There are TV themes you remember. “All In The Family,” with its way-back talk of President Hoover and LaSalle cars. Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams cooing together, “What would we do, baby, without us?” Bars where everybody knows your name. Fat Albert and the Junkyard Band’s familiar “hey, hey, hey!”
Then, there are the prime-time themes that just rock. Time to plug in and turn your television up to 11 …
“WKRP IN CINCINNATI END CREDITS,” by JIM ELLIS (1978): This may be the most straight-forward, hardest-rawking TV song there ever was. Yet it holds, inside a scant 33-seconds of crunchy nonsensical riffing, these lasting mysteries. The lyric for the closing-credits “WKRP” theme – sung with throat-shredding abandon by Atlanta-based musician Jim Ellis – remains a sphinx-ian riddle, even decades later.
I mean, really, what’s he saying? “Went to the bar and I barfed/right into her hair” … or “mad tooth, bar chin up/boxing outta oh yeah”? Or “said to the bartender, ‘best night I ever had’”? That’s just the first verse. Then there’s “still doing the modern-day whack-a-mole in her car.” Or maybe “sitting in the morning with a microphone in our hearth”?
Ellis, it seemed, was originally hired to record incidental music for the “WKRP in Cincinnati,” a late-1970s-era CBS sitcom set at a radio station. Asked to fashion a short song to run under the credits, Ellis apparently hadn’t yet worked out the lyrics, so he sang a series of nonsense phrases on the demo for producer Hugh Wilson, a former broadcast ad man. Wilson reportedly decided to use the unfinished take anyway, because he thought it worked as a nice satire on the typically inscrutable verses of most rock songs.
After all of that, there’s the just-right weirdness of a kitteny meow at the end – the trademark for MTM, producers of the show, and a takeoff on the old Metro Goldwyn Mayer lion’s roar. But not before Ellis ends things, all anthem-like, by shouting: “I think I ruined good, and I couldn’t lie in her heart!”
Wait, no. It’s “I said I wouldn’t do it, if the poodle had the lid on!” — by Nick DeRiso
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Remembering Must Hear TV — Prime-time themes that still resonate]
“CORONA (THEME FROM ‘JACKASS’),” by MINUTEMEN (1984): It was a stroke of genius. Somebody waded through the entire history of rock to come up with the perfect musical accompaniment to a guy getting his ass pierced. But that’s not all! The MTV series “Jackass” featured such lovely pieces of visual art as faked midget abductions (followed by faked midget escapes), schoolkids kicking Johnny Knoxville in groin, skunk roadkill being driven around city sidewalks via remote-controlled model cars, fist fights in department stores, and various skateboard & BMX stunts.
I know I shouldn’t have liked the show, but it made me laugh out loud. It was like “Candid Camera” gone very, very wrong.
Seriously, Minutemen’s “Corona” was an inspired choice. Just a few minutes of barely controlled psycho-billy stomp, it’s the punk outfit at their most brutal and beautiful. I’m fond of saying that beauty can be found in surprising places and seeing Johnny Knoxville walking down the street with both arms in a cast, trying to get passers by to “help him out” because he had to pee? Doesn’t that just bring a tear to your eye? — by Mark Saleski
“THEME FROM ‘MAGNUM P.I.,’” by MIKE POST (1980): Call it “Hawaii 5-0” for a new generation, this quick-cut guitar-driven montage of easy-going cool that’s an ocean away from the Ventures’ sweetly innocent big-beat groove. As “Magnum P.I.” gets underway, we’re slung around on a diving helicopter as it streaks out over the endless white beaches of Hawaii. Larry Carlton’s frenetic riffs then stab at every new image – an uppity English majordomo with his charging Dobermans, a rooster-tailing red Ferrari 308 GTS, a mustache that had its own area code.
The theme, actually, only plays at being tough – just like the Vietnam-Vet-turned-beach-bum Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV does, occasionally shooting at bad guys between sips of mai-tais. Carlton is, in the end, but a distraction. Underneath, we find a cushy bed of saccharine strings. That actually belies its origins as a far more conventional light jazz intro by Ian Freebairn-Smith, heard during Season 1 of “Magnum P.I.” Producers hired broadcast-music legend Mike Post in 1981 to add a grittier sheen.
Selleck’s lip sweater did the rest. — by Nick DeRiso
“CLEVELAND ROCKS” (THEME FROM ‘THE DREW CAREY SHOW’),” by THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (1997): I’m no expert on the 1990s’ Seattle grunge trio the Presidents of the United States of America; in fact, this is the only song I know by them. But while I avoided most radio in that decade, I was still tuned into the TV and couldn’t miss their gleeful remake of Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” that kickstarted each episode of “The Drew Carey Show.”
Hunter’s song was love letter to a city that showed him and his Mott The Hoople more love for their glam rock than audiences in NYC and other coastal cities did. Though written by an English dude, it’s got the blue collar riffs and no-nonsense hooks that just about anyone in America’s heartland can dig. Alas, most people there didn’t get to hear Hunter’s version first appearing in 1979, but that all changed when Carey used the President’s lively cover his theme song sometime in the mid-nineties.
Carey himself deserves some credit for making me like the song; he loves elaborately choreographed scenes taken from rock musicals and worked them into his sitcom seemingly whenever he could. He approached the opening credits portion of his show with no less fervor, going against a sad trend toward minimizing the theme part of a TV program. No, Drew went balls-out. — by S. Victor Aaron
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