Hilarie Mukavitz – One of the signs that a musician is truly talented is when they perform a song written by somebody else, and their version is either better than the original or takes the song in a surprising direction that shows it in a completely different light. For example, the Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” has so eclipsed the original Bob Dylan version, that even Bob Dylan now plays it in more of a Hendrix style. A more recent example would be the Johnny Cash version of “Hurt.” Nobody expected a country music legend to connect so well with a Nine Inch Nails song.
Here are seven examples of great Muppet covers. Listen to the covers and the originals on our Muppet Mindset Playlist:
1. “Time in a Bottle” – Jim Croce originally released this song on his third album “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” Croce got the inspiration when he found out his wife Ingrid was expecting their first child. A year later, after he was killed in a plane crash, it was released as a single and reached the top of the charts. The song had an added poignancy with the knowledge that Croce’s time was rapidly running out when he wrote it.
The Muppet version appeared on Episode 207 of The Muppet Show. Like many Muppet covers, they took the metaphor literally. Jim Henson played a Whatnot Muppet scientist who was experimenting with making a potion to make him younger. At first, the potion works, but by the end of the song, the character is the same old man that he was in the beginning. Part of what makes this performance work so well is not only did the scientist’s appearance change, but Henson modified his voice with each transformation. It also stands out among Muppet Show sketches as what could have been interpreted in a very goofy jokey manner, had just as much weight and emotion as the original song.
2. “Six String Orchestra” – This is a lesser known Harry Chapin song from his 1974 album “Verities and Balderdash.” Chapin is most famous for “Cats in the Cradle” and “Taxi.” The original version of “Six String Orchestra” is clearly written and performed with tongue firmly lodged in cheek. It’s about a would-be musician who is totally oblivious to his utter lack of talent. His girlfriend needs alcohol in order to listen and his guitar teacher has a nervous breakdown.
The Muppet Show version, on Episode 417, is much more innocent and wistful (and with some of the more sarcastic lyrics removed). Scooter, in an especially strong performance by Richard Hunt, sweetly sings about his dreams to be a musician. Unlike the original Chapin version, it seems that he may have a chance, with a little more practice. In the first refrain, Scooter is in his bedroom, joined by the ghostly figures of the Electric Mayhem. I especially love this visual because it gives off the double effect that either Scooter is playing with musicians in his imagination, or that he is playing with the ghosts of musicians that have gone before him. In the second refrain, Scooter is actually playing on stage with the Electric Mayhem, in a rare scene where we get to see everybody’s feet. It ends with Scooter back alone in his bedroom, determined “Some day I’m gonna be a star.”
3. “For What It’s Worth” – This Stephen Stills penned song was originally recorded by his band Buffalo Springfield in December 1966. It became most famous as a protest song. However, it was actually written about the 1966 Sunset Strip Riots. The riots had absolutely nothing to do with Vietnam, just a bunch of people annoyed at the strict 10 PM curfew in the area. (Muppet Maestros the Monkees had their own take on the Sunset Strip riots with the Mike Nesmith song “The Daily Nightly.“)
The Muppets performed “For What It’s Worth” on Episode 221. The setting was a group of woodland creatures, with Jerry Nelson as a possum on the lead vocal, singing their own style of protest song against hunting. The second two verses were changed to go with the new theme, and the music arrangement was less rock and a lot more pastoral. The result was one of the more memorable performances on The Muppet Show and it was later featured on The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years.
4. “Halfway Down the Stairs” – Believe it or not, the original performance of “Halfway Down the Stairs” was not by a little green frog, but by future host of The Muppet Show, Gene Kelly. In the mid 1940’s Gene Kelly recorded some albums for children, including a series of songs based on poems by A.A. Milne. The Gene Kelly version isn’t bad, after all this is a man whose most famous movies were musicals. However, I found it just didn’t grab me as much as the performance of Jerry Nelson as Robin, which made it to the top 10 on the music charts in England. To do a cover of a cover, Jim Henson as Rowlf later performed the song on “Ol’ Brown Ears Is Back.”
5. “I’m Looking Through You” – The original version from the Beatles Album “Rubber Soul” is a rare example of what I call “Angry McCartney.” Happy go-lucky Paul tended to write more of the upbeat lyrics like the verses of “We Can Work It Out,” “And I Love Her,” while anger and depression tended to be more John Lennon’s turf. However, by 1965 his writing was starting to get more interesting. It was Paul who suggested that “Norwegian Wood” should end with the main character burning the whole place down. He was also having some issues with Jane Asher, his girlfriend at the time, because she dared to do inconsiderate things like have a life and a career of her own. “I’m Looking Through You” was a way of venting his frustrations.
However, while the song has a very catchy tune and arrangement… the lyrics don’t make much sense if you try to analyze them. I think the Muppet version actually makes more sense. The song was featured in a UK spot in Episode 119. The song was performed by three ghosts flying around the backstage of the Muppet Theater.
6. “Yes We Have No Bananas” – This was a very appropriate song for The Muppet Show as the show was so rooted in vaudeville and the music hall. Originally written in 1922 for the Broadway show “Make It Snappy,” the song has been covered countless times. It was featured on The Muppet Show three times. The first was in Episode 208 as Marvin Suggs took a break from his Muppaphone and had his All-Food Glee Club sing it. Episode 402 had the Swedish Chef perform what I’m guessing is the only mock-Swedish rendition of the song. It made one more brief cameo in the Jean-Pierre Rampal Episode 510 when they accidentally gave Rampal fruit intead of a flute to play.
7. “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged” – Most songs that the Muppets covered were pretty well known. They tended to use popular songs from the 1970’s and previous eras. However, now and then they’d come up with something really obscure. I wouldn’t have heard of this song if it weren’t for The Muppet Show. The song was originally written for the 1964 Broadway Musical “Fade Out–Fade In”. Carol Burnett and Tiger Haynes were doing a spoof of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The original version is entertaining, but doesn’t hold up well to repeat listening. Burnett’s Shirley Temple impression gets really old really fast.
The Muppet Show version in Episode 522 with Dave Goelz as Beauregard and Buddy Rich is a lot more pleasant on the ears. It also brought this pleasant surprise: Buddy Rich could SING! Usually, unless you’re listening to The Monkees or the Carpenters… the drummer doesn’t get a lot of lead vocals. Buddy Rich does just as well as other Muppet Show hosts who were better known for their singing. Plus, of course, the wicked humor in the song is a perfect fit for the Muppets.
Obviously I’m leaving quite a few great examples out of Muppet covers. I could do a series on just Floyd. So I will ask you, fellow Muppet Music Maniacs… what are YOUR favorite Muppet covers?
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org