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André Jacquemin: Monty Python's Maestro

Chances are if you’re asked to name a Monty Python song, you’ll land on one co-written by André Jacquemin. The honorary Python gives a glimpse into what it was like to join the flying circus 50 years ago, and why he’s been working with the legendary comedy troupe ever since.

The first time André Jacquemin met the Pythons (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman), he had no idea who they were. At 18, he was working as an engineer at a London recording studio when he was asked to man the desk while the receptionist was at lunch.

“I wasn't watching TV at the time because I was too busy recording and earning a living as an engineer, so I wasn't familiar with Monty Python at that time,” he admits.

“This guy came up and said he wanted to do a voiceover for a friend of his for a showreel, and asked if that was the sort of thing we did here. I said ‘Yes, we can do that sir, no problem at all’. I looked in the diary, and there were two engineers (me being one of them), and the other was Alan Bailey. On the date he picked, Alan was busy, so I ended up doing it.”

Over the course of the next year, the various Pythons would come in to record parts for a voiceover reel, which Jacquemin found odd, as he couldn’t work out why it was taking them so long. It turns out they were working around Palin’s busy filming schedule. Impressed with Jacquemin’s work, he was asked to work on an album they were putting together (Monty Python’s Flying Circus), which is when he finally got to meet the entire Python ensemble.

“I thought to myself at the time, ‘why would anybody want to make a talking record?’ That seemed a bit strange. So I went down to Mike's [Palin] place, and everybody was in the room apart from John Cleese. I was introduced to Eric, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Graham, and then in walks John Cleese and the penny dropped about who they all were.

"The others were not as high profile as John at the time; he was the one that was used in any promotional pictures. It was a surprise when I found out who they were, especially after having worked with Mike for nearly a year!”

Every Sperm Is Sacred was quite complex to mix because there's about 50 different elements in that song and we only had eight tracks to play with!

Looking back, Jacquemin thinks that was a good thing, as it only would have made him nervous:

“I got quite scared at that point because these were all Oxford and Cambridge guys, and I was just a whippersnapper,” he laughs. “Suddenly I'm in with this group of people that were a lot cleverer than me...all I had was a swimming certificate and a bicycle proficiency test in terms of qualifications, so I thought, ‘oh crumbs! I'm in big trouble here!’”

Palin pointed to a two-foot high pile of scripts and explained that this was what they needed to record. Jacquemin was asked to scan through them and let them know what he wanted the Pythons to do.

“I was bricking it. But then I came up with the idea of booking a studio with my mentor, Alan – who taught me engineering and producing, so I thought, ‘nothing could go wrong!’ That's how we did the first onslaught of recordings. I used Alan as my safety net, as it were. I owe him quite a bit because he was a terrific engineer.”

Jacquemin went on to work as Monty Python’s sound engineer for five decades, and together with fellow writing partner Dave Howman, he has won 150 awards for their work in film, TV and radio, including BAFTA nominations for their composing skills for Monty Python songs, Every Sperm Is Sacred and the opening title track to Life of Brian.

Jacquemin embodies exactly the kind of Pythonesque humour one would expect from someone that has worked with the comedy troupe for 50 years, and is nothing but humble about his extraordinary career – listing his and Howman’s skills as specialising in audio production, sound design, SFX, Foley, dialogue recording, editing, music composition, and waste bin collection – as well as being “quite cheap, too”.

“I think it cost us about £10,000 to do the Python album, whereas when they left the BBC, they did that on their own and it cost them £40,000, so I was a godsend because I saved them a lot of money. I got my production fee and it was £200 pounds, so you can see why they quite liked me! From that moment on, we were there. Over the years we did theatre, TV, radio, we went on tour – we even did the Hollywood Bowl – which was amazing. I've been blessed with all of that.”

And it wasn’t just Python projects he worked on – Jacquemin was the music producer for the 1988 heist-comedy film, A Fish Called Wanda, co-written by and starring Cleese as Archie Leach, with Palin also joining the cast as the stuttering Ken Pile.

“That was quite good,” he says modestly. And it was: the film holds a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, reached number one at the US box office, was the highest-grossing independent British film that year, and was the number one rental video in the US in 1989.

“Okay it was good,” he concedes with a chuckle. “It was quite interesting, because we were messing about with one of the scenes, and John said: [launches into an uncannily good Cleese impression] ‘Andre, do you think this film is any good?’ I said to him, ‘John it’s fantastic; you've got nothing to worry about. It's going to be massive; it's got a good feel factor to it’.

"He said, ‘Oh I do hope so’. He genuinely wasn't sure about it, and of course when it came out it stunned the world because there was nothing quite like that type of film before.”

Jacquemin says that Cleese “floats about two feet above the ground at any one time. He's not quite on base level, as it were. He's very, very, very, very intelligent, John. He's a clever man. He sees things in a different kind of way: he either likes or dislikes something, there's not really any grey areas.

"When we were doing A Fish Called Wanda we were thinking about the title music for it, so we were coming up with all these names. We thought Freddie Mercury would have been quite a good one for that, or Phil Collins, and John would say, ‘Who are they? What have they done?’ He’s very detached with that particular side of the world, but that's quite endearing, isn't it? We ended up going with an instrumental song, so that got rid of that idea!’

Brian Song was released as a single in the UK in November 1979 as a double A side with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (I’ll never not find Idle’s shrugged delivery of the line ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’ funny).

Composed by Jacquemin and Howman with comically matter-of-fact lyrics by Palin [‘He had arms, and legs, and hands, and feet; this boy, whose name was Brian'], Brian Song was performed by 16 year old Sonia Jones with a string and brass accompaniment in the style of a John Barry Bond film theme.

“Terry Gilliam did the animation for that sequence, and he said that it would be nice to do it in an epic James Bond style,” he recalls. “So it came to David and myself to actually put something together, and so we did. It took us about a minute to write – literally! It wasn't too complicated, because when you think of those two chords, that gives the game away straight away. Although the tune is nothing like a Bond tune, by putting that [sings] ‘bam bammm’ in there, you kind of get the feeling of it.”

Seeking a Shirley Bassey sound, they opted for the young Jones, who they saw as the next best thing. She was also Welsh, you see.

“Sonia is Welsh, so she's got to sound like Shirley Bassey. That was the complete motivation factor for getting her to do it: because she was Welsh, it's not what she sounded like,” he deadpans.

“Then we asked her if she could sound like Shirley Bassey. When we tried it out in the studio, she was amazing – she does sound like Shirley. She was just starting out as a session singer, and about two years later, Sonia actually became one of Shirley Bassey's backing singers! I'm not sure whether Shirley was told this…”

After the demo was recorded, an orchestra was booked to record the proper mastered version in Abbey Road Studios, but when they played the slick new recording back to Gilliam, he didn’t like it. The unpolished demo version is what was used in the film.

With lyrics like “If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate,” sung by earnest-looking children in a Consider Yourself Oliver-esque full-on musical production (director Jones actually spent most of the film’s budget on this one sequence), it’s no surprise that Every Sperm Is Sacred is one of the most memorable Python sketches. From the film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, the song’s music was written by Jacquemin and Howman, with lyrics from Palin and Jones.

To appease the parents, the children actually sang the words ‘every perm is sacred’, and afraid they were pushing the limits as it was, on set Palin actually said, “those little rubber things on the end of my sock,” when filming, which was dubbed over later.

Laughing at the memory, Jacquemin notes that this wasn’t their only obstacle:

“It was quite a challenge because as you know, the song is very complex. It has many, many elements to it, and it's actually quite a miracle because we recorded it on an 8-track recorder, so it was quite complex to mix because there's about 50 different elements in that song and we only had eight tracks to play with!

"So we had to keep doing multiple bounces down and down and down, so it was a bit of a feat of engineering at the time. Terry Jones was the person behind it really, in the way that he wanted it put together.”

Nothing was hidden with Terry. He loved his social time with people; we'd have dinner at his place quite often.

When Jones passed away in January 2020 at the age of 77, the world lost a titan of British comedy, with Gilliam paying tribute to his “brilliant, constantly questioning, iconoclastic, righteously argumentative and angry but outrageously funny, generous and kind” friend, while Palin added that Jones was one of his closest, most valued companions, describing him as “far more than one of the funniest writer-performers of his generation, he was the complete Renaissance comedian: writer, director, presenter, historian, brilliant children's author, and the warmest, most wonderful company you could wish to have”.

He made a similar impact on Jacquemin, whom he first met at Palin’s house that fateful day in the ‘70s. He last saw Jones in October 2019 at Camden’s Roundhouse venue, where the Pythons celebrated their 50th anniversary with a Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of people dressed as Gumbys.

“Nothing was hidden with Terry,” he says fondly. “He would actually say what he was thinking at any particular time. He loved his social time with people; we'd have dinner at his place quite often…it was fantastic.

“He did have a fiery temper, I've got to say! He was Welsh, so it didn't take too long for him to lose it, but the thing about Terry was that you knew exactly where you were with him. I always remember the first album we were recording: we were discussing how we were going to do something, and Mike and I wanted to do something one way, and Terry wanted to do it another way.

"Terry got quite upset about this, and he storms out of the room and slams the door. I said to Mike, ‘I hope we haven't upset him too much,’ and Mike said, ‘no, no, no, he'll be back in five minutes’. And sure enough, five minutes later Terry pops in and says: ‘How's it all going boys?’ Like it never happened at all. You kind of got used to that,” he smiles.