If I were to ask you randomly to spell the title of this week’s Single of the Week choice, I bet most of you would not so much struggle, but have to have a really good think about it and probably not get it quite right. It was a cod-instrumental which became famous in the seventies when used in a children’s television programme.
The programme in question was The Muppet Show and the track appeared as a cover version credited to The Muppets on the B-side of the 1977 top ten hit Halfway Down the Stairs. We’ll deal with the spelling of it later.
The ‘song’ was composed by the Tuscany-born film composer Piero Umiliani. He, like his Italian counterparts, scored for many spaghetti westerns and soft sex films. Mah Nà Mah Nà was written on a hot afternoon in June 1968. Piero was in his recording studio working on a movie called Sweden, Heaven and Hell which was directed by Luigi Scattini, who was also present in the studio with the musicians hired for the recording. They watch through a preview of the film as there was still some background music to add to a few short scenes. One of these scenes shows a group of girls running in fur coats on the snow and then enter a sauna with only towels wrapped around their bodies. This needed some music and in less than five minutes Umiliani improvises a refrain with three notes, rhythmic and catchy, which he entitles Viva la Sauna Svedese.
Everyone is happy and the soundtrack eventually got sent off to the record company, but did not include Viva la Sauna Svedese as it was very short and wasn’t considered necessary. However, Umiliani did include it on a later limited edition album called Psichedelica with only 200 copies pressed and not intended for sale. The film was released in Italy in September 1968 and was a big success.
For the American market Umiliani sent the soundtrack to Edward B. Marks Music Co. in New York City with extra tracks for them to approval for release. After a couple of months Umiliani received a letter from Joseph Auslander, the artistic director, who gave his approval and was particularly keen on the 106 second track Viva la Sauna Svedese saying that he was struck by the musicality of this simple and brilliant tune. They decided that this was to be the movies main theme and released as a single. The only problem was that the title was too ugly and too hard to pronounce. The track had to be renamed with a title that could be sung and easily remembered all over the world. After listening to it once more it was decided to give it the unforgettable and nonsense title, Mah-Nà Mah-Nà.
Now, let’s deal with the spelling of it. At first, the title was spelled in the USA with the hyphen and the accent over the letter ‘a’, but both the hyphen and the accent were omitted in the English version. Googling the title, will reveal it being spelt in at least a dozen different ways including Mahnamahna, Ma Na Ma Na, Mna Mna, Mannamanna and also Munnah Munnah but according to Umiliani, before he died in 2001, he said “Both Mah-Nà Mah-Nà and Mah Na Mah Na are both considered official spellings.”
In 1969 the track was used a couple of times in different episodes of the Benny Hill show and thus caused the song to enter the US chart, but only climb as high as number 55. By the early seventies the movie seemed to be long forgotten but around the same time, the fledgling Children’s Television Workshop was struggling to settle on a format for their educational TV programme, Sesame Street. The networks co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had recently given the OK to bring in Jim Henson, whose Muppet characters had at that point been seen only in commercials and on variety programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show. Henson had no experience in children’s programming and so was something of an odd choice, ”But that was just why I wanted him”, revealed Cooney.
The early setup is identical to the more familiar one seen on the Muppet Show, but Mahna Mahna was originally a character who sang a hoarse scat set against the backing of ‘doo dee doo’ which was provided by the twin Snouths (a combination of snout and mouth), who shake their heads and purse their lips in disapproval when their irrepressible colleague strays from the script. According to Street Gang which was Michael Davis’ history of Sesame Street, several of Henson’s colleagues describe his artistic style as ‘affectionate anarchy.’ As Mahna Mahna’s antics grow wilder, the Snouths grow more uneasy and eventually counterattack and smother him with their bodies. But Mahna Mahna eventually breaks free and runs right at the camera, making contact to the sound of shattering glass.
On 5th September 1976, the first episode of The Muppets Show was shown and the tune is performed by the same characters. From here on in the track will generally be referred to as the Muppets theme as many believe that the song has been composed for the show. In the UK the series became a hit a year later and the single finally made the UK chart peaking at number eight. The parent album, the Muppet Show soundtrack, went to number one and knocked off the Beatles’ Live at Hollywood Bowl album.
The head of Marks Music called Umiliani in Italy to tell him of the songs success in the US and UK and invites him to a party in New York to celebrate. Unfortunately, due to work commitments Umiliani was unable to attend, but the party still went ahead and personalised kazoos are given to all guests. Umiliani did go to New York a few months later and saw at the entrance of the building a billboard that said: M is our lucky letter: Manhattan, Malaguena, More and now… Mah-Nà Mah-Nà.
The song has never dated and there have been over 200 cover versions of it, but none beat the original with those session musicians. Oh, and if you were wondering who actually sings the title in that deep, almost drunk way, that was a man called Alessandro Alessandrini.