Kieran Moore – So here we are – 1995 marks the 20th year since The Muppet Show debuted on TV. In the intervening decades the Muppets came a long way and yet as we’ll see in 1995 many things seem to stick firmly to the status quo. For example, Sesame Street is still educating and entertaining the world’s children and other assorted kids shows are being shown and produced; Muppets are making guest appearances on primetime TV and once again celebrating the season with a Christmas special. All of these things would be true for The Henson Company of the mid 1970s as much as they are for the mid 1990s. It’s kind of comforting that in the words of that great philosopher Jon Bon Jovi “The more things change the more the stay the same”
While all this is true, 1995 might actually have more in common with the earlier part of the 70s as it’s really all about the Sesame Street Gang – you’re not going to find much Fozzie Bear or Gonzo the Great here as the guys prep themselves for bigger things to come… But before all that, let’s get back to basics in both content and musical style…
10 – Gregorian Chant Letters – Sesame Street
I don’t normally feature the animated segments from Sesame Street, but I couldn’t resist the charms of these simple Gregorian chant-esque pieces. I’ve always loved this type of music and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for modern songs done in this style. I suppose it helps that they suit my tenor voice and I can get my monk on by singing along! This series of short clips includes the letters E, G, H, I, J, and Z and work nicely to break up the longer sequences that surround them. I’m constantly impressed with the range of styles (both musically and visually) that Sesame Street features. It’s a great way to expose kids to things they might not see otherwise. I love that seemingly nothing is off limits. Have they ever done thrash metal?
9 – Surfin’ Bird – The Bird is the Word
I’m sure some of you would list this track much higher than I have and I can totally see why so no hard feelings if you want to promote this track at home. It’s certainly a spirited performance from Caroll Spinney, but I think for me it seems just a little too animated (which is ironic for a record). There are places where Big Bird seems so manic that he feels almost out of character and a little bit angry. I don’t have anything against the song itself particularly, despite its place in musical history as one of the most annoying songs ever – in fact I only featured “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (which makes up part of this song) a few weeks ago. For me though, the best part of this track is Grover’s final line. It’s hilarious and just the kind of humor I find funniest!
8 – We’re Lumberjacks – Mr Willowby’s Christmas Tree
It seems the Muppets and Monty Python have at least one thing in common – both sets of lumberjacks seem to be ok (I can’t comment on their underwear arrangements!) This song is short, but does get repeated almost straight away as the lumberjacks arrive at Mr Willowby’s house and put up his perfect Christmas Tree (more on that later). There’s something kind of menacing about only seeing the singers of this song from the knee down. It’s an effective tool as it let’s us see them as the mice do and makes them much scarier than they might have been otherwise. Even though they aren’t villains per se they remind me a little of the farmers from “The Muppet Musicians of Bremen” which is one of my earliest Muppet memories. Of course showing characters from the knee down is something Jim wasn’t averse to either, having appeared himself as Charlie the Ogre in “Tales of the Tinkerdee” back in the 1960s. This song feels very “Muppet Treasure Island” which is fine by me.
7 – African Animal Alphabet – Sesame Street
So here we are with another animated letters sequence from Sesame Street – they seem to travel in pairs! There are three things I really like about this piece. First is the music itself which sounds perfectly African and yet somehow seems to encapsulate the musical style of 90s America. Perhaps the music of the time was very African-influenced? Second, the animation is bright and colorful and offers plenty to look at as the tiles flip to reveal African patterns and some interesting and unusual animals. Which brings me to my final point – in amongst all of the obvious creatures such as lion and elephant we get xerus and jerboa which also helps to set this apart. It’s nice not to see xylophone and yo-yo once again (ok, I know they’re not African animals, but you know what I mean!
6 – Bubble on My Snuffle – Sesame Street
What can I say about Snuffy? He’s a total sweetie – even if his lumbering stature and fantasy creature status do make him a little scary. I’m trying to decide if he’s the biggest softie in the Muppet canon – I guess Telly would be his biggest competition. This song with its Dixie jazz vibe has me reaching for my boater and cane so I can dance a soft shoe snuffle (I mean shuffle). Mr Snuffleupagus (as the bank likes to call him) was being performed by Martin P. Robinson (as I like to call him) by 1995 and at this point he had already been the man behind the snuffle for longer than Jerry Nelson and Michael Earl combined. You can still see Jerry’s influence here as the originator of the character, but Martin is very comfortable in Snuffy’s shaggy skin and gives a fabulous performance.
5 – Two Princes – Sesame Street
Could the start of this video look anymore 1995? It makes me want to wear baggy jeans and a checked shirt and watch “Toy Story” or “Clueless”. Who am I kidding? I do that every weekend anyway… This song actually missed out on a spot on my Sesame Street parody chart last year, but that was only because of how many songs fit that category and how good they are. It certainly deserves a top 10 spot so here it is. Sadly, The Spin Doctors haven’t stood the test of time quite as well as this classic clip has, but there’s no denying their talent. I’d love to be the person in the Sesame Street office that gets to listen to current music and see if it can fit into the show. How do I get that job? This parody takes the basic premise of the song and makes it all about co-operation which is a fun educational twist that might not be as appropriate for the original.
4 – Things That Go – Muppets on Wheels
These kid-friendly sing-along videos that the Muppets produced back in the day always seem a bit anomalous to me. This one feels like an extra bit of Muppet weirdness because it’s not an official Muppet sing-along even though its companion piece “Things that Fly” was. I’m sure there’s some legal contractual reason why. Here in the UK I remember we got a couple of the sing-along releases (“Billy Bunny…”, and “Bein’ Green”), but I don’t think these ever saw the light of day. Because Kermit is the only recognizable Muppet these feel very much like Sesame Street specials and it’s surprising to a certain extent that they aren’t. These direct to video offerings are a good rebuttal next time someone complains that Disney have made the franchise too kid-friendly. I love it when Kermit gets a bit rocky. Steve Whitmire and Bruce Lanoil do a superb job here.
3 – The Perfect Tree – Mr Willowby’s Christmas Tree
I’ve chosen to show the version of this song that makes up the finale to this special as for my money it’s the best combination of song and performance (and if you carry on watching you’ll get to see Kermit wish you “Happy Holidays” which is always worth the price of admission on its own). This Emmy-nominated song also opens Mr Willowby’s Christmas Tree, but I’m afraid I struggle a bit with Robert Downey Jr’s performance there. It’s not that I can’t get over Iron Man singing and dancing, it’s just that he sort of feels like he’s not really giving his all at that point. As the show progresses you see it’s actually just that the character of Mr Willowby is a bit out there, but that’s not obvious straight away. This song is sprinkled throughout the special to an incredible extent – it almost feels like a song with a story thrown in at certain points. My favorite versions are Stockard Channing’s short, but sweet rendition and the owl’s instrumental arrangement. When you think of Muppets and Christmas this special falls somewhere between the Lady Gaga special and complete oblivion on the recognition scale, but that’s a real shame.
2 – Little Things – Sesame Street
This song in its Prairie Dawn form has been a previous number one on my charts and here it slips to number two, but in some ways I think I actually prefer this version. Of course, Tony Bennett is a fantastic singer. His style of music isn’t one that I would say I’m a particular fan of, but quite frankly he could sing the phonebook and make it sound incredible so it’s no wonder he can turn this classic Joe Raposo number into something truly special. This is soft and soothing and makes me feel like I’m floating on a calm blue ocean, just drifting away to wherever I happen to end up. It’s blissful. I guess you could say the lyrics don’t mean as much as when they are sung by Prairie Dawn, but having Lexine start the song wishing she was big (where’s Zoltar when you need him?) and then deciding thanks to Tony that she believes in “little things” too is very sweet. Lexine Bondoc has a fantastic voice and duets well with Tony – it’s a shame she seems to have given up performing…
1 – Counting is Wonderful – Sesame Street
This version of this song is from the season 27 premiere of Sesame Street and is part of a street story that sees Big Bird suffer from memory flu. It’s a bit hokey, but as a plot device it’s quite clever for a season opener because it means they can go over the ethos of the show and its main educational messages without boring established viewers. One of those messages is mathematics and that’s where The Count comes in, singing this classic number with a few lyrical twists. It was actually quite close between this song and the previous one for the top spot, but any song featuring Jerry Nelson as Count Von Count gets a couple of extra awesome points and that tipped this over the edge. This song truly is awesome (as is Jerry). These last few charts have featured lots of new (at the time) Muppet performers so it’s cool to see Jerry still doing such wonderful work. This is one, one well-deserved chart-topping performance! AH HA HA!
Despite 1995 being a somewhat fallow year for the core Muppet gang this chart shows that musically the Henson Company was doing some wonderful things with a really diverse mix of styles. There are some pretty incredible songs and performances on this list, but I need to say a huge thank you to not just the people whose work is on display here, but everyone who worked on anything this year. You made my job very interesting this week. Thank You.