“Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans and spam”

I’m a great believer in the creative potential of collisions. Whether it be Kurt Schwitters and spoken English (Ribble, Bobble, Pimlico) or Material recycling Weather Report’s Cucumber Slumber as the Fluxus Mix or Sciarrino’s hilarious Anamorfosi (…to give it any less abstract a title would doubtless have invited litigation). One of my favourite such collisions is Monty Pythons Spam Sketch. I was watching a recent youtube sightbite about how the word Spam came to signify “unsolicited messages sent in bulk by email”, and was reminded that the original sketch was itself a composite of at least two independent preexisting artifacts. Most such collisions stop at two; Marc-André Hamelin’s bewildering reconstruction of a planned but (probably) unwritten Godowsky/Chopin Étude that combined Op10/2, Op25/4, and Op25/11, self-explanatorily titled Triple Étude (after Chopin), provides the listener with a delectable synaptic workout, but such metapolyphonic thinking is often as difficult to decode as it is hard to pull off. Philip K Dick’s A Maze of Death being a case in point.

The Spam Sketch is a witty drawing-together of two utterly disparate sources: the Viking Song of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and a scene almost four minutes in to At War with the Army, the movie with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, in which Lewis extols beans in a song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. My interest is in the way the Monty Python chaps mine this preexisting material, the choral song, and the movie song, both pretty obscure, and then weave them into something indissoluble. Both songs possess the do, so, la, ti, do, so, la, ti, do bassline and the former brings vikings to the table, and the latter …well, beans. And the canteen setting. The Pythons being wartime English school-children explains the spam component. I presume that the music Python, Neil Innes, somehow stumbled upon the–presumably coincidental?!–resemblance of the two songs, and the others wove their absurdisms to tie them together. I’ve seen prior mention that the Viking Song is implicated in this memetic silliness–the youtube page above refers to it–but so far noone seems to have made the link to the Beans Song, which is clearly an ancestor.

There is something unarguably a bit arch about the Python collision: the presence of the vikings let us know that they know the Coleridge-Taylor; the beans in the dialogue imply, wink, wink, that they are invoking Jerry Lewis, but few of their viewers would have caught on to both cultural references. To modern eyes it all looks a bit smug. But the sketch is so much more fun knowing its provenance; and the thought that a great Black composer and a popular Jewish comedian contributed indirectly to email terminology is enduringly satisfying.