Kieran Moore – As I’ve been going through these yearly charts I’ve noticed sometimes there’s a heck of a lot of stuff hitting our screens and sometimes there really isn’t. 1989 was most definitely one of the busier years. Aside from the usual Sesame Street and Muppet Babies stuff, 1989 also saw the debut of some really interesting shows like The Ghost of Faffner Hall and Big Bird in Japan. 1989 is a year that could write a whole Henson version of Trivial Pursuit all on its own!
Of course what’s this year is really known for is one of the more curious Henson offerings out there – namely The Jim Henson Hour. This anthology show saw the birth of some classic Henson moments and was packed with fun and interesting musical performances. Speaking of which, how about this for starters…?
10 – The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Jim Henson Hour
I flip between being in awe and slightly creeped out by this performance. Certainly every time I watch it I can feel the lead singer’s eyes burning into my soul in a way that makes me fear for my place in the afterlife. There’s at least one moment in this where I expect something to pull its way out of the screen and whisk me away to the Twilight Zone. You can forget Goblins and Skeksis – this is easily the scariest thing Jim Henson ever did! Still, I do appreciate the fine vocals on display. I must be honest and say I’d never heard of the Nylons until I first watched this show. Afterwards, some sort of survival mechanism must have kicked in and wiped them from my memory because I’d forgotten them until recently. Having made it onto a chart now I guess they are indelibly imprinted on my brain. Okay, so I’m being unfair – as I say I do actually really enjoy the singing. These guys obviously know their stuff and there isn’t a note out of place. It’s just a shame I now need counselling…
9 – On the Road Again – The Jim Henson Hour
I had no real expectations for this song to make the chart when I first started compiling it, but it stood out to me as probably the closest musical moment The Jim Henson Hour had to The Muppet Show. It instantly brings to mind other watery songs like “In the Navy” and “Alabamy Bound”. The only real flip here is that on The Muppet Show this would have been an opening and here it’s the finale.
There were lots of things that worked on The Jim Henson Hour and lots that didn’t. I wish I could put my finger on more of why the “Muppet Television” segments didn’t quite hit the mark, but it’s tough to know. Many of the individual elements are as good as The Muppet Show and the backstage mayhem is there. I think it really boils down to two things. First, the virtual set and distance from the guest star make things a little clunky. Kermit said on the press tour for one of the recent movies that journalists wouldn’t be able to interview Woody from Toy Story “in person”. That’s just it. The Muppets are a tactile bunch of critters – the virtual world isn’t a great fit for them. Secondly is the old chestnut of not having the Muppets we’re attached to featuring heavily. There were a few stand-out characters on the show, but most seemed like dull replacements for others we love. I need to stress I think there’s lots to love as well and the show had real promise. It’s just a shame things don’t quite hit the bulls-eye completely.
8 – Munching Forest – The Jim Henson Hour
Lots of people cite this as one of the scariest moments from their childhood – they obviously wiped The Lion Sleeps Tonight from their memories too! I can see it actually as seeing these cute critters served up for dinner could actually be quite disturbing for kids. And that shot of the animals looking at the screen in eerie blue light is definitely creepy. The Jim Henson Hour regularly wore its environmental heart on its sleeve, as is also evidenced by the song in 8th place, but “Song of the Cloud Forest” is probably the most forceful and hard hitting way it tells that story. For those that don’t know: most episodes of The Jim Henson Hour were split in half and had one segment based around “Muppet Television” and another that was a grab bag of live action and puppet stuff. This was one of those latter half segments and tells the tale of what is suspected to be the last male golden toad in the rainforest. It’s a touching story; I just wish it was longer. Either way, if you haven’t seen this it really is a must-see.
7 – Monster in the Mirror – Sesame Street
This song made an appearance on a previous chart where it was declared my 2nd favorite Grover song ever after “I Need a Word”. I still stand by that. I love the rock ‘n’ roll feel of this number. Its twangy guitar, sax line and sing-along chorus all reinforce the 1950’s vibe. It comes as no surprise that this is written by Christopher Cerf (with lyrics co-written by Norman Stiles). After all, this is his signature style. Grover is such a lovable little fellow. I want to give him a hug. Surely someone can arrange that for me? Grover are you reading this? I want a hug, dude! In the meantime I’ll just have to settle for dancing along to this song and joining in with the “Wubba Wubba” chorus!
6 – Maneater – The Jim Henson Hour
I love, love, love The Extremes. They are such a great idea I’m not sure why they haven’t stuck around. This was pretty much their last featured performance ever. But what a performance it is. These guys really do have everything going for them. They are fantastically designed and built. They look like slightly manic 1980s Fraggles (which is an odd thing to say since the Fraggles are from the 1980s, but you know what I mean!) Of course, the best thing about The Extremes is their vocals. Performed with great gusto by Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire, Kevin Clash and Sharon Lee Williams, they really know how to hit a song out of the park. Sharon Lee Williams is obviously the least known of these four to Muppet fans, but she provided vocals not only for the purple Extreme, but also for several Fraggle Rock characters including Aretha and the Fragglettes. She has a fantastic voice and deserves to be better known. I think this site should start an obscure performer interview season and Sharon can be first!
5 – Look Through the Window – Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting
Having had the chance to write about David Bowie a few weeks ago it feels like my charts are turning more and more into tributes for Muppet stars who have either passed away recently or in the year I’m writing about. I mention this now because this is possibly the last Sesame Street song written by the undisputed musical legend that is Joe Raposo. This incredibly talented man wrote so many classic tunes for the show: “Bein’ Green”, “Sing”, “C is For Cookie”, “The Batty Bat”, “Doin’ the Pigeon”, “Little Things”, “Tu Me Gustas”, “One of These Things…” – I could go on forever and that’s without even mentioning the songs for Hey! Cinderella and The Frog Prince or his Oscar nomination for The Great Muppet Caper. This is a man who understood the Muppets. His loss is still felt, but tempered by the wonderful legacy of songs he left for us to enjoy. It’s also with a heavy heart that I find myself looking at The Jim Henson Hour in the same week as John Hurt’s death. As the Storyteller he was a huge part of the show. I’m sure he’s out there somewhere drawing a crowd round the fire. Hopefully, no one else Muppety will die for a while. If Jim Henson was to suddenly pass way that would make next week’s chart really sad…
4 – Sweet Vacation – The Jim Henson Hour
This is probably the best known Muppet song from The Jim Henson Hour, in part I think because it also appeared on the “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” sing-along video. That was probably my first proper introduction to it. The internet seems a little patchy on UK airdates for The Jim Henson Hour. I very much remember watching The Storyteller as a standalone show as well as Dog City, but any memory of watching anything else back in the day is sadly lost now. It’s possible I saw very little of it. To a certain extent this song in particular seems to have transcended the show and become its own entity. I’m almost surprised it didn’t have some sort of single release or find itself included on “Muppet Beach Party”. Having just praised Joe Raposo I now find myself able to give some love to Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee who I think are wonderful and wrote this summery number. This is hands down my favorite Muppet song from The Jim Henson Hour and made the top 30 in my “Number Ones” chart last year.
3 – Going to Kyoto – Big Bird in Japan
On the face of it, Big Bird and Stewie Griffin don’t have a lot in common, but as this song shows there is at least one thing that binds them. And that would be paying gentle homage to the Bob and Bing “Road To…” movies. Even if you’ve never seen one of the original movies or the Family Guy parodies you’ll most likely recognise this type of song as being a storytelling staple in buddy road movies. This number actually got me thinking – what’s the difference between parody and homage? It would seem (according to Google) that intent is pretty much it. If the piece is affectionate, it’s homage. In that case I’d go as far to say that most Muppet “parodies” could actually be counted as such. Is “The Dogfather” making fun of its source material or paying tribute to a pop culture icon? It’s an interesting thought and not where I planned to go with this paragraph… I love this song for its witty and clever lyrics that rhyme Kyoto with all sorts of other things including buffaloto. Listen and enjoy!
2 – Dog’s Best Friend – The Jim Henson Hour
I so wanted to make this song number one, but I’ll explain why it isn’t later on. I remember watching this special and its spin-off cartoon back in the day and enjoying both, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I became familiar with this song again. Ever since, it’s been one of my favorite obscure Muppet tunes. It evokes the period and style of the show so perfectly. Detective mystery thrillers obviously had a good agent in the late 80s as they were everywhere with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Dick Tracy both being released around this time. In fact, speaking of the latter, this song feels very much like it could have been sung by Madonna in her role as Breathless Mahoney. Technically this isn’t a torch song because of its subject matter, but it very much feels like it. Fran Brill is almost unrecognizable as the performer of Zoe and Prairie Dawn here. She is one of the main reasons I’d have loved to make this number one. Maybe one day…
1 – Riff’s Riff* – The Ghost of Faffner Hall
*I can’t seem to find a reliable source for the name of this tune so I’ve gone with Riff’s Riff as I think it’s kind of poetic.
Every so often a song comes from nowhere and knocks my socks of and that’s exactly what this has done. There’s a chance I’d listened to this before on one of my occasional YouTube/Henson voyages, but it had certainly never stood out in the way it does now. I find this piece spellbinding and captivating (which I guess are kind of the same thing). It jumped up and smacked me on the head and said “you must make me the number one song this week”. Truthfully there are drafts of this week’s chart that show each of the top two songs in pole position, and for very different reasons, but this really is something special. The Ghost of Faffner Hall was a fun little show with great performances and an interesting premise, but as a show about music the songs really are its greatest strength. I’m a little sad I didn’t get to list a song featuring Louise Gold as she had a big role in “Faffner Hall”, but as an aside Ladysmith Black Mambazo almost got their 3rd chart placing in a row! I have to praise Mark Knopfler, Paddy Maloney and George Martin for their wonderful performances. They really are stunningly beautiful. Finally, I don’t know if it’s actually Mike Quinn whistling, but if it is I have to give him 5 Walters for his superb skills.
Considering 1989 contained the madness that was The Jim Henson Hour it’s a little odd that my chart should end in such a tranquil manner, but then this year really was eclectic and the unexpected became the order of the day. Thank you to everyone who appeared in a song on this list or helped contribute in any other way (even if it was just counting the paperclips). You all made something truly special.
1989 was an exceptionally creative year which makes my next chart even tougher to contemplate. Join me next time as we look at the top 10 songs of 1990 and remember a year of great highs and terrible lows. (Hold me.)