Kieran Moore – If I’m not careful I’m in danger of repeating myself this week even more than usual, but as each year rumbles on I’m getting more and more impressed with the quality entertainment that was being produced by The Jim Henson Company after Jim’s death. I don’t know if it was in a bid to prove the Muppets could live on without Jim, but it seemed that in 1993 there was something new to enjoy almost weekly.
For example, continuing their successful runs on TV were the evergreen “Sesame Street” and the actually green “Dinosaurs”. On top of this there was a second season of “Dog City” and the answer to the $1,000,000 question on “Who Wants to Be a Muppet Millionaire?” -“City Kids”. TV specials and guest appearances were plentiful (including one very fun visit to the Royal Variety Performance in London that’s worth looking up for Miss Piggy alone). Home video was huge for the Muppets as well. From my point of view as a compiler of Muppet music however, 1993 is really all about two infamous albums…
10 – Limbo Rock – Muppet Beach Party
Muppet Beach Party, as mentioned last week, came off the back of the craze for character franchises to release concept albums. Even though this compilation has its detractors (and not without good reason) I’ll always defend it as one of the best of the genre. That being said, as part of my tireless research into 1993 I listened to this whole album and there were several songs that I only made it to the end of because I was being thorough. Limbo Rock isn’t one of them. For whatever reason, around this period Fozzie Bear seemed to get a little sidelined. Maybe it was the popularity of Gonzo and Rizzo after Muppet Christmas Carol or that Frank Oz wanted to concentrate his Muppet efforts on Piggy, but Fozzie seems to get a little lost in the mix. This song is his moment to shine and I love its party feel and fun asides.
9 – I Never Harmed an Onion – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
The other half of our infamous Muppet album sandwich is this sublime offering from Jim Henson performing as Rowlf. I should explain that this collection isn’t infamous because it’s bad or even that it’s *in*famous in an El Guapo way. It’s infamous because in my opinion it’s Jim’s magnus opus and yet so rare there are Muppet fans that don’t even know it exists. It’s well up there with the best things Jim ever did and I’m including everything in that – Oscar nominated short films, world wide hit TV shows, immersive fantasy realms, the creation of Bean Bunny… You will rarely find a better crafted Muppet production as far as I’m concerned. I could very easily have listed 10 songs from this one album this week and been more than happy. The tracks on this album are beautifully selected to show the full range of Rowlf’s repertoire and here we se him in comedy song mode. This tune will always be a favorite of mine.
8 – Old Dog Trey – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
I’ll let you into a secret if you promise not to tell – originally this song wasn’t in today’s top 10! As mentioned above in order to get a proper understanding of the albums I’ll mostly be featuring here I listened to them (again) in full and when taken in context I just had to include this. This piece follows “The Wishing Song” and the two tracks combine to make an incredibly breathtaking finale. I think because of the way I’ve been writing these lists chronologically I’m seeing some of the songs in a different context (or finding things that aren’t there – you decide), and I couldn’t help but listen to this and equate Trey with Jim himself. With that in mind it’s pretty impossible not to be moved listening to Rowlf pay tribute to his performer especially when that tribute is being performed by said performer. It’s a strange thought for sure, but now that I’ve heard it, it’s a notion I can’t put away.
7 – Please Don’t Bump into Me – Billy Bunny’s Animal Songs
Maybe it’s this type of song (certainly similar songs have appeared on my charts before); maybe it’s Fran Brill (who is an amazing performer); maybe it’s my fondness for this special (it is great fun) or a combination of all three, but I find this number irresistible and include it pretty much anytime I get the chance. I like that it’s PG risqué in a production that’s aimed at younger viewers – Miss Piggy singing this on The Muppet Show would seem tame, but here it’s edgy and subversive. Musically it’s infinitely entertaining with a drum line that emphasizes the bumping and a sultry brass arrangement that adds extra spice. The clever lyrics perhaps aren’t quite at double entendre level, but they do evoke the era where playful innocence was hiding playful something else. Just remember as you listen to this, Fran Brill is perhaps best known as the woman below Prairie Dawn. Mind. Blown.
6 – Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow – Muppet Beach Party
As an a cappella singer myself I guess it should come as no surprise that this is one of my standout tracks from this album for me. Rockapella (for that is who is singing here – with help from Steve Whitmire as Kermit and Kevin Clash as Clifford) sound unsurprisingly phenomenal. They aren’t particularly well-known in the UK (a cappella in general is a very underappreciated genre here) and are perhaps best known in the US for being part of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”, but the guys are still going (with a few line up changes) and are every bit as good now as they were then. I like the premise that this is being sung by clams, but I’m not sure I approve of Kermit and Clifford stomping on them – even if it does produce this song. I wonder if having a guest act on this album paved the way for the star-filled-palooza that was “Kermit: Unpigged”?
5 – Garden Song – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
I’ll always have a soft spot for anything that combines John Denver with the Muppets, but personal biases aside I think this thoughtful number well and truly earns its top five placing. This song has quite a Muppet pedigree (if you pardon the dog pun) as it’s been performed by John himself and Kermit and Rowlf on audio releases. This collection of songs was actually recorded by Jim in 1984 for reasons unknown to this day. I’ve been racking my brains trying to come up with what the positive equivalent of a vanity project is because this feels very much has that feel. It’s Jim picking his favorite songs and performing them in a way he loved. It’s no coincidence that many of the numbers on this album were sung at Jim’s memorial service. Jim sounds amazing and catches light in a bottle in this collection by mixing material that is personal to him with an assured performance that can only be achieved when you know a character that well.
4 – New York State of Mind – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
I was going to start my write up for this song by saying that from here on out this chart is going take a mellow path, but I guess the last song kicked that off really. That said, I think this might be peak mellowness. It’s funny because I’ve never been to New York and yet I completely know how Rowlf feels here; such is the power of his performance and the fantastic song writing skills of Billy Joel. I guess it doesn’t really matter whether the place in question is New York, London, or Bora Bora – this song is really about being in the right place for you at the right time. As I listen to this now I can’t help but think of my vacation in L.A. last year and how much I’d like to be there now. That’s the beauty of this song. It’s wistful and full of wanderlust and reminds us that sometimes we need to do things because they feel right regardless of the wider world. It’s just a stunning piece all round.
3 – Halfway Down the Stairs – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
When I first considered the songs from this album I was unsure how songs that are indelibly linked to other characters would fair, but I just couldn’t ignore this song (or the next one for that matter). It’s such a special moment when sung by Robin that it’s hard to imagine this version usurping it and truthfully I don’t think this has, but it’s had a pretty good go. All of the songs on Ol’ Brown Ears is Back appeared in one way, shape or form on The Muppet Show back in the day. Most of the more upbeat numbers were originally performed by Rowlf while the more introspective ones were originated by characters such as Robin or Gonzo. As I mentioned above, the track list seems to have been curated by Jim to cover a range of moods and beats by creating highs, lows and stylish, subtle gradients in between. As someone who regularly has to put together set lists I appreciate this art so, so much.
2 – Wishing Song – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
This is a song I have written about so many times I was considering leaving it out here simply to avoid repeating myself again, but I couldn’t do it. Whether sung by Rowlf, Gonzo, The Airborne Toxic Event or Tibetan throat yodellers (those last two might be the same thing), this song is simply beautiful and speaks to me in a way that few others do. I think we’ve all felt exactly the way the lyrics describe in the first verse at some point. The important and most crucial part is to feel exactly how the song ends as well. The Muppets tend to have that figured out. Sure, we get songs like this or “Pictures in My Head” where they are sad and unsure of themselves, but I think one of the great lessons we can all learn from Kermit and Co. is to be happy in your own skin and know that ultimately you’re doing your best and that’s good enough. It’s a strong message and I’m glad that Rowlf got to share it with us here.
1 – Kokomo – Muppet Beach Party
I bet you didn’t see this one coming! Truthfully I didn’t either. Going into this chart I fully expected this to be somewhere in the top five with several Ol’ Brown Ears… songs ahead of it. I’m as shocked as you that a Muppet Beach Party track has taken the top spot despite how much I’ve always loved this number. I suppose I shouldn’t be a huge surprise as it is one of my favorite Kermit songs, and in actual fact is one of my favorite non-movie Muppet tracks of the 1990s, I guess it’s only when you put it against the greatness of Rowlf’s album that is seems unexpected. Steve Whitmire by this point has had plenty of time to perfect his Kermit and you can hear on this track that he feels completely at home with the character now. There are tiny little vocal moments at the start or end of a line that are very easy to miss, but add so much and indicate that this is an assured performance from one of the greats.
There have been several red letter years musically for the Muppets and even without a major release 1993 was up there with the best of them. I have to give huge thanks to everyone who worked with the gang to produce such a high calibre of material and making my job really tough, but I’d like to give a very special mention to three people who deserve a little extra credit. Derek Scott is the amazing musician that supplied Rowlf’s virtuoso piano playing on Ol’ Brown Ears… and Robert Kraft and Chris Boardman re-worked Jim and Derek’s tracks nine years after they were recorded to create the album we’ve looked at today. Thanks guys for allowing Jim to live on for a little bit longer.
So as we pack up our beach towels and slide along our row of seats towards the exit of a symphony hall we head on over to our next chart featuring Ozzy Osbourne, a talking rocking horse and scantily clad Muppets! That’s right, it’s Friday night at Muppet Mindset HQ!