It’s been almost a year — let’s resume my series blogging alphabetically through a selection of some of my favorite albums.
There was a time when the album was as much the dominion of comedians as musicians. Jokesmiths won two of the first five Album of the Year awards at the Grammys: Bob Newhart in 1961 for the legendary The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (#1 on the Billboard pop chart); and Vaughan Meader two years later for the less legendary Kennedy satire, The First Family — beating Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, for cryin’ out loud!!
Amazingly, Allan Sherman’s My Son, The Nut (Billboard’s #1 album for two months thanks to “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) wasn’t even nominated for that category in 1964, but the Grammy folks pursued their own brand of comedy by giving nods to albums by The Swingle Singers and The Singing Nun in place of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or either of the first two albums from The Beatles.
Sherman did win the Best Comedy Album that year, then joined all other comedians in making way for Bill Cosby, who won the next six in a row — including the 1969 award for To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, named Greatest Comedy Album of All Time by Spin in 2011. The rest of the Seventies saw a flourishing of the genre, with Richard Pryor (three Grammys), Steve Martin (two), George Carlin (one), Lily Tomlin (one), Robert Klein, and Albert Brooks also recording albums that cracked the Spin list.
As did my favorite comedians: Monty Python, whose second album (Another Monty Python Record) came in at #26:
More famous bits were still to come, but Monty Python’s most biting satire appears on their second album. Here, classics like “The Spanish Inquisition” and “Spam” run second on a record dedicated to brutalizing middle-class cultural pablum. From the graffiti that adorns its fake Beethoven sleeve, to the BBC announcers whispering non sequiturs between tracks, to the Gumbys shouting Chekhov, to a sketch where a violinist boils in fat during a concert, Another Monty Python Record defaced British cultural pretensions and institutions so completely that it helped the group become an institution in its own right. And no one expected a Python institution.
Monty Python, Monty Python Sings
I can’t think of a better way to honor the birth of the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland than to spend some time listening to that country’s kings of comedy sing.
But then I’m not much of a monarchist. Or of a Monty Python fan, if the 1989 rehash Monty Python Sings is the only one of their many albums that I own. (On cassette no less!)
The only completely new song on here is “Oliver Cromwell” (“…and his warts!”), which remains the source of far too much of my knowledge about the English Civil War and Interregnum. Then the versions of “Medical Love Song” and “Henry Kissinger” have expanded lyrics, with means that we can now imagine the latter as a “German parakeet” any time we need a giggle.
Of course, 54+ minutes of Monty Python songs is both an embarrassment of riches and too much of a good thing. Largely depending on what you think of Eric Idle, who writes and sing the lion’s share of this collection of songs. If the Pythons were indeed the Beatles of comedy, then Idle is obviously Paul — and not the one who could sing “Helter Skelter” and jam with the former members of Nirvana.
(Their work invites not-laughable comparisons with the greatest band of the rock era, but musically, Monty Python would be most at home in a turn-of-the-century music hall. Which I suppose is part of the subversive genius. As David Free wrote in the latest “Beatles of comedy” essay linked above, “The Pythons kept dragging exalted themes into a context of English ordinariness, thereby revealing the absurdity of both.” Anyway, back to my criticism of Eric Idle, too busy counting moneybags in his Scrooge McDuck-like vault to care what any philistine blogger thinks…)
So would that Monty Python Sings had seen the troupe counterbalancing its Paul with more nonsequiturs from its John — Cleese. But because this particular Monty Python album is about singing, it doesn’t include the spoken sketches that showed why he was the one originally offered a series by the BBC. And maybe it’s better that way: much of what makes John Cleese one of the funniest humans alive is visual — the sight of that deadpan face (one of my favorite documentaries has Cleese hosting a four-part investigation of the human face) suddenly erupting into futile fury. Simply listening to “The Dead Parrot Sketch” just isn’t the same.
At the same time, Cleese has a way with words that transcends his limitations as a singer. So he has his moments on this album, none better than “Eric the Half-a-Bee” (music by Idle), which juxtaposes rhyming ruminations (“Half a bee, philosophically, / must ipso facto half not be / But half the bee has got to be / vis-à-vis its entity – d’you see?”) with mildly transgressive absurdity (“I love this hive employee / Bisected accidentally / One summer afternoon, by me / I love him carnally / He loves him carnally / Semi-carnally” — not Cyril Connolly).
And if I’m using the phrase “mildly transgressive absurdity,” then I’ve cleared reached the point where I cease to be a fan blogging about something he enjoys and become an insufferably pretentious amateur critic. So let’s close abruptly with something completely different: Australians singing about inebriated intellectuals:
Release Date: 1989
Three Favorite Tracks: “Eric the Half-a-Bee”; “Bruces’ Philosophers’ Song”; “Lumberjack Song.”
Other Nominees: Uncle Tupelo, March 16-20, 1992; REM, Monster; Van Morrison, Moondance; Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band, The Mountain; Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul; The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man; Pete Yorn, musicforthemorningafter; The Band, Music from Big Pink; Elvis Costello, My Aim is True.