Monday, April 12, 2010

Best TV Theme Songs

I've got this new Graham Parker album (yes, a new Graham Parker!) in my CD player, and it's quite a trip -- titled Imaginary Television, it's meant to be a collection of theme songs to hypothetical TV programs. Given Parker's snarky humor, you can just imagine how offbeat some of those shows would be if they ever were filmed.

Well, I promise to write about the CD in the next day or two, but I kinda got lost in musing over my favorite television theme songs. No, not the campy jingles from shows like The Addams Family and Mr. Ed, but theme songs that had the feeling of being real songs you might actually want to hear all the verses of, not just the 10-second snippet to open the show.

This is a purely subjective thing, I know -- there's a Pavlovian thing going on, in which it's easier to get excited about the theme song from a show you love. There's perhaps no other way to explain my fondness for The Patty Duke Show theme ("Meet Cathy who's lived most everywhere / From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square / But Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights / What a crazy pair") or the theme from Bewitched (even though they never sang the words, which ran something like "Bewitched, betwitched, you've got me in your spell). Why else should I prefer the theme from Laverne and Shirley over the American Graffiti-inspired theme for Happy Days?

Everybody loves "Everybody Knows Your Name," a.k.a. the theme from Cheers, and "I'll Be There For You," the inescapable theme song for Friends. But I've got a soft spot in my heart for -- I hate to admit it -- the ultra-suave Three's Company theme song ("Come and knock on my door....") and naturally -- NATURALLY -- the theme songs from The Monkees ("Here we come, walkin' down the street / We get the funniest looks from everyone we meet") and The Partridge Family. After all, if your show's going to be about musicians, having a decent theme song should be a no-brainer. (Advice that the producers of Hannah Montana should have taken.)

Way too often, TV theme songs were just a set-up for the show's premise -- that's the thing that always grates on me about The Brady Bunch and Green Acres and Gilligan's Island songs. Beyond the trivia contest value of being able to sing all the verses, are they really songs you'd ever want to hear? Immediately, though, I can think of a couple exceptions to this rule, the prime one being The Beverly Hillbillies song ("Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed / A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed..."). That one was saved by the pickin' and grinnin' of Flatt and Scruggs, who as I recall even made a guest appearance on one episode. Of all the rash of black sit-coms that came along in the 70s, the best theme song had to be Ja'net DuBois' gospel-drenched "Moving' On Up" from The Jeffersons (and while you're at it, check out this goofy fan video.) And you just can't deny the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's opening rap could charm the pants off anybody, but then -- Will Smith. Need I say more?

But what I'm really talking about are the theme songs written by honest-to-god songwriters -- songs you might sing along to even if you never watched the show. Songs like "Welcome Back" by John Sebastian, which was used as the theme song for Welcome Back Kotter. Or "Best Friend" by Harry Nilsson, the theme song for The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Chico and the Man's theme song, written and sung by Jose Feliciano. "Stand" by R.E.M., which graced a short-lived and truly oddball sit-com starring Chris Elliott, Get A Life. "You're Not the Boss of Me," the They Might Be Giants song that leads off Malcolm in the Middle; or the Bare Naked Ladies' theme for the current show The Big Bang Theory.

Occasionally -- just occasionally -- there'd even be an instrumental theme song so good, you'd have to sing along. Hawaii 5-O -- performed by the Ventures -- is the classic example, but what about the groovy urban vibe of Bob James' theme from Taxi, or the deliciously funky Sanford and Son theme by Quincy Jones? (Incredibly, a song that sounded exactly as scruffy as Redd Foxx looked.) And my sentimental favorite in this category is the theme from The Andy Griffith Show, known in reruns as Andy of Mayberry. The simplicity of that whistling and finger-snapping tells you most of what you need to know about the gestalt of that show. (Here's even a vocal version, with Andy Griffith himself singing lyrics I never knew existed.)

So many hours of my life wasted in front of a television set -- and it was those songs, like a snake-charmer's flute, that drew me in. I'm sure I'm forgetting some other great ones, too. And I'm sure you'll remind me of them!


pplist said...

I've always been fond of Polaris' "Hey Sandy," the theme song from THE ADVENTURES OF PETE AND PETE. It perfectly complemented the winsome quirkiness of the show, as seen in the YouTube vid. (Note the metal plate in Mom's head.) A few more relevant links:
**Listen to the whole song at Grooveshark
**Music Page for TAOPAP
**Buy LP or individual songs from the show at eMusic

Mervap said...

Mike Post wrote a couple of memorable TV themes..."Rockford Files" still conjures up fine memories.

Holly A Hughes said...

The Adventures of Pete and Pete, that's a show I missed (though I remember hearing it was great -- must have coincided with one of my periodic "breaks" from TV). Cool theme song, though!

Mike Post was like the king of instrumental themes, wasn't he? Hill Street Blues was the iconic one. You're right, he was the master of the genre.

Holly A Hughes said...

A friend just emailed me another entry which is too good not to add here -- the Secret Agent theme song, sung by Johnny Rivers ("There's a man who lives a life of danger / Everyone he meets, he stays a stranger...") The name of that series in the UK was Danger Man, which would fit even better, although they didn't use this theme song for the British version. It was written specifically for the show by PF Sloan and Steve Barri of the Grass Roots, and besides Johnny Rivers it was recorded by the Ventures and Devo.

Anonymous said...

Hey Hey with The Monkees :)

Greetings from MrL

Beat Girl said...

A lot of great songs there, but I have to express a fondness for Vic Mizzy who wrote the themes for the Addams Family, Green Acres etc. Kitsch of the highest order.

Uncle E said...

What about The Love Boat?!?!?

hot stix said... of my faves, for sure. Love this post, Holly...I'm in total agreement!

Pete and Pete was one of my absolute favorite shows when it was on...I wonder if it's available on DVD? Gotta see those again--there's an episode featuring Syd Straw and Marshall Crenshaw! It's the one where the kids (led by little Pete)start a garage band!

One that I don't see that I think deserves mention is the song 'Having an Average Weekend' by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. This is the theme song for The Kids in the Hall....the band also provided the incidental music between the sketches. I have a bunch of their records...GREAT stuff, and with the exception of some shouting or whistling or what have you from time to time, all instrumental!

Anonymous said...

The Mary Tyler Moore show theme, "Love Is All Around" takes me back to the early seventies whenever I hear it.
Wonderful show, perfect cast, unforgetable song...a perfect choice for the best TV show ever.

Holly A Hughes said...

Many blasts from the past here. I loved Kids in the Hall and Mary Tyler Moore too, although I can't agree about the theme songs. They did their job -- they triggered a desire to watch the show -- but as standalone songs I don't think they're quite in the top ranks. (And The Love Boat? All that that song triggers in me is a desire to switch channels.)

BTW I've discovered a site where you can find just about any TV theme song you want: You could get lost there for hours.

NickS said...

It isn't precisely TV, but I feel like the Wallace and Gromit theme deserves mention.

pplist said...

Another absolute fave, both show and theme song: Mystery Science Theater 3000 And, yes, hot stix, you can get DVDs of Pete and Pete at Amazon

Crafty said...

Soprano's-Alabama3--a good song on its own, but also perfectly sets the mood for the show

MASH--interesting how instrumental version on TV series "sanitized" lyrics

wwolfe said...

I addition to the Ventures' "Hawaii Five-O" and Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" (the latter is one I get to sing with my band), I'd nominate Lalo Schiffrin's theme for "Mission: Impossible" and Paul Anka's theme for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." (There's a wonderful scene in an Australian comedy called "The Dish," about the Aussies' key role in the TV transmission of the first Moon landing. The American ambassador visits the small town where the titular satellite dish is located, where he is feted at a banquet in his honor. The local garage band asks everyone to stand for the American National Anthem, whereupon they launch into "Hawaii-Five-O" - they naively believe that's the real anthem. The American Ambassador smiles at the town's Mayor and says, "Best version I ever heard.")

Holly A Hughes said...

Great moment! (I loved that movie.)

Another great moment is in The Blues Brothers when they get booked into that country-western bar and the only number they can pull out is the theme from Rawhide -- over and over and OVER.

Anonymous said...

If you're talking iconic, it has to be the British series Doctor Who.

Anonymous said...

My faves:
Welcome Back Kotter
Sanford and Son
(and of course, The Monkees)

And now i have to listen to Chico and the Man because I don't remember it...