Thursday, March 22, 2012

The COOLEST Sesame Album EVER (and It's All About Naked Bert) [From the Archives: 3-27-09]

[The below article was posted on the original Muppet Freak on March 27, 2009]

All right, let's start off with a disclaimer:

I really didn't plan it this way. I knew i wanted to do a tribute article to this album and i figured if i was going to declare something the Coolest Sesame Street Album Ever, it was only natural to do a list of the Coolest Sesame Street Songs Ever. I talked in that post about how surprisingly easy it was to pick the top five and where they ranked.

It was only after i made my list that i started looking up some additional information about the songs so i could include them in my writeup. I was totally surprised that the top four were written/co-written by Sam Pottle. Well guess what? Pottle also wrote or arranged the vast majority of the songs on the album i'm about to discuss. After doing these articles, i have a whole new level of respect for Sam. He passed away far too soon in 1978 and who knows how many many more great songs the Muppetverse would have had if he had been with us longer?

Looking at his Muppet Wiki page was basically like looking at a list of Sesame Street's All Time Classics such as:

*Bus Stop
*City-Country Song 
Different People, Different Ways
Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)
*Numerical Correspondence Song
*One Way 
Pockets (this was not a Muppet song, but it was still sang by Marilyn Sokol and just as much of a Sesame Classic)
Sign, You're a Friend of Mine 
Swamp Mushy Muddy 
What's the Name of That Song? 
Women Can Be

...Those songs that have stars next to them? They're ones i had considered for inclusion on my Coolest List. One Way was literally Choice #6. Lest you think that he was the most perfect Muppet Songwriter Ever, i'll point out that he did also write I Get a Nice Feeling which was one of those way too sweet and sappy songs that bored me silly when Bob would sing them and cause me to go hide in the coat closet until it was over.

But enough with the traumatic childhood memories - now let's pay tribute to the COOLEST Sesame Street Album EVER.

The Coolest Sesame Street Album Ever is of course the one all about Bert not wanting to expose his private parts to a large group of friends. Seriously.

Now that's not WHY it's the all-time coolest, but it certainly doesn't hurt!

When Sesame Street's at its best, it includes multilayered humor and entertainment value that appeals to the adults watching the show along with their children. That's how the show was envisioned, it was never meant to be Barney-esque where the adults gag.

"BERT & ERNIE SING-ALONG" is one of those Sesame projects that you loved as a child and loved even more when you heard it as an adult. This gets frequent play in my car stereo.

 A lot of the earliest Sesame Street albums were simply collections of songs from the show. They might have sometimes been rerecordings instead of taken directly from the episodes, but they all had that anthology tone. There had been a few exceptions - 1972's Havin' Fun With Ernie and Bert was the first one to really break from that format. The album had a narrative theme of Bert and Ernie having a play along with all their friends and the "kids at home" who were encouraged to grab household items to do things with the Muppets. The songs were just about all new and had spoken bits tying them together between them. There was also The Muppet Alphabet Album which had songs representing all the letters of the alphabet. Most of which were written for the album and later filmed as Muppet songs/sketches for the show instead of the other way around.

But mostly, the original Sesame Street Albums had the "best of the show" compilation feeling, many of which focusing on a specific character like "Bert's Blockbusters" or "Grover Sings the Blues". In 1975 Bert & Ernie Sing Along was the first album that had come out in awhile that went back to the Havin' Fun With Ernie & Bert format where the songs were all recorded for the album and tied together by a story in between the songs. Even the credits on the back cover marked a different layout/format than the ones that had come before.

And the story that ties the album together is all about Naked Bert. You see, Bert is having a nice pleasant moment alone in his bath (which was a nice reversal since Ernie and his Rubber Duckie had always been the one who was associated with bath-taking.) He's enjoying his bath so much that he even starts singing "Yankee Doodle" (insert your own joke here). Ernie, the master of mixing baths and production numbers together soon enters saying he heard Bert singing and thought he'd join him in a sing-along - since everyone sounds better in the bathroom, after all! Bert of course, protests but nonetheless Ernie pushes the piano into the bathroom!

This gets the album started with one of those classic Ernie and Bert songs. You know how in the Sesame Street-homage-musical, Avenue Q where that's that great song between Nicky and Rod that pays tribute to the standard Ernie and Bert song? Well "I Refuse to Sing Along" is EXACTLY the type of song they were riffing on! Ernie has his verse about how great something is, Bert has his own verse with a different melody about the opposite point of view and the two end up singing their parts together - all with little asides and spoken dialogue between the lyrics:

Bert (singing): I refuse to sing along, I WON'T
So please don't ask me if I want to 'cause I DON'T
Although for you I would do almost anything...
Ernie (spoken): REALLY?
Bert (singing): ...Along is one way which I do not want to sing!

As soon as the song ends, it turns out that Ernie's sing-along was not just going to be a private party.

Ernie (hearing a knock): Someone's at the door.
Bert: Well go see who it is and lock yourself out!
Bert: Wait a minute - what are you doing?

Turns out that in addition to dragging the piano in the bathroom to sing along with Bert, he's also called all his friends for a mass group sing-along where the acoustics are best. The human cast members are the first to arrive. David arrives first and establishes that Bert has lots of soap bubbles to keep his private parts from being exposed to everyone in the room "Hey look at the SUDS - how are the suds?" Bob comes in as does Luis and Gordon remarking on the sound quality of the room - and the fact that Bert's taking a bath at the same time is just atmospheric.

Now of course, the album is never explicit about Bert's naked humiliation. This was a kids album after all. But a lot is implied and it's all there for the grown ups to laugh at while it's all going over the kids' heads. To the kids listening at home, Bert keeps screaming throughout the entire record for someone to get him a towel because he no longer wishes to be wet. The adults know that this is poppycock - Bert could just get out and air dry soon enough. He wants the towel to wrap around his waist so he doesn't end up completely exposed in all his glory to practically everyone he knows! The moment "the girls", Maria and Susan enter the room Bert screams out "ERNIE! MORE BUBBLE BATH!"

Now one of the great things about the album is that it's just pure fun, unspoiled by the kind of filtered-through-child-psychologists-and-educators watered down killjoy that later Sesame would become. In 1975, the adults were totally along with Ernie - having fun and going along with this goofy idea, not ever even giving much thought to the discomfort Bert is in. There's no preachy moralizing moment of "Hey, Ernie, don't you think we might be hurting Bert's feelings and this may not be a good idea?" Nope - everyone's there for the entire record.

So most of the human cast is there with Ernie and Bert and they start with sing-along standards like "Old McDonald" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad". What's really great is all throughout the album you hear this incredible chemistry between the cast. Sesame had been on the air for a good six years by now and the way that both the human and Muppet cast work together as a whole is just magic. That's really one of the big reasons why this record is so freakin' cool! All throughout it's just Golden Age Sesame at its peak.

For about the first half of the album, someone(s) new enters the bathroom between each song. Big Bird enters with his bells. The Count enters fascinated with counting bathroom tiles and the people in the room which also includes "one big bird and shivering person in the bathtub".

The cast quickly gets Count to sing a song before he puts on things. Unfortunately, his song "Bats In My Belfry" is basically a Transyvanian version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"...that counts UPWARDS meaning it could literally go on without end. Once it dawns on everyone where the song is headed, David suggests to the others that they put the Count in the shower, which they do.

This part is hilarious but also kinda strange. Now i don't know about the design of New York (or even general) American bathrooms in one-bedroom apartments in the 1970's but it always struck me odd that they would have had a shower area separate from the bathtub to put the Count in. Or that there would have already been enough water in there for the sound effect "SPLASH" that occurs when they do instead of a shower nozzle turning on with a whoosh...but it's funny so it works.

Next to enter are the Monsters - Cookie, Grover and Herry...who all come riding into the bathroom on Herry's motorcycle with instruments in the sidecar!

Oscar makes an appearance to complain about the noise but he exits pretty quickly when he realizes everyone's still going to go about having fun.

Once Oscar leaves, Susan sings:

Don't shout Grouchy Oscar, don't shout
That's not what our singing's about
So if you can't take
The noise that we make
Go back to your trash can and pout

which kicks off "The Limerick Song", one of the funniest tracks on the album with various people contributing a verse.

Ernie: You all know my good buddy Be-ert
Bert (spoken:) Oh no...
Ernie: Whose feelings are easily hu-urt
When our friends all play dress-up
Old Bert has to fess up
Bert (singing:) Yeah - I'm always the one in the skirt - AND I DON'T LIKE IT

Bert even joins the sing-along for the first time, but for his own reasons...

There once was a man named Mcdowell
Who planted a tree with a trowel
Then he got in the shower
Where he stayed for an hour

And the cast just laughs it off as good fun and all sing the jolly good time chorus oblivious to Bert's suffering although by now he's yelling in the background for his towel..."Grab some pants? How about a washcloth? Go down to Hooper's Store and get an apron - anything! I'm cold! I don't want to be in the tub!"

 It's several more songs before anyone else enters but in the meantime Grover leads everyone in "On Top Of Old Smokey" though he doesn't really know the words himself. Instead of singing some well-known variation like "On Top Of Spaghetti", Grover's version was written by Jim Henson himself (he wrote new words to a few of the tracks on the album) and largely details the things he lost on his trip. The words along with Frank Oz's delivery are all so wonderfully Grover-esque, ending with him finding his mommy with all of his stuff. There's also one of the best versions of "What's the Name of That Song" ever.

Eventually Mr Hooper comes in saying he got an order for three quarts of ice cream.
(Of course Ernie wants Bert to pay for it despite his current lack of pants)

Mr. Hooper: Ah, don't worry about it Bert, you can pay me later.
Bert: I just want to get up!

This prompts the cast to sing the Sesame standard Everyone Loves Ice Cream, which they conclude with a rousing "We love you, Mr. Hooper!"

Now at this point one of the most interesting things happen. Up til now, every single character that joins in has a big entrance scene. But when everyone starts singing "Everyone Likes Ice Cream", we hear Prairie Dawn singing along with the cast. She's just there all of a sudden, we never heard any reference to her entering (I always pictured her silently coming in with Hooper helping carry the ice cream).

I'm thinking that the creative staff knew they were skating a thin line with the rather risque topic of the album. Somehow they could get away with Susan and Maria joining in as long as Bert got that "more bubble bath!" But since Prairie was a "sweet little girl" character, they just wanted to sneak her in there and not make any big deal about her entrance. I'm glad they included her though; i mentioned this album totally celebrates the whole cast's synergy and leaving Fran Brill out just wouldn't have been right.

Ernie eventually gets Hooper to admit that along with the ice cream, he brought some cookies which immediately gets Cookie Monster's attention. Rather than take the direct approach, he asks (quasi demands): "Hey, Ernie, me play piano okay?"

Ernie: "I didn't know you could play the piano, Cookie Monster."
Cookie; "Oh SURE..."

and away he starts POUNDING on the keys and belting out "C Is For Cookie"...turns out he really can't play well at all - it's totally off key and in a very uh...deMONSTERative style. It is so absolutely hilarious to listen to. But what's really amazing is that despite the off-key piano, everyone sings the song on key, not letting the piano drag them down. As a singer, i can tell you that's not easy to do! One person in a group singing flat can easily quickly bring everyone else off track. Even though i wouldn't be surprised if the vocals and the piano were recorded separately, i'm nonetheless very impressed. Of course, Cookie gulps all the cookies down by song's end.

Finally by the end of the album right after a reprise of "What's the Name of That Song?" (Big Bird: "Maybe it's 'The Bluebird of Happiness'". Cookie: "How about Moon Over My Cookie?'"), Bert has been swept up by the fun and leads everyone in "Sing".

I talked about how the interaction among the cast really makes this album special. All throughout there's great little adlibs by everyone during the songs and the narratives. Little gems like Oscar complaining everyone's making enough noise to wake up a parking meter at which point most everyone groans or "ahh"'s, but Grover more innocently yells "That's cute" without any sarcasm implied. When everyone groans at Big Bird's silly food verse suggestion at the end of "Peanuts", Cookie simply states "Sound good to me!"

In fact, if you've heard the Sesame Street Theme Remix by Ursula 1000 that appears on the "Songs From The Street" cd box set that was marketed to adult Sesame fans, all the dialogue clips from the remix come from this album including The Count's "Well here's a snappy little number", Luis' "Dum Dee Dum Dee Dum" and Cookie's "Hey, Ernie, me play piano okay?" among others.

But it's during Sing where my favorite adlib in the entire album occurs. Of course it meant nothing to me as a kid, but the first time i heard this listening to it as an adult after many years, i had one of those five minute long "I can't believe they did that" type laughter fits! Bert is totally enjoying himself and won over by the singalong during this final track and spontaneously cries out, "SING OUT LUIS!" mocking the infamous line from Gypsy.

After everything i mentioned: Naked Bert not wanting to be exposed forming the basis of an album, sheer non-watered down fun, the cast performing together at its peak, Henson and Pottle's writing contributions, it's that SING OUT LUIS that firmly puts this album at the top of the list of all other Sesame records.

And how does it all end? With Bert finally getting his towel? Everyone leaving Bert back alone? Nope. Ernie's final invited guests arrives - a university marching band which excites Bert tremendously as he encourages them to spell out "pigeon" and even get in the bath with him!

Way. Too. Cool.

In closing, i should mention i have a personal story associated with this record (which didn't actually have any impact on my judging it the coolest ever). I would have been about three years old when this came out. My oldest brother, still in the process of learning to drive, accidentally had the car in the wrong gear as he was meaning to back out of the driveway and instead drove straight forward through the garage door! All my family was outside witnessing this and when it happened, i was bawling out a storm! Everyone thought it was because i was scared, but it wasn't that it scared me, but to a three-year-old mind, a hole in the garage door was one of those unspeakable nightmares - a part of your house broken! Sure when a Monster runs out of your house leaving a Herry-shaped hole in the wall in his wake, it's funny because it's only people on tv but this was real! The house one lives in is the symbol of security to a small child and now that it all of a sudden had a hole in it (even if it was just the garage), this was too devastating for me to comprehend. (This probably explains why i get so terrified of the prospect of a tree being knocked over and crashing into my apartment whenever there's a huge storm!)

To make amends for the horror he accidentally inflicted on me, he went out to the store soon after and brought me home this record. (The fact that i was already learning to deal with sudden change wasn't helped by seeing how the back cover looked "weird" compared with my other Sesame records). But Ernie and Bert always made me laugh and this record did its job even if i couldn't figure out why Bert was pictured on the cover fully clothed and happily singing along with Ernie on the piano when that's not what was on the record or had no idea what the whole "SING OUT LUIS" thing was about.

[To my great surprise, almost exactly a year after i wrote this, this album was one of three classic Sesame albums released in the first cd box set of classic SST albums called "Old School: Volume 1"  I NEVER would have expected this to get a cd release on its own, but within the box set concept it was perfect.  I often wonder if someone at Sesame Workshop had seen my review and chose it for inclusion as a result.]

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