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July 26, 2016

Sesame Needle Drop: ON THE STREET WHERE WE LIVE: BLOCK PARTY!

Filed under: Feature,Reviews — Tags: , , , — Ryan Roe @ 8:00 am

Sesame Street has released well over a hundred albums in its four-decade history. So here’s my brilliant idea for a Tough Pigs article series: I’m going to listen to Sesame Street albums, and then I’m going to write about them. It’s Sesame Needle Drop!

It’s summer!  I can tell because I start sweating as soon as I walk outside.  For this long-overdue new installment of Sesame Needle Drop, I’ve decided to cover the most summery Sesame Street record I could think of: 1978’s On the Street Where We Live: Block Party!  

Sesame Block Party

As the title suggests, this one is about the residents of Sesame Street getting together for a party in the neighborhood.  DISCLAIMER: They never actually say it’s summer, but I’m sticking with it as my choice for summeriest Sesame album, because that’s when most block parties happen, and because everyone on the cover is wearing short sleeves, except Maria, who is inexplicably wearing a turtleneck sweater.  

I didn’t discover Block Party until I was an adult Sesame Street fan, but I loved it from the first time I heard it.  I’ve always liked the humans of Sesame Street just about as much as the Muppets, and this album lets the humans take center stage.  This is no surprise, because it was co-produced by David himself, Northern Calloway.  Northern’s name shows up in the writing credits of several tracks, too.  This thing has more Northern songs than a Beatles record!

For some reason beyond all human understanding, this album is not available on iTunes or Amazon.  But you might be able to find it on some kind of tube-related website.

Big Bird nest
Come Along – Big Bird and the Cast (by Gavin Spencer and Northern Calloway)

Big Bird wakes up at an ungodly hour, all excited for the Sesame Street block party.  Nobody else is awake yet, so he yells about the party until the entire neighborhood wakes up.  Fortunately, I haven’t just been jolted out of blissful slumber by a screaming six-year-old, so I can enjoy this song, which effectively gets across the feeling that something wonderful is beginning.  The arrangement isn’t the typical Sesame style, but it’s uplifting, and it’s easy to imagine this as a street scene with all the humans setting up for the party while singing along with Big Bird.

Everyone’s going to be there, Big Bird says.  All the grown-ups, John-John… There’s no mention of any other Muppets, so I guess Bert and Ernie were invited to some other party across town.  But here are a few people Big Bird sees at the party: Muffin, Jesse, and Ben!  What?  Who’s Muffin?

Big Bird on Sesame Street
Monkey See, Monkey Do – Big Bird, with Bob and Maria (by Gavin Spencer and Northern Calloway)

Now Big Bird is disappointed, because he wants to play with somebody, but all the grown-ups are too busy.  They’re busy setting up for the party you woke them up for, you dumb bird!

Happily for him, and excruciatingly for everyone else, Big Bird has a brilliant idea:  A copycat game!  He’ll follow people around, and repeat exactly what they say.  “There is is nothing greater than to be an imitator,” he sings.  Wanna bet?

How many kids do you think learned this “fun game” from this record and drove their parents crazy with it?  Speaking of which, one of my favorite parts is when Maria says, “Bob, why is he saying everything I say?” and then Bob says, “I don’t know but it’s driving me bananas!”  And then Big Bird says “…it’s driving me bananas!” with the exact same squeaky inflection as Bob.

Like the first track, the arrangement is a departure from what was heard on the TV show at the time.  There are these almost symphonic-sounding strings that are probably way too classy for a song about a bird playing a silly kids’ game.  I dig what Northern Calloway, co-producer Gavin Spencer, and arranger Jeremy Stone are doing here.  It’s a Sesame Street album that feels like its own thing.

Gordon Children's Television Workshop
Soul Food – Gordon (Gorham and Malamet)

Yeah, man.  This is my favorite song on the album.  Gordon’s contribution to the block party is a soul food stand, and here he sings a song about how great the food is.  When I hear it, I picture Gordon dancing around wearing an apron and a chef’s hat and holding a pair of tongs, and I love it.  He never really gets around to defining soul food, or why it’s so great.  He just gives examples of it and insists that you try it, and that’s enough.

“Everybody’s got soul food, would you like to buy some?” he says.  Hey, if everybody’s already got soul food, why do I need to buy it?  That question is never answered, but it doesn’t matter, because the steel drums and horns and Roscoe Orman’s spirited vocals make me want to get up and dance, and I don’t even like to dance.  (The song also makes me hungry — good thing I like to eat.)

Susan Sesame Street sign
Blowin’ My Bubbles – Susan (Fechtor)

On this listen, I realized that the background sound effects of cars, tweeting birds, and other street noises show up between tracks and during the dialogue sections throughout the whole album.  It all adds up to making me feel like I’m really just hanging out on Sesame Street for a day.

Susan approaches a girl named Diana, who’s blowing bubbles.  Susan is amused by this: “Can I try?” she asks.  “I haven’t done this for such a long time.”  And then: “Can I use it for a while?”  And just like that, Susan takes a little girl’s bubbles and walks away with them.  What happened to sharing and taking turns?  Nope, that’s all out the window.  Susan wants to blow bubbles!

This is a mellow song about putting your cares aside to focus on the pleasures of blowing bubbles.  Who knew Susan was such a hippie?  At one point, Susan sings “It’s a polka-dot sky today,” which makes me wonder what kind of weird pollution they have on Sesame Street.  Later, she claims one of the bubbles looks like an elephant, and the kids humor her, but when she tries to insist one of them resembles a poodle, the kids aren’t buying it.  But Susan doesn’t care.  It’s a bubbly day today.

Bob Sesame Street sign
Here In My Neighborhood – Bob (by Alan Menken)

Alan Menken!  He’s the guy who did those songs from Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and stuff!  It turns out before he wrote songs for plants, crabs, and candlesticks, he wrote for Bobs.

Gordon’s going to try riding that skateboard over there, which leaves Bob and Maria alone on the street.  There’s this exchange:

Maria: Hi, Bob.  

Bob: Hi, Maria.  Say, would you like to sit down for a minute, and have a little talk?  

Maria: Okay.  

She does not sound into it.  She’s just too polite to tell Bob she’d rather go watch Gordon fall off the skateboard, so she listens to him blather on about how nice it is to live on their block.  See, a lot of blocks look the same, with buildings, windows, doors, and fire hydrants, but the most important thing about a block, Bob says, is having nice neighbors.  Because this is an audio recording, we can only imagine Maria glancing at her watch.

If I had owned this album as a kid, this would have been the Boring Song that I would have tried to skip over (I say “tried” because with my li’l hands, I probably would have ended up scratching the dickens out of the vinyl record).  But it’s a nice sentiment, and Bob sings it as beautifully as you’d expect.  I’ve never gotten to know my neighbors, but this song makes me think I should.  There could be a Gordon or a Mr. Hooper living on my block!

rp_300px-Oscar-can-221x300.jpg
Who Wants to Go to a Party? – Oscar (by Joe Raposo)

We’ve come all this way, and the only Muppet presence has been two songs by Big Bird.  Fortunately, Caroll Spinney plays another character, and it’s time for him to shine.  With a Joe Raposo song, no less.

You know how everyone’s been having a great time at the party so far?  Yeah, Oscar hates parties.  “Who wants to go to a party, after it’s said and done?  Singin’ and dancin’ and acting nice, that’s not my kind of fun!” he sings.  It’s not unlike “I Hate Christmas,” or even “A Very Unhappy Birthday (to You).”  Oscar doesn’t want to have fun, he’d rather complain.  If your party’s outdoors, he’ll pray for rain.  That’s harsh, Oscar!

Then there’s this verse: “Who wants to go to a party with people I hardly know?  Sweaty little handshakes and howdy-dos — I could never stoop that low!”  And this… this is where I start identifying with Oscar.  I’m not the biggest party person myself.  I guess the difference is that I’d often prefer to sit on the couch and watch Netflix, whereas Oscar would rather wallow in garbage.

Ooh, I love the turn-the-record-over messages from these old LPs!  Oscar gets the honors here: “If you want to know how this rotten party turns out, you’ll have to turn this crummy record over now.  Pah!”

olivia1
Block Party – Olivia (by Gavin Spencer and Northern Calloway)

Olivia!  She was like Sesame Street’s secret vocal weapon.  If this album was a live musical, this funky, upbeat number by Olivia would be the perfect song for coming back from intermission.  It’s a disco-tinged song about how much fun everyone is having at the block party.  YEAH!  Party!  “Yes, honey, we’re gonna tear it down!” Olivia exclaims at one point.  And she does.

David Sesame Street sign
The Shim Sham Jamboree – David (by Brown and Jon Stone)

This is a song called “The Shim Sham Jamboree,” performed by David and a band he’s conducting.  The lyrics tell the story of “The Shim Sham Jamboree,” a song performed by David and the band he’s conducting.  It’s a song about itself!  Mind-blowing, self-aware meta-lyrics like this are normally only seen in songs that instruct you on how to do the latest dance.

David is leading a band, and he’s having such a great time, giggling and calling out to the musicians, and it’s tempting to say some of this must be Northern Calloway’s own excitement coming out.  The band’s pretty rough around the edges, which must have been fun for the real band to play in the studio, but David’s enthusiasm never wanes: “Here’s where we start swinging.  Woo!  Dixie!”

When it’s all over, he asks, “How’d you like that, gang?”  One person claps.  Gordon mumbles, “Oh, well, uh… I never heard anything quite like it!”  Bob says, “Well, David, I… I just don’t know what to say!”  Aww, David’s friends can’t even be bothered to pretend they liked his band.

Maria David smooch
You’re the Best Friend I Ever Had – Maria (by Gavin Spencer and Northern Calloway)

But then there’s Maria, whom you may recall was David’s girlfriend at the time.  “Anyway, I liked it,” she offers, semi-convincingly.  Then, because it’s Sesame Street, she launches into this jazzy cheer-up song. It begins “Even though you can’t lead a band, and sometimes you’re hard to understand…” Gee, Maria, don’t butter him up too much.

She reminds David of the times she felt bad and he cheered him up.  He’s her best friend, and that’s all that matters!  During an instrumental section, David knocks some stuff over and breaks a plate, but Maria keeps singing the song.  David might fail at everything he tries, but he’s a good friend, and that’s valuable.  You know, that’s actually a good lesson.

The song ends with Maria going “Mwah!”  Which presumably means she just kissed David in front of his band, so it’s a good day for him after all.

I've Got Two Bob Susan
Upside Down, Inside Out – Bob and the Kids (Namanworth and Levine)

This one starts with Bob playing the piano.  Did he bring his piano down to the street for the block party?  Doesn’t Bob live above Hooper’s?  How did he get it down there?

“Is that something you wrote?” a kid asks.  “No,” he says, “it’s something I just like.”  So… somebody else wrote it?  The kids get a great idea: “Let’s sing a song!”  Sure, that’s fine.  Anything as long as you’re not playing a copycat game.

It’s been a while since I listened to this album, and this was the one song I didn’t remember at all.  It’s another pro-friendship song… It seems that when Bob is feeling upside-down and inside-out, you can turn his seams around, and put his toes back on the ground with just the love in your eyes.  It sounds like a late-1970s easy-listening pop song, so I tried looking it up to see if it existed before, but all I found was an OK Go song and an unrelated Diana Ross song.  So I guess this was just a song written for this record.  It’s pleasant.

Susan1094
Win Or Lose – Susan (by Alan Menken)

Another Alan Menken joint!  The gang is playing baseball, and Susan sings one of those songs about how it doesn’t matter if you win, just that you play the best game you can.  It’s a nice sentiment, and one that comes up a lot in children’s entertainment, but it was not especially comforting to me as a youth, because I knew I would never, ever, ever be good at sports.  

“The times we lose make it nicer for the times we win,” Susan sings.  But what if you never win?  “Win or lose, win or lose, it doesn’t matter either way” sounds great coming from Susan, but have you ever tried selling that philosophy to the kids on your team playing basketball in 6th grade P.E.?

Anyway, Susan sings good.

Big Bird baseball
Just One Person – David, Gordon, and Susan (by Hal Hackaday and Larry Grossman)

It’s Big Bird’s turn at bat, and he’s super-nervous.  Maria tells him he’s going to hit a home run, because his friends believe in him.  That’s when David starts singing the song from Snoopy the Musical that every veteran Muppet fan knows by heart.

So yeah, you already know how the song goes.  David believes in Big Bird, and then so does Gordon, and so does Susan, and then so does a studio full of backup singers (though Leslie Uggams is nowhere to be seen).  And then Big Bird hits a home run!  Whew, that’s a relief.  All those people would have felt pretty silly if they had sung that whole big musical number and then Big Bird struck out.  “Boy, am I great,” Big Bird says as the track fades out.  Now all those people just have to sing the whole song every time he goes up to bat.


And that’s the end of the album.  There’s no song about how the block party is over now and they have to clean up all the trash strewn everywhere by careless party-goers, which seems like a missed opportunity for another Oscar track. 

But boy, this is a great record.  It’s full of joy and good vibes, and all the original songs are good, and it’s a great showcase for the talents of Northern Calloway and his colleagues.  Even though I never heard it as a youngster, I’m really glad I eventually came across it.

I’m also glad I’m sitting inside in the air conditioning instead of standing around at a block party in the sweltering heat.

Click here to buy some soul food on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com



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