When TV jingles turn hit singles

In the 1980s, TV themes were more jingles than songs, but damn, they were catchy

Published: Nov 21, 2015
When TV jingles turn hit singles
5-minute wonder: The theme song of M*A*S*H, a TV series about a team of American doctors stationed in South Korea, was written by a teenager in 5 minutes

Here’s one way to become a millionaire at age 14: Write the words to a song that your dad wants for a particular scene in his movie about a US Army mobile hospital unit in South Korea run by a bunch of brilliant but certifiably insane medics. Oh, that Dad wants the stupidest possible lyrics he can’t write because he’s too intelligent might help. In 1970, director Robert Altman assigned that task to his teenage son, Mike, who allegedly churned out the words to a song titled ‘Suicide Is Painless’ in 5 minutes. Altman grew to love the song so much that it moved from the originally intended movie scene to become the theme song for both the film as well as the TV series M*A*S*H, making said lad inordinately wealthy at an unreasonably early age. Daddy Altman once claimed that his son had earned over a million dollars for being a co-writer of the song while he himself made a mere $70,000 for directing the movie.

A TV theme song that reached even greater renown is the title track to a series that shows no sign of losing any steam, even long after it has ended. Composed and written by Phil Solem and Danny Wilde, who make up the pop-rock duo, The Rembrandts, along with the producers of the show, the title track to Friends must likely be the most recognisable theme song in modern history. The Beatles-meets-The Monkees infectiousness gives it an ‘emperor of earworms’ stature. Phil and Danny’s sung assurance ‘I’ll Be There For You’, to shots of Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross hectically prancing and cavorting is destined to remain burned into your brain long after it stops playing.

The ’80s were a time when TV themes were more jingles than songs, but damn were they catchy. Anyone who grew up on American sitcoms in that decade will remember Three’s Company, led by the brilliantly funny John Ritter, whose comic timing could rival John Cleese’s. But equally memorable as Jack Tripper and his comely roomies Janet, Chrissy and Terri, was the show’s title song.

Another ’80s hook was the opening song for Cheers, a show that launched a character who went on to span two TV series over two decades—Dr Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer. It would be hard to resist joining in the anthem of barroom bonhomie, especially when it hits the chorus, ‘You Wanna Be Where Everybody Knows Your Name’. Grammer took his talents beyond the sitcom set and into the recording studio for Dr Crane’s sophomore show, Frasier. Apart from playing the hilariously
poncey radio shrink, he also sang the show’s quirky closing theme ‘Tossed Salads And Scrambled Eggs’.

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Images: Barenaked Ladies, The Rembrandts; Getty Images  
Hummable: (Clockwise from top left) Barenaked Ladies who gave The Big Bang Theory its title song; the cast of Seinfeld, the show whose opening music is a mix of Jerry Seinfeld’s comic routine and instrumental music; Danny Wilde and Phil Solem of The Rembrandts who sang the popular Friends title track; the cast of the show

Still on the ’80s, here’s a show where the opening credits featured a song that was written in 1967 by four fellers with mop tops and enough talent to last well past their own lifetimes. The song went on to its greatest success only when a raspy-voiced soul singer put it on his anvil and beat it into new form, which found its way to the top of the UK charts. Joe Cocker’s interpretation of the Beatles’s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, voted in a BBC poll as the seventh best cover version of a song ever (I would rate it as my favourite ever), started up the show The Wonder Years for six seasons. Whether or not you liked the show, about a boy growing up in late-’60s USA, that song…oh, man, that song—it always sounded so great when it came on the TV set.

There was one TV series that broke away from the sitcom herd in more singular ways than any other of its time—Seinfeld, the ‘show about nothing’. The title was cleverly crafted around Jerry Seinfeld as a standup comic, with excerpts of his live stage routine interspersed with an instrumental track. The only words that featured in the opening title were Seinfeld’s comedy act. The track, composed of a blend of funk and hip-hop with a splash of jazz, interjected by popping lip and flipping tongue sounds, became as distinctive as its jingle precursors, if not for its oddness then for sheer repetition on a show that must have equalled, if not surpassed, Friends in reach.

A title song that seems to be headed for that trajectory is the one from the current global smash hit The Big Bang Theory. Indie rockers The Barenaked Ladies’s title song for that show is appropriately nerdy and commensurately slamming, featuring lyrics like:

Australopithecus would really have been
sick of us
Debating how we’re here, they’re catching deer (we’re catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy (Descartes or Deuteronomy)
It all started with the big bang!

(The author is the lead singer of Indus Creed)

(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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