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The Found Art of TV Theme Songs

Is the TV theme song really a lost art? Or is it simply more a case of the television industry turning its back on them so more commercials can be shoehorned into a 30-minute slot? A 30-second TV theme song doesn't sell more car insurance and fatten a network's bank account; 30-second car insurance commercials do.

Either way, I too believe the TV theme is more than just an audio marker in time that says if you intend to see the whole show, you'd better pee faster. If you want to truly understand - and appreciate - the purpose and value of the TV show theme song, a good place to start is the bargain bin of your local big-box retailer who sells cut-rate DVDs for five bucks or so, like Best Buy. That's where I found multi-episode discs from the rural power trio The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show and Petticoat Junction from Madacy Entertainment Group, Inc. and Ovation Home Video. My consternation lies not in the less-than-pristine quality of the video (complete with little squiggly hairs and black specks in every frame) but in the fact that the original theme songs are missing - replaced instead with loopy, limp bluegrass or loopy, limp elevator music.

This happens when whoever owns the rights to the opening songs either refuses to license the song or wants more money than the video creators are willing to pay. This isn't entirely unexpected from small companies selling multi-episode DVD for five stinkin' bucks - or why they're able to sell multi-episode DVD for five stinkin' bucks - but still, it's not much different than watching some stranger's collection of silent 8mm home movies from 1966. The context is missing, so you have no idea why three babes are swimming naked in The Shady Rest Hotel's sole water supply, or why some old codger with a musket is standing there wondering "What the fuck?" when he shoots the stagnant discharge of a cleverly-concealed industrial outflow pipe along the Grand Calumet River somewhere between Gary and Hammond and it starts bleeding black gunk. Or why this startling development makes him grab his bumpkin crap-shack family and skip town like an unprotected federal witness to some place where palm trees line the streets. Jeez, it's not like he shot a hole in the town's nuclear plant.

So here are a few more shows with important theme songs - songs that also were either radio hits, should have been on the radio more than they were, found new - and sometimes improved lives - re-recorded some years later by someone else, or are actually better in their original form. Many of these songs are still in print; those that aren't can be found without much difficulty within the file-sharing community.

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Taxi (1978)
You'd have to have to be totally mean-spirited and critical to not get a lift from the 1:04 snippet from the original 6:03 version of "Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" taken from Bob James' 1978 album Touchdown. The original, less-polished version was pretty much why someone at WMET decided it needed to dump rock and change its call letters to WNUA in 1987 so it could introduce Chicago to New Age music. Because, you know, gentrification seems more pleasant when it has its own soundtrack.

Bob James Trivia: He also created the theme for Barney Miller, one of the few ABC sitcoms anyone would associate with the word "genius." However, his original, full-length version was not getting airplay on WNUA because it was the first TV theme song from a New Age/Smooth Jazz artist to scare the bejeezus out of a New Age/Smooth Jazz station.

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WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)
As first-person songs about disc jockeys starting life over after being dumped go, the bouncy "WKRP In Cincinnati Main Theme" sung by Steve Carlisle is considerably superior in comparison to Harry Chapin's "W.O.L.D." because Carlisle's tune doesn't make you want to go into the bathroom and hang yourself in the shower halfway through it.

The full-length theme, written by by Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson, rose to number 65 on the Pop Singles chart in 1981 and to 29 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1982.

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Hill Street Blues (1981)
It wasn't quite "I'll Be There For You" by The Rembrandts, but the full-length version of Mike Post's breezy theme created for one of TV's best cop shows made it to Number 10 in Billboard Magazine's Top 100. It's another TV theme that just makes you feel good, and features the signature sound of amazing jazz guitarist Larry Carlton.

While catchy, Post's theme doesn't quite get you primed up for cracking skulls and torturing confessions out of suspects like Inner Circle's theme to Cops, though.

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Cheers (1982)
The Gary Portnoy/Judy Hart Angelo theme "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is best appreciated in its original, extended form because it illustrates - better than the shortened TV version - why it's good to have a friendly bar within staggering distance when your day has turned to shit before you've even left the house:

"Roll out of bed, Mr. Coffee's dead
The morning's looking bright
And your shrink ran off to Europe
And didn't even write
And your husband wants to be a girl"

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Newhart (1982)
Written by movie soundtrack chameleon Henry Mancini, the theme for the Newhart show where Bob ran an inn in Vermont probably did get far more radio airplay than we think; it just happened to be limited to AM stations whose target audience is old enough to fart dust.

Oddly enough, this incredibly pleasant, likable tune is absent from any of Mancini's albums that feature his deep well of theme songs. The only place it seems to exist is a live version recorded on Premier Pops: Henry Mancini with the Royal Philharmonic Pops Orchestra.

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Golden Girls (1985)
Oh, stop laughing. Andrew Gold's original 3:59 version of "Thank You For Being A Friend" from his 1978 album All This And Heaven Too has a lot more personality than the show's re-recorded snippet sung years later by Cynthia Fee. While the show's version was slick and over-perfect, Gold's was just playful and fun:

And when we both get older
With walking canes and hair of gray
Have no fear, even though it's hardly here
I will stand real close and say,
Thank you for being a friend

Andrew Gold Trivia: Gold also sang the theme song for the NBC sitcom Mad About You, which made Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt household names. Hunt went on to become a major film star notable for playing the exact same person in every role.

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The Simpsons (1989)
The original theme by soundtrack factory and onetime Oingo Boingo member Danny Elfman gets its own translation (which includes a banjo) by the world's greatest unknown guitarist, Danny Gatton, on his 1991 album 88 Elmira St. Revered by critics, fans, and musicians alike yet completely ignored by radio, the master of the Fender Telecaster locked himself in his garage and committed suicide in 1994 in one of modern music's biggest wastes of talent ever.

*

Wings (1990)
This was a great NBC sitcom whose reruns were beaten to death after the show went off the air by cable's USA Network, which insisted on airing the show 9,642 times a day for nearly a decade. It is now shown 9,642 times a day only in former Soviet bloc nations still trying to catch up on popular American culture. This is probably why, no matter how I try, I can't remember a note of the theme song. I only remember that I liked it a lot because it was classical without sounding too classical. Anyway, it's indisputably the oldest theme song that wasn't a theme song because it's an abbreviated version of Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959, written in 1828.

Which brings us finally to perhaps the most notable TV theme . . .

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970)
Whoever had the imagination to slice, dice, and re-score the full-length, 2:44 version of Sonny Curtis' "Love Is All Around" into the endearing theme it came to be was perhaps the greatest creative musical mind in TV history. That's because, in its original form, "Love Is All Around" was pure Nashville-meets-Los Angeles crap overdosed with pedal steel guitar and woo-woo backup singers, and proves exactly why mainstream country music needed to be saved from itself. Even the additional verses sucked, including this one:

You are most likely to succeed
You have the looks and charms
Girl you know that's all you need
All the men around adore you
That sexy look will do wonders for you

Before you could say, "Please, God, make me deaf," Joan Jett showed what a girl who calls herself "the goddess of hellfire" and "doesn't like any of that Eddie Van Halen shit" can do with a Gibson Melody Maker and about two-and-a-half minutes to kill. She released the full-length theme as a single in 1996, and then edited that down to the minute-long TV version for her 2006 album Fit to Be Tied: Great Hits by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Minneapolitans Husker Du also famously recorded the song, which just goes to show how flexible it really is.

Now, put Joan Jett and Husker Du in a sitcom together, and you've not only got a great show, but probably a great theme song in the offing.



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Posted on October 29, 2007


MUSIC - They Flirted With Disaster.
TV - A Quincy Top 10.
POLITICS - The Traitor Who Is A Great Patriot.
SPORTS - Gambling At The Grate.

BOOKS - Scientists Gone Rogue.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - A People's History Of Uptown.


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