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!