Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Top Nine: Television Theme Songs (besides "The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air")

There's no doubt you've spent some quality time in the living room this holiday season, returning to your one and only friend: frequently-interrupted politically correct television broadcasts.
Even if some of you have somehow bypassed this cyclical corporate gulag by turning to the computer (either legally, or torrently), you still have been consumed countless hours enjoying fine quality programming.
But don't fret about your crippling addiction; this can be a good thing, especially if you are a music lover.
Perhaps you might have noticed some of the most catchy songs ever written have come from these so called "mindless" television shows, oftentimes hiding a glorious work of art in a Nielsen-rated package. Unlike most tunes you hear on the radio (or again on the torrentz), in TV theme music you only have an extremely limited window of time to present your art to the audience, because it's only a minute before the opening credits end and the show about real celebrities or real chefs or real nearly house-trained monkeys begins. It takes a lot of talent to be able to write a memorable track that spans less time than it takes you to shotgun a beer.
Okay, two beers.
This month I present you with some of my favorite examples of music in television, be it well known, not so well known, or not well known at all and I'm not taking the easy way out, so no "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". That would be like shooting fish in a aquarium made from a television set.
The damn song is already stuck in my head just typing it out.
Anyway, please stay tuned for nine great television theme songs (other than "The Fresh Prince")

9. The Addams Family
The Addams Family (Theme) - Vic Mizzy

A show based on creator Charles Addams' popular New Yorker cartoons, "The Addams Family" was a macabre comedy that ran in the 60's and was often compared to the similarly themed show "The Munsters", but since that show had no snapping of fingers whatsoever in its theme music or any cast members made entirely of appendages, it never had a chance.
As they say: Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc.
The show's theme was written by a guy with a f#%king awesome name: Vic Mizzy. Mr. Mizzy, as his friends should have called him if they didn't, was an American composer for both television and movies, with his most notable work beside "The Addams Family" being the theme for another 60's TV show: "Green Acres", which was about a farmer who likes to name his food before he eats it.
But a black mark on the otherwise excellent and iconic theme song must be noted: MC Hammer, on his cash grabbing single "Addams Groove", takes his sweet time ruining a piece of my childhood, long before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ever could.

8. Too Close For Comfort
Too Close For Comfort (Theme) - Johnny Mendel

Possibly one of the more obscure titles on this list, "Too Close For Comfort" was, at one time, a popular show during ABC's Tuesday night lineup, running from November 1980 until a brief cancellation May 1983 until it was revived in 1984 for a few more, somewhat successful years. Modeled after the British series "Keep It in the Family", the updated and Americanized version was a Ted Knight vehicle (whom you might recall from that somewhat popular golfing movie) until his unfortunate death in 1986, at which point the show was shut down.
The lilting horns and mellow synthesized theme song was written by Johnny Mendel, a composer / arranger who had worked with many top performers including Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and even the iconic Quincy Jones, but was remembered mostly for penning the incredibly serene and laconic "Suicide Is Painless", for the show M*A*S*H, an possible entry that nearly made it on this Top Nine, until Marilyn Manson ruined it for you.
Bonus Beat (literally):
In the video below, Thes One (of the The People Under The Stairs) bests Will.I.Am (of his band, Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas) in what the kids nowadays call a "beat battle", by using a sample of the "Too Close For Comfort" theme song to great effect:

7. Danger Mouse
Danger Mouse (Theme) - Mike Harding

No, not the producer of The Grey Album (or the immensely better-er Ghetto Pop Life), but actually his namesake, the English animal-based spy cartoon that ran for American audiences on Nickelodeon in the 1980's.
Thankfully choosing a different musical style than the massively overplayed James Bond theme (or even worse, the Peter Gunn theme), "Danger Mouse" played more to the action than the mystery in its score, likely because it was a kids show, and kids don't care about sexy women and political espionage in Britain. Sorry American kids, you lose again.
Originally running in the United Kingdom from September 1981 to March 1992, there is some discrepancy about who sang the titular theme song. Most votes come in for Sheila Gott, a singer and professional vocal coach, but other sources claim it was the unpronounceable (at least to anyone outside of Wales) Welsh actress Myfanwy Talog, who coincidentally had a relationship with the man that voiced Danger Mouse, the boring two-first-named David Jason.
Additional Notable English Cartoon: Also shown around this time was the UK import "Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings", which had a simple theme song that dealt exclusively with drawings, Simon, and the land that the drawings took him to. Pretty obvious, if you ask me.

6. Bosom Buddies
My Life - Billy Joel

Basically "Some Like It Hot" in a boarding house, Bosom Buddies was a television show that ran from 1980 to 1982 for 38 episodes on ABC and starred volleyball connoisseur Tom Hanks and one-time "Hollywood Television Showcase" host Peter Scolari, casually dressed in drag and at times working in creative advertising.
The theme song for the credits is, of course, Billy Joel's classic track "My Life", (sung here by a "psuedo-Joel"), but later, when syndication and DVD rights were being considered, the song was completely replaced with the less-than-stellar, but probably massively cheaper to license, "Shake Me Loose" performed by R&B singer Stephanie Mills).
Hearing the difference between the two songs of the otherwise nearly identical intro both "pre-" and "post-" syndication, you can't help but think what a loss it was for the show to not have it's first choice and most iconic theme song. Combined with the visuals, it totally alters the entire feel of the carefree and comedic title sequence, and no amount of Tom Hanks goodwill can fix that.
Well, maybe it would fix it a little.

5. Parks & Recreation
Parks & Recreation (Theme) - Gaby Moreno and Vincent Jones

Another great example of a theme that marries song to show particularly well is NBC's currently airing show "Parks and Recreation" starring Will Arnett divorcee (and hilarious UCB founder, SNL alumni, Golden Globes co-host, etc.) Amy Poehler.
While not an immediately obvious choice, the theme (which was written by Gaby Moreno and Vincent Jones) should be considered for its sparse, economic yet cleanly melodic lines, adding a quirky, catchy (and mustachioed) touch to a loving ode of local government.
All told, the theme represents the show particularly well, reminding me of a certain video game that tackled a lot of similar issues in politics and city management (except for the occasional Godzilla-monsters and UFO attacks).
I know, I know; You're asking: "But what if this show was set on Tatooine instead of Pawnee?" Well, then, it's apparent you haven't watched this yet.

4. The Muppet Show
The Muppet Show (Theme) - Jim Henson and Sam Pottle

For the second time in two months The Muppets make an appearance on the Top Nine list, this time for their widely beloved theme song written for their original broadcast television show from 1976.
Brandishing an old-timey, vaudevillian style that fits perfectly to the zany feel of the show, the theme was co-written by none other than Jim Henson himself (of course) and Sam Pottle, a composer and musical director that also wrote and recorded musical pieces for Henson side-project and most requested GPS location Sesame Street.
Unlike most of the other entries on the list, the opening introduction to the "The Muppet Show" would subtly change throughout the years, adding more and more jokes and gags as the seasons went by, although retaining most, if not all, of the core musical accompaniment.
Also of note: "The Muppet Show" theme happens to bear an eerie similarity to the 1939 song "Ich brauche keine Millionen (Musik, Musik, Musik)" (which loosely translates to: I Don't Need Millions, Just Music, Music, Music) by Marika Rökk, but unsurprisingly does not feature any performers made of felt and/or hands.

3. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Temptation Sensation - Heinz Kiessling

Before there was Big Fat Mac, The D.E.N.N.I.S. system or even Kitten Mittens, there was always a lovely (and slightly ironic) night time tour of the city of Brotherly Love: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Beautifully accompanied by waltzing orchestral strings, it is easily one of the oddest intros for a show about five dysfunctional people, the horrible things they constantly do, and their hole-in-the-wall bar barely making rent in a industrial part of town.
Possibly one of the cheapest television opening credits ever produced, "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" is also notable for the minor cost ($200!) of its original, unaired, pilot which the FX network eventually picked up. Some even say that the only cost was solely for the digital tape for the camera, and the actual price tag for a newtork-shopping ready pilot is only $85.
Visually comprised entirely of actual Philadelphia landmarks shot entirely in one night (such as: the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Lincoln Financial Field, Swann Memorial Fountain, Boathouse Row, and 30th Street Station, among others), the musical theme for "It's Always Sunny..." (titled "Temptation Sensation") was written by German composer Heinz Kiessling (March 11, 1926 - December 27, 2003), who had recorded the easy-listening tune years earlier.
In an odd bit of coincidence, the song was also featured in actor Danny Devito's other huge television show, Taxi, which you might know from...

2. Taxi
Angela - Bob James

The first few seconds of the critically acclaimed and highly lauded television program "Taxi" is dominated by a simple flute winding its way through the melody before the more (albeit only slightly more) grooving drums and keys come in to further cement the soulful jazz-rock track. It's this understated music that makes "Angela" the perfect track to act as a counter-balance to the funny, absurd and oftentimes serious issues that were presented on the show.
Bob James originally wrote the song for his album Touchdown, a touching tribute to the men of football and the women who love them, but when he was hired to write music for Taxi, his track "Angela" was found to be the perfect fit for the theme, and when paired with a few simple shots of a 1970's era taxicab driving its way over the Brooklyn bridge, it resulted in a title sequence that viewers would be able to conjure up for the rest of their lives.
It's a bold but ultimately pitch-perfect move; contrasting the feel of the television show with a mellow yet funky track. Originally, the upbeat song "Touchdown" (the eponymous cut from the same album) was considered, but the shows producers ended up deciding on the more melancholy and introspective track instead. Could you imagine "Taxi" with title-track "Touchdown" instead?

1. The Wonder Years
With A Little Help From My Friends - Joe Cocker

One of the best examples I know of a television theme song that powerfully captures sound and vision together is Joe Cocker's version of "With A Little Help From My Friends" which served as the musical opening to the television classic "The Wonder Years" (starring that kid from that 2 hour Nintendo commercial The Wizard) running from 1988–1993 on ABC.
Cocker, doing his best John Belushi impersonation, sings the way Ringo never would (or could), on this reworking of the classic originally from The Beatles' 1967 masterpiece "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band". This version, however, was released only a single year later, coming from Cocker's debut album and reaching number one on the British charts.
The song takes the maudlin original and transforms it into an explosively emotional track with a rocking 6/8 timing, making it more like the heavier acts of the day such as Led Zeppelin. And, owing much to this fact, Zeppelin co-founder Jimmy Page even played guitar on this track, no doubt a crucial factor in propelling it into such hard rock territory.
Joe Cocker would try to duplicate the number one hit he made from "With A Little Help From My Friends" by covering a few more Beatles tunes throughout his career, such as "Something" and "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window", but since they weren't used in any classic television shows with a omnipresent narrator, nobody cares about them.


See? I knew we could do it without Will Smith.
Anyway, lists like this one are always difficult considering the hundreds and hundreds of great pieces of music written for the television over nearly 75 years of the medium and the nearly impossible task of paring it down to only a measly nine spots.
Some of the other television theme songs I considered that also deserve mention are:
Surely you know a few great theme songs that I missed, so please remind me of my heinous oversights in the comments below.

It's what Quincy

1 comment :

Golf Guy said...

I think you've compiled a great list. But I've always been partial to the theme song to "Newhart" penned by Henry Mancini. The music and scenic imagery (which is extra footage taken from the film "On Golden Pond") perfectly sets the tone for the show, and leaves this viewer whistling the melody long after the closing credits have rolled.