Music of the Marionettes

Thunderbirds Opening Logo






It seems hard to believe that Gerry Anderson, pioneer of Supermarionation and producer of classic kids’ television like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet might have unwittingly influenced popular music through puppet shows. Hard to believe… until you recall (or discover for the first time) how stirring that five-digit countdown at the start of Thunderbirds really was. The influence became apparent to me when, thirty years on from when Thunderbirds originally aired, I would go to live gigs and find bands, of varying styles, using the Thunderbirds countdown to herald their entry on stage. Indeed, I would be all set for that following crack of thunder, only to find myself mildly disappointed by the opening chords of whatever song was played instead.

Thunderbirds can take credit (and blame) for prompting a whole host of songs covering the theme or inspired by the show. British punk-pop kids Busted did a tolerable number for the title music of the 2004 live action movie version of the show. It takes elements of the original theme and melds them into a youthfully grungy single. In contrast, the Birmingham all-girl band formerly known as We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It went the other way when they took Thunderbirds as inspiration. In 1989 they dropped the punk, dropped the attitude, dropped most of the name and dropped most of their clothes, reinventing themselves as Fuzzbox and releasing an insipid dance-pop number called International Rescue. In line with their sex-poppet rebranding, Fuzzbox’s video compensates for the lack of girly sexy outfit possibilities in Thunderbirds by pastiching the 1967 sex-fi flick Barbarella instead. In 1990 we had the novelty rap of Thunderbirds Are Go, drawing on the theme tunes of Thunderbirds and of Anderson’s earlier submarine show, Stingray. The song credits and the video both jokily feature a hip-hoppified MC Parker, chauffeur to Lady Penelope in the Thunderbirds show. In a nice touch, the video makes fun of how the original show would intersperse puppet action with close-ups of real people’s hands. But perhaps the most sincere tribute came in the form of the video shot by Australian alt-rockers TISM to go with their 1998 release Thunderbirds Are Coming Out. The song tells the story of a teenager encouraged by the show to put his troubles behind him. For the video, TISM persuaded no less than thirty bands – including a school orchestra – to mime along to the song. You can see all four videos below – listener discretion is advised because some are okay, some are bad and some are… very unlikely to be experienced more than once.

Though best remembered for Thunderbirds, other Anderson shows influenced the world of music. Dutch pirate station Radio Monique peculiarly chose the theme from Anderson’s 80’s show, Terrahawks, to be their signature tune. In Terrahawks, the character of Kate Kestrel is both an ace pilot and a famous singer. As you might expect, that necessitated a fair number of songs to be written into the show. The creators took full advantage of the opportunity for an in-joke; in one episode Kate Kestrel wins the ‘World Song Contest’ with a number called SOS that makes liberal references to Thunderbirds. The voiceover talent who sang on the show was Moya Griffiths, and you can see her performing SOS below. A less direct influence on music came via a foreign detour. X-Bomber was an early 80’s children’s space adventure, filmed for Japanese television. Though not an Anderson production, its billing stated it was filmed in ‘SÅ«pāmariorama’ (スーパーマリオラマ), a tell-tale nod to Anderson’s oeuvre. The English version of the show changed the title to Star Fleet and featured a theme song composed by Paul Bliss. Introduced to the programme by his son, Queen guitarist Brian May was so taken with the theme that he decided to have fun recording a heavy rock version. He invited around Eddie Van Halen and other rock star friends, and the result was eventually released as a mini-LP under the title Star Fleet Project. You can see the original titles (worth an amusing look) and listen to the cover by Brian May + Friends below. However, of all the songs indebted to Anderson, the best is the 1996 track Angel Interceptor by Northern Irish band Ash. It shows all other pop-punk wannabes how to really get the job done. The song name checks the ‘Angels’, female pilots that flew jet fighter cover for Captain Scarlet; it is the fourth video below.

The collision between marionettes and music reached its most sublime moment in 2008. When drinks maker Drench wanted a new advert, their answer was an unlikely combination of two classics. First they took the 1992 dance single Rhythm Is a Dancer by Snap!. Then they took Brains, the character from Thunderbirds who was the mind behind those fabulous machines. Put them together and you have a sequence that Gene Kelly could not have bettered. Brains busts some brilliant moves that leave you wondering why the puppets walked so unrealistically in the original TV show. The answer is that Drench used CGI to cheat. Still, the end result is always worth another look.

Anderson’s puppet shows were noted for their boy’s toys – cars, planes, space rockets and other amazing vehicles. However, not every episode, and not every song, would focus on the mechanical marvels that so fascinate young males. Submarine show Stingray portrayed a uniquely heartfelt love triangle between the captain and star, Troy Tempest, and his two leading ladies. Atlanta Shore is the daughter of Troy’s commanding officer. She looks on wistfully as Troy has his heart stolen by another. Marina, said to be modelled on Bridget Bardot, is a true water babe from a faraway place. She never speaks, she breathes like a mermaid and she comes from the underwater city of Titanica. Though from totally different worlds, Troy finds he is entranced by Marina. Every week, in the closing credits, we would hear Troy croon his longing for the beautiful and mysterious Marina. Ah, Marina…

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