away with a fake tie and hankie box anyway). As a final giggly nod to the whole twisted presentation, Side 2, groove 1 featured a sketch in which a man in a record shop listening booth gets played an LP called 'First World War Noises' twice - the second time beginning as per the first ("Home on leave in two days, eh Sarge?") but then continuing with completely different dialogue - thus referencing the alternate-groove schtick even as those grooves rotated...

When Previous Record was re-released in 2006, it came complete with several bonus tracks - alongside the old Teach Yourself Heath piece (originally given away as a flexi-disc with ZigZag magazine in 1972) and some radio spots for the previous year's Big Red Book, are some rejected studio sketches. It's not clear, however, whether said sketches all originated from the Previous Record sessions - the 'Baxter's' song, as we discussed in our review of the Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck bootleg, possibly dates from 1980's Contractual Obligation Album, pursuing as it does the same premise as the 'Bishop' lager ad. The origin of the hilarious 'Meteorology' two-hander is also ambiguous.

It's safe to suppose, however, that the remaining tracks were Previous Record out-takes, simply because they are all straight re-recordings of series three sketches: 'Is There...Life After Death?', 'TV4 Or Not TV4?', 'Blood, Devastation, Death, War and Horror', and a brilliantly-produced version of 'Mortuary Hour'. Also included was the ending of the 'Argument' sketch, with the police arresting 'the entire disc'. This final item is interesting, since the reference to the team ending 'every bleeding sketch' with a police raid hints at an aborted running gag, similar to the TV version. It also suggests that 'Argument' was originally intended as the final track on the LP, or perhaps as one of the triple-groove segments. (Happily the idea of producing Side 2 in mono never happened, since the heavily-separated 'Yes you did'/'No I didn't' exchanges would have been a notable casualty.)

One out-take not included in the 2006 re-release was 'Summarise Proust Competition' - originally recorded for Previous Record (a credit for 'Proust Song' still appears on the liner notes), the sketch was exhumed for the 1977 Instant Record Collection compilation, the CD of which is unfortunately now long-deleted.

Well, let's open this big cardboard box full of original Python paperwork shall we? Oh, didn't we mention it earlier on? We really must get the hang on this 'selling ourselves' concept...

Anyway, as with all documentation of this kind, it confirms a few theories and shoots down a few myths, but several more delicious mysteries pop up to replace them. Which is all part of the fun. Pages like this, for example, which documents Section A of Side 2 (given here as 'Track 3'):

Note that the script for 'How To Do It' is a television rehearsal script (a draft prepared by the Pythons themselves, rather than the camera script which would have been used during the recording) with the visual instructions scribbled out. Squint hard and you'll also see the 'Mrs Premise and Mrs Conclusion' script on the page underneath. However, take a look at this page.

Not only do we learn that 'The Money Programme' was a contender for Side 2, and that 'A Minute Passed' and 'Book at Bedtime' were originally structured as part of the same sketch, but that Contractual Obligation Album's 'Bells' sketch was once part of the line-up. So does this mean that the 'Bells' sketch we know and love is an out-take from these sessions, or was it perhaps re-performed eight years later? Contractual Obligation Album primarily features re-recordings of old (sometimes pre-Python) material such as 'String' and 'Bookshop', so the antediluvian origin of 'Bells' shouldn't perhaps surprise us. The extreme stereo separation was also a clue that the sketch came from a much earlier source.

Again, it's possible to make out a bit of the script on the following page: a mysterious stage direction which reads 'OTHER MEMBERS OF THE PANEL DISCUSS AND DISAGREE ABOUT THE TIME (BUSKED)'. A rejected ending to 'A Minute Passed'? Or something from a totally unmade sketch? Your guess is as good as ours.

This page reveals that 'Travel Agent' was once intended as the entire album's finale, rather than simply the closer on Side 1:

A quick calculation reveals that both 'Track 2' and 'Track 4', just like the three sketch suites on the eventual LP, run at just under six minutes. The fact that there was a fourth track is confusing; at the time this paperwork was completed, however, Jacquemin was no doubt experimenting with different sketch mixes, unsure about which three should be contenders for the triple-groove.

Note George Peckham's scribbled name in the corner. And note too that the Swedish Prime Minister is amusingly named as Mr Olof Palme.

The paperwork also reveals that the 'Timecheck' link, originally used in series two of Flying Circus, was recorded for this album, intended as a bridge between 'Silly Noises' and 'Ann Elk' (the latter also seems to have been re-typed straight from the TV rehearsal script):

'Timecheck' appears as a bonus track, not on the Previous Record CD, but on Matching Tie and Handkerchief, dissolving into the 'Hi Fi Shop' sketch. So was 'Timecheck' dropped from Previous Record and then briefly considered for inclusion on Matching Tie before being rejected again? Was 'Hi Fi Shop' a Previous Record out-take too? Or have the bonus tracks simply been allocated to albums from which they don't necessarily originate? The inclusion of Contractual Obligation Album's 'Bishop' (an alternate / extended version thereof) on the Another Monty Python Record CD suggest this last theory is probably closest to the truth.

Ah, it's good to be back...

Before we go, here's a flyer for a football match the team organised to promote the album, played on 28 November:

Fantastic, eh? Note the appearance of John Peel, who had compèred the Pythons' appearance, alongside Slade and the Beach Boys, at the Bardney open-air pop festival in Lincoln on 28 May that year. This appearance had seen the team premiering some of their Series 3 material - this had generally gone down very well, with the exception of 'Summarise Proust Competition' which had completely died. Perhaps this was a factor in the sketch being dropped from the LP?

Yes, in 1972 you could watch a premiere of 'Summarise Proust Competition' and the Beach Boys on the same bill. Definitely not a golden age, oh no...

Anyway, that's all for now. Next time: Simon Pegg.

We'd like to thank Alan Bailey and André Jacquemin for their assistance with this article. We also urge you to buy Bailey's autobiographical account of his time at Radio Luxembourg, which contains an entire chapter on his work with Monty Python. Click on the book to find out more.

 Edit News: The SOTCAA Monty Python Pages