Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite Muppets cover song?
Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” has plenty of melancholy sentiment in its original form, which only increased when it became a posthumous number one song for Croce, after his death in a 1973 plane crash. That’s echoed in the Muppets’ version of the song, where a scientist – a series of them, really – believes he’s found his own way to save time in a bottle. The fact that it’s sung by Jim Henson, who makes his voice sound younger and younger as the song progresses, can’t help but remind me of how Henson left us far too soon as well. The combination of the song, the singer, the story told through this performance, and the stories behind the scenes make this far more moving than foam rubber has any right to be. Take two and a half minutes to watch a master class of heart tugging.
Finding inspiration in the soundtrack to the 1968 Italian sexploitation documentary Svezia: Inferno e Paradiso (trans. Sweden: Hell and Heaven), the Muppets apply a prematurely post-rock twist to the sombre baroque charm of the original “Mahna Mahna,” both mocking and celebrating simultaneously. The opening repeated vocal refrain from the Snowths, with the contrast between the sweetness of the backing chorale and the more ironic lead vocal of Mahna Mahna (the assumed name itself a gauntlet against the mores of the genre) can almost lull the listener into a reverie of ennui, before sweeping away that facade in a move surely echoing the associated rejection of existing musical forms happening elsewhere. This was, after all, 1976. But with a prescience far ahead of its time, this version leaps then back, thrusting an aural Dadaism at the beholder, challenging even the then extant memes and tropes of guitar pop into question. To find your way you have to lose your way, the singer beseeches, language transformed into idiom, words unnecessary, the meaning stunningly clear. By process of repetition, intertwining melody with malady, the Muppets, their loose collective membership arguably a metaphor of its own, could never quite find this focus again. Today the song remaining a leitmotif for their journeyman pebble-dashing of received wisdoms, sometimes an albatross, sometimes an eagle.
Season two of The Muppet Show was one of my favorites. The minor mistakes of the first season were fixed. The guests were amazing! (Steve Martin, George Burns, Elton John, Lou Rawls, Julie Andrews, Bob Hope). And the music was phenomenal. (Or is that “Pheno-Mahna”?)
One of those songs was done by Electric Mayhem’s Floyd Pepper – with a little help from Dr. Teeth and Zoot – taking on Billy Joel’s 1976 classic, “New York State of Mind.” This is long before the song became a staple on everyone’s cover album, including Rowlf the Dog’s in 1993.
A few years later, as Kermit was filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he interrupted an interview with Vincent Price to have Floyd and the boys perform the song again, stating that Floyd “sings it great.” He was right.
I was born too early for Sesame Street, and never watched The Muppet Show. I actually remember them on the first season of Saturday Night Live, although I don’t remember them as having been particularly funny (for fuzzy characters in that season, I was much more of a fan of the Killer Bees). When my children were much younger, though, we watched Sesame Street, live and on VHS tapes, so I became more familiar with at least a portion of their oeuvre.
My introduction to the Muppets’ cover of Talking Heads’ classic “Once In a Lifetime” came when I was researching my Full Album piece on one of my favorites, Remain In Light. The charm of the Muppets version comes from how remarkably faithful it is to the source. Yes, the music is stripped down, and the video is simpler than the original, but I’m assuming that they lacked the budget of the original, were constrained by what a puppet could do, and didn’t have the talents of video director Toni Basil (yes, of “Mickey” fame), or producer Brian Eno.
And yet, Kermit the Frog’s inherent awkward geekiness makes him a perfect stand-in for David Byrne, and the Muppets video hits most of the high points — the odd arm motions, the strange backgrounds, the spastic motions — making it more of a tribute than a parody. One minor quibble: Kermit is wearing the “Big Suit,” which Byrne did not wear in the “Once In A Lifetime” video, but rather in the great film Stop Making Sense. Further, at the point in the movie that the song appears, Byrne’s increasing suit is only a bit larger than normal and had not yet expanded to mythical proportions.
Also, I miss Adrian Belew’s guitar drone at the end.
We all have those little, seemingly insignificant memories from our childhood that are vivid and more detailed than anything we “need” to remember. I never seem to remember where I put my keys, but I can remember watching the Muppets’ rendition of “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals as a child on Nickelodeon. I remember thinking that this song was originally written for Miss Piggy and Kermit, because it seemed so tailored to the dynamic of their relationship. As a child, the celebrity cameos weren’t as cool to me as the home videos of people singing the song. I wanted to be one of those people. I wanted to be singing along with Kermit and Miss Piggy. And, rewatching the video, I kind of still do.
Full disclosure: I missed the Muppets. Despite being just the right age when The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island came out, I didn’t see the movies in theaters and never caught up. I wasn’t even aware they had TV shows too until that new one came out recently. So for my pick, I bent the rules a bit.
This is a muppet cover with a lowercase “m.” It’s from Muppets-inspired TV show in Israel called Red Band, whose clips I discovered on YouTube some time back (we did a roundup of their greatest hits five years ago). There are only three puppets in Red Band – Red, Poncho, and Lefty – and the dialogue is all in Hebrew. But, like the Muppets, they bring in special human guests to join them on fantastic cover songs. In my favorite of the bunch, they bring in Israeli alt-rock star Aviv Geffen to join them on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Rather than relying on the puppet novelty factor, they rearrange the song for a truly beautiful new version with a Middle Eastern flavor (Geffen even sings a verse in Hebrew). It’s not Muppets, but it is muppets.
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