The importance of the theme tune

The writer of the Golden Girls tune Thank You for being a Friend, Andrew Gold, died last week, and it took him just an hour to write the song. We look at the tie between TV programmes and their theme tunes.
The Golden Girls, clockwise from top left, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty.
The Golden Girls, clockwise from top left, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, Betty White and Estelle Getty.

When the American singer-songwriter Andrew Gold died last week, every obituary noted his 1977 hit Lonely Boy and his work with Linda Ronstadt. But Gold will forever be fondly remembered for writing Thank You for Being a Friend. Onstage, he used to call it his accountant's favourite song, and he freely admitted that it took him only an hour to write. So why did it make him a fortune? Because it was immortalised as the theme tune for the famous 1980s American sitcom, The Golden Girls, although the version on the show wasn't even sung by Gold, but Cynthia Fee. Proof, then, that writing a timeless hit doesn't necessarily need endless promotion or radio play. It just needs to be attached to a popular television show.

Of course, there are two types of theme tunes. The ones composed specifically for the programme - such as the marching-band brilliance of Mike Post and Pete Carpenter's The A Team, or Mark Snow's spookily haunting composition for The X Files. And then there are the tracks, like Thank You for Being a Friend, plucked from existing music libraries because they seem to fit the spirit of a show.

Naturally, it's easy to assume that the latter process is much more straightforward. But it comes with its own dangers. Choose a song that's too well known - which is the temptation, clearly - and it just seems a little bit lazy. So the original theme for the otherwise impeccable US medical drama House - Massive Attack's Teardrop - was a little irritating, not least because this brooding epic seems to have been used as a backdrop for every other dramatic moment on American television.

So if non-original music must be used, it's best to pluck it from obscurity. Classic American drama series are adept at bringing to our attention unearthed gems that expertly tie in with the feel of a show. Only the most enthusiastic of hip-hop fans worked out that the evocative title music to the mid-20th century period drama Mad Men was actually the instrumental version of RJD2's 2006 track A Beautiful Mine. The British country/dance band Alabama 3 were probably as surprised as anyone else when representatives from a new gangster drama came calling. But Woke Up this Morning - with its refrain "You woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun" - was heard by The Sopranos producer David Chase on the radio, and the rest was history.

The most intriguing non-original theme tune of recent times, however, is surely Way Down in the Hole, a blues track taken from Tom Waits's 1987 album Franks Wild Years and used to spectacular effect in The Wire's opening sequences. It seemed incongruous in a show dominated by gangs and urban American music, but its opening line - "When you walk through the garden/you gotta watch your back" - was a perfect summation of what was to come. Each season used a different artist's recording of the song - from Steve Earle to The Neville Brothers - which made the theme an event in itself.

The tracks began, then, to have a life outside the show. Original themes have enjoyed similar success: The Rembrandts scored a worldwide hit with the ubiquitous I'll Be There for You when they lengthened the original Friends theme tune written by the producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman. Similarly, Glen A Larson & Stu Phillips no doubt permitted themselves a smile when the wonderfully 1980s synth-heavy theme to Knight Rider was sampled by Busta Rhymes on the Turn It Up remix in 1998, firing him to the top of the charts worldwide.

Is such success proof that a theme works, or simply a comment on our nostalgia-obsessed times? Probably a bit of both: the British techno band Orbital remixed the spooky original Doctor Who theme - without question one of the most enduring of all time - to such grand effect in 2001, it's tempting to suggest it provoked the relaunch of the show (and indeed, the latest Doctor, Matt Smith, took to the stage when they played it at Glastonbury last year). And it wasn't just the popularity of Don Johnson's crime-fighting in Miami Vice that propelled Jan Hammer's theme tune to the top of the American charts in 1985 (it remains the last instrumental to do so), but the wonderfully New Wave sounds he employed.

And as the American networks continue to produce drama as deep and satisfying as cinema, one hopes that they pay as much attention to the theme tune, rather than simply digging out a track from iTunes. There is a glorious precedent for this - and not just in the grand openings to Dallas and Dynasty. Angelo Badalamente's work for David Lynch's Twin Peaks series was not only suitably creepy, his very presence on the project suggested that this was television to be taken seriously. Although having said that... can you get much better than Joe Raposo's Sesame Street? We think not.

Published: June 9, 2011 04:00 AM

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