Sunday, May 02, 2010

Weekend Videos – TV Themes

I want this weekly segment to be rather special and so I find Inspiration where I can. In this particular case my inspiration was an interview that Media Week's Mark Berman did with Dan Schneider. Now some people might remember Schneider from the Howard Hesseman comedy Head Of The Class (or maybe not – think Welcome Back Kotter with uber-smart kids not Sweathogs). Schneider played the overweight but extremely knowledgeable Dennis Blunden. Since then, Schneider has become a well known producer of kids' shows working for Nickelodeon. Among the series he's created are iCarly, Victorious, Zoey 101 and Drake & Josh, all for Nickelodeon, as well as What I Like About You for The WB (which he did with sometimes producing partner Brian Robbins who also starred on Head Of The Class and was one of the producers of Smallville). In the article Schneider told Berman of his fondness for TV theme songs:

The big networks have virtually abandoned TV theme songs. Granted, there are exceptions like The Big Bang Theory. A theme song is like the soul of a TV show. Imagine Cheers, Friends, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore or Happy Days without their classic openings. Luckily, Nickelodeon gets it.

As for my favorite TV theme song of all time? Maybe
The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island or The Beverly Hillbillies…too many great ones to decide. But if I'm forced to choose, I'm gonna go with either iCarly or Victorious.

Schneider is right; the big networks – by which I presume that he means the Broadcast Networks – have largely abandoned the theme song, and the reason seems pretty obvious: commercials. In the 1960s an hour long show had 51 minutes of actual content and 9 minutes of advertising. Today the same hour long show has 42 minutes of content and 18 minutes of advertising – in other words more than a quarter of the show's nominal running time is given over to advertising. Something has to give, particularly since I think that we can all agree that the story telling in the best Broadcast TV shows has become more complex. Something's got to give in order to accommodate the story telling and I think there are a lot of producers, directors and writers who figure that a thirty second or one minute theme song is a waste of time that they could use for plotting.

And yet you do remember shows with themes, even today. It isn't the only selling point but you do remember cues, and sound is something that you automatically associate to a show even when the music is disconnected from the images. Think of the songs that The Who played during the Superbowl halftime show. More than a few people commented that Townshend and Daltrey played "Who Are You?," "Won't Get Fooled Again," and "Baba O'Riley" on the orders of CBS because they're the theme songs of CSI, CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York. Whether or not it is true, the fact that people thought that proves that people immediately thought not of the first time that they heard these songs "in the wild" but as the themes for the shows proves that the link exists. But of course we've known that for years as anyone who, on hearing the last part of the William Tell Overture immediately recites the words "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty heigh-ho Silver away! The Lone Ranger rides again!!"

I suppose that you could argue that the culmination of this is that TV theme songs have been in the top 60 on Billboard's Pop Singles chart in every decade except the 2000s, according to The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows. This means of course that they had radio air play and when they had radio airplay, people inevitably thought of the TV show. In fact, TV theme songs have been in the Top Ten on the list in every decade except the 2000s. So as a starting point for looking TV show themes – and this is another of those subjects that can just go on and one and on because there are so many good original theme songs – let's take a look at the highest ranking TV themes of each decade (well, with one exception, which I'll explain when I get to it).

First up, from the 1990s we have the theme from a really obscure FOX series called The Heights. The series was about a group of young middle class adults who form a band, named The Heights.The show ran for 12 episodes in the Fall of 1992 but never gained an audience. The song, How Do You Talk To An Angel? (sung by series star Jamie Walters) on the other hand hit #1 on the Billboard Charts. In one of those amazing bits of serendipity the song hit #1 in the Billboard Charts one week after the show was cancelled

In the 1980s the theme from Miami Vice was the big hit. Jan Hammer's theme for the show hit #1 on November 2, 1985, a year after the series debuted at the end of September 1984. Hammer won two Grammy Awards for the theme in February 1986 for "Best Pop Instrumental Performance," and "Best Instrumental Composition." I have to confess that this is an absolute favourite of mine (and not just for the anonymous woman who jiggles her way across the screen at the 0:15 mark... although that didn't hurt). It just seems like the right theme for that series.

In the 1970s two themes actually reached the top of the Billboard Charts. The first was the theme from S.W.A.T. This is a bit of a cheat however since the recording, which hit the #1 spot at the end of February 1976, performed by the "disco-funk" band Rhythm Heritage is described in the Wikipedia article about the song as being "a noticeably different recording than the actual TV theme version." As it stands the theme song for the Leonard Goldenberg-Aaron Spelling police action series is pretty good.

The other song to hit the top of the Billboard charts in the 1970s was John Sebastian's theme for Welcome Back Kotter. In fact the song was the reason the show was renamed Welcome Back Kotter. Originally intended to be called simply Kotter producer Alan Sachs wanted a "Lovin' Spoonfuls-like" theme song. John Sebastien, who had been the lead vocalist for the group and also wrote many of their songs, didn't know what to do with that title and came back with Welcome Back which like some of the best theme songs told the back story of the whole show. The song reached the top of the Billboard chart for one week in Spring 1976 after five weeks on the charts.

I recently played the highest charting theme song of the 1960s when I looked at "spy shows" of the 1960s. That song was Secret Agent Man performed by Johnny Rivers. The song replaced the British theme for Danger Man (which was used over the opening for each episode). Originally consisting of one verse and a chorus but as the song became increasingly popular two more verses were added. The song eventually hit #3 in the Billboard Charts.

Instead of playing the Secret Agent theme again, I'm going to turn the song that had the second highest finish of any TV theme songs on the Billboard Charts in the 1960s. That would be the Hawaii Five-0 theme, which hit #4 on the Billboard charts in 1969. Personally I think it's a better piece of music, and extremely evocative of the show. The quick cuts of the show's opening montage, combined with the music creates an immediate sense that this is going to be a fast moving and exciting adventure. The credit sequence is a beautiful piece of work in itself, anticipating the whole idea of a music video. (I confess however that I would watch that over and over just to see that girl turn her head toward the camera. Beautiful.)

The first TV theme to make it onto the top 10 of the Billboard Charts is the theme from Dragnet, played by the Ray Anthony Orchestra, which made it to #2 in 1953. This is something of a cheat since Dragnet had begun as a radio show in 1949 two years before it came to TV in 1951. Still it was and remains one of the iconic television themes. The theme actually consists of two parts, with an interesting history. The first part of the theme (the Dum da dumdum Dum da dumdum duh) is known as "Danger Ahead" and was the subject of a suit by the publishers of Miklos Rozsa's theme for the movie The Killers. Walter Schumann, who composed the Dragnet theme had visited the sound stage where Rosza was recording the movie theme and had picked up the brief melody, which is used as a cue in the movie. Schumann composed the second part of the theme, known as "The Dragnet March" which appears at the end of the show over the credits. A deal was finally worked out to give both men a share fo the credit for the whole piece. That's why for this theme I'm showing the end of an episode of Dragnet, which contains both parts of the music.

Finally, because I don't have a representative for the 2000s I thought I'd look in at what became of the theme that Roza and Schumann composed when it was updated by Mike Post for the ill-fated Dragnet series from 2003, created by Dick Wolff and starring Ed O'Neill. It's actually not a bad theme.

This one of those topics that can (and probably will) go on for a long time because there are so many great pieces of TV theme music. I'd like to know some of my reader's favourites.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mike Post's revised Dragnet theme is the only thing about that show I could tolerate.

Brent McKee said...

I liked Ed O'Neill's interpretation of Joe Friday as a hard working, world weary Jesuit educated cop with an eye for details. What I didn't like was what they did the show in its second season which de-emphasized Friday and substituted in the group of you cops. It stopped being Dragnet and turned into a detective version of The Rookies.

Todd Mason said...

The 2003 DRAGNET featured Christina Chang. It needed no other reason to exist. (Oddly enough, I've just gotten around to reading this post after writing about tv soundtrack music on Patti Abbott's blog)

Anonymous said...

Just want to say a big thank you for putting this all together as you saved me a lot of time and energy!

All the best,

A TV Junkie in Canada