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Monty Python’s Life of Brian composers André Jacquemin and John Altman | BFI Q&A


– Thanks ever so much for coming and talking to us tonight. – I thought we came to see a film. – Yeah, that’s on the agenda as well. – Oh, good. – You’ve obviously been
involved, both of you, with the Pythons for many, many years on many different projects. I’d like to start with you, Andre, just to ask how you got
involved in the first place. How did you first get into
this gravitational pull? – It’s a very complicated and long story, so I’ll keep it very short, was that I was working as a tape operator in a recording studio. One day, Michael Palin came in, said he wanted to do a demo tape for a friend of his, and
I said, “Great, okay.” I saw that I was free and
the other engineer was busy, so I said, “Yep, okay, I’ll do that.” Through a course of about a year, I was working with Mike. I was doing this tape, putting
sound effects to it, music, and at the end of it, Mike said, “I’m doing a album, and we
would like you to be involved. “Could you come over?” And I said, “Yeah, fine.” I’ll entertain that, see what happens. In between that, I was
offered a rodeo show job, which I turned down, and
then, in the same week, Mike had rung up and said, “We’re having a meeting,
could you come over?” I went over. Everybody was there
apart from John Cleese. Doorbell rings, in comes John Cleese, and then the penny drops
about who they were, and I thought, “Oh, shit.” I’ve just turned 18, and there’s all these
Oxbridge and Cambridge guys, and all I did was that I’d passed my
bicycle proficiency test, I’d been made a swimming certificate, and they want me to tell them what to do. Mike said, “Look, this is
what we need to record.” It was a big pile of
papers about this big, and they said, “Well, look, “we need to get all this recorded. “Could you have a go at getting
through that fairly quickly? “Let us know what you want
us to do, and we’ll do it,” and that’s kinda how the
relationship started. So, like all things, I
didn’t want to lose face. I said, “Yeah, yeah, no
problem, I can do this.” I went ahead and did that, and the rest is history, really. – Well, this was for the albums that they released, wasn’t it? That was based on the TV show?
– It’s the first album, yeah. – And the thing about it now, it’s hard to imagine, but
they were absolute gold dust for fans of the show. It was the way you got to
hear the material again. It was very often not
repeated at the time. You know, you just had
to rely on the albums if you wanted to hear
something again and again, and I think, John, you started on “Matching Tie and
Handkerchief,” didn’t you? Was that your first involvement in there?
– I did, indeed, yes. – Which was another one of the albums. Can you tell us about that? – Well, very simply,
when I was at university, obviously, Python was at
its beginning in height, and there were no videos
or anything like that, so we all used to rush out into communal room and watch it, and then repeat the sketches to the best of our recollection the following day. And when I left university,
I started playing with a lot of bands. I was still studying,
but I was also playing with, for example, Peter Green
when he left Fleetwood Mac, and Nick Drake, who’s now
a sort of cult figure, and various other people. And one of my friends was
a guy called Ollie Halsall, who actually looms large
in the Python story, and I went to see him in
a band called Tempest, which was run by John
Heisman, at the Marquee. Neil was there, and we got to talking, and they both said, “Oh, we’re doing a Python track tomorrow. “Why don’t you come down
and play some saxophone?” So, “Oh, absolutely.” You know, I’d never met any of the guys, so I went down to the Workhouse
Studios in south London, no longer there, and they said, “Well, we don’t need
any sax on this track, “but we do need vocals and hand claps.” So that was it. I wound up–
(Dick laughs) – Hand clap specialist. – Hand clap and vocal, and I’m very ashamed to say, it was a Gary Glitter spoof. (Dick laughs) But he was the biggest thing
in pop music at the time, and I’d studiously avoided
listening to it until recently, and somebody sent me a copy of it, and I can hear myself singing, awful. – Was it any good? That album, we did, as John said, we did at the Workhouse
for the music stuff, and then the rest of it,
for the dialogue stuff, I did in my backyard
in my dad’s greenhouse, which I’d converted
into a recording studio, so I had them all coming down, doing recordings in there, and I was never kinda convinced that, is this the way we
should be making records? In a greenhouse converted
to a recording studio. But that is the nature of Python. Everybody just threw what they
had to throw into the mix, basically, throughout– Well, basically, because
Python are very cheap, we had to do everything ourselves, and everybody had to do
their little part and more, so that’s kinda how we ended up doing what we ended up doing. – For the adulation that surrounds Python, and the longevity of the
troupe tends to suggest more of a band than it does
a group of comedians, and of course, they were there when comedy became the new
rock and roll for a while, and there was big stadium
concerts for comedians, and things like that. Was there an area that they
were a frustrated band? I mean, Eric was very interested in music in particular, wasn’t he? – Yeah, I mean, Eric was always
sort of the most musical. John is the only person I’ve ever met in my life who detests
music in every form. (Dick and Andre laugh) Which was very interesting, ’cause much later, we
co-directed a charity show for Amnesty called “The
Secret Policeman’s Ball,” and I led a band that
included Phil Collins, Sting, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, none of whom he’d ever heard of. (Dick laughs) We were going through,
after the first night, which ran for about eight hours, you know, and he said, “Well, we can cut that out, “and we can cut that out,” and it was all the music, you know. “Eric Clapton, he can go,” you know. “Sting, who needs him?” I’m like, “No, no, no,
these are big names.” He’s like, “I’ve never heard of them.” – No, that’s right. I remember, when we were
doing “A Fish Called Wanda” at the time, and we were deciding, who should we get to sing
the title song for it? In the end, we ended up having
John Williams on guitar, but all these names, as John said, we had all these names come up. We had people like Freddy Mercury, and we had, Phil Collins was
a sort of near contender, and again, John said, “Well,
what have they done then? “Who are these people?” You know, which was great fun. There was another incident, actually, about John’s musicality,
which was quite interesting, was that I was messing about with a pedal steel at the time, and my friend, Pete Wiltshire,
had bought me a pedal steel from Nashville which I
wanted to start learning, and I had it in the
studio, it was all set up. This thing looks very beautiful, with the pedals and stuff. John went up to it, and he
goes, “This is fascinating.” He’s going, “Jolly good,
what is this, what is that?” And I said, “Well, John,
it’s what you sometimes hear “on country music, and sometimes “the odd rock and roll
record, they do that.” He said, “It’s not that
bloody wailing thing, is it?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s it.” “Oh, I hate that,” he said. He walked straight away from it, so his knowledge of that side of things. The good thing is that
John knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like, doesn’t he? – He does indeed. – One of the reasons why
you two have been involved with so much Python and related stuff is because they do have a
loyalty that they’ve used and get on with, and they trust, I guess, and you are invited back,
aren’t you, as it were? – Yeah, they haven’t found us out yet. (Dick laughs) We’re still bluffing it. – We’re still bluffing
our way through, yeah. – Can we talk– – Oh, sorry. – Sorry, I was just gonna say– Well, no, please. – No, I was just going to say, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I mean, you know, you see the films, and you see the same names
crop up all the time. You have music, and you
see the same names crop up, you know, and a lot of it
is obviously the main guys who are at the centre of it, but the surrounding core
has stayed the same. – I think, basically, what
John’s trying to say is that they’ve ruined our lives. (all laugh) – Are the Pythons control freaks, or do you get a situation where you can actually bring
something to the party? – Well, I mean, from my point of view, and obviously relating to “Life of Brian,” when we did the film, I’m quite amazed that I was actually in
script meetings with them while they were threshing it all out, and deciding what to put
in and what not to put in, and in fact, I’ve got my original notes when Eric did a demo on guitar of “Bright Side of Life,”
which he sent over to me, and I had to go into the meeting, and tell them how we were
gonna do it, you know. It was very interesting,
but once I got that demo, it was completely left up to me what to do with the song. No suggestions, nothing. – No, they do know what they want. They’re very clever in the sense, they’ll give you the brief. They’ll take you through what they want, and they’ll let you get on with doing it. It was like making the records, when we were doing the albums, and they would come in,
they’d do their voices, and we’d jump, sometimes,
and sketch the sketch, or whatever, and then they’d buzz off. I’d finish them all off. Then we’d get together. I change it five times for them, for each of their comments and stuff. Then we’d always go back
to the first version I originally did, as usual. It worked out that they
know what they want when they hear, and they know what they don’t want when
they hear it as well, so in a way, it’s a good education. So you know where you
stand with them, basically. – I guess you had the
same sort of autonomy that Terry Gilliam did
when he did the animation, because that was sort of separate from the rest of the show,
you know, it could be him. Let’s talk about “Life
of Brian” in particular. What are your memories of working on it. – Well, my personal one was, A, being in the script meetings, and I insist that one of the
gags in the film is mine, because I’m pretty certain, and I know things change
with time, you know, but I’m pretty certain the
original script had the scene with the leper, and it was, “Spare some coppers for a leper.” And I said, because I was
thinking of the parrot sketch, “Well, surely he’s an ex-leper.” And that went in because
Michael said, “Oh, I like that,” and they wrote it down,
and that went in the film, so that’s my big contribution. The minor contribution
is the song at the end, which was a throwaway, and it literally, they didn’t have an ending for the film. You know, he was gonna get off the cross. There, all kind– He was gonna be rescued,
this is gonna happen, that’s gonna happen, and Eric sent me, as I say, a cassette of the
song in very rough form, and apparently, none of the others were impressed at all with it. I rang Terry Jones at the time and said, “How much do you need of
the song for the end?” He said, “About 20 seconds.” So I called Eric back and
said, “He wants 20 seconds.” I won’t tell you what he said, but we did the whole song, you know, and it was one morning at Chapel Studios. We did the orchestra all in one, and then the Fred Tomlinson Singers, who, of course, were in
the lumberjack sketch, and myself did the whistling. So, I’m immortalised in that
way in the film as well. – Yeah, it’s a song that, it has a life outside of Python as well. It’s at football matches, rugby matches. – Everywhere, funerals. – Funerals, yeah, everywhere. I also wanted to ask you about the opening number, the title song, which is, it seems to be like a Bond ripoff or parody.
– It is, yeah, it was. (Dick laughs) Terry Gilliam came to me and
Dave Howman, my co-writer. He said, “We want sort of
a James Bond-y type theme.” And of course, doing parodies
of Bond is quite easy because you only have the two notes. These are the (sings) You put that in on anything, you know, you’ve got James Bond, so we knocked something up. It took literally about
10 minutes to write that. We did a demo. It was great, we enjoyed it. We were working with a girl
singer called Sonia Jones. She was Welsh, and she was 17, and we wanted a sort of
Shirley Bassey type voice, so we thought, who can
we get to sing this? And we thought, well, Sonia’s Welsh. She’s gotta sound like
Shirley Bassey, hasn’t she? So we got Sonia involved to sing it. She came in, she did
that, which was great. Terry liked it, which was terrific. Then we mastered it at Abbey Road. We had a orchestra, blah, blah, blah, but it was never quite
as good as the demo, so in the end, the version that you hear in the film is the demo that we knocked up on a 8-track, which took
10 minutes to write, and one verse is missing
’cause Terry wanted to take a whole verse
out, and I said to Terry, “Well, look, if you want
to take this verse out, “we should really copy
this one-inch tape we had, “because, if I cut this “and it gets ruined, we’ve lost it.” He said, “No, no, no, Andre.” He said, “I trust you 120%. “Just hack it away.” So we hack the tape away,
we joined it together. It worked. Thankfully, it worked all right, so basically, we have a
version with one verse missing, and it’s a demo, and it’s in the film, so that’s quite weird, knowing
that there’s a nice version, but he was absolutely– Terry, again, you know,
you were saying about, they knew what they wanted,
and he was quite right. The demo is better than the
polished, clinical version that we recorded at Abbey Road. I mean, it’s extraordinary, really, that a demo ends up on a
feature film like that. – I never did a 20-second version, which, I think Eric killed
that fairly quickly. I think, once we recorded it, and it was my suggestion to make it sort of a 1930s Hollywood
musical sequence, everyone got on board with that, and it sort of took off,
took a life of its own, although I know John was complaining about being up on the cross. Sort of, “Well, how long am
I gonna be stuck up here?” But I gather from earlier, he was complaining on
“The Holy Grail” as well, so I think that’s probably
something that he does. But we always recorded it
as a full-length track. The original recording was
mixed by George Harrison, who I sort of thought,
people aren’t just gonna want to hear the same thing
over and over again, so I wrote this sort of
countermelody in the strings, and he went potty for this. He said, “I’m taking the whistle out, “and I’m putting that in.” So, when you actually hear it, that’s what happens, you know. He used to greet me thereafter
by singing that phrase rather than saying hello, you
know, which was quite sweet. But I just think, as soon as
Eric found the voice for it, and they started filming, they realised that they had the ending, and that was how the film should end, but at the time, as I say, of writing, I don’t think the other Pythons
were particularly impressed with it at all as an idea. It was just, we’ve gotta end it somehow. Let’s see what we can do. – Brilliant. Music has been an important part of Python all the way through it, from the TV series, the
records, and the films, and these two guys are
very responsible for that. Please thank our two wonderful guests. (audience claps) – Thank you.

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