Some people grew up on the Beatles. Others, the Rolling Stones. Then there were the kids who learned about music through Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Muppets’ house band. For fans of The Muppet Show, the Mayhem were a gateway to rock and roll. The group covered everything from classical to jazz to country, backed up pop stars including Elton John and Diana Ross, and used a psychedelic, Magical Mystery Tour–inspired bus to get around, like they were a bunch of merry Ken Kesey–esque pranksters (minus the drugs, of course).
The Mayhem consisted of five members, all loosely based on real-life musicians. Fittingly, Muppet creator Jim Henson voiced the Mayhem’s lead singer, Dr. Teeth. The doctor’s deep, gravelly tone and colorful vests were a nod to New Orleans legend Dr. John. (Funny enough, I learned about Dr. Teeth before I learned about the man he was based on, and therefore initially assumed the “Right Place Wrong Time” singer was just ripping off a Muppet.) The rest of the group included guitarist and Valley Girl–Janis Joplin hybrid, Janice; bassist and Beatle freak, Sgt. Floyd Pepper; Zoot, a saxophonist who looked like jazz musician Gato Barbieri; and a Keith Moon–like drummer known as Animal, who usually had a giant chain wrapped around his neck. The band was occasionally joined by a yellow-Afro’d trumpet player named Lips.
They got their start on The Muppet Show’s 1975 pilot. After the program ended six years later, they continued to perform in Muppet movies and commercials. Unfortunately, after Henson’s death in 1990, they moved out of the spotlight (Dr. Teeth is now performed by Bill Barretta) and have since been relegated to smaller cameos and more instrumental parts (they show up briefly in Muppets Most Wanted). Well, it’s time to bring them back into focus. To pay tribute to one of the best fake rock bands in the universe, I went through every one of their performances over the last 40 years and picked out the best ones.
“Love Ya to Death”
If you’re going to start with a Mayhem song, you might as well make it the first one. On The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence — one of two pilots commissioned by ABC before the show was picked up full-time in 1976 — they performed an original tune, “Love Ya to Death,” in which Dr. Teeth belts out the kind of lyrics you’d never on a kids show today: “I’m gonna light some dynamite, and blow open your heart … I am gonna explode an atom bomb, and blow a hole in your soul.”
Once in a while, the group would bring in another Muppet to sing vocals, like they did with Scooter, the band’s road manager, in this cover of the 1963 Johnny Cymbal classic, “Mr. Bass Man.” Buh-buh-ba-buh-buh-BA-buh-ba-buh-ba-ba!
“Can You Picture That?”
The Mayhem’s first film appearance was in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, where they performed “Can You Picture That?” The scene is part of a montage where Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear run into Dr. Teeth and company at an old abandoned church. After Kermit and Fozzie fall asleep, the band decides to paint the duo’s car in — what else? — psychedelic colors.
In this episode from The Muppet Show’s fifth season, the band goes with something a little toned down, covering the classic song “Rockin’ Robin” from the confines of a tree. The song is great, but I am more curious as to how Animal got his drums to balance on that branch.
On this episode of The Muppet Show, Dr. Teeth introduces the song they’re going to perform as “an old favorite … It is called, and we will play, ‘Tenderly.’” Their definition of tenderly likely differs from the dictionary’s.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Janice and Floyd get a bit personal with this Paul Simon cover. If you’re familiar with Muppets lore, these two characters have a bit of a history. However, Floyd seems pretty calm about the whole relationship thing. When Jerry Nelson — the original Muppeter behind Floyd — was asked how Floyd felt about Janice’s brief fling with band member Zoot, he went to Floyd, who responded, “Hey, Man, I don’t own her. She is her own person. I think people acting that way, before she joined us, was why she left home in the first place.’”
If the band is going to cover the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper Floyd has to be involved. Though most of the Mayhem sits this one out, he is joined once again by Janice. Nothing beats the original version, of course, but who wants to pay for the rights? (Bonus Beatles cover: “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which Janice performs during a ritual sacrifice skit. Yes, The Muppet Show had a tendency to get real weird.)
“New York State of Mind”
One of the Mayhem’s most famous covers is Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Floyd takes the lead vocals on this track, with Dr. Teeth playing the piano. Fun fact: The Mayhem debuted this song on an episode of The Tonight Show, where Kermit the Frog was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson.
This Muppet Show performance is a good reminder that Animal doesn’t do well with slow songs. In fact, without his drums, Animal doesn’t do well with anything.
“Minuet in A Major”
Here, the Muppets attempt to introduce “culture” into their show — likely at the urging of noted classical music fanatic Sam the Eagle. Unfortunately, the Mayhem’s version of Chopin’s “Polonaise in A Flat” isn’t up to Sam’s liking (nor was this groovy cover of Christian Petzold’s “Minuet in G Major”).
“Don’t Blame the Dynamite”
How do you sing a song about dynamite and not include Crazy Harry, a.k.a. the Muppet who likes to blow things up? Great song, missed cameo.
In addition to a trumpet solo by Lips, this song gets dogs, cats, chickens, cows, and other farm animals to participate. The track is outside the band’s usual psych-rock genre, but they manage very nicely.
“Jingle Bell Rock”
Because if you’re a world-famous rock band, you’ll inevitably have to do an album of Christmas covers.
“Bye Bye Blackbird”
When they played alongside someone famous, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem would normally avoid the spotlight. However, this performance with Lou Rawls is an exception to the rule, as the band and Rawls scat their way through a rendition of rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
They don’t technically participate in the entire song, but they do perform the best part.