Kieran Moore – 1986 was a bumper year for The Jim Henson Company with 3 TV shows, 3 classic TV specials and a blockbuster movie all seeing the light of day in that 12 month period. It was certainly a busy time for Jim as he reflected on his past achievements and pushed ahead into bold new worlds. It was a year that saw bunnies, toys, goblins and all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures join the Henson canon (Did somebody say cannon? [Yes, I know I’ve done that joke before, but I think it’s actually Muppet law]). In fact, there was only one thing you might struggle to find in 1986 and that was the core Muppet Show gang in their adult form. While Muppet Babies continued to delight audiences across the world, Kermit and Co. were having a fallow year as Jim’s imagination let us explore other worlds. That means you’ll have to look very hard this week to find anything resembling an old coat and two ping pong balls and even “Where’s Waldo?” like patience won’t turn up a pun-peddling bear or pig-shaped diva. Instead this week is all about losing yourself in fantasy worlds, and bizarrely my memory, which is ironic as the first song is trying to make us forget…
10 – As the World Falls Down – Labyrinth
Before I write about this song I must quickly mention the two songs it beat for 11th place as it was really very, very close. First is “Pass it On” the now classic tune from “Fraggle Rock”, and second was “Singing in the Shower” from Sesame Street.
I know for some placing this song at number 10 might seem like heresy, particularly in light of the amount of masked balls, cosplay and general fan-love this sequence has inspired, but I’ve always flopped back and forth on whether I like this track as much as I probably should. For one, I think without the visuals this song can seem a bit flimsy; and for two, as an eight-year-old boy watching the movie for the first time I don’t think this part played to my demographic as much as peeing dwarfs and talking doorknobs did. I’ve come to appreciate it more now than I used to, but I don’t know, perhaps it’s all a bit too ethereal for me? There are a lot of theories about what’s going on in this scene and you’re free to choose the one you like, but I always took it at face value and saw it as Jareth simply trying to distract Sarah and make her forget her quest. I guess I’m just one of the simple folk…
9 – The Story Show – The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
I’ve always loved this special. 1986 must be the year when my jumbled mess of childhood memories started to sort themselves out as I very clearly remember watching this when it aired over Easter that year. Given how much I love this song and all of the songs from this special I can probably reveal now without giving too much away that Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee will be having a very good showing this week. I genuinely think they are amongst the best songwriters of their generation and I’ve yet to find something they composed that I don’t enjoy. I guess in a way it’s fitting that I’m bigging them up as we look at a song called The Story Show because I think their music truly does tell a tale and take the listener on a journey. I love the dum-de-dum rhythm of this number and the orchestration feels very festive with a calliope sounding arrangement. It’s sunny and upbeat and lots of fun.
8 – Bunny Go High and Go Low – The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
This is such a sweet song and an incredibly beautiful lullaby. It’s just wonderful. My love of Louise Gold is legendary at this point, but Kevin Clash rarely gets the love he deserves because (yes, I know) I’m not a huge fan of Elmo. I won’t derail things by going into the whys and wherefores, but I do prefer it when Kevin plays some of his other characters, such as Father Bunny. He and Louise duet sublimely here. I’ve mentioned this before when writing about “Bunny Picnic”, but it bears repeating – to me, this feels very much like the extended Fraggle Rock special we never got. I suppose that’s partly because of Balsam and Lee’s songs, but we also have several key cast members present (Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt, Karen Prell and Jim Henson), and some of the same behind the scenes talent too, including writer Jocelyn Stevenson. It’s not too hard to imagine this special’s story being adapted to fit the Fraggles. I’d love to see a Fraggle Rock movie recreating this vibe.
7 – Together at Christmas – The Christmas Toy
Here you’ll see Kermit’s only appearance in this week’s chart and it’s basically just a very brief cameo. That’s not to say the Muppet Show gang did nothing in 1986 it’s just that it only amounts to a very small hill of beans. Kermit appeared here and on Sesame Street, and the extended troupe were front and center on “The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years”, but otherwise there wasn’t much else. As you’re probably gathering though from these first four songs, it certainly wasn’t out of laziness on Jim and company’s part. This song begs the question: how are the songs from the 1986 specials not better known? They are amongst the best Muppet numbers out there and some, such as this, really do deserve to be classics. I’d wager that more Muppet fans know this song from “Muppet Family Christmas” and don’t realise that A) it originated here and B) is a Muppet original. I always find this song quite emotional with its message of togetherness, but I’ll cry because my Pizza Hut voucher code expired so what do I know…
6 – Ball of Fire – Fraggle Rock
As we’ve already established, around the time this song debuted Jim Henson was busy appearing in a long-running educational TV show, starring in and/or directing several seasonal specials, creating a cult fantasy world and attending swanky Royal premieres in London. During his breaks from basically ruling the entertainment world, he also found time to guest on Fraggle Rock as Cantus in one of his last ever appearances on the show. This is a great song that’s full of evangelical fire and brimstone whilst conversely delivering an uplifting, positive message. There’s a speech in Treasure Planet (which I love by the way – I don’t care what millions of other people think) where Long John Silver tells Jim Hawkins that he has the makings of greatness and he can’t wait to catch the light coming off of him when he achieves it – this song reminds me of that moment. To tell people that they have the most incredible potential is such a powerful thing. Try it. Tell a stranger in the street they could be a ball of fire some time today. You’ll be amazed at what happens next.
5 – Magic Dance – Labyrinth
This song reminds me of the babe…
Actually this song generally reminds me of how scared I was of the Labyrinth goblins when I was eight. I’m still not sure I’m over it 30 years later. I said earlier that I can vividly remember seeing some of the movies/shows on this list back in the day and this is probably the one that sticks out the most – possibly because I was ill when I went to see it (I was actually off school the following day). It’s also one of the few times I remember going to see a film with both of my parents as they usually did that solo – that might be another reason why going to see Labyrinth sticks out so much. Or it could just be the film… As I say I do recall being scared of the goblins, particularly in the baby snatching scene. It still gives me shivers! I also remember playing Labyrinth on the school playground with a few of my friends. I was generally Ludo and two of my female friends argued daily about being Sarah. I don’t think we had a Jareth… None of this really relates to this song, but does show the power of the Labyrinth and this incredible movie.
4 – Drum of Time – The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
This is such a powerful and inspirational moment. Thanks to Balsam and Lee we are certainly getting our fill of them today and that’s no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. As the world seems to be going to heck in a hand basket I think we need to hear lots of good things about humanity – even if that message is being sung by rabbits as they rise up against a human being. I might be losing this argument… Something I’m learning as this chart goes on is that you can never have too many Muppet group songs. Whether it’s a band of bunnies, a troupe of toys, a gaggle of Fraggles or a proboscis of whatevers; Muppet music is better when it’s multiplied. It rips the proverbial roof off and lifts the emotion of the piece to a higher plane. I haven’t watched this special in a while and writing about it here has reminded me that I must remedy that. We already have Cadbury’s Crème Eggs in the shops so why not?
3 – Put Down the Duckie – Sesame Street
Ok, so I said earlier that Kevin Clash hasn’t really received the love he deserves on my charts, but I feel as we head into the late 80’s and beyond that’s going to change quite dramatically. This song can be seen as heralding in that bright new era. I guess now that we’re so close to the end of the chart I can safely reveal that this is Sesame Street’s only entry on 1986’s chart, but what an awesome entry it is. This song has been number one twice before and despite peaking at three here (the next two songs are exceptional) it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this take the top spot again. I just love its jazzy-blues vibe and toe-tapping rhythm. It really is impossible to stay still to this song. Hoots is one of my favorite Sesame Street characters (in an already strong field) and as we get a Herry Monster Funko! Pop added to the line up I can’t help but think I’d like to see Hoots too someday (after Telly). This song spawned albums, videos and celebrity cameos galore and as such quite rightly deserves to take its place amongst the most iconic Sesame Street songs ever.
2 – Children of Tomorrow – Fraggle Rock
This song has also been number one in the past and is one of my favorite tracks to hit the top spot. It’s another group song, but that’s kind of the point of this one. In an episode that’s all about duetting and singing together, it’s kind of appropriate that its finale is one of the best ever Muppet group songs. This number feels like it could be the mission statement for Fraggle Rock. “We are the children of tomorrow, each one is different and the same” might lack the subtlety and subtext of “As the World Falls Down”, but does that matter when the message is this important? I think not. Celebrating our differences and seeing that they can join rather than divide us is something we should all strive to do. I really like the fact that each Fraggle world gets to share this moment – it’s a neat touch. Kudos goes to Steve Whitmire and Kathryn Mullen for leading this special song so brilliantly.
1 – Underground – Labyrinth
I can imagine that with Magic Dance appearing at number five some of you were wondering if Labyrinth would appear on this list again, but last summer as part of my villains chart I swore that one day Jareth/David Bowie would get a number one and today I keep that promise. It’s with a sad serendipity that I find myself writing about 1986 and Labyrinth on the one year anniversary of David’s untimely passing. Partly because of this chart and partly because his death is on everyone’s minds at the moment, I have been listening to lots of David’s songs over the last few days. From “Life on Mars” to “Ashes to Ashes” via this song and lots of others there aren’t really any missteps in his repertoire. When someone like David dies we don’t mourn the loss of the person as we didn’t know them personally, instead we acutely feel the loss of potential future work when there was still so much more to offer. This is my favorite Labyrinth song by a good margin because I love a choir and anything with a gospel feel and this has that combined with a smart 80s rock twist. It’s such an underrated song that I feel gets forgotten against both David and Labyrinth’s flashier moments.
I don’t like to end a chart on a sad note, particularly as we edge ever nearer to something I can’t even contemplate writing about right now, so instead I urge you to focus on the extraordinary music that makes up this list. Each song is full of so much spirit any of them could probably be a number one on the right day. The level really is that high. I have to say a huge thank you to everyone who worked with Jim Henson in 1986 – as the list of names expands each year the quality of the work improves to match. Thank you all for creating so many wonderful memories, for me and everyone else.
Join me next week for 1987 as the Fraggles say farewell and we get festive all over again!