Kieran Moore – If you remember, last summer one of my charts sent the Muppets off on a road trip tour of The United States of America. Starting at the east coast with a “New York State of Mind” and ending on the Pacific isles with a “Hawaiian War Chant”, the gang took their very special brand of entertainment across the country performing geographical songs as they went. You can see that chart here if you missed it.
Now that we’re in vacation season again (at least in the northern hemisphere), I thought it might be fun for the Muppets to broaden their horizons and visit some far away lands.
To that end, I’ve selected my top 10 songs from The Muppet Show that feature non-USA place names (or their derivatives) and used them as the basis for a Muppets’ World Tour. Hopefully this means they’ll appear at a city near you soon (and if not blame the Muppets for not singing “Goodnight Oslo” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” or “A Mile over Melbourne”). As this is a Muppets road trip, we’ll be travelling by map and setting of from their last stop, Hawaii; heading west to go east.
Let’s get the show on the road…
10 – Japanese Square Dance
This video is only actually part of this number, but that shouldn’t detract from how fun it is. In fact, if I’m completely honest, had this video included the whole song I’m not sure I would have included it. What happens next is that the set is invaded by cowboys (this being a James Coburn piece and all) and the square dance part takes over. What kills it for me though is that from there on in the tone and lyrics of the song get a little dicey with national stereotypes (to put it politely). I’m a firm believer in taking things in context so I’m happy to let it slide as a 35 year old piece of entertainment, but I don’t suppose everyone would. It’s really not that bad, but if you want to judge for yourself the whole piece is out there… Anyway, what is fun about this is Zen Animal being “in control” years before it happened on “The Muppets (2011)”. That’s a lot of fun to watch and well worth including.
9 – On a Slow Boat to China
I think it’s quite easy to forget how funny Roger Moore can be. Although we know him as the suave, sophisticated James Bond, I think it’s worth mentioning that his portrayal of the character is definitely the most comedic. Of course, even the most talented comedian struggles against the immense skills of Miss Piggy (and Frank Oz). I quite often find Miss Piggy as femme fatale a bit overdone, but this is pitched perfectly. Frank does a fantastic job with the singing and that final note is a thing of, while maybe not beauty, certainly heartfelt emotion. The punch line of Roger dating Annie Sue when it’s inferred that he won’t date a pig is the ultimate kicker and a great way to prick Piggy’s vanity. Finally, how cool is the set for this number? It’s a little weird to see The Muppet Show feature a modern set so it really stands out as something special.
8 – Borneo
Continuing our trip westwards we’re now hitting the largest island in Asia, Borneo. According to Wikipedia, Borneo is actually divided between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. I must admit although I knew Borneo wasn’t a country in its own right I didn’t realise it was split like that. You learn something new every day… Who doesn’t love Lubbock Lou and his Jughuggers? I think it’s impossible to be a fan of The Muppet Show and not find this style of music appealing. This song of course has the added benefit of being sung by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold as Slim and Lou respectively. These two could sing the phone book and I’d want to hear it again and again! Add in some great orchestration with the fiddle and jug and you’ve got the best song about an island antipodal to the Amazon rainforest that I know of (thanks Wiki!)
7 – In a Little Spanish Town
Despite their being a small handful of Muppet Show songs based in places between Borneo and the Mediterranean coast, we now find ourselves skipping the Middle East, Africa and a big chunk of Europe and ending up in Spain. (Sorry “Blue Danube Waltz”.) I hope the brilliance of this piece makes up for it… Brilliant really is the word for this. Season one of The Muppet Show is peppered with wonderfully surreal sketches thanks to them already having been part of Jim Henson and Co.’s previous performances on variety shows and specials. From “Mahna Mahna” to “Java”, everyone was a tried and tested classic. The Snerfs are a fun design. Looking like a cross between a toilet brush and a feather boa, they are incredibly expressive for such simple puppets.
6 – English Country Garden
Ahh, England. This sceptred isle; this jewel of the North Atlantic. How I love my home country. It’s also let’s not forget, the actual home of The Muppet Show. Without the Brits and their willingness to try something different I might not be writing this now. (Don’t all cheer at once!) Kent is known as the “Garden of England” and it’s one of the most easterly points of the British Isles so this is the first place we hit on the Muppets’ mini-tour of the UK. This is quite simply one of the best songs/sketches you’ll ever see the Muppets perform. The comedy partnership of Jim and Frank is well-known, but the unusual pairing of Rowlf and Fozzie, puts a new spin on it. This sizzles with comedy joy. From the moment Fozzie says he didn’t know he could play piano to the hat-falling finale, every line is a classic.
5 – Burlington Bertie from Bow
I love the juxtaposition of this song. For those that don’t know the geography, Burlington is a very highbrow area of London near Buckingham Palace and Bow is an area that is – well let’s just say not highbrow (Lady Holiday definitely doesn’t live there). Actually to be fair, as is the case with a lot of these places Bow has recently been rejuvenated and is now a lot nicer than it was when this song was written, but we won’t dwell on that! To be considered a proper cockney it’s said you should be born within the sound of Bow bells which should give you some sort of idea of what the area’s like. Anyway, I love the idea of Bertie heading off from Bow everyday to visit the upper classes and “have a banana with Lady Diana” even if it is all in his head. I think I’d like to be Bertie when I hit my twilight years (and finally start reading books about sparkly vampires…)
4 – Scarborough Fair
I’ve always loved the song Scarborough Fair and I think this might be my favorite version. I really like the way the opening intertwines with the song “Greensleeves” – it’s a genius idea and one I plan to steal one day. I’ve actually performed this song myself a few times in various forms and it’s such a beautiful piece to sing. Did you know you can sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to the same tune? It works really well! This is Piggy’s second chance to shine on this chart. No one can upstage like she can! You have to feel for Fozzie when he gets a pie in the face. His apparent dismay at what has happened is a joy to behold. We’ll have to forgive those crazy Americans for including The Sheriff of Nottingham even though he’s over 100 miles out of his jurisdiction. When you’re watching a Muppet masterpiece it’s best not to get bogged down in reality!
3 – My Wild Irish Rose
We couldn’t let the Muppets leave Europe without visiting the land of the Blarney Stone, Leprechauns and Guinness. Unfortunately, this song doesn’t give us much of a flavor of the country in question. It does, however, give us a great comedy moment from Wayne (formally and latterly of “Wayne and Wanda”). Richard Hunt, who up until now hasn’t had a shout out on this list, is brilliant as Wayne. I just wish he got to finish a song more often! I’m not sure how near to the truth it is, but I feel like Wayne’s singing voice would be pretty close to Richard’s real life one. I hope it is anyway. I had a look on Muppet Wiki to see if the Wild Irish Rose had been used for anything else, but nothing’s listed. It’s such a great puppet it’s a shame if it only ever appeared this once.
2 – I Go To Rio
We’ve left Europe now and crossed the Atlantic to stop off at the Olympic host city of Rio de Janeiro. I guess after seven stops on this road trip the guys deserve a little beach time. One of the things I really appreciate about this song is the prudent use of canned laughter. Sometimes I feel The Muppet Show relied on it a little too heavily adding laughter simply because an animal happened to be singing (these guys have seen The Muppet Show, right?) Here it’s reserved for things that are actually funny. Trumpet Girl is definitely earning her money on this track – it’s a virtuoso performance. I love the fact that she came back for the last two movies. Perhaps she should have been Kermit’s love interest in “The Muppets (2015)”? That would have been fun. I love the funky, carefree vibe this song has. Mixed with some Latin flair, it’s the perfect summer tune.
1 – Copacabana
For our final stop we’re not going very far – in fact there were so many to choose from we could have had four songs from Brazil if we’d wanted!
Let’s be honest – Copacabana is a nice story song, but it’s pretty darn cheesy. What Liza Minnelli does here is give it the gravitas is deserves. The haunting introduction and final line really hit home and take this usually frothy piece into darker territory. It’s incredibly effective and like some of the best Muppet Show moments stays with you long after the show has ended. It’s up there with “The Gambler” for me on that score. The dancing/performing from the two full-bodied Muppets is brilliantly expressive and well done, but let’s face it – this is all about Liza. As Lola and the Narrator she plays the whole thing perfectly. Little glances and tiny expressions speak volumes about the character and this is as much an acting performance as it is a singing or dancing one. Liza Minnelli is the perfect Muppet Show guest star; I wish she’d appear with the gang again.
We’ve ended this chart on another Muppet classic, but then quite frankly the vast majority of these songs are. I feel like I’ve used the word perfect so many times that I’m going to have to start paying royalties to the dictionary! For those of you who are interested, I’ll add the Top 10 list based on my own preferences (rather than geography) below. In the meantime I guess I’ll just let the Muppets take a short break before they move on to pastures new. From Hawaii to Copacabana – it’s a tough life being a Muppet. Thanks guys for all your hard work bringing entertainment to the world. I’ll see you somewhere nearby soon hopefully, but in the meantime have a piña colada on me!