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The Greatest Live Performances… In Children’s Television?

April 12, 2011

For generations, rockstars and parents have seemed to be at battle; on opposite sides of an ethical spectrum balanced by the potential futures of our children. Since the 1950s, parents have preached against the rambunctious attitude of rock ‘n roll; the egotism, substance abuse and careless attitudes fall far from the ‘role model standards’ deemed appropriate for children.

However, one entity has made greater progress in bridging the gap between the two: children’s television. Many musicians of varying backgrounds and genres have shown their fondness for their youngest listeners by appearing on shows aimed at children, both the educationally oriented and entertainment.

Music is well represented in children's programming, as it should be. Hell, I'm pretty sure that the majority of young adults still remember "Animal," in all of his furiously outrageous glory.

When examining great performances by musicians on children’s T.V., two shows always come to mind. Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. Both tenured staples of children’s television history, the puppet-themed programs often invited some of the times’ greatest musical acts.

Let’s take a look at some of the greatest performances in  children’s programming.

Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street

As if Sesame Street wasn’t already the epitome of coolness in children’s television in the 1970s, soul artist Stevie Wonder sealed the deal with his 1972 appearance on the children’s television show. Performing what is arguably his greatest hit, “Superstition,” Wonder and his full backing band brought the noise on the assembled street set. With a large group of the show’s recurring children actors lining the back of the set bobbing their heads, Wonder’s music showed that it knows no boundaries in its audience’s age.

The shining moment was the band’s breakdown at the end of the song, when Wonder belts out “Sesame Street” to the harmony of his hit.

Johnny Cash on Sesame Street

Johnny Cash released a children’s album in 1975, but the country star’s dedication to music for young listeners did not end there. Cash would perform the opening track from the children’s album, “Nasty Dan,” on Sesame Street, alongside the recurring character Oscar, who was often deemed the grouchy and mean-spirited member of the crew. The highlight comes at the end of the song, when Oscar asks, “aren’t you Johnny Trash?” to which Cash simply retorts with a bump to Oscar’s trashcan from the butt of his guitar. Priceless.

Elton John on the Muppet Show

The flamboyant, colorful Elton John made an ideal guest on the Muppet Show in 1972, performing his hit song “Crocodile Rock.” With a backing band of puppets, John took to his keys with a rainbow-colored headdress of massive feathers. The performance even included backing choral vocals by a trio of crocodiles, whom John mistakenly joined by falling into the swamp towards the end of the song.

John would become a common musical guest on Sesame Street, sharing songs such as “Bennie and the Jets,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” on separate episodes.

R.E.M. on the Muppet Show

Children’s songs are typically bubbly and fun-loving; two traits which made R.E.M’s 1991 hit “Shiny Happy People” a shoe-in for the Muppet Show. Visiting a cast of emotionally bi-polar monsters, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills performed their song as an attempt to cheer up the puppets. Kate Pierson, lead singer for the B-52’s and backing vocalist on the track, does not appear on the episode, although a loving likeness puppet was developed to lip-sync her vocals. Buck’s use of a banjo, as well as Mill’s utilization of a standing bass, added some flavor to an unforgettable live rendition.

Alice Cooper on the Muppet Show

Rock operas translate well into the lunacy of the Muppet Show, as Alice Cooper showed with his songs “Welcome To My Nightmare” and “School’s Out,” as part of this 1978 broadcast. Cooper’s performances often involve endless props and detailed sets, which Jim Henson and Co. were happy to provide in the form of a dark castle, rolling fog, a spooky backing band of puppets and even a dancing partner ghost.

Bonus

Polaris on The Adventures of Pete & Pete

Miracle Legion was one of the 1990’s best kept secrets in indie and alternative music. The band’s sound did not escape the ears of Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb, whose love for the band led them to offer the four-piece from Connecticut the opportunity to serve as the house band for their new Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. What they got was three-fourths of the band, who changed their name to Polaris as part of the series. The group produced one album under the moniker, with several of the songs finding placement on the show, including their hit “Hey Sandy,” which was featured as the opening tune.

Polaris have since faded into indie lore, with their lone appearances on the Nickelodeon classic. Meanwhile, lead singer Mark Mulcahy has become a musical icon referenced by the likes of Thom Yorke.

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