Wednesday 1 August 2012

The MUPPETS: The Muppet Show

(#184: 25 June 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: The Muppet Show Theme/Mississippi Mud/Mahna Mahna/The Great Gonzo Eats A Rubber Tyre To The Flight Of The Bumble Bee/Mr. Bassman/Cottleston Pie/The Amazing Marvin Suggs And His Muppahone Play Lady Of Spain/Pachalafaka/Lydia The Tattooed Lady/Halfway Down The Stairs/Tenderly/I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog/Tit Willow/Veterinarian’s Hospital – Soap Opera/Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear/What Now My Love/A Monologue By Fozzie Bear/Hugga Wugga/Trees/Sax And Violence/Being Green

Jim Henson came from Greenville, Mississippi, which may in part explain “Being Green.” But only in part. As the world, including its children, moves steadily closer to a future in which the human being is eliminated altogether, or reduced to an avatar, a CGI world where all “animation,” cartoon or otherwise, is designed to be seamless, without faults or discernible joins – a society for “perfect” people – it is worth remembering the first non-human number one album, which turned out to be part of the last dash for “realness” in entertainment before the internet kicked in.

I will confess; knowing that this record was coming up, I had long since planned to write the piece as though The Muppet Show were the new Stones album, an audacious concept and an inevitable sequel to Rock And Roll Circus; Jagger as Kermit, Jerry Hall as Miss Piggy, and so on. But when it came to listening to the record again – which I had not done for several decades – it quickly became apparent that this would not work. The main reason is an uncomfortable one for some; that The Muppet Show, not entry #192, is the most important number one album of 1977, the glue which holds all the rest of them together.

How so? Why attribute such credit to what is essentially a children’s record – but then, what is Never Mind The… if not the continuous screaming of a child at a world which refuses to understand or even acknowledge him? But look at that track listing; if this were a Zappa record – and several tracks, including “I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog” and “Hugga Wugga,” come awfully close to sounding like, or echoing, Zappa – or a Carla Bley record, wouldn’t it long since have been garlanded with critical accolades?

I think the achievement of The Muppet Show is that under its affable light entertainment blanket it sneaks in a lot of things which otherwise wouldn’t be considered in this survey of the seventies; the importance of the untutored voice (there is no such thing as a perfect vocal on the record), a precept dating from the days of Christian Wolff and Escalator, a genuine polymath/autodidact need to slam together as many different fields of musical endeavour as possible – it is a long journey from “Mississippi Mud” to “Sax And Violence” – and an uproarious good humour capable of undercutting itself. On the television show this took the form of extreme slapstick violence which could never have been doable in a show involving actual human beings, and quite a lot of this outlook is evident on the record. But the record also constantly reminds us that we are listening to a record, with all its limitations (the Great Gonzo’s virtuosity, Fozzie’s daring tricks), before twice revealing to its listeners that it is not quite the record it pretends to be.

Much of The Muppet Show, being the logical follow-on from Sesame Street, is about children playing at being adults, or puppets playing at being children – puppets operated, moreover, by adults. Only one human being – that week’s guest star – ever appears in any given episode, wandering slightly bewildered through a good-natured forest of puppetry. Miss Piggy is clearly a slightly spoilt girl playing at being Zsa Zsa Gabor, prone to alternate between coquettish chat-up (to get her way) and snarling karate chops (if she doesn’t get her way).

And yet these Muppets are inhabiting a dying world. The Muppet Show, being produced in Britain (in the same studios where The Prisoner was filmed, and also commissioned by Lew Grade), was set in an ancient music hall which had evidently seen far better days. Each episode was a commentary on itself, since half of it was set backstage; ringmaster/floor manager Kermit the Frog endlessly trying to hold the show together. Apart from Statler and Waldorf (who appear here in brief inter-track sequences, nicely undercutting and subverting each other and bringing into question the validity or kneejerk component of an audience’s reaction to performers), there is not much evidence of an audience of more than medium size (and all puppets). In this setting it is not hard to think of Miss Piggy as a link between Dame Edith Sitwell and Madonna; Dame Edith, who towards the end of her days habitually behaved as a downgraded ex-ruler of an obscure middle European republic, still expecting all the trimmings of luxury and absolute concordance from her subjects in relation to her disorientated and marooned train of thought and belief, and Madonna, who may yet end her days the same way.

Likewise the songs revived here are a dusted-down archive of half-forgotten trinkets from the past (“All our obscure songs” as Kermit refers to them towards the end of side one) awaiting reclamation; Gilbert and Sullivan, two musical settings of AA Milne verses, forgotten oldies from the sixties (“Mr. Bassman,” “Simon Smith” – what would Randy Newman have made of a Muppet rendition of “Short People”?), curveball novelties (“Lydia,” “Mahna Mahna”). None of the covers is really obvious, and together form a kind of alternative canon of popular song. As for the originals, it can tactfully be said that the term “outsider music” might have been made for them.

For those proposing to investigate, or remind themselves of, the record, I will not run through all the punchlines and payoffs which occur; suffice it to say that an album which essentially begins with a bad joke followed by the query “Am I too hip for the room?” (Fozzie) has to have something going for it. The theme tune skates past to its meaningful/meaningless climax. The 200 mph cowpunk of “Mississippi Mud” might in itself make up for three George Mitchell Minstrels albums. “Mahna Mahna” is done as a sort of shadow boxing exercise; should the singer carry on with the tailing-off scatting, or get back into the song’s line. “The Great Gonzo Eats A Rubber Tyre To The Flight Of The Bumble Bee” does exactly what its title suggests, and could have been conceived by Zappa. “Mr. Bassman” is done straight (by Floyd and Scooter). Rowlf, the downsized but still dignified canine pianist and raconteur, reminisces about Winnie the Pooh (“He’s a bear, like Fozzie Bear…well, not very much like Fozzie Bear…”) and pays attention to his harmonic modulations (“That’s G sharp minor!”), all the while singing a riddle that means nothing but to some might mean everything. Confused or intidimated by the world? Pull the blanket over your head and chant “Cottleston Pie” – it would probably work.

Marvin Suggs does “Lady Of Spain” by virtue of hitting different Muppets on the head to produce notes (why isn’t this on Joe’s Garage?). “Pachalafaka” is an absurdist piece about Turkey and “a jerkish Turkish beat” which recalls Jonathan Richman (like so much on this record, it culminates in the singer admitting they don’t know what “it” means). Kermit does “Lydia.”

But then Henson pulls the rug out from under his audience’s feet. Side one ends with Robin, the small nephew of Kermit (voiced by Jerry Nelson), very quietly performing “Halfway Down The Stairs.” Pulled from the album as a single, it made #7 in the UK charts (coupled with “Mahna Mahna,” which may have been the main reason it was such a big hit), and it’s one of 1977’s most disturbing vocal performances this side of Dennis Wilson’s “Thoughts Of You.” As he demonstrates throughout Pacific Ocean Blue, and by different means (orchestra, solo piano, looped/backwards electronics), Wilson knows the world in which he grew up and which he loved is dying, and is not sure whether it is the world’s fault or his. Likewise, Robin/Nelson sings the saddest I’ve heard any singer sing about nothing, with the possible exception of Robert Wyatt; it is the simplest of tunes (though with generous deployment of Debussian whole tones), composed by one Harold Fraser-Simson to accompany one of AA Milne’s verses (those still looking for a Stones connection might care to remember that Brian Jones died in the swimming pool of Christopher Robin’s old house), but Robin sings it scared, unnerved; in the episode in which the routine appears, it follows a routine where the world middleweight boxing champion attempts to fight himself for his own title, and knocks himself out in the tenth round, and so it serves as a relief, an absolution. But Robin is aware that he might indeed be nowhere: “It really isn’t anywhere/It’s somewhere else instead.” We could almost be listening to Brian Wilson. Eventually, the song grows slower and slower – as if to delay that final, fatal “stop” for as long as possible – and comes to stasis (it is in a related key to, but not in the same key as, “In My Room,” the Wilson song of which it most clearly reminds me).

On to side two, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (Dr. Teeth turns out to be Jim Henson, who also provides the voices for Rowlf and Waldorf as well as Kermit, amongst many others) assassinating “an old favourite for your mamas and papas.” Actually the arrangement of “Tenderly” here could in a dark alley be mistaken for NRBQ, and inevitably Dr. Teeth’s rendition is anything but tender, as are Animal’s drums. “One of the exemplary practitioners of contemporary music!” enthuses Kermit. “Whaaaaat-eeeeee-vaaaaahhh!” mumbles Animal.

“I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog” is notable for being the only song on the record sung by a woman (Fran Brill) and it plays like a Carla Bley meditation on sixties girl groups, with intentional dissonances and a nicely understated subtext about racial understanding. The imperious, if downtrodden, Sam the Eagle, does his best with “Tit Willow,” with the patient and anxious help of Rowlf (“What’s obdurate?” “I don’t know, Sam”); he palpably feels ill at ease with the song, as if it is somewhat beneath him (“Is this cultured?") but tries in his far from adequate way to make it work. The sudden exclamation of “Dicky bird!” halfway through made me think of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Dirty Bit.”

“Veterinarian’s Hospital” is a send-up of ponderous, overdramatic hospital soaps, which mostly serves as an excuse for Dr Bob (Rowlf) to indulge in a series of terrible jokes (“Pigs In Space” has not yet been thought of). Scooter comes back to do “Simon Smith” with deliberately atrocious asides from Fozzie. Miss Piggy finally gets her moment with “What Now My Love,” and she became maybe the series’ defining star; when the Muppets diversified into movies, she was always the most immediately identifiable and prominent character there, more so in a lot of ways than Kermit, so much so that she sometimes threatens to upset the ensemble’s careful balance. Here she is plainly inept as a singer and performer, but not without her moments of invention; her rolling “r”s in the word “unRRRRRRRReal!” predicate Sid’s “My Way” a year later, but eventually the overzealous backing singers drown her out. Then there are some bits of business between Fozzie and Kermit with a view to telling “the world’s funniest joke” (“Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!”) which is of course, by revealing itself as the world’s unfunniest joke, is nevertheless by default the world’s funniest joke (I won’t spoil its simple pleasures here).

“Hugga Wugga” comes from I know not where; if this had been Henry Cow or the Art Bears, weighty treatises on the piece would long since have appeared in The Wire. It is, frankly, a Zappa/Bley workout gone haywire, with belching basses alternating with plaintive, distant bursts of “You Are My Sunshine,” and incorporating calliopes, bells, gunshots and explosions. “Trees” is a brief outing for Ann Ziegler/Webster Booth throwbacks Wayne and Wanda (introduced by Sam the Eagle: “Besides being tremendous singers, they’re church people”) with the inevitable premature ending. Meanwhile, “Sax And Violence” is a honking one-note baritone sax feature for Zoot; his exasperated “You expect me to play this, man?” was eventually sampled on Kid Koala’s “Strut Hear.” “Forgive me, Charlie Parker, wherever you are,” he says, and the number is an odd mixture of saxophone minimalism and seemingly random percussion. Obviously it ends with an explosion.

However, given that the album has thus far been presented as a pocket digest of the TV show, with Kermit introducing the record and popping up in various places between tracks, Henson then turns around and subverts the record entirely. Not so much Mike Yarwood turning round to the audience at the end of his show and saying, “And this is me” (since Henson always identified with Kermit as his alter ego, capable of saying and doing things he, Henson, wouldn’t necessarily do or say), more the old Situationist trope of an audience, at the end of a performance, turning round to collect their coats and go home, only to find that there are no more coats and no more home. The concept of a presentation disappears completely, and one has to assume that it is Henson himself, not “Kermit,” who is singing “Being Green” (Frank Oz appears so often as a foil to Henson’s characters – his is the voice of, amongst others, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle and Animal – that he almost exists as an id to Henson’s ego). Accompanied mainly by a highly distinctive acoustic guitar (the identity of the guitarist is known to me, but perhaps enough rugs have been pulled out from beneath enough feet here already), Henson alternately sings and semi-speaks the song – the habitual spilling over bar lines to accommodate the singer’s thoughts again puts me in mind of Richman – wondering whether there is any purpose or joy to be found in his greenness. He thinks it over, though, slowly and patiently, realises what is good about green, and finally decides he’s happy with it.

It is an amazing performance, and not simply because it is the one track on any of these 1977 albums which looks directly towards the future (“But what about entry #192?” “No future, remember?”) in terms of the wider meanings of the term “Green.” It affects because Henson appears to be singing on behalf of all downtrodden minorities, everyone who, in 1977 as well as now, feels stepped upon, suppressed or ignored. He doesn’t fight back – indeed, his premature death in 1990, from a rare streptococcal virus brought on by respiratory illness, could possibly have been avoided had he sought medical attention a lot sooner, but he was never the sort of person to cause a fuss (and there may also have been questions of residual religious faith and concomitant reluctance to be treated in this instance) – but instead quietly, even courteously, states the case for his defence and his beliefs. It reminds us that Henson’s primary aim was to reach those people, and especially those children, who weren’t “perfect”; the oddballs, the square pegs, the geeks, the uncomfortable, the awkward – if that is reflected in the appearance of almost every Muppet, then it is, I am sure, deliberately so. In other words, “real” people, as opposed to pixelated ideals, drowning in oceans of unfulfillable fantasy. The song ends the record – there is no closing theme tune or fanfare or farewell – and the space that comes after it resembles a giant question mark; who dares to take on these implications, and who in 2012 (there is an exception; Danny Boyle, whose Olympic opening ceremony considers the merits of “Being Green” in a wider and more identifiably British context, without ever referring to the song itself) has the nerve and will to add to this vision with their own voices? “Thank you very much/For everything you’ve ever dreamed of/It’s over,” sings Dennis Wilson at the end of Pacific Ocean Blue. The achievement of The Muppet Show is that it presupposes that more dreams will happen, and indeed are necessary.