When people talk about the great songs of all time, often neglected are theme songs from television and film. While most popular songs need only be likeable and catchy for their brief radio lifespan, a memorable theme tune is often expected to stay relevant for several years.
Some theme songs have even transcended the popularity of the films or shows they opened for, and have become permanent pieces of the pop culture landscape. Some become internet memes, some are used by sports and news programs as incidental music, and some even escape the boundaries of television and become hit songs in their own right.
That prompts this month’s question:
“What do you feel is the greatest and most iconic television or film theme song?”
Here’s what our hosts had to say…
My choice for “Best Theme Song of All Time” may shock you; and merely because my criteria for “Best” with regard to theme songs might differ from your average pop culture buff. I look for three factors in an effective theme song. One: the song must be painfully a product of its time (think “Stayin’ Alive” from Saturday Night Fever or “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop). Two: the song must include the name of the show in the lyrics. The more awkward the fit, the better. Three, instead of being merely “inspired by” the contents of the film or TV show, it’s best when it literally describes the action. For me, First Blood, the inaugural Rambo flick, hit all three of those marks.
The theme song, entitled “It’s a Long Road” written by the film’s composer Jerry Goldsmith is sung by Dan Hill, a Canadian pop singer. The song is a tour de force of excruciatingly stilted late-70s/early-80s romantic crooning about an ex-soldier dispatching hayseeds in the backwoods. John Rambo is a disgruntled Vietnam vet who, not unlike Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. After he’s shunned by a small town sheriff, played convincingly by Brian Dennehy, he escapes into the wilderness in rural Washington only to be hunted down by the bumbling National Guard. It’s a movie about a quintessential 80s action hero playing a game of cat-and-mouse with an arrogant, short-sided cop who bites off more than he can chew.
Fast forward to the theme song: “And every new town/Just seems to bring you down… It’s a real war/Right outside your front door/I tell ya/Out where they’ll kill ya.” Yup, that’s what happens. I particularly like the fact that the lyrics add “I tell ya,” because we have to be reminded that Dan Hill is telling us things. To be fair, they had to find something that rhymes with “kill ya.”
Rambo escapes into the woods and goes into full survivalist mode. Setting improvised traps for the way-out-of-their-league Guardsmen, Rambo eludes capture at every turn.
“Tell me what do you do to survive/When they draw first blood.” First Blood? Hey, that’s the name of the movie I just saw!
“You gotta fight/To keep alive.” Thanks Dan Hill, I literally just saw the movie. Now you’re giving me the play-by-play in your throaty, love-songy crooning.
Of course, anyone familiar with the film knows that after sowing destruction and chaos throughout the podunk town, Rambo is convinced by his old commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, to give himself up in the end.
“No breaks, just heartaches/Oh man, is anybody winning?” We know America didn’t win the war. The thematic tension in this movie is based around the American anxiety about fighting battles that are surmountable, but in a larger conflict that’s ultimately self-defeating. Nobody is “winning” this… unless you count Dan Hill’s talent agent.
The theme song ends with repeating the title, “It’s a long road…” as the credits roll we recall the image of a hitchhiking John Rambo, with denim, army green jacket and rucksack slung over shoulder, thumb erect. Bringin’ it back to the beginning… brilliant!
The song is such a satisfying end to a film that, for all of the progressively worse sequels that came after, left an indelible mark on movies. It’s up there with my favorite action films of all time. I’d recommend it. And, if you happened to have fallen asleep through the entire film and woke up during the end credits, Dan Hill sings you the details you missed… with a vocabulary slim enough to satiate a 7-year-old.
I struggled with this question for weeks. Not because I couldn’t think of a good answer, but because I couldn’t narrow it down to just one.
But in the end, I had to say that the greatest , most iconic television music is the opening theme to Doctor Who.
I’m a relatively new fan of Doctor Who, discovering the show through the nagging of a friend during the era where the series’ lead was played by actor David Tennant.
But even prior to the series’ 2005 reboot and subsequent explosion of popularity in the United States just a few years ago, I was only vaguely aware of the series.
To me, it was “that weird show on PBS starring the guy in the scarf and the weird rubber monsters.” But man, did I remember that theme song.
Because there isn’t anything that sounds quite like it.
It has this weird, steady, electronic beat to it that’s just relentless and the sounds of what I can only describe as “synthy-futuristic” waves rising and falling.
Then the main theme hits with an instrument that sounds a lot like a theremin, but is likely something even stranger.
And anyone familiar with our show’s theme can probably guess that I have a soft spot for the theremin.
It’s also revolutionary, being one of the first television shows that used electronic music for its opening theme. To put that into proper context, Doctor Who premiered back in 1963.
Start listening to the opening music of its television contemporaries — with their orchestral or jazzy theme tunes — and the contrast seems especially stark.
This song must have sounded really fucking weird.
It was spooky and strange, and it hinted at all of the bizarre and scary worlds and monsters that the show would unleash on its viewers. And its peculiar sound also heralded the idiosyncratic nature of the show’s leader character as well.
The song itself has changed a bit over the fifty years of the franchises’ existence. Some versions have included more orchestral elements, or even rock guitars. It’s spawned an awesome jazz cover by Bill Bailey, heavy metal fan covers, and even an 8 Bit cover, as to make it sound like an old school NES game.
I can name no other theme song so oddly specific, yet so easily adapted to such a wide range of instruments, genres and interpretations.
What do you think? What is the greatest and most iconic theme song? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
For your enjoyment:
Doctor Who theme on theramin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwdaGW-5f5I
Doctor Who theme on freaking Tesla coils:
To me, it’s the Doctor Who theme. That thing is just ridiculous.
But I almost prefer the theme tune to ‘The Tomorrow People’ which was a Doctor Who-alike about a bunch of teenage psychics fighting alien invaders in 70’s England.
Definitely owes a lot to the ‘Who’ theme, but I dig the hell out of it nonetheless.
And while we’re on the topic of 1970’s British TV, I present this. The mostest manliest opening credits sequence in television history.
This show reeked of machismo and was at times borderline fascist, but by fuck I loved it SO much.
But when it comes to hype, there’s one guy… Gerry Anderson. A Gerry Anderson intro is the kid equivalent of a shot of pure adrenaline into your eyeballs. Guaranteed to make kids jump around and run around screaming like nobody’s business.
Here, I’m gonna go with ‘The Thunderbirds’…
…but I have to include ‘Stingray’, too. If only for the lines, “Stand By For Action!” and “Anything Can Happen In The Next Half Hour!”
Seriously, that’s the sort of shit that’ll have kids bouncing off the freakin’ walls!
However, the creme de la creme, accept no substitutes, best theme in TV history is this one. Bask in its pure awesomeness.
Hmm, I dunno Pol, I’m quite partial to the theme tune of Johnny Quest Parody show The Venture Brothers
The Venture Brothers opening does a GREAT job of parodying Jonny Quest, but seriously, it’s hard to go past Race Bannon shooting a mummy.
The great shame of this is that television themes, especially, were part of an overall opening credits sequence. But networks keep cutting into the minutes available for the actual show– the standard used to be forty-eight minutes of the hour, but today the standard is forty-two and some are as low as thirty-eight. So in an effort to get some of those minutes back, many showrunners have dispensed with the cool opening credits and just go with a title card and a blare of horns or something, and then get right into the action with the credits running as a crawl at the bottom of the screen for the first few minutes. I understand the reasoning, but it still feels like we lost something great.
My favorite credits sequences and themes sell the whole milieu. Hawaii Five-O is such a classic that despite the modern commercial requirements the new revival still has it in there and though it’s hugely accelerated, it’s still recognizable. Likewise, the Mission: Impossible films from Tom Cruise have discarded virtually everything from the original TV series and, in fact, the first movie seemed like a deliberate takedown of the old show. (I have a friend who maintains to this day that it could not possibly have been the REAL Jim Phelps in that film, and when I asked him why he was so sure, he said, “Because the real Phelps would have won. There’s no way Jim Phelps loses to a punk like Tom Cruise.”) But even Cruise knew they had to have the original theme music set to the lighting of a fuse and all four films have it.
Conversely, a bad theme song can really hurt a show. I think a big reason STAR TREK ENTERPRISE hemorrhaged viewers so quickly was because of that insipid theme over the credits. Trekkies forgive almost anything– look at VOYAGER, one of the most vocally-despised Trek efforts ever, but it still lasted seven years. ENTERPRISE only made it four and it started big. There were a lot of other things wrong with the show, of course, but I really do think they turned off a huge segment of the audience right from the get-go with those credits. Trek fans show up expecting to see sprawling vistas set to a classical theme. That’s the overture. It sets a tone. ENTERPRISE had a ridiculous pop song about hope set to a montage. It was way too UP WITH PEOPLE, it looked like something you’d see as part of a corporate video about sensitivity training.
My pick for the most iconic would have to be the James Bond theme. They’ve been using it for over fifty years, it’s a part of every Bond film in the Broccoli series (and it really hurts NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN to not have it in there somewhere) and it launched an entire genre of “spy music.” Play it to anyone and they know it means guns, girls, and suave mayhem. It summons the images and mood from ALL the movies in a weird kind of way…. even people who haven’t seen the films know what it means. That to me is something genuinely ‘iconic,’ which by the way is a word we ought to consider retiring as a descriptive, because it gets used for everything. It’s become almost synonymous with ‘easily recognized,’ which is not the same thing at all. The Bond theme stands alone, it symbolizes all the cool of fifty years of movies without the need for a visual. That’s what icons do. They symbolize things. The Bond theme became an overpowering symbol that launched its own separate genre of soundtracks… you can find all sorts of greatest-hits spy music compilations out there today. Not even JAWS or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY– both very iconic and symbolic themes in their own right– did that.
I love it when you can hear a song and think, “That sounds like a James Bond theme” even if the song has nothing to do with any of the films.
David Arnold, the current Bond composer, had an interesting point. He said, “The music is a safety net for the audience. Without it, it’s still an action film but it’s not a Bond film.”
I think me and maybe four other kids watched the show but samurai pizza cats had it all figured out. Search for the theme on YouTube. The full opening credits pretty much tells you the entire series.
I think Greg has a pretty good point about the Bond theme music: very iconic, very widely recognized.
I would say a close runner-up (or runners-up) is one of my personal favorites: the Star Trek music from the original series, and also the orchestral theme piece from the Motion Picture which then became the theme music for TNG. In both cases, wonderful music that captures that evokes what the series is all about. And in both cases, very iconic. (Just as an off-topic aside, I cannot understand all of the hate for Voyager I see in some corners of the internet. After TOS, it’s my favorite Trek series. Also, good theme music.)
Some other favorites of mine: the Shaft theme by Isaac Hayes, and, while perhaps not as well known or iconic, the Warriors theme song. Joe Walsh’s “In the City” over the closing credits is also a perfect bookend to the movie – in fact, the entire soundtrack is simply brilliant.
I’m gonna have to throw out the theme to The Prisoner. It starts out softly, then you get the thunderclap and it ramps up, punctuating the scenes of Number 6 resigning and heading off for his holiday, only to wake in The Village. That right there grabbed your attention and made you want to see what happens next.
As far as setting the stage, you can’t beat either Gilligan’s island or The Beverly Hillbillies. Both tell you everything you need to know, without ever seeing an episode.
And, to rival Jonny Quest, I would cite the original Gathcman theme.
I like themes that really summerize the mood of the show
X-Files Creepy, paranoid. lludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulators
The MacGyver theme. If ingenuity had a theme, this would be it.
Star Trek Voyager – If being tired and homesick had a theme, this would be it