TV Themes the Last 4 Decades

by Carl Wiser

To find out how TV theme songs have changed over the decades and what went into writing these unforgettable tunes, we talked to some of the people who made them.

The '70s
Classic TV theme: Happy Days

Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel

Goodbye grey sky, hello blue.
There's nothing can hold me when I hold you.
Back when we had to leave the couch to change the channel, the opening sequence of a show was its audition for the next 30 minutes of our attention. Should we spend some time with Richie and The Fonz, or flip over to the Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour? The song could make all the difference, and doing it right was an art form.

Happy Days ran from 1974-1984, but for the first two seasons, the era-appropriate "Rock Around The Clock" was the opening theme, while "Happy Days," which Charles Fox wrote with lyricist Norman Gimbel, played as the closing theme. In season 3, "Happy Days" took over as the open.

Charles Fox, who wrote the music for at least 100 classic and not-so-classic (The Joe Namath Hour) TV shows, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught composition to Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. He told us:
You always want to capture what you think is the essence of the show and you want to make something that's bright and interesting and attractive. So if someone's in the other room doing something and hears the theme, they say, "Oh, I know that show, I like that show," and they come running in. And the other thing is you want to make it so that you can have elements from the theme that you can score within the body of the show, and then hopefully someday it could go on and be a hit record, also, and sound fresh all the time.
Think back to Happy Days: When you hear the theme and get the thumbs up from Fonzie, it feels so good, it can't be wrong. It was so good that the theme was made into a full-length song, charting at #5 in the US and even cracking the UK Top 40.

Did You Know?

Quincy Jones, who also studied with Nadia Boulanger, wrote the theme song to Sanford and Son, which is called "The Streetbeater."
And did we mention the closing theme? In what would be seen as a trivial waste of show content these days, each episode ended with a reprise of the theme song while credits displayed over still shots of the jukebox. This was common practice back then.

Gimbel and Fox also wrote the theme to the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley, called "Making Our Dreams Come True." They wrote the song as "Hoping Our Dreams Will Come True," but changed it when the producers told them that these independent women don't "Hope," they go out and make things happen. Additional credits for the songwriters include "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "I Got A Name."

Other famous theme songs from the '70s:
  • "Suicide Is Painless" from M*A*S*H - The complete song, with lyrics, appears in the 1970 movie that gave rise to the show.

  • "Movin' On Up" from The Jeffersons - This was sung by Ja'net DuBois, who played Willona Woods on Good Times.

  • "Welcome Back" from Welcome Back, Kotter - John Sebastian's song about returning to where you came from caught on and became a #1 hit.

The '80s
Classic TV theme: Cheers

Written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name.
Leonardo DiCaprio went rogue in his 2010 Rolling Stone interview and delivered this brilliant non-sequitur in a piece designed to promote his movie Inception: "What is the Ninth Symphony of '80s sitcom theme songs? There's 'Movin' On Up,' and there's 'Welcome Back.' But they don't have the weight that Cheers does, the emotional depth, the undercurrent of sadness, life, happiness, all rolled into one area where a man can have a beer."

The song is called "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" and it was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, who got the attention of the Cheers producers for their work scoring a musical called Preppies. Gary came up with the idea when he got in the mindset of a late-night bar patron, and in the process created one of the great TV theme songs, and a piano bar mainstay. The producers thought about having someone famous sing it, but when they heard Gary's demo, it captured the feel of Cheers - a bunch of regular guys in a home away from home. They chose intimate over polished, and the voice you hear is Gary's.

We wondered if writing a TV theme would be difficult because so many previously-written theme songs would be dancing in your head, making it impossible to write something original, so we asked Gary how he handles this. Said Gary:
Cheers was the first TV theme I ever co-wrote. 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. Most were born as full length songs that were than edited down to a minute. I never had to clear my head of past TV themes because I was never really thinking in that vein while we were working.
Cheers ran from 1982-1993, anchoring NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup. But it almost didn't make it past the first season, since it was one of the worst-rated shows that year. The theme song, however, caught on, and NBC got plenty of requests for the sheet music and recording. They brought Portnoy back to record a full version of the song, which was released as a single. He had some fun with that one, including lyrics like, "And your husband wants to be a girl..."

Other famous theme songs from the '80s:
  • "With A Little Help From My Friends" from The Wonder Years - Joe Cocker's version of the Beatles classic was used in this one.

  • "Paint It Black" from Tour of Duty - Long before The Who sold out to CSI, this Rolling Stones song fit perfectly with a show about the Vietnam War.

  • "Miami Vice Theme" from Miami Vice - Jan Hammer's keyboard-driven instrumental was a #1 hit, and gave Crockett and Tubbs their sound.

The '90s
Classic TV theme: Friends

Written by Allee Willis and Michael Skloff

It's like you're always stuck in second gear.
Well, it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year.
TV theme songs met their doom in the '90s. Everyone had a remote control and cable, creating plenty of viewing options and shorter attention spans. Programming executives wanted to go "seamless," with one show flowing into the next so we'd see the first segment and get hooked before our willpower could take over and trigger the channel change synapse. Seinfeld was the new model: a few bass notes and into the episode. No cast introductions, no song. Unfortunately, not every show was written as well as Seinfeld, and that extra 45 seconds of show content was the stuff that would have been edited out in the olden days. TV was getting bloated and fragmented to the point that writers stopped being necessary, and reality shows took over, making the music even less relevant (with one big exception listed below).

It was radio that needed the songs, and the biggest radio song of 1995 was the theme to Friends, recorded by The Rembrandts. Desperate for an identifiable pop song that could catch on in the post-grunge landscape, radio stations put "I'll Be There For You" in heavy rotation. But first they had to get the song - it was never released as a single. Allee Willis, who wrote it with Michael Skloff, told us:
It was just DJs who made a cassette of the song and just started playing it. And it became the #1 airplay record of the year, but the Rembrandts never wanted it out as a single because they didn't write the song. So they kind of bit off their nose to spite their face. At that point, the only way they could get the Rembrandts to do the record was if they got songwriting credit. So the song needed a bridge, and it needed a second verse lyric, and they wrote that. They don't have credit on the theme, but they have it on the record.
So to recap: a semi-famous rock group records a poppy theme song that they didn't write for a TV show that becomes a huge hit. Popularity led to interest in a full length version of the song, but the group had no intention of recording a full version unless they could get a writing credit and make lots of money in exchange for the loss of their musical souls, which they give up in the deal, as they will forever be identified by this pop platitude and not for their art.

Allee wasn't thrilled with the song either, but she took the assignment and overdelivered, coming up with a song about those who care for you no matter how screwed up you are. It was fed into the corporate machine: Warner Brothers owned the show, their publishing division had Allee, and their record label had The Rembrandts. Allee wrote the song very quickly and didn't think much of it. This was around the time when the music industry started digging in their heels, refusing to embrace new technology like the internet, and Allee was already forming online social networks, partnering with Mark Cuban and figuring out how to move music forward. She ended up creating one of the last huge hits using the old - and doomed - business model she hated.

Allee Willis

Allee wrote "Boogie Wonderland" and "September" with Earth, Wind & Fire. She has a museum of kitsch, throws fabulous parties, and makes interesting videos, like this one with Pomplamoose.
Some of the most beloved shows of the '90s bucked the trend and used unusual theme songs. Primus sang quick and dirty for South Park. Danny Elfman wrote the clever instrumental on The Simpsons, which left room for Lisa's improvs on sax. Will Smith did the rap intro on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, opening his show with a Brady Bunch-like extended introduction that explains why he's living with his rich uncle. TV themes weren't dead, but they had to be different to work.

Other famous theme songs from the '90s:
  • "Woke Up This Morning" from The Sopranos - Written by A3 after their lead singer heard a story about a wife who shot her abusive husband.

  • "Bad Boys" from COPS - A Reggae song that set the tone for a real-life cop show. It let us know that we were allowed to laugh at these idiots getting arrested.

  • "Cleveland Rocks" from The Drew Carey Show - The song was written by an Englishman: Ian Hunter. The version used on the show was by the Presidents Of The United States Of America.

The '00s
Classic TV theme: Phineas and Ferb

Written by the show's writers

There's a hundred and four days of summer vacation
Then school comes along just to end it.
The greatest theme song of the '00s is from a cartoon. Phineas and Ferb are stepbrothers who spend their 104 days of summer vacation creating stuff like time machines and roller coasters. It's clever and funny and it has great musical numbers, starting with the opening theme that every first grade boy knows by heart.

The show's creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh wrote the theme with head writer Martin Olson, and had Radio Disney mainstay Bowling For Soup record the song. Lead singer Jaret Reddick wrote some additional lyrics, and they recorded a full-length version called "Today is Gonna Be a Great Day."

As Phineas and Ferb matured, music became a bigger part of the show, with Bowling For Soup performing some of the numbers and Jaret appearing as the lead singer of an '80s band called Love Händel, which Phineas and Ferb reunited. Just about every episode features a musical number, which often turns into a Shrek-like production appealing to both kids and adults. The Phineas and Ferb empire has expanded to include a Christmas album, and more musical guests - their "Summer Belongs To You" special featured Clay Aiken and Chaka Khan.

Disney success has forced Bowling For Soup, whose hits include "1985" and "Girl All The Bad Guys Want," to adapt their lyrics, since so many of their songs have altered Disney versions, like in "1985 where "One Prozac a day" becomes "One workout a day." Jaret told us:
Our live show changed a little bit in that it wasn't rated R or NC17 anymore. Our big thing is, look, we can do PG13. And if it's a fair or something like that, we can do PG. But it's impossible for Bowling for Soup to do a G-rated show, because lyrically you just can't get around it. We've only done one G-rated show ever, and it was for Radio Disney's tenth anniversary. And I had to sing all of the edited lyrics. That was a great challenge for me, trying to sing the songs the way they don't go.
The '00s saw TV theme songs become even more scarce, but the music didn't die. More and more shows play songs during the action - not just theme music, but songs that might be on your iPod. Getting a song in a show is now seen as a promotional vehicle, and record companies will offer the songs for free if they think it will get some exposure. You'll often hear these songs in a touching montage or during a poignant bit of dialogue deep into an episode, and many times it's clear that the producers are trying a little too hard to create a mood. A new thing for the '00s was allowing a song's lyrics to play while the actors were talking - something a generation of multitaskers can handle.

Other famous theme songs from the '00s:
  • "Boss Of Me" from Malcolm In The Middle - Written specifically for the show by They Might Be Giants.

  • "One Of Us" from Joan Of Arcadia - A perfect fit for a show about a girl who encounters God in the form of everyday people.

  • "I Don't Want To Be" from One Tree Hill - Gavin DeGraw's song wasn't written for the show, but became a hit when it was chosen as the theme song.
July 20, 2011
More Song Writing

Comments: 18

  • Cw from ChicagoGreat article. Grey's Anatomy (great theme song) is another show that uses a lot of music for emotion/character development; a lot of pop songs gained popularity because of it (How to Save a Life, etc.) Some other current shows now display the Song/Artist in the corner or right before the commercial.
  • Kevin Chouinard from Ft Walton Beach, FlThe 70s had All In The Family ("Those Were The Days") which actually was a very popular album when the show hit nationwide. And the 80s brought a great theme from Family Ties ("Without Us" by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams)
  • Joe from Grants Pass, OrLaw and Order was always one of of my favs, but TAXI is great !
  • 80'sfan from Harrisburg, PaDoes anyone even care what happened after the 90's? Television and Music really went to 'hell in a hand-basket' from around 2000 on...
  • Chris Chavez from Corpus Christiwhat about fresh prince of bel air lol
  • Erin from EugeneDitto to Jennie from Tampa; the theme song from "The Greatest American Hero" was also a hit single, and an all-around great tune. Not many other songs can say the same. And Joe Cocker can bite me; I LOATHE what he has done to the Beatles.
  • Scotty from Cheyenne, WyDitto, Hill Street Blues...Larry Carlton's theme was the perfect counterpoint to the gritty police drama. I was a missile launch officer 84-88, and often scheduled my alerts to be out in the field on Thursday nights for that NBC lineup; Cosby, Night Court, Cheers and HSB. Great memories.
  • Sharaya from Bridgeport, CtAll of these songs still make me happy! And I was so personally touched to see my personal Fave Phineas and Ferb. If you're going to spend your time watching any cartoon, it might as well be the most awesome cartoon ever. My only issue is that they seemed to have stopped making new episodes :(
  • Pip from Australiahill street blues
  • Satan from HellMetalocalypse
    South Park
  • Eric from Spokane, WaSeriously, no love for the FIVE - count 'em - FIVE different versions of "Way Down in the Hole" that aired on each season of HBO's "The Wire"? The show creators took a Tom Waits song and mutated it to fit hip-hop, folk/country, R&B/Soul, and the blues. They got the Blind Boys of Alabama and Steve Earle to play the darn song, for criminey's sake!
  • Cathy from St. Louis, MoWhat about the Hawaii Five-0 Theme? I think it was the best TV theme of all times,even though there were no words.
  • Erika from PaSeriously... That 70s Show. Phineas and Ferb, really?
  • Jenni from TampaWhy isn't the themes from "America's Greatest Hero" or "That 70's Show" listed?
  • Michelle from Greensboro, NcNo love for Firely? Course not. I love that song.
  • Cindy from Raleigh NcI called into the Allan Handelman show regarding the Beatles TV theme songs and I cited the wrong 80's show for the second Beatles song being "Our House". The correct show that featured the Beatles song " Ooh Bla Dee Ooh Bla Da Life Goes On" was the titled, "Life Goes On". I wasn't able to stay on to hear what the answer to the second Beatles song. Hope this info is helpful to your site!
  • Patrick from OhioHey, where's Spongebob? :( o well nice article and a fun read!
  • Mr. Fridge from TexasI don't wanna be anything other than what I've been tryin to be lately all I have to do is think of me and our peace of mind. I'm tired of lookin round who's wondrerin what I gotta do or who I'm supposed to be I don't wanna be anything other than me
see more comments

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