Session guitarist Mitch Dalton takes you behind the scenes of the recording of Eric Idle's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Session guitarist Mitch Dalton and Monty Python actor Eric Idle
(Image credit: Mitch Dalton / L. Cohen/WireImage)

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood. I’m sure you’ve been to similar dinner parties. The lady to my right had become quickly acquainted with Monsieur Merlot and employed repetition (if not hesitation and deviation) as she prodded me in the chest. 

The gist of her message was the claim that she could acquire any guitar for me at cost price through her extensive connections. I must have mentioned a Guild F50, upon which she thrust a business card into my mitt and instructed me to call her. A couple of weeks later I was driving to Brighton to collect my trade priced, steel-strung, sunburst beauty. 

The lady had been as good as her word, if a tad economical with the actuality. I arrived at the warehouse to be greeted like minor royalty. I loaded the guitar into the car and prepared to skedaddle. “Before you go, here are some posters  and catalogues. I’ll just fetch half a dozen student model Spanish guitars to start you off. Where IS your shop, by the way?” 

How I extricated myself from this unintended fraud I cannot recall, but I still feel the embarrassment. Remember folks, there’s no such thing as a free fretboard. 

My lustrous but ludicrously cheap acquisition made its debut on Friday September 8th, 1978 (10-1) at Chappell’s studio in London’s fashionable Bond Street. I was greeted by lifelong friend and co-conspirator, the legendary John Altman. A man whose credits – from Amy Winehouse to The Zombies – could fill a book. And have. To say nothing of the thousands of commercials, movies and TV series that he has composed or arranged during a stellar career. 

“It’s a little ditty that might be used over the end credits for the new Monty Python film,” he informed me. “Don’t get your hopes up. Eric Idle has written it but the other Pythons aren’t keen and Terry Jones hates it. And he’s the director! Anyway, Eric is coming to the session. I’ve given his demo the full ’30s Hollywood treatment with rhythm section, brass and strings.” 

And thus we band of minstrels set to our task with as much enthusiasm as a rush-hour trek and an early start allowed. After a couple of runs through, it didn’t sound half-bad. With John’s flair and love for the genre, an all-star orchestra and The Fred Tomlinson singers whistling while they worked, it could hardly fail. 

My part was a simple chord chart to which I applied the full Freddie Green shtick. We duly marched into the control room to be greeted by Mr Idle. He was enthusiastic. His original rough idea had been transformed. “It’s great, John. One thing… could Mitch play a short intro and then accompany me before the full orchestra enters for the chorus?” John, Eric, engineer Steve (son of Sid) James and the orchestra seemed to stare directly into my surprised soul as I muttered, “Er, Okay. I’ll give it a go.” 

Cometh the hour, cometh the adrenaline. I returned to my shiny Guild, and in the 30 seconds before the red light came on, cobbled together an opening and some chords that might work for the verse. A few more takes and we were done. Two months later, I toddled along to see The Life Of Brian, and waited for the end credits. As sure as Pythons are snakes, there was Brian/Eric nailed to the cross. 

He burst into song. Sadly, my intro and accompaniment didn’t. They’d removed it. However, George Harrison, in his guise as producer for Hand Made Films, took the tapes, remixed the song, restored John’s original arrangement plus guitar part and it was issued as a single. 

It sank without trace. The film was released on VHS in 1988 and it was reissued. It bombed yet again. However, thanks to BBC Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo, his interest in novelty tunes and its subsequent popularity as a football chant, it was reissued yet again in 1991.

This time it went to Number 3. I appeared chaotically on Top of the Pops (with exploding guitar). It was used at The 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony. And Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life is the most requested song at funerals. Brian moves in mysterious ways.

  • Hidden Man by John Altman is out now via Equinox Publishing.

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