Friday Five: 15 Terrific TV Themes
Friday, April 27, 2012
Theme songs, that is. In the '80s, even a kid such as I (that is, not allowed much television) knew how to sing the (incredibly annoying) Jeopardy! theme when waiting for the answer to a tough question. And people still sing the theme to The Twilight Zone to indicate that something's spooky. (They do, right?)
Joining us today is 2011 Inky Tentacle judge and all-around awesome person Catherine Hemelryk. Catherine is a curator and artist, with projects across Europe as well as spending part of her time programming the Fishmarket in Northampton. She is also a roller derby skater with the London Rockin’ Rollers and CoCaptain of the Voodoo Skull Krushers. She loves a good tune.
Spill: what themes get stuck in your head?
I love a good theme tune. In less than a minute I am taken out of my world and whisked to this other place, where the characters live all of the time. I might not have seen them for a week but the music flicks a switch in my brain and I pick up from the second we left off. Choosing just five, ouch, impossible. So here are my favourites of British television and then a sneaky list of honourable mentions. I don’t care that these are obvious choices, they are magnificent!
The Moomins, Graeme Miller & Steve Shill. This is my sound of nostalgia. It’s haunting, beautiful and feels perfectly perfect for the little trolls and curious creatures’ adventures. Its gently warping analogue synthesisers’ mournful tune sing to me from way beyond the Iron Curtain from Moominvally, back in time and in a different space when there was a different future.
Notes: Jim Jupp’s Belbury Parish Magazine encapsulates this tone and included The Moomins in one of his Radio Belbury programmes between "The Belbury Poly logotone" and "The Testament of Arkadia." Bjork scored the Comet in 2010.
Tales of the Unexpected, Ron Grainer. This tune could roll on for hours. I wouldn’t mind, it’s mesmeric! Roal Dahl being sinister on Anglia TV, brilliant. What will happen? What are the true intentions of the travelling salesman lothario? Where did the school boy get that key? Is the landlady actually a GIANT BEE? I don’t know, but I’ll believe any twist because I am hypnotised by this lilting house of mirrored cards of a tune!
Doctor Who, Ron Grainer & Delia Derbyshire. Oh just watch the video and love through all of time and space!
Red Dwarf, Howard Goodall. 1988. It’s an epic, clever opening: a single brass line leads to searing strings and leaping piano arpeggios. The opening matches the zoom out from the spaceman to the whole of space. It’s a warm homage and neat parody for its genre with a big singalong in the closing titles that, a bit like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air rap, I can still remember all of the words.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Ronnie Hazelhurst. Pretty much everything ever by Ronnie Hazelhurst is gold. Are you being served? is oddly contemporary! Sorry (his arrangement) makes me want to have a little boogie. Yes, Minister is a triumphant reworking of Big Ben and the establishment. But it’s Reginald Iolanthe Perrin that has stayed with me with its chirruping opening bars, twinkling glockenspiel winking wryly, jazz flute and muted brass all pushed with urgency with its brushed high hat. Goodbye old life and Sunshine Deserts, hello new life, and, er, Sunshine Deserts.
But there are too too many brilliant themes to stop at five. Here are my honorable mentions: Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Bernie Leadon), all of the Blackadder themes (Howard Goodall), Danger Mouse, (Mike Harding), The League of Gentlemen, (Joby Talbot), It’ll Never Work, (Depeche Mode), Edge of Darkness, (Eric Clapton) and Arena, (Brian Eno).
The Wire. Any season would do, but I've gone with Season 2, if only to rub it in. The greatest, most distinctive vocalist of a generation singing the theme to the greatest, most distinctive TV show of a generation? Yes, please.
Playmakers. I really like the raw brutality of the theme, which is essentially aggressive hammering (with visuals of people being aggressively hammered). It fits the show perfectly, gets stuck in my head and used to annoy the cat no end.
[Note: I'm fully aware that not a single UK reader will have any idea what I'm talking about with ESPN's Playmakers, but...uh... imagine if Sky Sports decided to do a season of original programming, and, for some suicidal reason, what they chose was to do a drama series based on (British) football. Corruption, drugs, injuries, warts and all. Unsurprisingly, it got cancelled after a series, as the NFL shat itself and ESPN wanted to continue showing sports. Great show though.]
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There's something about that woosh at the beginning that inhales me right in. This is noisy, lurid, wonderful crap, but does an excellent job drawing a curtain (of noisy crap) between the show and the rest of the world.
Mystery!. Another one that won't make sense to the UK readers. All those British crime shows that weren't imported as Masterpiece Theater were brought over as Mystery!. I don't remember much of the shows (except the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes - the ones that had mysteries in them), but the opening sequence of Edward Gorey animations was the best thing on television. (Plus, hosts included Vincent Price and Diana Rigg!) The music is wonderfully campy, vintage fun, plus appropriate sound effects.
Sopranos. Never seen the show, but watched the opening sequence a dozen times.
[Note: Every one of our comments is going to be people berating me for not seeing the Sopranos, isn't it?]
Special Dishonorable Mention for Being the Worst Theme Ever: Firefly. Hey, I liked this show a lot, but the unspeakable horror of this theme represents everything wrong with Joss Whedon, geek culture and perhaps the world. It is a stunning example of Whedon's bat-to-the-face style of aesthetic "appreciation" (L00KIT SPACE WESTERN HAZ PONY MUSIC AND IZ ABOUT FREEDOMS), ill-considered analogue (BUT IZ NOT ABOUT SIVIL WAR THO OOPSIES), and, frankly, the sycophantic working and fan culture he engendered where everyone thought it would be ok if he wrote his own theme in the first place (YES JOSS RITE THER NOW DO MOAR COMMENTARRY OOOOOOH).
Damn you, Jared, for stealing the Wire theme from me. Anyway, there are a lot of tv themes that serve their shows really well (like, say, the Cheers theme) - but, being things like the Cheers theme, I rarely watched them and never loved them, so I'm not going to include them on my list.
One of the weirder cartoons I ever loved was Eek the Cat, about a fat purple kitty (named Eek) whose motto was "it never hurts to help." As you can imagine, it usually did hurt to help, and often it hurt quite a lot. The theme is a screaming guitar solo straight out of 1990, with the words "Eek! Eek! Eek!" shouted every few bars, over animation of Eek getting his fat purple kitty butt kicked all to shit. Eek! Eek! Eek! Why didn't we name any of our cats Eek?
The music of the Dandy Warhols was regularly featured on beloved, terribly missed Veronica Mars. Lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor even had a cameo in the second season episode "Cheatty Cheatty Bang Bang," singing "Love Hurts" at a sleazy karaoke bar. But the best use of the Dandy Warhols' catalogue was in the show's theme, where "We used to be Friends" played over the opening credits. The song (from the album Welcome to the Monkey House) isn't just a pitch-perfect response to that tiresome Friends theme (down to the clapping). It also captures Veronica Mars' major themes: Veronica's loneliness, isolation, aggression and punk-ass attitude. The less said about the third-season revamp of the credits the better. Also, oh my god, watching that YouTube clip makes me want to sit down and watch the show again.
I may be alone in this, but I have a long-standing affection for the Rome theme. The piece itself is an earworm for me, so there's that. And I really dig the dirty animated graffiti of the title sequence. Combined, the whole thing encapsulates what it is that I love about Rome: it's gorgeous, lush, a little jarring, and utterly filthy. Just like the show itself.
I got really, really into M*A*S*H for about a year while I was in law school, way back in the bad old days, and there were times when the melancholy opening sequence made me want to drop everything and go back to bed. Which is no surprise, really: the song is called "Suicide is Painless." But you knew that, right? Fun fact: Robert Altman's 14 year old son wrote the lyrics. Eep.
Well, that was depressing. Let's reach a little further back for what is indisputably the greatest theme song ever: Lalo Schifrin's original score for Mission: Impossible. No remake has even been a patch on the original scoring of the theme, and that is the truth. My boy Lalo's a bit of a Pornokitsch hero, being the incredibly prolific scorer behind everything from The Three Musketeers (the awesomest version, with Michael York and Christopher Lee) to Bullitt and the Dirty Harry films. This version of this theme has been my go-to personal adventure soundtrack for as long as I can remember.
Honorable mentions: The theme from North & South. The entire opening sequence from Mad Men - which I could watch over and over and over again - and its Simpsons' parody. And that wonderful, bonkers Futurama theme, of course. (And their take on Red Dwarf.) And I'd have to turn my geek card in at the desk if I failed to mention the theme to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, with its low-fi aesthetic, model-work and adorable lyrics. And its adorable robots. And its adorable Joel. MISS U, JOEL.