Television's Greatest Hits
Long before I started writing and recording television themes, I was a fan of them. And I was not alone in my obsession. Being part of the second decade of kids raised on TV, creating parody lyrics and taking close note of seasonal shifts in show themes was common sport. If you remember "and the rest" vs. "the Professor and Mary Ann," I don't need to explain the allure of a collection like Television's Greatest Hits.
The themes in Television's Greatest Hits enjoy a strange cultural primacy because of their part in the early days of syndication — while they date from the form's peak years from the mid '50s to the late '60s, many of us discovered the shows in reruns years after their cancellation. So listening to this collection will inevitably bring back a rush of intense associations, and even the less familiar themes hold the curious charm of an ultra-vivid anthropological dig. For many of us, the music of Television's Greatest Hits is frozen inside our viewing experiences, which might have something to do with why listening to it without the picture holds a surprising number of revelations. Purely as a musical experience, it's hard not to be delighted by the overcooked arrangements, shocking sonic details and general nutso impulses so many of these productions embrace. Listening to Television's Greatest Hits, it appears TV themes are the love child of the commercial jingle and the pop song — and that the child has a very bad case of attention deficit disorder.
Musically, the best examples are the thrilling orchestral themes: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lost In Space, Mission: Impossible (which sounds even crisper after hearing the way the recent movie remakes did such a lame butcher job on the tune's famous compound time signature), along with rock/orchestral hybrids like Batman, The Twilight Zone and Get Smart. All these tracks are definitive because they're perfect in almost every way: remarkably well recorded and arranged, featuring crack session musicians performing at the top of their creativity and craft. While I may be projecting, the tracks convey a real enthusiasm for the compositions, and the focus and clarity of the performances is remarkable.
Of course, guilty pleasures and sentimental favorites abound here. The Superman theme is a two minute-epic of murky pomp; with wobbling tape hiss and '40s-style radio announcer's voice included, it sounds like it was recorded on Krypton. Listening to the theme to The Andy Griffith Show, with its startlingly in-tune whistling, is like walking into sunshine. Hearing the original Branded reminded me of the multiple, obscene schoolyard variations, while the words to F Troop are juvenile enough to suggest they were written in the schoolyard. They even have the lopsided, Mad Lib cadence of a spoofed lyric:
The end of the Civil War was near When quite accidentally, A hero who sneezed, abruptly ceased Retreat and reversed it to victory!
While the theme to Howdy Doody is familiar to many who didn't even grow up with the show, the actual sound of an army of joyful children singing is so manic and haunting it actually has to be heard to be believed.
Family sitcom themes are the all-American cheesy center of this collection. While Dennis the Menace, My Three Sons, and The Dick Van Dyke Show all sound like they're being performed by Lawrence Welk from within a cryogenic chamber, the winner of the "Get It Off Me" Award has to go to Petticoat Junction: The baby-doll vocals and dull double entendre in the lyric add up to a track that is creepy, Bob Crane-style.
On a personal note: As a songwriter and performer in They Might Be Giants, it has been singularly satisfying to enter the world of TV themes. Creating "Boss of Me" for Malcolm In The Middle got our band back on the longstanding British chart hit show Top of The Pops, and our association with the outstanding The Daily Show makes me very proud.
But working on themes is unquestionably a strange task. Rather than a normal songwriting effort, it's more like designing a postage stamp — it's a small target. Not only does the theme have to sum up and set up a show in thirty or sixty seconds, but sometimes the job comes with unusual provisos from the producers. Recently we were asked to create new opening and closing themes for the upcoming revival of The Mickey Mouse Club. As the work was being discussed on a four-way conference call, it emerged that the theme was going to have to spell out the name of the show — but "it can't be the same melody!" It was an interesting challenge, but I wondered aloud if we were being asked to invent New Coke. Now, I don't even know if I like it but, for better of worse, the original is an icon. How could another spelled-out theme replace, or even compare to the original? Then I was reminded the audience is almost entirely of three- and four-year-olds. For them nothing is a rerun or a remake — it's all brand new.
And if history is any guide, these new members of The Mickey Mouse Club will probably never know much more of either theme; in spite of our "inside entertainment" culture, even basic knowledge of theme composers or performers in negligible. Themes remain anonymous. Even among my musician friends I rarely hear about who wrote or who played on a theme, even though those recordings remain perennial reference points: the hypnotizing simple guitar figure in The Twilight Zone, the powerful horn arrangement in Peter Gunn, the epic rolls around the drums in Hawaii Five-O. Even a generation of liner note readers, it seems, prefers that nothing break the spell of our TV watching.
John Flansburgh is co-founder, guitarist and vocalist for They Might Be Giants, who are currently recording their next album with the Dust Brothers. The band has recorded themes for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the WB's The Oblongs, Disney Channel's Higgleytown Heros and The Mickey Mouse Club House, TLCs Resident Life, the Travel Channel's Amazing Vacation Homes, Cartoon Network's Drinky Crow Show, ABC Nightline's "Brave New World," PBS's Life 360, and others. Visit tmbg.com and theymightbegiants.com for more on the band.