Have you noticed that most shows these days don't even have theme songs? Producers will tell you those 45 seconds are better served on show content, especially when most people just zip past the opens with their DVRs. Accountants will tell you that most new shows fail, and it doesn't make sense to commission an original song or spend the money licensing an existing tune when the program might last 13 episodes. All this leaves us cold - with most shows going right into the action with a "cold open."
Celebrating the lost art of the proper show open, these are our picks for the Top 10 TV themes of all time. Warning: listening to these may lead to highly contagious earworms.
10: "I'll Be There For You" from Friends (The Rembrandts)
Friends was the TV series that became the canonical show of Generation Y and millennials everywhere. Could there be anything more millennial than a show about single young adults and roommates whose hub of activity is a coffee house? The theme, written by Allee Willis and Michael Skloff, is about the loyalty of friends, who will be there for you no matter how much you screw up your life. Willis, the funky diva behind Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" and "Boogie Wonderland," told us they asked for a song that was "Kooky, but commercial." She quickly banged out a 60-second piece that would later be turned into a full song and released as a single. Willis says it's "the whitest song I ever wrote." (Check out the Songfacts interview with Allee Willis.)
9: "Good Ol' Boys" from The Dukes of Hazzard (Waylon Jennings)
From 1979 to 1985, The Dukes of Hazzard was the guilty pleasure of American male viewers - let the ladies have their Dallas! Giving birth to a whole dictionary of cultural jargon including "Daisy Dukes" for short-short cut-off jeans and "Count the cousins" for confusing Southern family trees, it was spurred on to even greater success by the theme song. Who else would you have chosen for the job but already-famous country-music singer Waylon Jennings? Jennings released the song as a single in its own right with altered lyrics in 1980, where it hit #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and #21 on the Hot 100. Jennings was also the narrator on the show, known as "The Balladeer."
8: "Love Boat Theme" from The Love Boat (Jack Jones)
Without a doubt one of the most popular and most recognized TV theme songs ever, just a few opening notes of the Love Boat Theme will conjure the image of the Pacific Princess churning the briny blue with cast and credits framed by life preservers and anchors with a heart motif. Paul Williams, who also wrote "Rainbow Connection" and played Little Enos Burdette in Smokey and the Bandit, wrote the delightfully cheesy lyrics. He told us: "Charlie Fox gave me this melody, said that it was a new series called The Love Boat, it was about a cruise ship. We honestly didn't think it was going to last 6 weeks. We thought, who's going to watch a series about a cruise ship? And so he sent me the melody, and I thought, what's this all about? It's all about love, you know. Every episode was going to be about these three little stories... you know, meeting and falling in love, going through life stuff. And 'BOM ba da.' It's an important note, it's gotta be an important word. 'Bom, ba dee da da da,' so it's 'boats,' 'ships,' ba dee da da, you know, 'tits,' 'ba dee da da'... There's a lot of stuff you could stick in there, but the thing that seemed to work best is, 'Love, exciting and new, come aboard, we're expecting you.'" (Check out the Songfacts interview with Paul Williams.)
7: "Bad Reputation" from Freaks and Geeks, American Chopper (Joan Jett)
The anthem for outsiders and misfits everywhere, Bad Reputation has gotten around in the movies. It's been used in the soundtracks for Shrek, 10 Things I Hate About You, Baby Mama and The Bad News Bears. So it makes sense that it would become the theme song for the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and American Chopper. Written by Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna, it has also been ranked #29 by VH1 in their list of best hard rock songs of all time - an impressive feat considering that it's never been released as a single! Kenny Laguna, who was also Jett's producer and mentor, told us that this was intended to be her signature song, reflecting the fact that in her early career no record label would sign her.
6: "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" from Chuck (Cake)
If you've never heard of the TV series Chuck, you might be missing out big-time. Rolling Stone magazine included the show on its Fall 2007 "We Like to Watch" list, declaring that it "wipes the floor with the other fall debuts." It's had a kind of cursed twilight existence; first it was almost choked by the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, then it was canceled but saved at the last minute by a fan write-in campaign, and now it is battling for a spot on NBC, who suddenly has 5 less hours of scripted programing to fill thanks to Jay Leno. As for the song, Cake lead singer John McCrea told Rolling Stone that it is about "directly oppositional forces housed within the same mechanism or personage." Give it a listen - you'll be wagging your booty to it even after the first verse. It's not what you might expect for a show about a guy who works at the Buy-More with government secrets embedded in his brain, but somehow it fits.
5: "Movin' On Up" from The Jeffersons (Ja'net Dubois and Oren Waters)
"We finally got a piece of the pie!" Ever since the Obama administration, aspects of African-American media and culture have gained new meaning and sometimes enjoyed new popularity. The Jeffersons is more of a landmark than many in today's audience may realize - it was the longest running TV series carrying a predominantly African-American cast in the history of American television, even beating The Cosby Show by two seasons! Movin' On Up was written by Jeff Barry and Ja'net Du Bois, who also sings the lead backed by a full gospel choir. This might be the only TV show theme song to have used one! Fun fact: Dubois played Willona Woods on Good Times.
4: "Suicide Is Painless" from M*A*S*H (Johnny Mandel)
Another legendary TV theme song, just the first few notes conjure the image of choppers flying over the 4077th in the mind of anyone who's owned a TV set from 1972 onwards. Along with the cult following of the show which endures unabated today, the song "Suicide is Painless" has a number of freaky facts about it. The lyrics were written by a fourteen-year-old boy, Mike Altman, the son of film director Robert Altman, who has joked that his son earned more from the song's royalties than he did from directing the original M*A*S*H movie. Marilyn Manson declared that the song was more depressing and offensive than anything he'd ever written, and covered it for the soundtrack to the 2000 movie Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
3: "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" from Soul Train (MFSB featuring The Three Degrees)
At a run of 35 seasons and an episode count of 1,117, Soul Train deserves to be called more than just a TV series. It is an institution, a monolith, a mainstay - practically its own media corporation. The list of guest stars alone could fill a bookshelf with the who's-who of American music. For a show this big, you need the theme that makes people sit up and take notice. In the first couple of seasons, "Hot Potatoes" by King Curtis was good enough, but when the show's host Don Cornelius wanted something different, he went to the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who helped define the Philadelphia Soul sound with songs like "Back Stabbers" and "Me And Mrs. Jones." They obliged, and "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" became the Soul Train theme. It went through many incarnations and covers during the run, effectively becoming the Soul Train sound. Hey, is this show coming back or what?
2: "The Fishin' Hole" from The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)
It's a common cliche to say that The Andy Griffith Show represents a simpler time in America. While that may be where the show was set, it's easy to forget that it was first produced and broadcast during the turbulent '60s - nearly the whole decade (the entire original Star Trek series aired during its run). As such, it became almost defiantly out of step with the times. As for the song, it's not only one of the most recognized tunes ever to come out of a TV set, but also one of the most famous whistled songs ever recorded. Those are Earle Hagen's salty puckered lips delivering the sweet notes, and it was composed by Hagen and Herbert Spencer, with lyrics written by Everett Sloane. Did you say lyrics? Yes, but they were never used, just like the lyrics to the theme from Star Trek.
1: "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" from Cheers (Gary Portnoy)
As TV show theme songs go, this one has something special working for it. There's that rich piano, reminding you of the Boston bar scene. A simple melody; you can sing it after a few beers. Warm, cozy lyrics, welcoming you to the comforting embrace of your corner pub. It was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, specifically for the show after several rejected attempts - it was Portnoy's first time co-writing a TV show theme. Portnoy told us: "Coming from a background as a pop songwriter - as opposed to say, a jingle writer - I approached the Cheers theme - and all that followed - as 'songs' rather than 'themes.' I was never that cognizant of how long they ran until we were done with the writing." Cheers ran from 1982-1993, but it got horrible ratings when it started and almost didn't make it past the first season. The song, however, immediately caught on with viewers and NBC responded to demand for the sheet music and recording by having Portnoy turn the theme into a full song, which was released as a single, complete with the line, "And your husband wants to be a girl..."
October 20, 2009
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