Sesame Street has released well over a hundred albums in its four-decade history. So here’s my brilliant idea for a Tough Pigs article series: I’m going to listen to Sesame Street albums, and then I’m going to write about them. It’s Sesame Needle Drop!
Numbers is a Sesame Street record from 1977. (Hey, 1977 – that’s a number!) Muppet Wiki describes it as “a concept album that features songs about the numbers from 1 to 10, all of which were written by Jeff Moss.” As you might expect, track 1 is about the number one, track 2 is about the number two, and so on.
Stop me if I’ve told this story before: I owned this album when I was a kid. Another fact about me when I was a kid is that I hated cleaning my room. My parents did their best to get me to keep the place neat and tidy, but sometimes I let things get out of hand. On one occasion, I left a bunch of stuff on the floor, including this record – and long story short, I stepped on the record and broke it, and that was the end of me owning this album as a kid. It taught me a valuable lesson: Put your records away before you throw all the rest of your belongings on the floor.
I have some vague memories of the album, but because of that tragic meeting of shoe and vinyl, there’s a lot I don’t remember about it, so I’m curious to hear it again. If you want to listen along, Numbers is available on Amazon and iTunes.
The tallest star of Sesame Street has our introduction: “Hi, everybody! It’s me, Big Bird! We’re going to be talking about numbers today.” Thanks, Big Bird, although I had gathered that from the title Numbers. Big Bird sings about how happy he is that there’s just one of him, before realizing that there’s also just one YOU – meaning me! Or you, if you’re the one listening to this song. Or Winona Ryder, if she’s listening to the song.
The second verse is all about me/you/Winona: “The smile on your face is like no smile that I’ve seen! You’re one special person, if you know what I mean!” And it’s exactly because of messages like this that Generation X and the millennials grew up feeling so arrogant and egocentric and entitled. THANKS A LOT, BIG BIRD.
Yay, it’s Ernie and Bert. I like those guys. Bert’s coming home, and he has something to say, but Ernie doesn’t let him speak because Ernie’s happy to see Bert, because it’s so nice and special when two people get together. Ernie gets Bert to join him in a song about how “it’s much more fun when one and one make two.” It’s a lovely sentiment, although there are also times when one is fine by itself, so I can be alone and listen to my Sesame Street records in peace. Toward the end, Bert shouts, “Hey Ernie, let’s sing harmony!” but then he continues singing the melody, so I guess he meant “Hey Ernie, YOU sing harmony!”
The twist: When Bert came in, he was trying to ask Ernie if he wanted to play checkers… but Ernie can’t, because he’s going to the park to play with his friend Gerard! “Gerard???” Bert asks, as Ernie slams the door. I’m just as confused as you are, Bert.
It’s a Tony Orlando song! Wait, no, it’s Oscar the Grouch. But wouldn’t that be an interesting Sesame Street album — covers of existing pop songs that prominently feature numbers? They could do “Henry VIII” by Herman’s Hermits, “Two of Us” by the Beatles, and “Land of 1,000 Dances” by Wilson Pickett. It’s about time kids learned to count to 1,000.
Anyway, Oscar is in fine form here… He starts with a disclaimer that usually he thinks numbers are silly and he doesn’t like any of them, and while the song is about using the number three to get his attention, he makes it clear that he never wants to see you, he never wants to ride in a car with you, and he never wants to talk to you on the phone. Good old misanthropic Oscar!
Ladies and gentlemen, Little Jerry and the Monotones! Little Jerry introduces the band: Little Jerry himself! Chrissy! Rockin’ Richard! Finally — “last and least” — Big Jeffy! The 1:20 intro doesn’t leave them much time to sing about four, but it’s enough for a feel-good, old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roller full of examples of things that have four of something. It’s no “Telephone Rock,” but it’s a worthy entry in the LJ&M discography. Little Jerry’s assertion that there are four quarters in a dollar, and also in a football game is a clever line that was undoubtedly lost on all the kids listening at home, including me. Kids are dumb.
Speaking of four, this is the fourth track, and also the fourth musical genre on this album. A talented guy, that Jeff Moss.
“Hi, there, my friend. It’s me, your good buddy Biff, here to tell ya a story about the number five.” I always liked Biff. I think it’s safe to say he and Sully are my favorite fictional construction workers.
Biff, it turns out, used to have some trouble with the number five. He just couldn’t seem to remember it at various crucial junctures. “But now, I got a good pal named Sully, who’s smart as can be, like a whip, Sully, you know? And one day Sully takes me aside, and my pal says to me…” That’s how Biff talks all throughout this track, and I love it. He’s an authentic, working-class joe! So, the advice he got from Sully was: “Think of your fingers! Look at your hand! Wiggle your fingers! Then count those fingers and…” et cetera.
I have two issues with this. First of all, I find it hard to believe that Biff ever let Sully get a word in edgewise at any time in their friendship. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary. But more importantly: Biff doesn’t have five fingers! I just watched a bunch of Biff clips on YouTube (I was only going to watch one, but you know how it goes), and although he is a live-hand puppet, the dude only has four fingers on each hand. He’s shown wearing a five-fingered glove on the cover of this album, but I believe that’s the first and only time he was depicted as such.
Boy, Sesame Street really pulled a fast one here. I can’t believe I’m the first person to notice this in 40 years! I hope I get five Pulitzer Prizes.
Hey, it’s Bert and Ernie again! This one starts with Ernie coming back from the grocery store with some soda pop. Did he already finish playing with Gerard, or did he just forget all about it and leave Gerard waiting at the park?
Bert’s very busy, sitting there thinking about his favorite number: six. The concept of this song is nutty, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the Bert & Ernie dynamic. Bert rhapsodizes about the number six, while Ernie keeps trying to rain on his parade by insisting that nobody’s favorite number is six. But you know, if you have a favorite number, you’re already kind of boring, aren’t you? Is favoring six any worse?
On the TV show, this number – by which I mean this song – ends with Ernie sitting down to think about his favorite number: 8,243,721. Sadly, he does not sing a song about it. The album version is different, with Ernie experiencing the revelation that there are SIX bottles of soda pop in the container he bought! And then Bert pops the bottle caps off, not because he wants to drink the soda pop, but because he wants to collect the bottle caps. My initial instinct was to say I prefer the TV ending, but the sound effect used for Bert popping open the bottles is extremely satisfying, and it’s a bit of a thrill to see Bert get the better of Ernie, so I’ll give it to the audio version.
Fun fact: this song was released as a single.
The B-side of the aforementioned single. This song is sung by Marylou, a Fran Brill little girl character with a family of seven. I don’t believe Marylou ever appeared on the show. They could have used Prairie Dawn for this song, but maybe they weren’t prepared to establish the continuity that Prairie Dawn has a dog named Roscoe.
Could this be the longest title of any song on a Sesame Street album? Interesting thing: The track listing on the Amazon version of this album omits “My Mother” from this title. What do they have against mothers? I don’t know, but there may be some trouble brewing between Marylou’s mother and father… Everyone gets a very brief introduction, and the parents’ consists of sarcastic squabbling: “No, Arnold. You’re right and I’m wrong.” “No, Gertrude. You’re right and I’m wrong.” It’s funny, but they probably wouldn’t play domestic tension for laughs these days.
The roar of thunder at the beginning of this track is a sure sign of who will be featured on this track: Susan! Just kidding, it’s the Count. I fooled you, though, didn’t I?
Wow, it took them eight tracks to get to the Count on an album called Numbers! I guess that’s like a band waiting to play their biggest hit until halfway through their concert. On this track, the Count plays eight notes on his organ, then counts them… in SONG! It’s sort of an educational companion to “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.
If I were the dancing type, I’d jump up and dance along with this one. The song is devoted almost entirely to counting to eight and then exclaiming about how much fun it is to count to eight, but it’s catchy and entertaining. Which is the genius of Sesame Street.
“Counting eight notes is twice as much fun as counting four notes,” the Count says. “Or four times as much fun as counting two notes! Or eight times as much fun as counting one note!” Okay, but does that mean it’s only half as much fun as counting sixteen notes?
This one is distinct from the others because it’s not so much a song as a sketch with a brief, recurring musical chorus. Grover encounters Ernie, who’s about to sit in the sunshine and read a book, but he forgot to bring a book. Grover offers to walk up the nine steps to his own apartment and back down again to bring Ernie a book, and in the manner of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Ernie proceeds to request a table, a fluffy armchair, and Grover’s drumset.
Every once in a while, I hear someone say they don’t like Ernie because he’s kind of a jerk. “Climbing Nine Stairs” would be pretty effective evidence for that argument. Somehow the fact that the straight man is Grover, who’s trying desperately to be helpful, rather than cranky ol’ Bert, renders it more frustrating than funny. Of course, Frank Oz and Jim Henson do great stuff with it, and I laughed out loud at the end, when it starts to rain… Grover picks up the table and the chair, and Ernie says, “Grover, hey, can you get the drums? I’m carrying the book.”
They couldn’t get through a Muppet-centric Sesame Street album with no Cookie Monster, could they? Of course not, so here he is.
The monster has ten cookies, you see. He eats one, and then he has nine, but he wishes he still had ten, and so on. I dig the funky horns on this track, but the song is pretty repetitive. Cookie Monster announces how many cookies there are, declares that he’s eating one, announces the new number, and laments that he doesn’t have ten anymore. It’s not the strongest track on the album. In fact, if I were to rank the songs on this album, I’d probably rank this one at #10.
But there’s an epilogue: Cookie Monster gets a package delivered, and you’ll never guess what it is. It’s ten cookies from his Uncle Fred! (Did you guess?) “You know what that mean?” he says. “That mean me get to sing whole song over again from beginning!” I’m happy for him, but I’m also very grateful for the fadeout that soon follows.
And that’s the end. Ten numbers, ten charming, diverse songs performed by a bunch of Sesame Street characters. We learned about numbers, we learned about counting, and we learned a little bit about friendship, family, music, and Ernie being a jerk.
I was somewhat surprised to find that, other than the songs that were later included on other albums, not much about Numbers seemed familiar to me. I must not have listened to the record very many times before I stepped on it as a kid. I wonder how many times I did listen to it. If only I hadn’t stepped on it, I would have been able to listen to it more, so I would have been better with numbers, so I would have been able to count how many times I listened to it.
Boy, it’s a good thing all these old albums are available now. I’ll never forget how to count to ten again!
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com