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The Boston Phoenix Those Were the Days

Is it time we learned to respect TV theme songs as an artform?

By Gary Susman

DECEMBER 1, 1997: 

Just sit right back, and you'll hear a tale.  . . 

You're gonna make it after all . . . 

Where everybody knows your name . . . 

I'll be there for you . . . 

Dum da-dum-dum. Dum da-dum-dum DAH!

Out of context, divorced from the images they were meant to accompany, TV themesongs can seem like pure, unadulterated cheese. Delicious, even exquisite cheese, perhaps, but still cheese. It's so easy to press the Nick at Nite buttons on our mental eight-tracks and recall endless strings of old TV tunes, regenerated from just a phrase or a few bars like long-dormant DNA. Remote-surfing that Turner superstation of the subconscious brings back enough of those cheesy bonbons to fill endless K-Tel-style platters of televisual canapes.

Literally. In the past 11 years, there have issued forth seven CDs in the Television's Greatest Hits series, each with a whopping 65 tunes from shows past and present, songs meant to be popped into your mouth one after another. The label behind the series is TVT records (the company that launched Nine Inch Nails), whose initials stand for Tee Vee Toons.

Yes, TV themesongs sell records. At least 10 shows, from Dragnet to Friends, have generated Top 10 singles. A few rockers have been cool enough to cover them: Hüsker Dü's "Love Is All Around" (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donelly's "Josie and the Pussycats," Joe Cocker's "The Wonder Years." If Beck hasn't gotten around to sampling "Starsky and Hutch" yet, it's only because he has such a busy schedule.

Yet these themes don't get the respect they deserve as an art form in their own right. Some of the greatest composers of all time have written for TV, from Rossini and Gounod (The Lone Ranger and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, respectively) to R.E.M. (Get a Life). Moreover, in their ability to distill the essence of a show -- even a whole era -- into a few bars of music, TV themes are the unsung (literally, in some cases) heroes of television's history.

Say Hawaii Five-O and the first thing that comes to mind is not Jack Lord's pompadour or the phrase "Book 'em, Dan-o" but the blaring brass of Morton Stevens's pounding themesong. It's not as lyrically Hawaiian as the guitar-laced theme from that other tropical detective show of the period, Hawaiian Eye, but that exciting "Ba-pa-ba-pah BAH bum, ba-pa-ba-pah BAH!" is a primary reason we remember Hawaii Five-O whereas we've all but forgotten Hawaiian Eye.

Unfortunately, Morton Stevens -- like most TV themesong composers and lyricists, with the notable exception of cop-show composer Mike Post, who has enough clout to get his name before the credits -- seems doomed to languish in obscurity. This sad state of affairs testifies to the lack of respect for the art form that has been endemic to television throughout its history.

In the beginning, many TV themesongs were borrowed from the classics or from movie sound libraries, new composers and musicians often being too expensive for the new medium. That doesn't mean there were no memorable new themes composed during the 1950s; we can't forget the opening strains of I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, or Leave It to Beaver, no matter how hard we try. In fact, some movie composers were lured briefly to TV. One was Bernard Herrmann: his first-season score for The Twilight Zone was replaced by music from French 12-tone composer Marius Constant, whose eerie four-note refrain (possibly the most recognizable four-note riff since Beethoven's Fifth) has since become shorthand not just for the show but for any event or person we want to call strange. In a brilliant marketing ploy, CBS commissioned Dmitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, who composed the popular, Oscar-winning theme to High Noon, to write a Western-show theme that would be released as a single months before the show went on the air. "Rawhide" proved a hit, and it helped to make the show a success as well. Henry Mancini launched his career as a film composer with his Peter Gunn theme, whose life as a football-game-pep-rally standard has far outlasted anyone's memory of the show itself. Mancini's West Coast jazz sound soon became the template for TV music.

The 1960s were something of a golden age for TV themesongs. More of them seem lodged in our memories than those of any other era, and not just because the boomer-nostalgia stranglehold over our national discourse has kept those shows in perpetual syndication. The tunes really are catchier, the lyrics wittier. Not despite the essential silliness of '60s sit-coms but because of it.

When producer Sherwood Schwartz was pitching Gilligan's Island, CBS executives complained that new viewers would have trouble latching onto the show because of its complicated backstory. Schwartz solved the problem by writing that backstory into the lyrics of the song that opened each episode. These lyrics are unforgettable, not just because we've watched endless reruns of Gilligan's Island, but because they use a versatile, indestructible rhythm. (Schwartz wrote the lyrics with a calypso beat in mind, not the sea chantey music by George Wyle that was eventually selected. But Wyle's tune will accommodate the words of "Amazing Grace," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and any Emily Dickinson poem. Try it.)

The story-song became a staple of '60s shows. Paul Henning, creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, wrote the backstory-explicating lyrics for his show's theme ("Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed . . . ") just as Schwartz had for Gilligan. Vic Mizzy's theme for Henning's Green Acres explained with economy how Park Avenue socialites Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor (who sang the words in character) came to live in the sticks. Similarly helpful was Sid Ramin & Robert Welles's theme for The Patty Duke Show ("They're cousins, identical cousins!"). Mizzy's inventive theme for The Addams Family (with its finger snaps, its harpsichord, and its coinage of the word "ooky" to rhyme with "spooky" and "kooky") was subtle and unusual where its imitator The Munsters (along with its theme) was loud and ordinary. And few would remember the British-made series Secret Agent had not its American importers slapped on that Phil Sloan/Steve Barri theme, which became a hit for Johnny Rivers and was one of the first TV themes to have a rock beat. Schwartz ended the decade with a story-song as insidiously simple and eloquent as his first, for The Brady Bunch.

Even the instrumental themes, for comedies and dramas alike, seemed brighter and zippier in the '60s, whether they were big-band brassy (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Flintstones, I Dream of Jeannie, The Jetsons, or Paul Anka's Tonight Show theme), guitar-driven (Westerns like Bonanza, crime shows like Batman), or, in rare cases, electronics-based (sci-fi shows like Dr. Who and Star Trek). The culmination came with what may be the most intense, exciting TV theme ever composed, with its piercing counterpoint of brass and flute and its urgent 5/4 rhythm -- Lalo Schifrin's Mission: Impossible.

Stylistic splintering continued into the 1970s. As TV producers discovered demographics -- the idea that a show could appeal to a carefully targeted group instead of a mass audience and still make money -- themesongs followed suit. The kids got their rock themes, sort of (The Partridge Family, S.W.A.T., Welcome Back, Kotter); the grown-ups got their easy-listening (The Love Boat, The Waltons); African-Americans got funk and soul, sort of (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons), and Latinos got José Feliciano (Chico and the Man).

Still, there were many songs with as much character as their shows. You can conjure up the entire Saturday-night CBS line-up with a few bars of music: "Those Were the Days" (All in the Family's Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith, mangling vowels at the piano); M*A*S*H (we remember the instrumental version from the show, not the vocal version from the film); "Love Is All Around" (Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air); The Bob Newhart Show (classy, tempo-shifting tune by Lorenzo Music, later the voice of Rhoda's doorman and Garfield the cat); and The Carol Burnett Show ("I'm so glad we had this time together . . . ").

By the 1980s, the TV themesong had become a victim of its own success. Conventions had become so rigid that they were easily parodied, as in the song from It's Garry Shandling's Show, a bouncy, deliberately generic ditty that went, "This is the theme to Garry's show/This is the theme to Garry's show/This is the music that they play/As they roll the credits . . . " (In true TV-theme fashion, the show, innovative as it was, proved less memorable than the song.) Inspiration had begun to flag. There were few unforgettable themesongs in the '80s, other than the convivial Cheers opener and various efforts by the indefatigable Mike Post -- he who introduced the synthesizer to detective themes with The Rockford Files, the solo piano to cop shows with Hill Street Blues, and the fretless bass to courtroom dramas with Law & Order. Listen to the most recent couple of Television's Greatest Hits CDs, which cover the last 15 years or so, and you'll hear themes you barely remember from shows you've definitely forgotten or never watched in the first place. Does anyone really have memories, fond or otherwise, of the songs from The Duck Factory or Davis Rules?

The sad truth is, we're living in the post-themesong age. Story-songs like The Nanny's theme, the Monkees-esque Friends tune, or Danny Elfman's lengthy parody of other cartoon themes for The Simpsons -- all are throwbacks to a gentler era. Desperate to keep viewers from channel-surfing between the end of one show and the start of another, the networks have come to see themesongs as a luxury at best and a time killer at worst. Thus we have such desperate measures as the bass squiggle that makes up Jonathan Wolff's Seinfeld theme (originally designed to play over Jerry's opening monologues without upstaging his high-pitched natterings, and now dispensed with altogether) and the percussive, melody-free themes to NYPD Blue (by Mike Post), ER, and The X-Files. The shows may be Emmy winners, but what is the orchestra supposed to play when the stars mount the stage to collect their statuettes? And what are we supposed to hum when we want to remember these shows years from now? In their efforts to keep us watching, the networks are depriving us of one of TV's chief delights, the cheese topping.


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