My Week with Muppet Music
by Kynan Barker
July 15-19, 2002
Monday, July 15
At last, a Tough Pigs column where I get to review Muppet Hits and answer the question, "What do Jeff Buckley, Frank Sinatra, Queen and the Muppets have in common?"
The answer, obviously, is "compilation albums." Sure, it might be all the rage now, especially if you're dead, but those crazy show-biz trend-setting Muppets were repackaging their "lost" tunes long before it was fashionable. 1993's Muppet Hits album is a cut and paste job from two out-of-print Muppet Show cast albums, which basically means that some lucky Jim Henson Records executive got to put together a mixed tape of all his favorite stuff, and then actually release it.
(When I say "lucky," of course I mean "lucky" in the sense of "someone who has a really cool job for about three weeks, until that job, along with the whole department, suddenly ceases to exist." But still. Hands up, who wouldn't trade a lifetime of security for three volatile weeks in a brand new disaster-bound Henson venture?)
I have no idea how many copies of Muppet Hits were printed, but I do know this -- you can't buy it anymore, and it's doing better as a bootleg than it ever did when it was openly available in stores. For some reason, we Muppet fans don't like to make life easy on ourselves, or on JHC -- we're constantly engaged in an inexplicable game of Retail Peek-A-Boo.
JHC: Do you want Muppet stuff?
Fans: Yes! Yes we do!
JHC: Do you REALLY want Muppet stuff?
Fans: Yes! Please let us buy Muppet stuff!
JHC: Okay, you win! It's in stores now! Knock yourselves out!
[ FANS HIDE. SOUND OF CRICKETS CHIRPING. A TUMBLEWEED ROLLS BY. ]
And then, years later, suddenly it's doing a roaring trade as a rare cassette or MP3. But that doesn't help our poor little hypothetical Henson Records exec, does it?
But this album is such a blast, it should be in every fan's collection. Maybe the problem is that all the fans already had the albums it was culled from, or maybe we were just slow to discard our old 8-tracks and join the CD revolution, I don't know, but from the moment Kermit chirps, "It's the Muppet Show!" and Sam Pottle's theme starts up, this is fantastic entertainment.
In between the tracks, there's a bunch of comedy clips, the kind I usually find annoying on soundtrack albums. But these are all short, and for the most part, the routines are actually deserving of a word like "classic" -- Fozzie's audio-only hat tricks ("What, you couldn't hear my ears wiggle?"), Sam's intro to Wayne and Wanda ("Besides being tremendous singers, they're also church people"), and a couple of gorgeous Statler and Waldorf moments. (Waldorf's response to "Happy Feet": "You know, on the show that wasn't funny. But on the record, it doesn't even make sense!")
Some of the material just doesn't play properly on an album -- Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone, Wayne and Wanda's "Trees," and Zoot's "Sax and Violence" being prime examples of essentially visual gags. The Muppaphone and "Trees" kinda work, but it helps to know what you're missing, whereas "Sax and Violence" is just music and an explosion.
Some of the tracks, of course, are beyond any kind of criticism. (Like I'm even gonna try to take a crack at "Mahna Mahna.") I could have lumped "Happy Feet" into that list of visual sketches just now, but I didn't... partly because Waldorf has already complained about it, and partly because it's such a great sing-along, tap-along, frog-along number that it deserves to be on an album. "Cuento Le Gusta," "The Rhyming Song," "Upidee," "Borneo," "I'm Five" and the unutterably perfect Richard/Jerry duet "Mr. Bassman" also all get thumbs up, from both the Ebert and the Roeper sides of my brain.
"Coconut" nearly made the list, but the song just bugs me. "There's A New Sound" is just weird, despite the big "yay" factor of being a Scooter song. (No worm I've ever heard sounds anything like this.) There's also not enough Gonzo or Rowlf.
All up, I'd like to finish by urging you to go buy Muppet Hits from your nearest retail store, but I can't, because it's not available anymore. So the best compromise I can suggest is this: (A) bug someone to dupe a copy for you, and (B) next time you see a Jim Henson Records executive, toss a few coins in his cup. C'mon, it's been eight years since his last paycheck.
Tuesday, July 16
In our last episode, the 90's Muppet revolution began with a re-release of 70's Muppet Show material. Basically, the Muppets said, "Hey, look, we're back," and then celebrated with a nostalgia trip. But then they did something new with that nostalgia, and brought out 1993's Muppet Beach Party, an album of all-new Muppet cover songs. Which should have been a brilliant idea -- cashing in on the Muppet resurgence with a triumphant, goofy album of reinvented songs. Um, except that most of those songs date back to the 70's.
So, the problem is that Henson Productions was trying to make the Muppets popular by releasing an album that would've been nostalgic back when the Muppets were popular. And I'm no business strategist or pop culture historian, but I don't think the public were exactly clamoring for a big surf music comeback anymore than they were clamoring for a big Muppet comeback. My only comfort is that the "beach party" idea won out over an even worse suggestion, like barbershop, say, or Bulgarian percussion-based reggae.
So we've got a surf album, and hey, lookit all them Beach Boys songs: "Surfin' USA," "Surfin'", "Fun Fun Fun" -- even the execrable but seemingly obligatory "Kokomo" gets a run. That's gotta be fun. Except, well, as much fun as Beach Boys sing-alongs are in the car, if you're going to put them on an album, they've really got to be done well. Is it wrong to criticize a Muppet album for covering songs that require better performances than the Muppets are allowed to give? I guess my problem is, if you're in the mood to hear "Surfin' USA," you play a Beach Boys album. So the only time you'd want to play this one would be if you're in the mood to hear a not-quite-right version of "Surfin' USA."
But, of course, it IS wrong to criticize a Muppet album on the musical performances. It's just that, well, "Fun Fun Fun" is actually a pretty good version, but Jerry Nelson's more-than-competent lead vocal as Robin, no matter how (ahem) fun, kind of makes me long for a serious lead vocal -- say, Jerry Nelson as Floyd, or even Jerry Nelson as Jerry Nelson.
"Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," sung by Kermit and Piggy, is also kinda fun, but the song was always irredeemably silly, and adding puppets to the mix doesn't really help in the musical integrity stakes. So let's leave musical integrity aside for a moment and ask, "Is it funny?" The answer is, yeah, once or twice. Just maybe not funny enough to sit through "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" too many times.
Oh, there's good stuff here -- "Under the Boardwalk" and "Walkin' On Sunshine" both especially benefit from Kevin Clash's terrific singing voice; "Wipe Out" is another great vehicle for Animal, and "Sugar Shack," as performed by Rizzo and Gonzo, is the perfect marriage of concept, performance and material -- it's as close as it's possible to come to the ideal Muppet cover song. But it's also "Sugar Shack."
And this is the whole problem with the album. No matter how good it is, it's still just a damn beach party album, which was never going to sell to anybody but hardcore Muppet fans and really hardcore Brian Wilson completists. And look at me -- I'm both, and I still can't quite bring myself to entirely like it.
But because I'm more the former than the latter, I still can't quite bring myself to dislike it, either.
Wednesday, July 17
All of these Muppet albums that I'm reviewing this week were released back in 1993 and 1994, and so far, 1993 is feeling very familiar. I haven't been a hardcore fan that long -- really only since 1996 -- but I know a Muppet Comeback year when I see one. New stuff, new appearances, new energy... and a little edge of hoping that you've forgotten that this didn't quite work the last time.
The problem with the comeback year is, of course, that the remake is never quite as good as the original. It's hard to know what the public is going to want the Muppets to be -- should they be a nostalgic re-run, or a forward-looking next generation? The old stuff, -- full of vaudeville routines, novelty songs and Broadway show-stoppers -- may just seem corny. On the other hand, trying too hard to be modern and "hip" can be even more corny. What's a franchise to do?
One answer, at least in 1993, was Rowlf the Dog: Ol' Brown Ears is Back, a CD made up of unreleased Rowlf tracks that Henson recorded in 1984. It's the perfect release for a comeback year -- brand-new vintage stuff, just like you would have remembered if it had ever been released in the first place. Pre-fab nostalgia.
This album tries to bypass the corny/hip problem by just being silly and sincere... and completely old-fashioned. It starts with the old Groucho Marx classic "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," and danged if Rowlf doesn't sound like the natural heir to Groucho. He's got the wisecracks, he's got the limited musical ability, and he's got the whole lotta bluster. And apart from that, it's a great little song.
But this is 1993. Who on Earth was buying novelty song albums in 1993? Especially albums with novelty songs from 1939 sung by fictional characters who were last seen on TV in the early 80's? Everything about this album seems unlikely -- oh, yeah, and then there's that whole unfortunate problem of Ol' Brown Ears himself not being around to promote the fact that he was back. Rowlf wasn't actually dead, he wasn't actually in retirement... he was just sort of in limbo, kind of like Al Gore. Who would buy this album?
And who cares, when Rowlf is so amazing? He introduces "Cottleston Pie" by explaining that this is the song Winnie the Pooh used to sing "when his brain felt fluffy." Then he gives us a running commentary throughout the song: "Now, this is where the song does what you call, modulate." After changing chords: "That's G sharp minor." It's beautiful music you can giggle to. And how about this, during "When": "When the whippoorwill is singing in the forest... That's the whippoorwill right there." What other performer would take the time to point out the whippoorwill? Not Neil Diamond, that's for sure. Many's the whippoorwill that's passed Neil by without even a mention in his fan-club newsletter.
Rowlf gets to step out on his own here, and he's beautiful. He's rich and real and full of soul. There's no performance about it, either from Jim, who disappears completely into Rowlf, or from Rowlf himself, who's just a natural performer. Listening to him is like listening to Groucho or Victor Borge in full flight -- effortless and funny and sad all at once.
Rowlf knows that he's singing old-fashioned novelty songs. He knows it's corny. He doesn't care. The album will sell two copies. It doesn't matter. It's just so beautiful. I wouldn't say that this is necessarily the way that Henson should approach the next comeback year -- either this 25th anniversary year, or the next comeback, which I'm pencilling in for sometime around the fall of 2005 -- but you have to respect it.
Thursday, July 18
I have mixed feelings about kids. I'm not one of these kid-haters who meet every prepubescent with a scowl, expecting to be pelted with used gum and GameBoy cartridges, but I'm not exactly out there browsing the aisles of Adoptions'R'Us with Billy Bob and Angelina, either. It is my sincere belief that children are unrivalled as an effective means of producing adults. (And vice, now that I come to think of it, versa.)
My point is that usually, when I'm writing about Sesame Street stuff, I either have half a mind to the Hypothetical Ideal Demographic Kid, or I'm tapping into my own Inner Kid. So I'm enjoying it as a fan, and as a Child-at-Heart, and you know, there's levels. But today -- forget about the kids. The kids are off the list. Today, it's all about Grown-Up Sesame.
Today, I'm listening to what Big Bird refers to, in an odd turn of phrase, as "the band you've known for all these years, the Sesame Street Beetles!"
The album: Sesame Road.
So far this week, I've been listening to bootlegs of albums that I really should have owned, but never did. (Actually, they're quite nice cassette copies, and strictly for professional purposes, but "bootleg" sounds so much cooler.) But Sesame Road -- this one, I own. This one, I've been playing for my own amusement for weeks. This one's cool.
I mean... you know... Geek Cool.
Let's start with the cover -- a loving parody of the Beatles' Abbey Road, with cute details for the folks who care, right down to the little suits on Elmo, Oscar, Cookie and the Bird, and, just visible behind a Volkswagen (license plate number: CTW), Prairie Dawn, Ernie and Bert. (Conspiracy theorists: Both Oscar and Big Bird are barefoot. Who buried who?)
So what I was saying about levels is that you don't have to imagine how it might be entertaining for a kid, or how if you were a parent it might make a nice break from sitting through Barney albums or whatever. You don't have to know how much research and insight went into crafting these songs as educational tools. You can enjoy it at whatever level it strikes you. But this is the real genius of Sesame Road -- it actually does work on all those levels.
This is a compilation of pop song parodies and pastiches from the Street, spanning 1973 to 1992, and the name of Christopher Cerf figures very prominently -- fourteen of the twenty tracks feature Cerf as a writer or co-writer. His "Letter B" opens the album, "Healthy Food" and "Rebel L" are smack in the middle, and "Hey Food" closes it, making this pretty much a Cerf safari.
If you're somewhere around the age of 25, and you watched Sesame Street growing up, chances are your first exposure to the music of the Beatles wasn't their music at all -- it would have been something on this album. I have three separate friends who all, like me, grew up thinking that "Let It Be" actually was about the second letter of the alphabet. Now, there may be some Beatles purists out there who think that's a travesty, but these are people who bought Paul McCartney's book of poems, so who's laughing now?
Most of the people I've played these songs for have asked, "Did they pay to use Beatles songs?" So I feel obliged to point out that the music is entirely original -- they're close sound-alikes, but they're not identical. Sound-alikes are deceptively difficult to write, and well-produced sound-alikes are extremely rare indeed. Sesame kids have been very well looked-after over the years.
Here's an example. This is "Letter B."
When I find I can't remember
What comes after A and before C
My mother always whispers, Letter B
She told me B starts "big" and "bird"
And "ball" and "bat" and "battery"
Yes, "buh buh buh buh buh" means Letter B
Letter B, Letter B
Letter B, Letter B
She whispers "buh buh buh means Letter B"
And when I feel downhearted
Mother whispers B words constantly
Like "big," "Bob," "bald" and "bubble," Letter B
Now in my hour of darkness
There's a sound I know will comfort me
It's the "buh buh buh buh buh" of letter B
Letter B, Letter B
Letter B, Letter B
My mother whispers B words, Letter B
Now, that's not just an educational parody of the Beatles song. It's also funny and really deeply weird in its own right.
Of all the albums I'm looking at this week, this is the only one that actually ventures unapologetically into the realm of the song parody. You can see why Sesame Street needs to appeal to as broad an audience as possible -- it's that levels thing -- and song parodies are a really effective way of doing that. But why is only Sesame Street doing it? Why is Sesame Road the most listenable album I've reviewed this week?
Surely the classic Muppets also need to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. And, in fact, it should be even easier for them, since they don't have a curriculum to follow -- they just have to do silly songs, they don't got to educate nobody. But it's "Hey Food" I'm humming this week, not "Woolly Bully." It's buh-buh-buh-baffling.
What's in here? Oh, look, an album!
Friday, July 19
So how should they do it, this Muppet Comeback CD thing? For my money, it ought to be with clever, character-based parodies... but so far, that's been more Sesame territory.
The Muppets are more of a cover band, really. They do Muppet versions of music-hall tunes, or Christmas carols, or the Beach Boys back catalog -- but it's almost always old songs. The only time they really do original songs is in the movies, unless it's the Muppets From Space soundtrack, which is all covers, including a cover version of a song from their first movie. So, cover band it is.
The rules of cover bands are, essentially: Pack the audience with your friends, buy them a couple rounds of drinks, and try not to suck. A bad cover band tries to sound just like the original song, but doesn't quite make it, so it's kind of like listening to a jukebox playing in the other room. A good cover band tries to make their version different than the original -- and the best cover bands have a cool gimmick, like they only play reggae versions of 70's commercial jingles, or they only play "Luka," or they play Grateful Dead songs between alternating bong hits.
The Muppets already have a gimmick -- they're Muppets -- so they're already one step ahead of the game. The question is, then, are their versions of songs any better than the original songs?
Which brings us to Kermit Unpigged -- the last album from the 1993-94 Jim Henson Records label. The big finale. The label-killer. The album that sold so few copies that Henson actually sued BMG Kidz for not selling enough copies.
Unpigged is the Muppets getting hip. It boasts a semi-hip pun title, a bunch of semi-hip celebrities, and a few hip tunes. But the hip tunes are padded out with a few not-so-hip tunes, and a semi-hip celebrity in the hand isn't quite worth two in the bush. In today's market, it'd cost you around five Don Henleys to get even a used Penelope Cruz. (And even then, you might need to throw in Joe Walsh, as well.)
Unpigged sends the Muppets running around, lost in a recording studio inhabited solely by Lily Tomlin and a bunch of Muppet-loving celebrities with backing tracks cued up. Some of it is cute, but for the most part, it's, well, incredibly corny. And not in the good way.
Sample Kermit dialogue:
"Hmm, I wonder who's in here?... Linda Ronstadt!"
"Gee, I wonder where the guys are. Better check in here... Don Henley!"
Only Piggy fares well in the stilted-celebrity-interaction stakes, bumping into Ozzy Osbourne, back when he was still a scary rocker guy, and not just a harmless MTV character. "Ozzy Osbourne?" she cries. "Boy, did I open the wrong door." Ozzy, never one to be put off by outright hostility, shouts, "Stick around, we're gonna ROOOOOOCK!" Piggy's deadpan response: "Ozzy... chill." Truer words have never been spoken. Ozzy's rendition of "Born To Be Wild" is actually surprisingly good, but he's really just there as a foil to Piggy, who punctuates his big finish with remarks like "Stop spitting!" and "Get off the floor."
Gonzo and Rizzo's interaction with Jimmy Buffett is also much more natural, except at the end of "Mr. Spaceman," when Jimmy gets into a flying saucer and goes back into space. I don't know, it's a gray area, I guess -- it's hard for a certified Muppet fan to roll his eyes and say "that's dumb," cause it's all dumb, and most of it's meant to be. But on this occasion, I think it really is dumb. Although Gonzo's throwaway at the end, "see you in the tabloids" did raise a smile.
Vince Gill's duet of "Daydream" with Kermit is good, but unmemorable -- I'm no huge country fan, but Vince Gill has one hell of a voice when he chooses to use it. He's mostly coasting here, but there's some nice harmonies, and Kermit has rarely sounded better -- his bop-bop-boppa-ba-dooping is reminiscient of the opening to The Muppets Take Manhattan, and that's a good thing.
"On Broadway," by George Benson, Clifford and a few rats, is worth sitting through to hear George do some cool scatting, and Linda Ronstadt erases all memory of bad dialogue with a to-die-for rendition of "All I Have To Do Is Dream."
Don Henley's "Bein' Green" is an amazing arrangement, and it should sound terrific, but Don draws the vocals out so long, affecting a jazz style that doesn't become him. At its best moments, this version teeters towards the heights reached easily by Ray Charles' magnificent version, but frustratingly, never quite gets there. It would be even better if it were on, say, a Don Henley album. A solo Don Henley covering the cover band, with Kermit right there in the room, just seems sort of disrespectful, not to mention dull. The crowd is getting drunker and angrier. Play Free Bird!
Getting back on track, Kermit, Floyd and Animal do a cute and funny version of "Wild Thing," just to prove that the Muppets have still got it. Floyd, of course, is more than welcome, in one of his only speaking appearances in the last decade. Kermit's break into his goofy ukelele version in the middle, and Animal's reaction, is my only real laugh listening to this record. I was going to quote Animal to prove how funny it is, but I realized that it'd just be a bunch of words in capitals.
But considering this album has "Wild Thing," "Born to Be Wild," and a Fine Young Cannibals number, then the choice of "All Together Now" as the big finish can only be described as odd. I mean, the Muppets always could appeal to everyone, so why not end on a toe-tappin' cutie-pie friendship song... but this definitely falls on the "corny" side of the line.
The crowd is restless. It's closing time, and if they're not playing "Stairway to Heaven" now, then it's just not gonna happen. But considering that it's eight years and counting till their next gig, I hope they come up with a more high-energy show next time. Maybe more of the Muppets, less of the intrusive guest stars, and a little more noise. We've been standing out here in the mosh pit for eight years, and we're not getting any prettier.
Here we are now. Entertain us.