Wednesday, 8 February 2017

TV theme music - part one

For the past sixty years, television has been western civilisation's most unifying cultural phenomenon. Its ubiquity, its scope, its adaptability has meant that only recently have computer gaming and web-based streaming come to seriously threaten its primacy. However, workplace conversations about Grand Theft Auto V still lag behind discussions about Game of Thrones or The Great British Bake Off, demonstrating that there's still some gas in the tank where TV is concerned, even if the ways it is delivered and consumed are being changed by emerging technologies.

When people reminisce about television, an oft-favoured subject is the theme music. A good tune presaging the main action can prove memorable decades after the show itself ceased to exist. With that in mind, part one of this examination of theme music is an unabashed look at fondly remembered TV themes. I asked a bunch of friends and colleagues what their favourite TV theme music was, and here's some of the results.

First up is a great and, perhaps for someone born and bred in the UK, unexpected choice from my pal Chris. We grew up near each other and a frequent Friday night for us was me, my brother and our friend Dave all round Chris' to play Pro Evolution Soccer, make each other laugh and watch WWF: Raw. I couldn't help but crack a smile when, after all these years, I listened to 'WWF: Raw Is War', because back in the day, when you heard that first power chord, you knew shit was about to go down. It seems odd to think of it as 'mood music', but it really got the blood pumping and set the tone of what was to follow. Without a doubt nostalgia plays a huge part in why I like this, but at the time for us young graps fans, nothing said 'excitement' like the first twenty-five second of this bad boy:

From my completely unscientific polling of associates, a fairly common trend is that fondness for TV themes skews towards a person's youth. So my colleague Gemma opted for the excellent Thundercats theme song, another colleague, Clare, went for the ersatz country of The Littlest Hobo, Twitter follower @hackbridgeharry went for the brilliant Stingray theme (Gerry Anderson productions featured quite heavily in discussions), whilst my brother Richard opted for the slightly left-field choice of The Raccoons:

The TV shows didn't have to necessarily be contemporaneous with one's own childhood either. My friend Ruby, who certainly was not alive in the 1970s, nevertheless picked the rather odd and slightly spooky original theme music for The Moomins:

Which is not to say that memorable TV themes are not being produced now. However, the methods by which theme songs are being commissioned seems to have shifted somewhat in recent years to using established popular musicians, at least for marquee productions, as opposed to composers specialising in TV music. My colleague Carla chose The Barenaked Ladies' catchy original composition for The Big Bang Theory, my Kansan friend Toshia went for The Goldbergs, whose atmospherically 1980s computer game-influenced theme is by I Fight Dragons, and my partner Sea ummed and ahhed over Cheers before finally alighting on Regina Spektor's superb intro for Orange Is The New Black (check out how well it complements the title visuals):

Interestingly, the only other contemporary track chosen by the people I asked was the theme to Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel. It marks quite a break from other choices as it lacks the same kind of 'hooks' often used in other themes, presumably to catch the attention of the viewer within the space of thirty seconds or less. As my colleague stated, it has a rather melancholic aspect to it. Despite never having seen the show, I really like it - quiet, stately, haunting.

And then, at the other end of the scale, there's this:

Let's get a couple of things straight - The A-Team was the business, and the theme song and title credits were the fucking business. This slice of ridiculously OTT bombast was the number one choice for my German friend Bianca, who also picked two other American shows in her top three - McGyver and The Fall Guy. I can't say they're my favourite selections; but maybe they didn't have to be brilliant pieces of music to lodge in the memory. If you loved the show, it's entirely reasonable that you feel affection for its constituent elements - actors, characters, settings and music, for example.

So what's my favourite? Easy - Thicke Of The Night, US talk show vehicle for the late Alan (father of Robin) Thicke. Here's why:
  • Tonally, it was completely dissonant with the actual content of the show
  • Observes the 'Dennis Waterman imperative' - the star of the show writes the tune and sings the tune
  • "Mama don't leave the light on / I'm gonna ro-o-o-oll all night" - poetry
  • If it had Kenny Loggins' named attached, it would've been a million seller

That's it for now! In part two, I'll be digging further into the craft of the TV theme inspired by exchanges I had with two extremely knowledgeable friends, Simon Biddell and David Lavelle. I'll also include their picks, because I'm nice like that.

I'll make it fast with one more thing - if you want to gorge yourself on a huge slice of TV nostalgia pie, head over to the TVARK website. You can waste hours and hours of your life watching clips and intros from shows of yore (I think I've watched the start of Games Master and Crystal Maze about a bajillion times now) - and why not? Dee-dee-dee-deeee, DAH-DUH...

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