A TV theme has a job to do and that is to set the tone for the show that follows. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century TV shows were pretty goofy and got the catchy/crappy themes they deserved. Hey, I can remember all the words to the “Brady Bunch” theme song as well as the next asshole, but it isn’t exactly my idea of good music.
On occasion shows ended up with legitimately good themes, either because they were extraordinary pieces of television that deserved complimentary music or…err… by accident, I guess. I’m not talking about programs that cheated by using pre-composed music or classic pop songs as themes, otherwise the following list would be loaded with classics such as “Paint It Black” (“Tour of Duty”), “Reflections (“China Beach”), “Bad Reputation” (“Freaks and Geeks”), “Rock Around the Clock” (“Happy Days”), “Five O’ Clock World” (“The Drew Carey Show”), “Having an Average Weekend” (“The Kids in the Hall”), “And Your Bird Can Sing” (“The Beatles” Cartoon), “Falling” (“Twin Peaks”), and “For Pete’s Sake” (a way better song than the cutesy “Monkees Theme”). Instead I selected ten songs specifically created for specific programs that I wouldn’t feel ashamed to blast with the TV turned off.
1. “Twilight Zone Theme” by Bernard Herrmann
The discordant tune that instantly conjures memories of gremlins, murder dolls, and pig doctors is Marius Constant’s “Etrange No. 3”, a piece of music recorded for CBS’s library of stock cues but not necessarily “The Twilight Zone”. Eugene Feldman edited it with Constant’s “Milieu No. 2” to serve as the series’ theme in the second season, probably because the music that opened the show’s first one simply isn’t very catchy. It is, however, an eerie scene setter composed by perhaps the greatest composer of cinematic thriller scores, Bernard Herrmann. If Constant’s “Etrange No. 3”/“Milieu No. 2” delivers the skin-crawling shocks of “Eye of the Beholder” then Herrmann’s theme is more in line with the haunting subtlety of “Mirror Image”…
…an episode of “The Twilight Zone” starring Martin Milner, soon to be star of another oddball CBS series. “Route 66” was a Kerouac-inspired picaresque about a couple of hipsters who run into an assortment of quirky characters along the famed highway. Famed composer Nelson Riddle tapped into the series’ beatnik cool with a jazzy piece loosely based on Nat King Cole’s version of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66”, a track CBS didn’t want to pay for.
“The Twilight Zone” and “Route 66” are both key examples of classic TV. Kayro-Vue/Universal Productions’s, “Karen”, is not. Lasting a mere 27 episodes on NBC, the teen-targeted sitcom about a pair of sisters never got any kind of second life in syndication despite its theme song recorded by the most famous musicians on this list. The Beach Boys cut a groovy little raver with exceptionally dough-headed lyrics (“She sets her hair with great precision/It's her favorite indoor sport”). The band’s usual verve is particularly present in the nasty Dick Dale-dive bomb that kicks off the song.
Kayro-Vue/Universal had much better luck over on CBS by taking advantage of the resurging interest in Universal monsters sparked by movie packages like “Shock” and “Chiller Theatre”. “The Munsters” left no crypt unopened, uniting the Frankenstein Monster, werewolf, and a couple of vampires in a familial monster rally that only lasted two seasons, but had a much richer syndication afterlife than “Karen”. To appeal to all those kids who’d spin Duanne Eddy 45s while drooling over the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Jack Marshall (who’d arranged Peggy Lee’s “Fever” and co-created Frank Marshall) bashed out a surfy rocker with a grungy riff. Fortunately, the corny lyrics got 86-ed before the “The Munsters” aired, and its theme now stands as one of TV’s coolest classic instrumentals.
Nelson Riddle is responsible for the score to Bill Dozier’s live-action comic strip “Batman”, but its opening theme is the work of legit jazzman Neal Hefti. There’s none of jazz’s complexity in his “Batman Theme”, a driving chromatic blues riff over which The Ron Hicklin Singers chant the superhero’s name in a fit of crime-fighting ecstasy. The show’s pop-art palette and super-hip ironic humor fit the tenor of the times perfectly, helping Hefti’s tune to slip into the repertoires of The Marketts, The Ventures, The Who, The Kinks, Jan and Dean, and The Jam, while it was also a likely influence on The Beatles’ “Taxman”. Even without such a hip pedigree, the “Batman Theme” would still be a knock out rocker.
For the theme to Dick Clark’s pop variety program “Where the Action Is”, Paul Revere and the Raiders merely whacked some new lyrics over Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint’s “I Like It Like That” (a big hit for The Dave Clark Five in 1965). Paul and the guys put a bit more effort into their theme for “Happening ’68”, Dick’s 1968 update of the variety format. Fat and funky, the track was among the better ones on the Raiders’ spotty Something Happening LP.
“Sugar Sugar” was the cartoon bubblegum smash of 1969, but a far groovier tune inched into Billboard’s Hot 100 earlier in the year. Actually, The Banana Splits weren’t really cartoon characters, just a bunch of actors slumming it in smelly animal costumes, though they regularly hosted Hanna-Barbera cartoons on “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour”. Their theme which both jumped on the late-sixties bubblegum band wagon and presaged the dawn of early-seventies glam, was the puppy of Mark Barkan, who’d written “She’s a Fool” for Leslie Gore and “Pretty Flamingo” for Manfred Mann, and Ritchie Adams. The hip cred of “The Tra La La Song” lived on in 1995 when Liz Phair and Material Issue hooked up to cover it for a CD comp of Saturday Morning Theme Songs.
When I was learning to play the bass, there were two things I was determined to master: John Entwistle’s “My Generation” solo and the line session man Jeff Berghofer contributed to the theme from “Barney Miller”. That seventies cop-com is probably one of the first places I really took notice of my favorite instrument. The rest of Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson’s theme is pretty cool too, with its popping drums and sly electric piano riff, but man, if it was nothing but Berghofer’s bass track, the theme from “Barney Miller” would still be a killer piece of music.
The opening theme of another fondly remembered seventies sitcom, “WKRP in Cincinnati”, has some pretty prominent bass work too (and I’m convinced the bassist was using a Rickenbacker, my preferred instrument), but it’s the song that closed each episode that is easily my favorite thing on this list. Jim Ellis probably wrote it as a parody of punk, though few punk tracks manage so many changes in barely 36 seconds. Don’t bother trying to decipher what Ellis sings. It’s gobbledygook, another not-so-subtle swipe at punk, but there’s nothing funny about how much ass this song kicks. The chord progression that finishes it is one of the all-time great Rock & Roll endings. I’m dead serious.
The brief run of “Square Pegs” was one of those “I can’t believe this was on TV” moments, partially because of its surprisingly harsh depiction of teenage outsiders and partially because it was such a tremendous mess (one episode mostly consists of really long stretches of a kid playing Pac-Man). An entertaining recent article on the AV Club goes into why the show had such issues, so I’ll focus more on one thing that was great about it: the severely attitudinal theme song by The Waitresses, who’d recently hit with “I Know what Boys Like”. Oddly, the show’s producers couldn’t even get it right with this song. Sometimes it was used as the opening theme for the show, and sometimes it was shoved to the end while a version of the annoying piano-practice staple “Chopsticks” took its place. “Square Pegs” made up for this crime by actually allowing The Waitresses to perform both their hit and the theme song on the show: