July 7, 2011

Back to the Beach

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: , — Ryan Roe @ 7:26 am

muppetbeachpartyRecently on the Tough Pigs forum, we got to talking about the 1993 album Muppet Beach Party, and I was surprised to find that some people genuinely hate it. I mean, it’s a CD where Muppets sing a bunch of songs about surfing and stuff, like the Muppets doing a Gidget movie. How hate-worthy can it be? Do Muppet fans hate Gidget?!

Most of the frustration with Beach Party seems to be directed at this one quirky thing that happens on the majority of the songs. There are at least two characters present on each track, and while one of them sings, the other one frequently makes little remarks and wisecracks after each line. I had never really noticed how prevalent this was, but as you may have guessed by now, this article is about me giving the album a re-listen, so I’m sure to sure to notice it now. Will it annoy me as much as it annoys my fellow fans? I can’t wait to find out!

I figured I should be as authentic as possible with my Muppet Beach Party listening experience, so I thought about actually going to the beach for this. But I’m just not motivated enough to do that, so instead I ordered 80 pounds of sand, which I’ve spread all around my living room, and I’m dipping my feet in an aquarium containing salt water and some jellyfish.

The album begins with screeching tires and cheering as the Muppets arrive at the beach. Kermit mentions a van, although I think it’s more fun to imagine the whole gang crammed into that tiny Jeep Fozzie is driving on the cover. Hey, speaking of the cover: This is apparently a nude beach, because Piggy has chosen to remove her bikini top and feed it to a shark. (The gloves stay on, of course.)

Anyway, the whole gang is there and they’re ready for a good time. Fozzie has the Frisbee! Bunsen has the sunscreen (a good move, because if Bunsen got sunburned his head would look more like a tomato than a honeydew)! Kermit says, “We’re gonna have a beach party!”

YAY! See? Just 25 seconds in, and this record is fun already! And then they jump right into the first song, “Surfin’,” which is sung by Kermit and his pal… Clifford?

I have nothing against the guy — I really liked his smooth, besunglassed incarnation, and even the high-strung other-Clifford on Muppets Tonight had a lot of funny moments — but now that I’m actually thinking about this album as I listen to it, it does seem weird that the least-known character gets to sing the first track with Kermit. Why not Gonzo? Or as long as they’re going beyond the core cast, why not Floyd? Man, Floyd was so underutilized in the 90s. And the 80s. And the 2000s.

As for the aforementioned “every line followed by an aside” quirk, this song is a major offender:

Kermit: If everybody had a notion…
Clifford: YEAH?
Kermit: Across the USA…
Clifford: HA HA HAHA HAHA HA!
Kermit: Then everybody’d be surfin’‚ like Califor-ni-ay…
Clifford: GO ON!
Kermit: You’d see ‘em wearing their baggies…
Clifford: THAT’S RIGHT!
Kermit: Huarache sandals too…
Clifford: I GOT MINE ON!

And so on.

“Uno! Dos! One, two, tres, cuatro!” Gonzo’s sudden bilingualism means it’s time for him to sing “Wooly Bully” with Rizzo and Fozzie. That’s right, it’s all three of the major Muppet characters whose names contain the letter “z.” As they all sing and yell at each other, we hear the roars of the titular Wooly Bully. What do you suppose a Muppet Wooly Bully would look like?

snuffybully
Fozzie shouts “INSTRUMENTAL!” at one point in this song, just like Animal does on the later Kermit Unpigged. Eventually, the song ends, Fozzie and Gonzo and Rizzo scream in terror, and we hear only the bellows of the Wooly Bully, who has presumably caught them and eaten them.

Under the Boardwalk” starts with Clifford meeting the Surf Rats, who live on the beach, and who appear to be led by Rizzo. Or is it Steve Whitmire doing a rat voice for a different character? It sounds just like Rizzo, anyway. Clifford gets the lead vocal, and this is one track that’s pretty much free of the stray remarks after every line.

It’s worth noting that this song features an example of Muppet censorship: The Drifters’ version of this song that always gets played on the radio includes the line “We’ll be makin’ love,” but here Clifford sings “We’ll be falling in love.” But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a song about a guy and his girlfriend doing who-knows-what on a blanket while hiding from the crowds. Yowza. And then the song ends with Clifford telling the rats to go away, so he can get some action.

The next track starts with Gonzo exclaiming, “Hey look, we’re at the beach!” Um, yeah. Where have you been for the last three songs, including the one you sang? Rizzo is starved, and Gonzo says he knows the perfect place to eat around here: the “Sugar Shack.” And now we’re back to the constant asides after every lyric, like so:

Gonzo: It’s just a coffee house, and it’s made out of wood…
Rizzo: THAT’S OKAY!
Gonzo: Espresso coffee tastes mighty good…
Rizzo: CAPPUCINO!

It makes me wonder how things would have gone if they had chosen different songs for this album. Like, say:

Gonzo: Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…
Rizzo: IS THERE SOMETHING YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?
Gonzo: Looking for my lost shaker of salt…
Rizzo: I THINK I SAW IT OVER THERE, GONZO.
Gonzo: Some people say that there’s a woman to blame, but I think…
Rizzo: WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Eventually it becomes clear that Gonzo loves the Sugar Shack because Camilla works there, and he wants to “make that girl love me when I put out some trash.” Rizzo responds, “What’s that mean?”, and I’m with the rat on this one. What DOES that mean?

I remember being weirded out by Gonzo’s singing voice in this song, as this was the first time he ever sounded so much like Dave Goelz’s normal voice. I was also shocked and scandalized when I realized that Camilla was voiced by Steve Whitmire here rather than Jerry Nelson, until I realized that Jerry probably just wasn’t at the studio that day, and they figured nobody would notice. And most people wouldn’t, but I happen to be a pretty excellent chicken voice chaser.

And we’re back to Kermit and Piggy. Piggy has her new bikini on, but she doesn’t want to come out of the locker. I know this is all just setting up “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” but since when would Piggy be so shy about flaunting what she’s got?

But there’s no time to ponder it, because now it’s time for “Limbo Rock‚” with Fozzie on lead vocal! This is a good one, and I only wish we could actually see the Muppets getting their limbo on instead of just hearing it. But is it really fair that the limbo stick is lower for Beaker’s turn than it is for Rizzo’s? Poor Beaker… doomed to fail, even in limbo.

singingclamsNext, Kermit and Clifford find some clams, who proceed to sing ‚”Papa Oom Mow Mow,” a song about man’s futile eternal quest to make sense of the world around him. This song is not performed by the Muppet performers, but by Rockapella. Was Rockapella actually big enough in 1993 to justify taking a track away from the Muppets? Perhaps I’m underestimating their hugeness during their Carmen San Diego heyday.

“Hey! Maybe we should invite these guys to the clambake! Er… no…” says Kermit, which is a pretty lazy joke. Perhaps it would have been funnier if he’d said, ‚”Hey, maybe we should kill these guys and eat them!”

Kermit and Piggy take a nice walk along the sand, and Kermit sings “Kokomo‚Äù while Frank Oz tries to come up with 50 different ways of sighing and saying “Oh, Kermie‚” so we don’t forget Piggy is there. There was a music video of this song, but it’s different — the whole point of the video is that Piggy’s not even there until the very end of the song, when she catches Kermit checking out some beach babes.

The original recording of “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys is a song some people deeply despise, and I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I get that it’s a very silly pop song by a band that did much better songs at their peak, but I just don’t see it as offensively terrible. Speaking of offensive, here’s more Muppet censorship! “We’ll be falling in love, under a tropical island sky,” says Kermit, replacing the original’s “tropical contact high.”  Aww, come on. Kids wouldn’t know what that means. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what it means.

Next, the Surf Rats do “Surfin’‚” featuring the only ever appearance of Buzz the Wharf Rat, who sings bass. This is actually one of the best tracks on the album — a straightforward rendition of the song, with a lot of energy and without the interruptions. Maybe Muppet fans would like this album more if Buzz the Wharf Rat appeared on every song.

Walking on Sunshine” is yet another Clifford spotlight, with Gonzo and Rizzo backing him up on pots and pans. They should use this version in movie trailers instead of the real song — it’s gotta be cheaper, right? I guess Clifford is singing this to the same gal he was getting to second base with under the boardwalk earlier… which might be why they chose him for these particular tunes. Somehow it would seem weird if Bunsen were singing about his girlfriend, but with Clifford it works.

Next, Robin and his Frog Scout buddies handle “Fun Fun Fun,” and it lives up to its title despite the absence of any of the major Muppets. This song of course has the most blatant example of censorship, as “Well she took her daddy’s car and goes cruisin’ to the hamburger stand now” replaces the original “Well she took her daddy’s car, and hey kids, drugs are totally fun so be sure you take lots and lots of them!”

Up next: “Wipeout” by Animal, who screams the title repeatedly and makes me wonder if Frank Oz lost his voice recording this. There was a funny little video for this song too:

Okay, so now there must be a big finale, right? A rockin’ party song by the whole Muppet cast to close the album out, Muppet party style? Yeah! So what is it?

Oh, there’s not one. That is the end of the album. Okay.

So how does Muppet Beach Party hold up? Well, I still like it. I certainly get what some people find grating about it… It could have benefited greatly from some actual jokes, and the complete lack of any kind of running storyline between songs is a missed opportunity, but I don’t see a reason to declare an album of Muppets doing happy pop songs a Bad Thing. It’s not a Great Thing. It may even be merely an Average Thing. But I’m happy it exists.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put some lotion on this sunburn.

Click here to put out some trash on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com



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