What do Jim Henson’s Muppets, Benny Hill and the Saturn Car Company have in common with a 1968 Italian pseudo-documentary about sexual deviancy in Sweden?
The correct answer is the Piero Umiliani song, “Mah Nà Mah Nà.”
On a first listen, you might not suspect that “Mah Nà Mah Nà” had the necessary chops to become a worldwide hit and reverberate through several generations. But watch out! Before you know it, “Mah Nà Mah Nà will sneak up behind you, grab hold of your ears and thrash your head around like a rabid monkey.
You’ve been warned.
The Leroy Holmes version is below, followed by Umiliani’s original and several more curious covers.
Here is a brief re-cap of the song’s journey:
Piero Umiliani was an Italian film composer hired to score the 1968 Svezia, inferno e paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell), a popular movie within the genre of “mondo” (also often referred to as “shock-umentaries”), which focused almost exclusively on unorthodox sex customs from around the world, extreme violence, racism, addiction and other typically taboo subjects. The already lurid proceedings were sometimes accompanied by a “Narrator of Societal Doom” who helped dial up the titillation even further.
A sampling from the trailer’s English narration:
“See the sex capital of the world… where topless bands beat out the throbbing rhythms of a turned-on generation! See the “swap shops…” where married couples get a one-night “trade in” on the turn of a card, and get to know each other by the flickering light of films whose titles we dare… not… mention! This is Sweden… where anything and everything goes! You owe it to all your senses to see… Sweden: Heaven and Hell!”
From there, “Mah Nà Mah Nà” burst free of its naughty little Swedish sauna origins to go on to drive people batty from one end of the globe to the other for the next forty years. It became a worldwide pop sensation, and found itself regularly incorporated into television variety shows (The Red Skelton Show and The Benny Hill Show made frequent use of it).
The fact that the song has no real words, but is comprised entirely of easy-to-master phrase mumblings and nearly impossible to forget melodies may have led the Children’s Television Workshop to deem it a “can’t-miss” song for youngsters and build a 1969 skit for Sesame Street around it. From there, the song grabbed hold of a generation of American toddlers to such a degree, it was performed by Henson creations yet again in the mid-1970s for an early episode of Street’s offspring, The Muppet Show.
Completing its pop hit odyssey and confirming its decades-long stamina and appeal,
“Mah Nà Mah Nà” was finally put into action as a tool to pimp Saturn automobiles in the mid 2000s to the same listeners who had bounced around on their living room floors to it as youngsters.
Where will the insidious “Mah Nà Mah Nà” strike next? Blackberry Ringtone? Doorbells? Dancing with the Stars? Hold music while waiting to speak to an American Express phone representative in New Delhi?
It’s only a matter of time.
“Mah Nà Mah Nà” will rise again, ready to bore holes into the brains of a new generation of unsuspecting ears, staking a claim no amount of temple pounding or noggin shaking will be ever able to overcome.