In 1968, an Italian movie purporting to examine wild sex freedom in Sweden was released (in English, titled “Sweden Heaven and Hell”). It wasn’t much of a cinematic treasure, but during a sauna scene an insanely catchy song played. Composed by Piero Umiliani, it was performed by a “band” called Marc 4 (four session musicians) and the nonsense vocal part was sung by Italian singer/composer Alessandro Alessandroni and his wife Giulia.
A soundtrack album was duly created and in mid-1969 the tune, entitled entitled “Máh Ná Máh Ná”, was released as a single on the obscure Ariel label. Ariel clearly didn’t really understand the record business; they didn’t list an artist or performer on the disc, just noting it was from the movie Sweden Heaven and Hell.
Despite being uncredited, the song started to get some traction on radio
and was played across North American in September 1969, peaking at No. 55 in the Billboard Hot 100 singles and #12 on their Adult Contemporary list. It made # 44 on the Cash Box magazine chart. In Canada, the song reached No. 22 in the RPM magazine top singles chart. Even when Columbia Records leased it from Ariel for release in Canada, no artist was listed.
So record stores and radio stations didn’t know what to do with the single. Every other song on the charts had an identifiable artist. Some lists credited the song to “Ariel” (the name of the label), while Canada’s RPM simply called the performer “Original Soundtrack”. Billboard and Cashbox charts had it as by “Sweden Heaven and Hell soundtrack”. WPTR in Albany, NY, credited it to one of their DJs, J.W. Wagner, while Chicago’s powerhouse WLS listed it as being by a mysterious “Pete Howard”. Nobody ever listed it as being by the actual performers, “Marc 4”.
The popularity of “Máh Ná Máh Ná” grew with its use in the opening sequence for television’s popular Red Skelton Show starting in October 1969. In late November it got performed on TV’s Sesame Street, and later gained a whole new level of fame once it began being used in the UK TV show The Benny Hill Show (1971) and in The Muppets in the US (1976).
The original UK single release didn’t hit but upon reissue in 1977 it made it as high as #8. There were numerous cover versions as well.
Now, of course, everyone thinks it was by The Muppets!