Jane Ellen

1.14 Is There a Doctor in the House

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 14: Is There a Doctor in the House?

This episode is not about Dr Dre, Dr Hook, Doctor Who, or even Dr John (albeit all worthy musicians in their own right). Instead, we're going to revisit the history of a phenomenal band that celebrated their 43rd year together by playing to packed houses at the London O2 arena in 2018. Astonishingly, none of the band members seemed to have aged a day. I know at least one of my regular readers was in the audience that summer, and I'll let the rest of you in on the secret: we're celebrating none other than the one, the only, original house (and pit) band for The Muppets, Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem! *cue raucous applause and cheering*

By the way, I can hear you! You're thinking 'Is she serious?! She's going to write about a bunch of puppets?!' Erm ... no. They're called Muppets, and yes, I'm quite serious. Muppet creator Jim Henson's love for music established a foundation that has lasted well over 4 decades, introducing fans of all ages to different musical genres via television shows, feature films, and live concerts.

In an episode of Ask Henson.com, head Muppet archivist Karen Falk responded to a question about the band's origins by stating: Music was always an important part of Jim Henson's work. He had a strong interest in all types and had an eclectic record library. When he began writing proposals and creating concepts for The Muppet Show in the late 1960s, they always included a house band that was to appear in each episode.

Electric Mayhem

That house band is made up of Dr Teeth (keyboards), Floyd Pepper (bass, cello, banjo, vibes), Zoot (flute, reeds, tuba), Janice (lead guitar, brass, percussion), and Animal (drums). When the band is in the pit, you can find Rowlf at the piano, and occasionally another musician named Lips shows up to blow a few trumpet licks. The band has performed with such luminaries as Miss Piggy, Elton John, Arlo Guthrie, Miley Cyrus, Sam the Eagle, Alice Cooper, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Jett, and John Denver, and has acquired an ardent fanbase. The members of the Mayhem are obviously highly intellectual as the guitarist and bass player, as well as the occasional trumpet player, are left-handed.

Dr Teeth and the gang made their debut on the Muppet pilot, which was called The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. (No, I'm not making that up.) Here's a video of their first known recording, a psychedelic rock original entitled 'Love Ya to Death'. And in case you're expecting 'The Rainbow Connection', think again; the song includes these memorable lyrics:
    I'm gonna light some dynamite and blow open your heart
    I'm gonna light some dynamite and blast a tunnel to your love
    I'm gonna explode an atom bomb (ooh-ooh-skiddlely-bam)
    And blow a hole in your soul (ooh-ooh-skiddlely-bam)
    I'm gonna get through to you baby before I lose control

The Mayhem has always played a lot of psych-rock, jazz, and blues (and occasionally classical tunes under duress), but series guest stars also found a chance to show off their musical talents with non-band cast members. For example, here's comedian Steve Martin performing 'Duelling Banjos' with Kermit the Frog (yet another lefty!).

Inevitably, the Electric Mayhem also play their fair share of cover tunes although the original tune may or may not be recognisable (check out their unique rendition of Tenderly if you dare). But when it comes to covers (despite the fact that this number features just about the entire cast), no one can argue that the Mayhem walked off with the very best part of this classic song.

Once you've recovered from that somewhat over the top rendition of Queen's greatest hit, 'Bohemian Rhapsody', have a look at Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem's cover of Paul Simon's 'Kodachrome'. Be sure to pay attention because I'll be coming back to this in a few minutes.

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. The remarkable thing about Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem is that they're believable. Fictional (cough!) though they may be, each member is representative of a human musician somewhere. Dr Teeth is based on New Orleans legendary pianist and singer-songwriter Dr John (Mac Rebennack), while the inspiration for Animal's mayhem at the drumset (see what I did there?) remains a mystery. Billy Joel once claimed that Liberty DeVitto inspired Animal, whilst other sources have speculated his origins might be found in Keith Moon, Levon Helm, or John Bonham. Sadly, we'll probably never know. Floyd Pepper's name is a pseudo-portmanteau paying tribute to Pink Floyd and the Beatles (Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). He sings lead vocal more often than anyone else in the band, and he's the stereotypical bad songwriter that everybody loves to hate. Floyd once quipped If I didn't know I was a genius, I wouldn't listen to the trash I write. Hearthrob Janice is obviously a smokin' hot guitar-playing homage to Janis Joplin, whilst Zoot is the hip but seemingly semi-comatose sax player who's been everywhere and played everything, yet somehow wound up playing psychedelic rock. It's a living.
  • 2. Unlike the highly-staged and choreographed 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'Kodachrome' is (mostly) what you would expect from a live performance. Try to forget for a moment that you're staring at vaguely anthropomorphic clumps of cloth, felt, and yarn, and watch the band as if the band members are real people. Dr Teeth introduces the song then Floyd calls for Animal to kick it off; Animal immediately counts it off as any drummer might do, beating 4 counts on his sticks. After an energetic intro, Floyd begins to sing, and immediately the band gets quiet behind his vocals. It's a masterful display of art imitating life.
  • 3. If you're familiar with any of the instruments, have a look at the players. With the exception of our left-handed bass and guitar player (and there are plenty of those in real life, Paul McCartney for one), everyone's playing precisely as they should: Animal's using a matched grip on his drumsticks (meaning he's holding them the same way in each hand), Dr Teeth's movements match the keyboard sounds, Janice's and Floyd's hands move appropriately on the necks of their instruments, and Zoot's hands are in the right place on the sax (even if it does seem to be missing a few keys). The only slight disconnect is that I'm not sure it's possible to play a regular trumpet left-handed; but then Lips could be wealthy enough to commission a special horn.
  • 4. Now, let's have a look at the stage. First of all, the set-up is believable. Everybody's standing where they should stand, with Animal elevated above everyone else. The microphones are dead ringers for the Shure SM58 vocal mics. As long as you don't look too closely at the sax, there is nothing fantastic or unbelievable about the stage set up, the instruments, or the performers. You have to give credit where credit is due; the Muppets might have been thought of as a children's show, but it was clearly aimed at adults as well. Young children often cannot tell the difference between haphazard props and sophisticated ones, but discerning adults can. This is all part of the Jim Henson Muppet Magic.
  • 5. The only thing that threatens the believability of this as a live performance are all the cutesy camera photos that begin to take over. I suppose there are a lot of fans who want or need this diversion, but as a musician, I get so wrapped up in the performance that the inevitable music video shtick becomes increasingly frustrating.

A truly great ensemble is a combination of solid playing (proficient, not necessarily virtuosic), grit, creativity, innovation, a collective sense of humour, and the uncanny ability to get along despite the birth and death of interpersonal relationships. Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem is a brilliant example of that sort of cohesion.

Find The Electric Mayhem:
Electric Mayhem on Twitter
Electric Mayhem on Facebook
Disney quiz, which band member are you?
An hour's worth of great Muppet Show music

This episode goes out to my dear friend Chris, who has not only been a tireless supporter, but who has even used my compositions in some of his radio plays. Thank you!
If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)