The other day I was listening to Carl Stalling for the first time in a while – his bonkers-brilliant cartoon music puts you right there. You no longer need the images. The same is true of any great soundtrack composer, for film or TV. I regularly give Danny Elfman’s Music For A Darkened Theatre a spin too; a compilation that collects his early TV and film work. It’s mostly film work – his dark themes for Batman and Edward Scissorhands; but then the theme tune to The Simpsons bursts out from the swirling moods of the film work.
Those opening strains to The Simpsons theme, you can see the cartoon clouds parting without the television on, got me to thinking about TV themes. I love a good TV theme tune. It can be a song that was written for a TV show, or a song that comes to represent the TV show. Look at The Alabama 3’s Woke Up This Morning – can you imagine The Sopranos without it. But the song existed outside of the TV show; the TV show made it the hit.
There are those weird and wonderful shows, particularly from the mid-70s though to the mid-80s where the theme tune tells the story of the show, filling the viewer in if they are new to it, or have forgotten the show week-to-week. You know – the ones you fast forward when you watch them on DVD now. There were two kinds – the really overt/spell-it-out ones like Diff’rent Strokes and Charles In Charge. And the ones that tell a universal story that is clearly linked to the images in the title. Some examples would include Family Ties, The Facts Of Life and, going back a bit further, Laverne & Shirley.
And of course there are the instrumental themes – no words at all, just some cornball funk, spacey sci-fi theremins, or cut’n’paste beats’n’pieces.
My favourite TV theme of all time is by Bob James. So that should give it away – my next favourite is by Mike Post – that won’t be as easy to guess straight away – given that Post wrote so many great TV themes.
I am sure that, for me, enjoying the theme of a TV show is absolutely wrapped up in the nostalgia of remembering the rush to cram dinner down and be ready for the shows after the boring news; of sneaking in an extra hour of staying up by claiming to like a show…I remember, this one time being billeted during a sports trip in Foxton (I know, awful right?) We had to pretend that MacGyver was our favourite TV show ever – just to stay up. For the record it was never one of my favourite shows but I do like the theme (another of Mike Post’s creations).
I am so in to TV themes that I made a file on myPod, a trivia game of sorts – a beat-the-buzzer game where we play the themes through and see who can recognise them first, everything from Looney Tunes to Seinfeld’s funky bass – which of course was all done via keyboards.
I’m not picking The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air – but you can. And if you think TV theme music has nothing to do with the show, with setting the scene/establishing a mood, just try to watch this version of Punky Brewster.
So – here are my Top 10 TV Themes:
10. Three’s Company – I bought the complete first season for $5. It was worth it to remember this song.
9. M*A*S*H – the full theme/song is also known as Suicide Is Painless and it was used in the film first. It still counts though; it was the TV show’s theme.
8. Perfect Strangers – what a positive message!
7. Alf – I’m sure I’ve told you this before and I’m sure you still don’t care but that’s Vinnie Colaiuta playing the drums. You can tell by the bass-drum placement and the sizzle of the hi-hats. Trust me.
6. Night Court – I swear it’s a pinch of one of The Cosby Show themes mixed with a prototype for what would become the Seinfeld music.
5. Cheers – I like this song, I love this show and it’s the only TV theme I can play on the guitar (it is the only one I’ve tried by the way – I’m not that obsessed with TV themes).
4. The Greatest American Hero – I thought this was super-cool when I was young. And it’s Mike Post. I found that out much later.
3. Magnum P.I. – Mike Post is also responsible for my third favourite piece of TV music. But as I said that’s no surprise, I could have done a Mike Post post. I’ll do a post-TV theme post as a Mike Post-post. I promise. What a great theme tune though, excitement, action, suspense and just a bit of whimsy.
2. Hill Street Blues – Mike Post again. And again a great piece of music – from a great show.
1. TAXI aka Angela – soft-jazz man Bob James wrote this. I’ve just re-watched season one of this classic show. And now I have a weird fantasy of playing a completely sincere cover of this song as an intro piece to when my band performs. Only problem is I’m going to need a new band as soon as I tell my current band about this idea. Who’s keen to join up and play Angela with me?
In fact – I would like to play a lot of these TV themes. We could call ourselves As Seen On TV. Anyone keen to join? Of course you aren’t.
But there’s the starter for ten – now it’s your turn. Either a Top 10 TV Themes or at least some of your favourites? Can you like a theme without liking the show? Do you have shows you love that have terrible TV themes? Or do you pay no attention to TV music at all?
What makes a good TV theme for you?
Postscript: yes I have left out The Incredible Hulk (and its closing theme), L.A. Law, The Muppet Show, WKRP In Cincinnati, Quantum Leap and The A-Team. But they’re all great too – and I never even watched L.A. Law or Quantum Leap.
Mike Postscript: Carl Stalling’s two collections of his Warner Bros. cartoon work are must-have/must-hear compilations.