Piero Umiliani – Bridging the Gap Between The Muppets and Porn

Written by  //  February 22, 2010  //  Donnyblurbs  //  3 Comments

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Since they were introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960′s, Jim Henson’s Muppets have become a major part of our cultural lexicon. They have become the face of early childhood education with Sesame Street, they brought joy to children and adults alike during the all-too brief run of The Muppet Show, and took us to vividly imagined fantasy worlds in the 1980′s with movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

I can state with some conviction that I feel lucky to have grown up with The Muppets in my life. If I have learned to appreciate anything in the quest for knowledge, in the synthesis of play and education, in celebrating diversity and compassion, and always always remembering to have a good laugh, it is because I was so enamored of my felted friends and the world that they lived in (I freely admit to tearing up anytime I watch Big Bird singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Jim Henson’s Memorial).

But I digress. One of the most lasting songs that we think comes to us from the great Muppet oeuvre is “Mah Na Mah Na.” Even those who grew up well outside the golden age of the Muppets should have an awareness of this catchy, nonsensical song. It has been remade so many times, in so many styles, that it is more ubiquitous that “The Macarena”.

In the first season of Sesame Street, “Mah Na Mah Na” was featured in a sketch and was quickly appropriated by soft pop recording artist Dave Pell, who released a version of it that actually had some legs on the charts. It was used again by The Muppets during the very first episode of their prime time Muppet Show. It’s the version that is most recognizable, and from there it has taken on a life of its own, having been recorded by heavy metal bands, cheesy Euro-club producers, and more recently a brassy version of the song was released by alt-rockers Cake.

However, the original song was written by Italian composer Piero Umiliani and used in the Italian pseudo-documentary “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”. Umiliani composed soundtracks for several exploitation films, which were usually just staged productions highlighting promiscuity and naughty behavior among groups of chesty foreigners. “Sweden, Heaven and Hell” followed the drugged out, sexually deviant lifestyles of the Swedish, and the song was first shown during a scene in which a group of women struggle to keep their towels over their barely concealed unmentionables while they are crowded into a sauna.

Pop appropriation was the name of the game in those days, which is why you see the vinyl bins at thrift stores stuffed full of albums by Montovani or countless other faceless, bland composers who would churn out album after album of soft pop versions of popular songs. It’s no wonder, then, that such a silly song found its way onto Sesame Street. But knowing that a song which accompanied bathing Swedish babes and supported awkward Italian boners was then recast as a children’s mumble-along is knowledge that shines a new light on the music supervisors in Jim Henson’s stable.

Umiliani never acheived the recognition of Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota, and looking back it’s not necessarily a big surprise. Umiliani’s work generally came off as derivative of others, namely the Italian contemporaries just mentioned, and his scat-based vocal pieces felt more like a lazy man’s Esquivel. Most of his soundtracks were overly melodramatic, with sweeping string movements and god-awful flutes overpowering any attempts at subtlety.

That’s not say that there wasn’t much to like. There are several pieces on the “Sweden, Heaven and Hell” soundtrack that display a real sultry funk and a playfulness, dabbling in psychedelic rock, spaced out keys, and setting the perfect sort of tone for his cinematic subject material. “Fotomodelle”, for example, features musical and rhythmic male grunts, half-whispered female melodies, and swinging beats, punctuated by colorful blasts of organ and held together by the sort of guitar licks found on any given spaghetti western soundtrack. It’s hard not to picture Swedes debauching to such a song.

Umiliani was best when he was pushing against traditional arrangements on the keys, incorporating organs and on later endeavors, synthesizers. When he was left to work outside of soundtracking films, he seemed more free to let his influences of free-jazz, of heavy rock and psychedelic music play through without reserve. He put out several albums of electronic music, and I have included several tracks below, from his hit-or-miss album “To-Day’s Sound” and the more consistent “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1″. These tracks are not necessarily indicative of the quality of the albums overall, but do represent some forward thinking pieces that foreshadow works by instrumental artists who came to the scene much later, including Goblin, Combustible Edison, The Cinematic Orchestra, Isotope 217, and Maserati.

Enjoy!

Piero Umiliani – Selected Works
1. Mah na Mah na – from “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”
2. Violenza – from “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”
3. La signora cameriera – from “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”
4. Eva svedese – from “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”
5. Fotomodelle – from “Sweden, Heaven and Hell”
6. Open Space – from “To-Day’s Sound”
7. Momento Ritmico – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
8. Motore Ioni – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
9. Elzeviro – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
10. Officina Stellare – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
11. A New Experience – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
12. Delenda Cartago – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”
13. Cibernetica – from “Musicaelettronica Vol. 1”

Next Week – R&B gets fuzzed out by The Pretty Things.

About the Author

Rbt. B. Rutherford is the Donnybrook Manor's Resident Bard/Plant Psychologist. BA in Fecundity, MA in Profundity, Cambridge University, Magna Cum Laude.

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3 Comments on "Piero Umiliani – Bridging the Gap Between The Muppets and Porn"

  1. Julie T February 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm · Reply

    That song is really catchy…even before I saw it accompany the ladies in the sauna.

  2. John Wenzel February 22, 2010 at 4:50 pm · Reply

    Great, now I’m going to have that song in my head all day. Thanks a lot, Rbt. B!

  3. Team Donnybrook
    godonnybrook March 4, 2010 at 10:27 am · Reply

    AMAZING, Rbt! I wondered how you’d bridge the gap between muppets and porn. Bravo! I also love this song. It’s the song that I hum absentmindedly while I watch the servants do chores.

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