Those were the days, back when shows had theme songs

Now, when you flip on your favorite TV program and it starts right into the plot, it almost feels like something is missing.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published December 28, 2007

I write today about the passing of something special, fading away so subtly many of us have failed to take proper notice.

The death of the TV theme song.

Everybody's got a different story about that one composition that sticks in the head. My story reaches back to a childhood as an aspiring musician in hardscrabble Gary, Ind. - where negotiating the fluid, driving bass line of the theme to Barney Miller was an odd rite of passage in a community where your mettle was often tested more directly.

That's how it is with these songs; they worm into your heart and mind in the most unexpected ways.

There's the wonderful anticipation kicked off by the first notes of explanatory themes such as Gilligan's Island ("Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale ...") or The Brady Bunch ("... till the one day when the lady met this fellow ..."). You never grew tired of hearing the entire premise of the TV show you were about to watch, laid out in same catchy song every week.

There are the sleek jams, ranging from Barney Miller and Mission Impossible (did a trilling string tremolo ever sound cooler?) to the Theme From Ironside and even the junkman's comedy Sanford and Son.

Producer Quincy Jones was a master at this craft, cranking out themes for Ironside, Sanford and Police Woman that are so cool, listening to his box set sometimes feels like channel surfing through Nick at Nite.

Some themes even became hit records. Duane Eddy's signature guitar twang powered the theme for Peter Gunn to Grammy awards in the '50s and the '80s; the themes for Welcome Back Kotter, S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice all reached No. 1 on singles sales charts.

So why do so few current TV shows have memorable themes?

Fox's medical hit House starts with a few snatches of Massive Attack's instrumental tune Teardrop, barely enough music to cover the list of actors. CBS's blockbuster CSI franchise just stole popular hits from classic rockers the Who, including Who Are You? (C.S.I), Won't Get Fooled Again (C.S.I.: Miami) and Baba O'Reilly (C.S.I.: NY).

One version of the theme for NBC's Scrubs lasts less than 13 seconds. TNT's hit police drama The Closer hardly bothers with opening music at all, displaying the names of the cast over each episode's first scene, a lone guitar twanging in the background.

My hunch is that modern TV producers fear flip-happy viewers will take any excuse to surf away from a show and sample other channels. Eliminating the theme song is just another way to deal with the multitude of channels and remote control technology offered today's consumer, locking them into an unfolding show before they even realize it has begun.

I also blame Frasier - which may have started the anti-theme trend by taking its own cute tune (the jazzy shuffle Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs, sung by the star, Kelsey Grammer) and sticking it at the back of the show, to play over the closing credits after the episode was done.

And the three or four of us who still watch ER have noticed that the theme song, which once featured a fresh-faced George Clooney charging through the halls of County General Hospital with his co-stars, now all long gone, has been reduced to a single chord of music.

It's hard to describe the loss to pop culture when TV stops cranking out classic songs like the theme to All in the Family or The Jeffersons. But there's little doubt we've lost something special.

I wasn't singing Baba O'Reilly when I stepped inside the doorway to the first house I ever owned. I was shouting proudly about "movin' on up/to the East Side."

I finally had a piece of the pie. It's too bad the TV industry doesn't give us that flavor anymore.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521.

- - -

Eric Deggans' top 10 TV theme song list

Let's admit upfront that my list of TV's top 10 theme songs is completely subjective, created mostly according to my nostalgia and musical preferences. Here's we go:

10. Sanford & Son - The swampy groove. The loopy melody. Toots Thielemans' amazing harmonica work. There are 10,000 reasons why Quincy Jones' theme helped make Redd Foxx the coolest junkman in TV history. 

9. The Addams Family/The Munsters - Both tunes meld campy horror gloom with wacky comedy touches. And the Addams Family even tacked on classic lyrics: "They're creepy and they're kooky/Mysterious and spooky/They're all together ooky." Use of the word "ooky" = instant TV legend.

8. The Love Boat - Looking back, this lounge lizard classic ("Love . . . exciting and new") nails the faded '70s celebrity vibe of the series so well, you'd almost think it was intentional. 

7. M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless) - Transformed an elevator music classic into a resonant, powerful theme. 

6. The Benny Hill Show (Yakety Sax) - No composition in the history of television so quickly communicates the idea: "wacky comedy ahead." 

5. Gilligan's Island - Among all the explainer theme songs - Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch - this is most hallowed. And effective. 

4. Miami Vice - What hipster didn't walk into a club during the '80s, pastel shirt and loafers securely in place, without this song playing in their head? 

3. The Jeffersons - Only in the '70s would a sitcom about a successful black businessman come complete with a gospelized theme song ("Movin' on up!") straight from the pulpit.

2. The Sopranos - A3's throbbing, dance floor masterpiece Woke Up This Morning stands as the best modern-day TV theme song, for the best modern TV drama of all time.

1. All in the Family - Those Were the Days may be the best explainer theme song that wasn't, nailing the wistful anxiety of Edith and Archie Bunker so well, you loved hearing it week after week.