Forget Rod Stewart vs the Sex Pistols – this was the real battle for chart supremacy in the summer of 1977.
It was the unlikeliest of UK chart wars – two versions of the theme tune to a 1960s sexy Mondo movie battling it out for supremacy in 1977. But that’s exactly what happened, thanks to a hit TV show and record executives with an eye for the main chance.
In 1968, Piero Umiliani composed the song – if it can be called a song – Mah Na Mah Na as part of the soundtrack for the film Sweden – Heaven and Hell, a mockumentary that set out to explore the sexual freedoms and outrageous behaviour that Sweden was leading the way with – alongside Denmark, Sweden had been amongst the first nations to legalise pornography and was noted for its liberal attitudes. Well into the 1980s, ‘Swedish’ was a byword for saucy promiscuity in the UK. The track originally accompanied a scene set around a mixed sauna, and its bouncy nature and nonsense lyrics – good in any language! – made it the stand-out track on the soundtrack. It was released as a single in various countries, credited to Marc 4, a band of session musicians. The track was a minor hit in the USA, but a cover version – by ‘The Great Unknowns’ – vanished without trace in the UK. However, the track would become something of a staple for TV shows like The Benny Hill Show, where it was used several times as a backing tracking for his sketches and as the theme tune to The Red Skelton Show in America.
By 1976, it might have been a forgotten bit of background music had it not met its destiny when it was performed as a musical skit on the first episode of The Muppet Show. The muppets had already performed the song in 1969 on Sesame Street, but The Muppet Show was an altogether more mainstream entertainment series, produced in the UK by ATV and an immediate hit upon first broadcast. The Muppet version of the song was a highlight of the show, its nonsensical absurdity and immediate catchiness making it a hit with viewers.
The huge success of The Muppet Show meant that a soundtrack album of the songs performed on the show (by the Muppets themselves, not the celebrity guests) was inevitable, and in 1977, the first Muppet Show LP appeared. It was a huge success, hitting number one on the album charts in the UK, and spawned a couple of hit singles. The first of these was Halfway Down The Stairs, a cutesy number by Kermit the Frog’s nephew Robin – not even a famous muppet! – based on a poem by A.A. Milne that had been adopted into song form by Harold Fraser-Simpson. It’s a charming enough track, but it hardly seems the sort of thing that would fly up the charts. However, it did just that, thanks to the B-side.
For reasons that will forever remain a mystery, Pye Records chose to put Mah Na Mah Na on the flipside of the single, rather than have it as the lead track. But no one was fooled. People quickly sussed out that their favourite Muppets number was on the B-side, and rushed out to buy the single, propelling it to number 7 in the singles charts – though of course, on the Top 40 rundown and Top of the Pops, it was always Halfway Down the Stairs that was featured, much the frustration of… well, everyone really.
Sensing an opportunity that might not have existed had the song been the Muppets A-side, EMI rush-released the original track – now credited to Umiliani – as a single a month before the Muppets version was ready, and it entered the UK charts at number 38 on 24th of April 1977. The next week it had risen to number 23, then reached number 15 before finally peaking in eighth place on May 22nd, the same week that the Muppets version entered the charts. The Muppets single would eventually reach number seven, and at one point, both singles were at number eight (Muppets) and Nine (Umiliani), while the track managed to be in the top 20 three times – twice in the singles chart, once in the alum chart – at the start of June 1977. Much of the country was distracted by the Sex Pistols battle to hit number one at the time, but this is surely just as fascinating a slice of chart history.
Arguments will rage about which is the best version – at the time, most kids preferred the more anarchic version by The Muppets, but Umiliani’s track has an easy-listening charm that is almost the definition of 1960s Europop, and is perhaps the less gimmicky of the two. I think that we can say both versions have their charms and it’s fantastic to look back and remember how both were sitting in the top ten at the same time – and how the theme tune to a 1960s sex film became a beloved children’s favourite without anyone seeming to notice.
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